Monday, October 14, 2013



It’s fun, and a significant challenge to put a movie together. The first thing you want to do is decide what kind of movie to make. By that, I mean, an action film, comedy, family venture or violent murder mystery.

I had the pleasure of making all of the above. As a filmmaker, you want to have fun doing what you love, but realize you also have an audience to please. People love movies, kids love them almost on an equal basis, and I love to make them, view and own them.

Of all the films I’ve directed or worked on in some capacity, the most rewarding has come from making family films. I’ve enjoyed every minute on the set, in the planning and after the films were released. I love working with kids, animals and stunt performers. Oh, I like the actors too, they’re just fairly serious where kids are open to try, listen and give from the heart. For the most part, the kids behave. As for the animals, I’ve never met one I didn’t like. I’ve shot with pigs, cows, horses, miniature horses, rabbits, skunks, cats and of course dogs. Dogs are my favorite. We need to add, of course, it helps enormously if you have great trainers to come along with the animals.

As a filmmaker, we depend on receiving residuals for our work. Most of the time you make a good salary when a film is made. After the movie is completed, you wait, and hope to go back to work on another film. In-between the movie jobs, you survive on residuals. A residual is a filmmaker royalty. Honest distribution means you get residuals, and sometimes they come out of the blue. Residuals are always welcomed, and usually occur at times you really need them. Not all filmmakers managed to find steady work. Sporadic income puts importance to reliable reporting and receiving residuals. The additional income from the royalty becomes part of our lives.

A few years ago I was asked to do an independent study on how various films did. I researched my own films along with many other filmmaker projects. I looked at G to R rated motion pictures made at studios and by independents. Some were very successful and others not so. I asked a lot of questions and got a few who reluctantly shared information with me, some refused, and some got mad. The effect was independent films paid better residuals than major studios. I guess you can equate that with a major publisher who dares to take good care of their writers as opposed to self-published books where the writer gets an honest share of all his sales. I was amazed how many so-so films actually made money, returned a profit and paid residuals.

When I separated the superstars from the rest of the crowd, it became an exciting study. You are not part of the majority if you are well paid up front. Most independent filmmakers get by with a very thin wallet, get paid little during production, and then wait for the residuals. Few own a piece of the film and an even fewer number actually make money from their ownership.

I am among many who have received a residual check for one cent. Yes, you read it correctly, $.01, and sadly its happened on more than one occasion. All of these tiny checks came from a major studio and/or network projects. The independent companies I have worked for paid more often, paid better, and thus it became obvious for the reasons most stayed in business. If they treated the filmmaker fairly, he’d most likely bring them another project. If they were cheated or felt they got the short end f the stick, they took their next movie projects elsewhere.

Checking over the rest of a fairly large pool of filmmakers, it became apparent what made money and what didn’t. What films had the longest shelf life and what kind of films disappeared after a few months of their release.

As for long shelf life, the most rewarding films were all family films. Without a doubt, family films were the core breadwinners at the box office. More importantly, nearly all had a G or PG rating. Many of these family films had been around for twenty or thirty years and in some cases much longer than that.

I realized I had the same results when I took a look at all my films. While I have produced and directed R rated projects that did exceedingly well at the box office and later on home video, all have disappeared from distribution after a few years and you can’t find a copy to rent anywhere. People have to search to find older PG-13 or R rated films. The most popular sites to find older films are either eBay or Amazon, and you have to buy them. They were long out of the rental boxes. The G and PG films, on the other hand, are still available at Wal-Mart, Best Buy, Target, K-Mart, Sears and many other retail outlets.

The G rated films I have produced and directed are still in distribution, and all of them have returned more in residuals than all the other projects I have done combined.

The bottom line when making a movie, think about the audience, your long-term goal, and the story content. Think about what pushes your hot button as the excitement you have in your heart bleeds comfortably into the movie you create. If you’re the writer, your story sparkles when touched by your heartstrings and this can be a thriller, comedy or action adventure.

My passion is not your passion. A movie is not a novel. You don’t have the opportunity to go into detailed development with character or location. You have to get to the point and in most cases do it quickly. The scenes need to flow seamlessly. The characters need to be multidimensional, exciting and alive. They need to feel, hurt and share emotions. The beginning, as one of my mentors preached to me over and over, was to begin with a bang. That’s not to say you need an explosion, a murder or accident. It says the story must have legs the moment it opens. A love story requires feelings, an action piece some excitement, and those who dare to make an adventure should start with one.

Making a movie has many moving parts. It all starts with a script. The story needs to grab the reader and suck him or her into the page and keep them there. You can have rises and tumbles, but you can’t leave the basic story for a second. You have no time for that. It’s a movie, and that means the story moves with lightening speed from one minute to the next. In the end, you want the audience to feel out of breath, as though they had just run a 10K. You want them to bounce from the theatre wanting more. If they question the plot, is it in a good way? If they missed something, will they come back for a second look?

Once the script is so tight it squeaks, you move on to casting and fund raising. Then comes the crew, special effects, locations and who plans to do what. When that’s over, you look to the editor to save you and use every piece you shot to protect the film and the gaps that suddenly raise their ugly head unexpectedly. You add the magic of sound, mix it together with the dialogue and then create a music score that blows you away. That doesn’t mean loud obnoxious music – it means to piece a score together that makes every scene in your film dance.

In the end, you screen your masterpiece and hope the audience loves it. Right after the screen opens you’ll know from their reaction. You might hear an “Awe” or a “gasp”. People breathe, take deep breaths or move closer to the screen. It’s a great experience to sit in the back of the theatre and watch reactions.

There is nothing that can duplicate the feeling of watching your movie come to life in front of an audience that loves what they see. There is madness to making a movie, loving the process and enjoying the outcome. Thus, the reason I make movies. I enjoy writing the script, arguing over words, scenes and characters. I thrill with producing and bringing all the moving parts together, and lastly I thoroughly become engrossed in directing and bringing all the selected pieces into one finely tuned event – a movie.

Making a movie is like the construction business only ten times more thrilling. If you buy a lot and build a building – that’s it. You can rent it, occupy it or sell it. In the end, it’s just a building.  When you make a movie, it breathes, moves, lives and lasts a lifetime. The backer feels a pulse, an accomplishment not felt in any other business. The audience, the press and the thrill of seeing his name on the film reward the backer. If it’s a great film, it will live the way beyond your wildest dreams. It will be talked about, written about, reviewed, screened and travel the world.  A building sits and gets old and out of date, but a movie lives on and a great film can survive in perpetuity.

William Byron Hillman © 2013
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Veronique and Murray:
Zebra’s Rock and Me
Quigley’s Christmas Adventure

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Ghosts and Phantoms Part I:
Ghosts and Phantoms Part II:
My next film:
Quigley’s Christmas Adventure
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