The Good News
I want to start this off with the good news – the importance of which should not be underestimated. The good news is this: if you know how to make a great short film, you can make a great feature film! That is something to look forward to. That’s exciting! The endeavor of making a feature is going to come with a lot of overwhelming challenges at times.
You will find challenges in the legal & business aspects. You will find challenges in the corporate aspects. You will find challenges in the budgeting & payroll aspects. Especially your first feature film will be tough. But don’t let these challenges keep you from making your film. Keep going back to this: if you’ve made a great short, you can make a great feature. In the end, it will be worth it!
The heart and soul of this endeavor is the ability to tell great visual story through the medium of film. Everything around it is just procedure. If you’ve mastered the ability to tell great story, then you’ve already overcome the hard part!
The #1 Difference between the Short Film and the Feature Film
When you make a short film, its end destination is (usually) film festivals. You hope to garner Official Selections and Awards, to build prestige and reputation, and ultimately help you get your feature film made, or get you hired. A short film is seldom made with distribution in mind.
When making a feature film, the end goal is to get it sold and distributed. Festivals are only stepping stones to help the feature get to the end goal. That might sound obvious, but the implications have a bigger impact than most people realize. Since your end goal is now distribution and sale, you’re entering into the world of doing business. You’re in the business of selling a product (your film) to consumers (your audience).
As with any business, when you do this, you need to be legally set up to do business; you need to be able to prove that you have the right to sell your product; you need to comply with State and Federal Laws; you need to pay taxes; the list goes on. I know this might all sound a bit daunting at first, but remember that:
- Many others have done this before – if they can do it, you can too.
- You don’t have to learn or do this alone. This is where a team (especially a producing team) really comes in handy.
- It’s a step-by-step process, and when you learn this in steps, it’s way, way easier.
Creating a feature film is not much different than any start-up business, so let’s take a look at it through that lens.
The Limited Liability Company
You might have been renting equipment, making purchases and paying vendors under your personal name when making a short. You might have personally owned the copyright of your short. Maybe you didn’t even give much thought to the ownership of the copyright. That changes when you make your feature. In fact, you won’t be the one “producing” the feature, some other “US Person” will…: a Limited Liability Company. The LLC is the company that will open a bank account specifically for the film, make agreements with all Cast, Crew and Vendors (including you!), make payments, own the copyright to the film, and ultimately sell the film.
So the first thing you’re going to do when you’re ready to make your feature is open up a company, which solely exists to produce the feature film. The biggest reason you do this is to limit your liability when doing business. Remember, you’re going to be engaging in business with a LOT of people and vendors, a lot of money will be exchanging hands, and liabilities are of concern. So you create an LLC to protect yourself if something should go wrong.
Employees & Payroll
When you’re making a short, you often have your friends help you out. The dynamics change, however, when you’re making a feature film. Even if your crew consists of the very same friends that helped you make your short film, and even if they’re all volunteering to help you on your feature, you still have keep in mind the fundamental difference that this time they are helping you create a commercial product. As such, they should be compensated fairly (even if just on the backend).
Another important thing to consider is that if you are conducting business, which you are when you’re producing a feature film, you have to abide by State and Federal Laws. Your friends who are now working on your film are suddenly considered “Employees” and you are suddenly considered an “Employer” and you find yourself subject to Labor Laws. I highly recommend picking up the book The Pocket Lawyer for Filmmakers. It does a really great job of introducing filmmakers to the legalities of the film business.
You also have to keep in mind that as your Cast & Crew are considered Employees, you technically have to pay them through payroll, and pay payroll taxes. Many filmmakers don’t do this, and they never get in trouble for it – but you should know that doing so breaks State and Federal Labor Laws.
Delivering to a Distributor
Finally, once you’ve set up your business, hired employees, done your accounting properly, and completed your film, now you need to sell it and deliver it to a distributor.
The first thing a distributor is going to want to know is that you have the right to sell this product. In other words, you have the right to exploit all of the copyrights within the film that you created – you own the copyright to the script, you have the right to the music in the film, every piece of artwork or artistic expression in the film has been cleared or created/owned by you. If you don’t have every right underlying your product, then you don’t have the right to sell it, and in that case a distributor won’t buy it.
This changes how you might go about making your film. While you might not have been paying attention to the mural in the background of the short film, it now poses a significant threat to the distribution of your feature (if you don’t have the right to display that artwork in your film.) Think of it this way: you can’t shoot a Broadway show on your iPhone and then sell it on iTunes. That same concept applies to any and all work, whether visual or audible, in your film.
As you’re moving through pre-production, production and post, you’re constantly collecting all the proper paperwork to later prove to distributors that you indeed own every piece of the movie, or you have the right to exploit every element within the film. You have the right to sell your film in all media throughout the world in perpetuity.
Going into the Film Business
If Business Management and Entrepreneurship excites you, then learning more about these aspects will be no problem. But if the idea of creating an LLC, dealing with labor laws and copyright law seem daunting or uninspiring, then this is a great time to team up with someone who will be excited to take on this part!
You don’t need to be good at all of this. It helps if you have a basic understanding of it all. In any event, if it’s not going to be you, you should have a partner or company who will take on the business & legal aspects of producing your feature. Let’s go back to the good news: if you know how to make a great short, you can make a great feature! Be excited at the opportunity of creating a business out of your feature film!
Learn the basics about setting up an LLC. Learn the basics of labor laws and how to employ your cast & crew the right way. Learn the basics about copyright & entertainment law. More importantly, find people to help you! Filmmaking is a Team Sport. Build your team. Build your business. Build your Feature Film!