The Rules of Indie and YouTube Filmmaking

I’ve done my fair share of low budget, indie and YouTube projects- projects where the budget was approximately zero dollars, the number of location permits we secured was officially zero and the number of people we paid was, you guessed it, zero. But lack of a budget is no excuse for lack of professionalism, so if you’re new to the art of extremely indie/guerilla filmmaking, here are some tips to get you started.

FEED EVERYONE
Crafty (aka snacks and water) is optional if you’ve got a really small cast/crew, but the easiest way to keep everyone happy is by keeping their tummies happy. So even a box of donuts can go a long way in making for a fun shoot.

State law dictates a meal should be served every six hours, and it’s common courtesy to follow this rule, even if you’re operating outside the law (you vigilante filmmaker, you). So that means, if you asked everyone to show up at 10am, plan to eat lunch at 4pm (then dinner at 10pm if you’re still shooting).

Avoid pizza if possible. For one thing, the pizza in LA always sucks, and for another, loading up on carbs and cheese is only gonna make everyone feel tired and icky. But, fine, you don’t have the money for anything else, I get it. At least ask your cast and crew for any food restrictions before shoot day, because this is LA and someone on your crew will be vegan. Most likely your makeup artist.

R-E-S-P-E-C-T
If you can’t pay your cast and crew, it’s nice to throw everyone a little gas money if they had to drive a ways to get to location. I didn’t always do this on tiny local shoots, but I started making more of a conscious effort, because $10 might not seem like much but at least offering lets people know you appreciate them. The filmmakers and friends I’ve worked with who gave me gas money always stand out as people who I want to work with again.

Also, don’t waste anyone’s time, so have a game plan. You should know what it is you want to shoot. Have a copy of the script on hand. If organization isn’t your strong suit, find a friend who can help you produce this thing. Another way to ‘get organized’ is to:

DO A LOCATION SCOUT
For ‘legit’ shoots, the location scout is a chance for the producer/DP/gaffer/AD to see the shooting location, make a plan to light the space and discuss the shooting schedule. Chances are, you’re either shooting at a friend’s place for free, or out in public for free. So for you, your location scout should answer these questions: What’s the likelihood of us getting kicked out? Do we need to go full-on guerilla or can we get away with setting up lights? If we DO get kicked out- what’s our backup location? What shots/angles do I want, and is it actually possible to achieve those shots in this location? This saves you a lot of time on the actual shoot day.

FIGURE OUT WHO’S IN CHARGE, AND WHO’S PAYING
If you and a friend have decided to make a video, you might want to figure out ahead of time how you guys are splitting any expenses (food, gas money, emergencies, etc), and make sure it’s clear who’s directing, who’s producing- or if you’re sharing these responsibilities equally.

I worked on a small indie shoot where a producer (aka friend of the director) CLEARLY thought he was also the director, and spent the entire time giving notes to the actors and DP, much to the annoyance of, well, everyone. Awkward. On a ‘real’ film set, these roles are clearly defined, but since everyone’s probably wearing multiple hats on your small shoot, it’s on you to make sure everyone understands what their job is.

Have some “petty cash” on hand for any last-minute emergencies. When your sound guy realizes he doesn’t have any extra batteries on set, it’s a lot easier to just hand your friend/PA $20 cash than to have to a group discussion to figure out whose credit card you guys are gonna use.

I say always save all your receipts. You might never need them- or you might. As a producer, paper trails make me happy, and they should make you happy too. Speaking of paper trails…

GET IT IN WRITING
If you call someone and they say, “Sure buddy, you can use my camera for your shoot Friday”, follow up with an email or text reiterating that info. Because sometimes- not often, but sometimes, people try to screw you over (“I never said you could use it for FREE…”) and sometimes people just forget what they said (“Wait, you need my camera THIS Friday? I thought you meant next Friday!”) In either scenario, you’ll be very happy you have it in writing so you can (gently and tactfully) prove they are wrong and you are right. 

OPTIONAL: I like to have signed appearance releases from my actors and basic deal memos from my crew members. The bigger the shoot, the more important this is. Doesn’t need to be fancy- a good release/deal memo just states the date the person is working, what their rate is (if any)*, etc. If you’re renting equipment, definitely get it in writing. Basically any transaction where money is exchanged should be written somewhere where both parties have either signed off on it or mutually agreed to it via email.

I realize this requires a little organization on your part. And I know you want to make your short film because you have a CREATIVE VISION, not because you’re trying to do any paperwork. But if you’re working with someone new (aka not your best friend or roommate),then deal memos, appearance releases and an email paper trail protects you AND them. Take it from someone who’s learned the hard way- GET IT IN WRITING.

