Franchise or Clear Blue Sky?
Do you try to beat Hollywood at their own game, or do your own thing?
In just about every industry, there are certain mantras and catchphrases that the successful go-getters live by: Takes money to make money, can't make an omelet without breaking a few eggs, trust your instincts, location, location, location, and so on.
There are also many sayings in the film industry, more rules and guidelines actually, and many of them have to do with the idea itself - the concept, the pitch, the script. There are structural ideas for script writing that range from general theory to hard and fast rules that you "must" follow in order to succeed.
Search the internet and you will find a wealth of writing tips, dos and don't, and "rules" randomly numbered anywhere from 7 to 15 and beyond. Some are smart and helpful, many are not, and almost all of them are circumstantial - where you are personally and what you are doing creatively will determine what "rules" you should follow.
In the midst of these rules and guidelines is the average filmmaker, many of whom live in doubt of their own creative ability, haunted by the notion that you have to do things a certain way in order to succeed, and there's a nugget of truth to that - there ARE certain actions within the industry that will help get you where you want to be, and others that will kill your career.
But far too often I find that amateur and indie filmmakers strive to emulate a Hollywood industry ideal that really has no bearing on their reality. Many indie productions are self-financed and semi-professional affairs, meant for greatness but often relegated to local pubic screenings at the least or a multi-festival circuit at best. Yet they try to emulate what the Hollywood majors do in an attempt to achieve a breakthrough that is nearly impossible.
The beauty of indie film is the ability to break the rules. While I myself have expounded on the concept of "emulate what the studios do" I am generally referring to how they physically make films, how they accomplish things technically, and how if you don't have the proper means, maybe that's something you shouldn't do. Beyond the physical production, emulate how they make posters and trailers, how they promote, how they monetize, but not how they pre-package and homogenize and reboot and generally play it safe.
I think many filmmakers spend too much time and energy trying to create franchises and package a film project to appeal to the majors when there isn't really a chance that their project will ever succeed on that level while ignoring the chance to break out and do something unique. If my indie experiences have taught me ANYTHING, it's that I have a freedom on low-budget films that I will NEVER experience on a studio feature unless I'm one of a very rare few.
I know - you'd like to make your own super hero story that will spawn a 10-film franchise that reaches all the world's markets. You've saved 50k and you have a commitment from an actor who used to be on a TV show and your friend has a RED. You've taken Robert McKee's story class and you've honed your script to be the PERFECT studio product. You're going to shoot next year during your summer vacation and success is just around the corner!!
Don't get me wrong, that's all great, it really is. What I LOVE about the digital revolution is that anyone can make a film these days, and I'm really beginning to feel like everyone SHOULD make a film. Be it a 7 year-old with a phone or a retired farmer with a passion for photography, everyone should set about making a document that represents their lives and ideas. These might just become the artifacts that future generations will come to know us by.
And maybe, as Francis Coppola said, "One day some little fat girl in Ohio is going to be the new Mozart and make a beautiful film with her father's camera and for once the so-called professionalism about movies will be destroyed forever."
(That quote here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?time_continue=31&v=iSePbQVR284)
Don't get me wrong - even if Coppola's statement comes to pass, I think rules and guidelines are generally good, and anyone who takes film making seriously should take some time to learn a few. Far too often I see starting filmmakers trying to reinvent the wheel when it's already been built, tested, tried and failed, or even done to death. If they studied even a bit of film history, some basic cinematography, editing, and lighting, or read even the most basic of texts on story structure, they'd be far more well-armed and save themselves some heart ache.
I advocate professionalism and craft, not copying the more crass aspects of cookie-cutter film making and mass-market appeal. There's a difference.
But in the modern era of not just "success" but "ground-breaking never-before-seen success", many budding filmmakers want to hit it big, to make their own Marvel film, their own Good Will Hunting, their own Avatar. This has lead to a rigid standard of commercial concepts that sometimes stifles even the most indie of indie filmmakers. They write scripts that are by the numbers, have specific beats on specific pages, make comparisons to other hits, and package their projects in such commercial, catchphrase-laden, four-quadrant ways that any originality or inventiveness is sucked right out of their work.
Learn the rules, sure. Learn them to keep from making dumb mistakes. Then throw them out and do your own thing.
Indie films do occasionally break through. But if you're a filmmaker operating outside of Hollywood with no real budget or connections, I can pretty well promise you that you're on your own, and your relative success or failure will be a matter of perspective - do you win awards? Do you self-distribute and recoup a few bucks? Do you show it to your family and get a pat on the back and a hug from your mother? That's up to you.
But that very distance from Hollywood is also one of your greatest strengths. You don't have to package your stuff like they do. You don't have to leave it open for a sequel, have a hero's journey, or keep it to a certain length for television sale. You don't have to appeal to every front, keep it PG-13, and have a hit soundtrack. Don't worry about making a "pitch reel", just make a good solid short or feature.
And don't worry about setting up the sequel. You should be so lucky!! If it's meant to happen, it will happen.
All you have to do is make it, and make it well. If anything, THAT will get you noticed by Hollywood. If you are lucky enough to be "discovered", then you can worry about whether or not your next movie fits their standards, and trust me, you will have plenty of writers, executives, and marketing people to help you figure that out.
A few articles I found informative: