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Book Offers Humor, Help for Would-be Movie Directors of Low Budget Films - 2002-09-21

A new guide to filmmaking tells would-be directors how to make a movie on a shoestring budget. Author Bret Stern says prospective filmmakers should "save, plot and scheme" to get their movie made.

Mr. Stern first examined budget moviemaking in his own low-budget film, a feature called "Road to Park City." Released two years ago, it was a tongue-in-cheek look at a first-time moviemaker much like Mr. Stern.

In his book How to Shoot a Feature Film for Under $10,000, the writer says he demystifies the process of filmmaking.

He begins with Hollywood jargon. The prospective moviemaker must understand the language of Hollywood: "Gaffers" are electricians and "grips" are the people who move the sets around. The "AD" is the assistant director and the "DP" is the director of photography.

A Hollywood "treatment" is not a medical procedure but a movie synopsis, and a "head shot" isn't a war wound but a photograph of an actor from the neck up.

The writer calls his book a step-by-step guide to making a movie.

"It gets you past that first layer and tells you "here's what you need to do and here's how you get a good deal, and here's how you rent a camera and you know what? We're going to do it for very little money," he said.

A typical Hollywood film costs $50 million, but the writer says a film can be made for only a few thousand. The filmmaker must first decide how to finance the project. "You can use your own money, but it's nicer to use relative's or some friend's money," Mr. Stern said.

To make that money last longer, he adds that there are many ways to cut back on expenses.

When he made his own film, Mr. Stern visited a car dealer and said his girlfriend was interested in buying a new Mercedes-Benz. He was stretching the truth a little, but they were loaned a car for a test-drive and quickly used it to film a scene in their movie.

Struggling actors can be enticed to join the cast with the promise of a credit. Feeding them can be expensive, so the author includes recipes for cheap but filling foods like pasta.

A low-budget movie typically takes a week to shoot, so the producer can rent film and recording equipment before a holiday weekend.

"Because most equipment rental places are not open on holidays and they're definitely not open on the weekends. So if you, say, pick up your camera and say to the equipment people "I'm going to use it on Monday," which happens to be Memorial Day, they're going to say, "We're not open Memorial Day. You'll have to bring it back Tuesday." So right there, you've got Friday, the day you pick it up, Saturday, Sunday, Monday and Tuesday," Mr. Stern said.

And that's all for the price of one day's rental.

The filmmaker says costs for post-production tasks like editing the film have dropped dramatically with new computer systems. "And anybody with an Apple or a PC and some software can edit a movie," he said.

Once the film is finished, there are some tricks to promoting it. The writer suggests offending a special interest group or getting someone to sue you. He says the publicity is more than worth the trouble.

He warns that finding a distributor can be a "brutal" process. "The independent method of distribution seems to be to take your film around to film festivals, try to get into as many as possible, create a "buzz" about your film, and then hopefully at one of these festivals some studio or mini-studio or video distributor will come up to you and say and say, hey, I want to buy your film," he said.

That happened to the writer. Unfortunately, the video distributor of Road to Park City soon went out of business. "And I'm living the classic 'you'll never see your money' scenario right now. I will never see a penny from that film, even though I can go to the store and buy it," he said. "The experience may provide the plot-line for the writer's next movie."

Mr. Stern says his book tries to explain the quirks of a "crazy" business. "If you're in it just to make money, then like the introduction says, you'd probably be better off just renovating your kitchen and selling your house," he said.

For those who can't succeed in the movie industry, the author has a final suggestion, writing a book like his, telling others how to do it.

The book How to Shoot a Feature Film for Under $10,000 and Not Go to Jail is written by Bret Stern and published by HarperCollins.