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Nashville Scene Trickle-Down Theory

Five things you need to know before and after you make a (short) independent film

By Adam Ross

JUNE 7, 1999:  In February of 1998, editing was completed on "Trickle," a short film that I wrote and my buddy Frank Tota directed. The film clocked in at 18 minutes and took a year to make. Loosely based on a true story, "Trickle" is a comedy about Josh Riddell, an inveterate pot smoker who has to pass a urinalysis test to get a job he desperately needs.

I'm a positive guy and rarely suffer regret. But from start to finish, there are a million things I would have changed about the making of "Trickle." So for all the aspiring filmmakers out there who see a short film and say to themselves afterward, "I could do that," keep the following in mind:

5. Time is money.

No matter how successful it is, if you're making a short film, you're not going to get a multi-picture deal out of the thing, let alone any money. In fact, the only thing a short film might buy you is a little clout--and that's a maybe at best. You'll want to save money at every turn. Shoot in 16mm, maybe even hand-held video. Keep the cast members down to one, maybe two people. Soundtrack? Find a friend who can play the guitar.

So what did we do? We shot "Trickle" in 35mm, had a cast of eight professional actors, and a crew of 25 for a four-day shoot--as well as an Academy Award-winning sound team. Cast and crew had to be fed three meals a day (which in L.A., that least expensive of cities, means catered food). There was equipment to rent, negatives to develop, and music rights to purchase. (Thinking ahead, we of course made Antonio Carlos Jobim's "The Girl From Ipanema" indispensable to our plot.) Add to these the truly frightful expense of festival applications and shipping charges. When all was said and done, the cost of our little indie ballooned to $40,000. Which brings me to...

4. Be willing to borrow.

When you go about things the way we did, you either need a producer who is independently wealthy, or you have to go on the dole. To make "Trickle," we borrowed film stock, editing bay time ($300 an hour), and whatever equipment we could get our hands on. We borrowed talent at every stage of production. We defrayed thousands in expenses. We even managed to get an independently wealthy producer--and we still managed to spend $40,000. Therefore, to increase your chances of success, you need insurance--something that will give your film more marquee value than the thousands of other independents out there. Which brings me to...

3. Hire famous movie stars.

Which we could not do. Theo Bikel, who was the father of our producer and had a bit part in our movie, was once famous--see The African Queen or My Fair Lady--but do you know who he is? Our star, William Mapother, is Tom Cruise's cousin. Natalia Jovovich, our beautiful co-star, is cousin to the more famous Milla. But that's as close as we got to the "A" list--or the "Z" list, for that matter.

So now you're in horrifying debt and neither Harvey Keitel nor Christina Ricci is in your movie. But you're hitting the festival circuit with what you think is a half-decent short film. So above and beyond, make sure you...

2. Don't take no for an answer.

This year, the Nashville Independent Film Festival received 300 short-film submissions for 63 spots. Last year, Sundance received more than 1,000 for a mere 10. How are these films chosen? First, they have to make it through subcommittees, which then pass them up the food chain. Not surprisingly, festival directors see only the films that make the cut. After we were rejected by the Blue Sky Festival in Las Vegas, we called the director personally. Had he seen our movie? He had not. Could he take a look? He would. As luck would have it, he accepted our film, and we went on to win best short at the festival. All of which is to say, I wish we'd called the director of Sundance.

"Trickle," which is showing this year at the Nashville Independent Film Festival, has had a great run this past year. We've been shown at more than 15 film festivals around the world. We were invited by the governor of Greece to screen before High Art at the Athens Film Festival; we were nominated for a Discovery award at the Hollywood Film Festival. (Bonus Piece of Advice: Toot Your Own Horn.) It's opened a lot of doors for us. But after all that was said and done, and all the money that was spent, I pass on to you, budding filmmaker, our biggest regret and the greatest guarantor of your success--which is...

1. Make a feature instead.

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