HAVE FUN
For further explanation, see: “FEED EVERYONE”.

Hope these tips are helpful. Feel free to email me more indie filmmaking tips and I’m happy to add to the list.

Lastly, I know I don’t need to remind you of this, but don’t sweat it if you end up breaking one of these rules; they’re more like guidelines, anyway.**

KB

* The goal should always be to reach the point in your career where you’re able to pay everyone. Or, at the very least, hook your friends up with paid gigs when you can!

**But don’t come crying to me when your vegan makeup artist gets pissed that she can’t eat any of the pizza you ordered for lunch.

This blog is now on twitter: @SurviveLALAland

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“No”

It’s not a secret that you’ll hear the word “no” a lot in this industry. Well, actually, you won’t, at least not outright. No one likes to actually say “no”, which can be confusing (especially for us east coasters who are used to people saying exactly what they mean).

So before I get to the point of this blog post, I’ve come up with a handy little cheat sheet to help those of us who don’t speak LA learn the different ways people say the word, “no”:

WHAT THEY SAY
“You were so fantastic, but at the last minute they went with a name actor…”
WHAT THEY MEAN
“Sofia Vergara has been interested since day one so you have had, at most, a 0% chance of getting this part.”

WHAT THEY SAY
“It’s just not the type of story we’re looking for right now…”
WHAT THEY MEAN
“Do yourself a favor and take a writing class.”

WHAT THEY SAY
“Things are just so busy on my end…”
WHAT THEY MEAN
“I don’t even know you like that, so no, I’m not gonna take a meeting with you.”

WHAT THEY SAY
*radio silence for three months*
WHAT THEY MEAN
“I am way too scared to pick up the phone and tell you we aren’t going to hire you for this job, even though I promised it to you verbally, because I truly do think you’re a great director but the actor the network just attached wants someone else to direct but I don’t want you to hate me because I’m actually pretty insecure, plus I’m worried my boss is gonna fire me because the company is going through some internal changes, and…”

And so on.

Once you carefully examine the evidence and determine that the answer is definitely a “no”, you’re faced with the stark reality that you have been denied- again. Yet again, someone has shut the door in your face. Yet again, the dream that brought you to LALA land has slipped that much further away.

This week, I heard a pretty big ‘no’ regarding a very promising project that was coming together. I won’t lie, it was a tough pill to swallow. But I’ve heard “no” in some form or another many, many times over the past few years, and while I’m not numb to it, it also doesn’t bother me as much as it used to. LA’s a little like the Hunger Games. I truly believe if you stick it out long enough, the odds will eventually be in your favor. 

So you’re allowed to feel sorry for yourself, eat a pint of ice cream and binge-watch the latest season of House of Cards when “that gig that was gonna change your life” doesn’t come to pass, but you shouldn’t stay there forever, or for even more than a few hours.

I called my dad yesterday, and as always, he had some words of wisdom for me:

“You know Kristen, you work really hard. If you worked as hard as you do in any other career, you’d have a full-time position by now. Just like your friend Christina at that tech start-up in San Francisco…”

(I pulled the phone away from my ear and counted to ten.)

“But it doesn’t matter. The word ‘no’ doesn’t work for you, right? So keep moving. You’re doing great kid, keep it up.”

I realized, he’s absolutely right (thanks, Dad). The word “no” doesn’t work for me. Because in my mind, when I hear “no”, all I really hear is “not now”, or “not yet” or, most importantly, “give me a reason to say ‘yes’”.

You’re probably wondering, if this is a blog about Hollywood, why do I suddenly feel like I’m reading a self-help book for salespeople? That’s because, if you decide to work in this industry, chances are you WILL have to sell something. Your skills, your ideas, your brand, your looks, your confidence. Yes, making movies can be wonderfully creative- but it’s also a business, and like any business, you’re going to hear a “no” or two (or five, or ten, or a hundred) from prospective buyers at some point. And you can’t take it personally, you can’t treat it like it’s the end of the world.

Instead, reassess, alter your battle plan, and carry on. That’s what I’m doing right now. May the odds be ever in your favor. 

KB

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Moving to LA

My senior year of college, one of my professors, David Mold, asked my Business of Acting class, “How many of you are planning to move to LA within the next 10 years?” Over half the class raised their hands, including me. “Within the next five years?” Hands dropped. “Within the next year?” Only two hands remained raised, including mine.

One of my classmates, Danny, later asked me, “Are you really planning to move to LA after graduation?” with the hushed air of disbelief and reverence that is usually reserved for questions such as, “Do you really have an inoperable brain tumor?” “Yes,” I responded. “I’m really planning to move to LA.” 

At the time, I was frustrated with my life. I’d hit a wall in New York. My career wasn’t advancing (I didn’t have much of a career to advance, to be honest), I hated the size of my Queens apartment (my room was so small I could spread my arms and touch opposite walls) and I worried I’d wasted the past four years of my life getting a theater degree that wouldn’t matter in the real world (it doesn’t- but I don’t regret getting it).

I worked for a huge YouTube channel at the time, and I loved the process of making videos. I was entranced by the idea that I could do that on a larger scale in Los Angeles. When I was fifteen, I’d come down with bronchitis and had watched like ten hours of behind-the-scenes footage on the Narnia DVD, and ever since then I was convinced: Making movies was the closest thing we have to magic in the real world. And if making movies was magic, LA was Hogwarts.

All through college, I kind of assumed I’d eventually ‘get my Hogwarts letter’- book a big movie role, or catch the attention of a big studio through my YouTube videos- and I’d move to LA out of necessity. But I was beginning to realize that wasn’t going to happen.

So, I essentially wrote my own Hogwarts letter (I will run this analogy into the ground if need be, so help me God). I bought a one-way ticket and called up the only person I knew on the west coast, my college friend Travis. “My aunt said you can sleep in her attic,” he told me. “Great!” I said. “There’s no bed up there though,” he told me. “I’ll see you in three weeks,” I responded.

Buying a ticket and setting up sleeping arrangements was the easy part. Since ‘it’s all about who you know’, I figured I’d better start getting to know people real quick.

Throughout my final semester of college, I’d made a list of every potential contact I had in LA. A production assistant on an indie film I acted in had a friend who’d moved there. I took down his name and email. A guy came to talk to my Business of Acting class about his experience as a TV actor. I went up to him afterwards and asked for his email. My dad (who works as a construction equipment sales rep, SO relevant to filmmaking, I know) knew someone whose wife was a manager in LA. I added her to the list. And, surprisingly, when I checked Facebook, I actually knew a few people (however distantly) who had moved out there. The list kept growing.

By the time I’d reached LA, I’d set up 1-2 coffee or lunch meetings every day for my first month here. I had no idea where anything was, so I’d let whoever I was meeting pick the spot. This had the added benefit of 1. introducing me to every neighborhood in LA and 2. teaching me when to avoid rush hour traffic (basically don’t drive between 7a-10a and 4p-8p. Good luck.)

Two days before I moved, I was walking around the lower east side of Manhattan, saying good-bye to the city I loved. I wandered into the NYU book shop and stumbled across a little pink book, “Adapt or Wait Tables” by Carol Wolper. I plopped down and read the whole thing right there. Then, I went back the next day and bought it so I could read it again. I wouldn’t consider Wolper’s book gospel- after all, she can only speak from her personal experience, just as I can only speak from mine- but I strongly agree with her on this: Adaptability is hands-down the most important quality any freelancer- actor, writer, director, producer, gaffer, PA or cinematographer- can possess. Inflexible people are just not built for this industry; especially not now, when it’s changing so fast.

So many people I talk to have built Los Angeles up to be so big and scary in their minds. Look, it’s just a place, filled with… wait for it…. people. Many of whom aren’t even from LA, just like you aren’t. Stop psyching yourself out.

So, I know you’re on the edge of your seat, wondering- did it work for me? Did my three weeks of planning and network-building pay off?

I’m still here, aren’t I?

That friend of that PA ended up not having time to meet with me- he apologized profusely via email- but he suggested I reach out to a producer contact of his who might be able to get me some production assistant work. The producer he referred me to was Melissa, an incredible producer who has taken chance after chance on me- it was Melissa who hired me on my first ever coordinating job, then later on my first ever line producing job.

And the wife of my dad’s friend ended up being Liz, one of the most badass b*tches in Hollywood who loved my YouTube videos and got me in the room to audition for some of the most talented writers and directors in the industry.

I owe both of these ladies, along with the scores of other people who gave me advice, brought me on set when they didn’t have to, and who continue to believe in me- a lot. I always try to pay it forward; that’s one reason I’m writing this blog. If you end up using any advice on here, don’t forget to pay it forward yourself when you can. I’ve heard this business can be manipulative and competitive, but that hasn’t been my experience. This industry, at least at the level I’m at, is full of people who want to help those who are willing to work hard. If that changes at the higher levels, then I honestly hope I’ve switched careers before then.

Enough schmaltz.

Remember Danny, the guy who couldn’t believe I wanted to go to LA? I ran into him in Times Square last month when I went back east for the holidays. He was entering the stage door for a hit Broadway musical- he has a great job working on the crew, he told me. He’s dating one of the lead actresses (it’s serious), and he seemed really, really happy. He did what I could not- truly hack it in NYC. It’s a good thing he stayed.

There is no blanket right answer for everyone on the LA question, but there is a right answer for you. If you’re making things happen wherever you are, then it’s totally valid to wait for a job or an important meeting or a Sign From God before making the move out here. Or, hey, maybe you aren’t meant to come to LA, after all. There are thriving film industries elsewhere. Toronto, Atlanta, NYC come immediately to mind.

But if fear is the only thing holding you back, I got news for you: You’re probably never going to stop being afraid. So… ???

Don’t forget to add me to your list of contacts for when you do move out here: kristensreality@gmail.com.

See you soon,
KB

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Identifying and Avoiding Fake People

There are a lot of them in Hollywood. Don’t become one. Interestingly, one hard and fast rule I’ve found is this: the people who complain endlessly about “all the fake people in Hollywood” tend to be fairly fake themselves. Or just really annoying.

Ugh, I’ve already wasted too much time on this topic, but if you’re new to town and you’re worried you’ll be suckered in by ‘one of those fake LA people’ New Yorkers love complaining about, here are a few warning signs:

  1. People who shamelessly name drop. A lot.
  2. People who say, “_____ is looking at my screenplay”, “_______ is probably going to star”, “We’re planning to get ________ to direct”. Any of those things may one day be true, but some folks assume that if something MIGHT happen, you get instant bragging rights. Stick to the facts, ma’am. Just because you know someone casting Clint Eastwood’s next film doesn’t mean you’re a shoe-in. And just because Johnny Depp drunkenly said he ‘really liked your idea’ at a party doesn’t mean he has endorsed your production. 
  3. People who try to make their uncredited extra gig on that one TV show sound like they had a guest star role and a personal friendship with the lead (thank God for IMDB! Makes it so much easier to fact check. Hot tip: IMDB pro is totally worth the cost. I use it ALL the time.)
  4. Someone who never gave you the time of day BEFORE something awesome happened for you, but who suddenly wants to be your bestie AFTER something great happened for you.

One thing I’ve noticed is that the term ‘fake’ can often be used interchangeably with the term ‘inexperienced’. That ‘fake person’ is overcompensating because on some level they are insecure about where they are at in their career.

FAQ

Q. “I’m at a party and I’ve determined the person I’m talking to is one of those fake people you warned me about! What now??”

A. Treat them with the same amount of dignity and respect you would anyone else. Just be aware that you don’t want to work with this person. ‘Fake’ people suck because being fake is an awful lot like lying. No one likes being lied to, and you don’t want to work with someone who lies a lot.

Q. “I totally just name-dropped TWICE in one conversation. I think I’m becoming totally fake. Should I commit harakiri, end it all now before it gets worse? What should I do??”

A. Shh, it’s okay. Sometimes the Hollywood rubs off on you. I hate to say it, but I’ve definitely had a few fake moments in my life. The important thing is to call yourself out on it, repent, forgive yourself, and move on.

The bottom line:

Suffering from ‘Hollywood fakeness’ is an ailment I truly believe any person can overcome. Yes, it’s a long road back to the level of us plebes, but once you’re here you’ll finally be able to stop blowing up your own ego and focus on your work.

If you’re 100% real, great! Don’t get suckered. 

KB

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Finding the Best Day Job

When I made the decision to move to LA (I’d just graduated from college and decided anywhere had to be cheaper to live than NYC) (I was right), I had this notion that I’d somehow find steady commercial work within the first three months, book a role in the next hit indie film and be well on my way to becoming the next Jennifer Lawrence by the time I was 23. I know this was delusional. I honestly just think the idea of moving to Los Angeles to pursue a career in entertainment was so ludicrous and impractical that my brain had to invent fantasies just to keep me moving forward. Kind of like how POWs endure extreme torture, I imagine. Numb the pain. Shhh. Don’t think too much.

Anyway, I’m sure you can guess that my A plan didn’t exactly pan out. And so, after two months, when the little money I’d saved was starting to dry up, I realized I needed to suck it up and find a day job.

Now, I’m fully aware that you aren’t like those other sad actors who move to Hollywood who end up waiting tables. I know you are way more talented than those wannabe directors who have to take PA gigs on internet promo shoots that only pay $75/day. But, look at it this way- although this blog post won’t be useful to you, you can read it and then impart your newfound wisdom to your girlfriend’s talentless schmuck of a brother who’s moving to LA to become the next alt. indie rock star, because he will definitely need to get a day job (or three), right?

Glad you decided to keep reading.

In my mind, the best kind of day job should accomplish 1 of 2 things. Either it should allow you the flexibility to go to auditions/take meetings/jump on board shooting your friend’s short film last minute OR 2. it should feed into the career you are pursuing, directly or indirectly.

If your day job doesn’t afford you one or both of those things, your ‘day’ job can very quickly become your ‘main and only’ job, and you will resent it.

These days, I work as a producer or coordinator whenever funds are low. It’s not acting, writing or directing- which is what I really want to be doing- but it gives me immensely valuable experience learning other aspects of production. If you can’t find a job that gets you on film sets and you must work at a restaurant, apply to a location near a studio or big production company. A friend of mine was a Starbucks barista right next to one of the studio lots and became friendly with several of the studio execs and name talent who came in for morning coffee, including an accomplished director who is now a fan of the webseries she writes and directs. Stay tuned to see if that connection pays off some day. 

And now, a cautionary tale:

My friend Jill moved to LA 10 years ago to become an actress. By most standards, she’s doing pretty well for herself- she has a nice-sized apartment in Hollywood (no roommates!) and she generally can afford the things she wants. Her secret? Her awesome job as a bartender at a hopping bar in H’wood. She rakes in a ton of money. She also has to work REALLY late nights, and can never summon the energy to get up in the morning for auditions. She once confided to me that she feels stuck. She wants to pursue her dream but it’s just not feasible with her lifestyle. Cutting her hours or getting a more-flexible-but-lesser-paying day job is hard for her to imagine. She’s comfortable- but at the same time, she hates her job for making her so comfortable.  

She gave me some advice: keep your expenses low. If you can keep your expenses low, you won’t settle for a time-sucking survival job just because you need the funds.

A friend of mine later hooked me up with a job as a paperwork filer at Media Services Production Accounting, where I could make my own hours. It was only part-time, the pay rate was only so-so, and it was a 45 minute commute from my apartment– BUT I never had to turn down an audition while working there. It was that filing job that, a week before the Project Greenlight deadline, allowed me to take three days off to make the short film that got us to the final round of the competition. A competition that, ultimately, would allow me to leave my day job and work full-time as a writer. Full circle, see? 

I think I’ve done a pretty good job of following Jill’s advice about keeping my expenses low: rent a tiny bachelor studio or find a place with a couple roommates, go grocery shopping instead of ordering takeout, get comfortable shopping at Goodwill or not at all, skip the daily Starbucks, don’t get cable, cut yourself off after one drink (or, better yet, stick to ginger ale on ice), become friendly with the local mechanic so he doesn’t charge as much when a UPS van hits your car in Koreatown when you were on your way to a friend’s birthday party, etc. 

The main reason this lifestyle was (let’s be real, still is) do-able for me was the knowledge that I wouldn’t be stuck living paycheck to paycheck- so below the poverty line it was ridiculous- for forever. I had to believe that all my networking, auditioning, guerilla filmmaking and self-promotion would someday pay off.

And you know what? It’s starting to. Last April, as a result of events that transpired after Project Greenlight and me scoring my first line producing job on a high-profile web show, I was able to quit my day job. 

Amen. 

KB

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Reviews

Here’s what people around town are saying- about Kristen, not this blog.
No one reads this blog. 

“EXCELLENT!!” – Aaron Sorkin, after reading Kristen for a guest star role on The Newsroom. Kristen did not book the role.

“You have great energy!”-Nancy Meyers, after reading Kristen for a role in The Intern. Kristen did not book the role.

“You’re actually a really good actress.” -Matt Damon, with a tone of surprise, after watching Kristen in a short film for HBO’s Project Greenlight. Kristen did not win the competition.

“Please scroll [the teleprompter] slower. (pause) Thank you.” -Arnold Schwarzenegger to Kristen on the set of Terminator: YouTube Chronicles, a webseries Kristen line produced. 

So, I lied. Apparently there are a few folks out there who DO read this blog, and here’s what they’ve been saying:

“That blog is raw in its truthfulness and a great motivator for dealing with ‘no’.” -Chrissy Kane Shepherd, my friend’s cousin (aunt? step-aunt? Somehow they’re related)

“Brilliant!” – some girl I don’t know who commented on my Facebook post

“A great read for anyone who is deciding to make a move to try and live and succeed in the entertainment business written by an intelligent and observant woman who has been living the experience…” -Someone ELSE I don’t know who shared my Facebook post

“Read this, read this now! Like click the link and read away! Like I said she is brilliant, so why are you still reading this? Go! Go now!” – Kelsey Michel, my friend from college

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