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Producing an Independent Documentary

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Andrea HeadshotI am a producer. I have produced a documentary completely independently, with just a few key people and a skeleton production crew which we then sold to a major independent distributor without premiering at any of the major market festivals. We had no major stars and a limited budget, but the film played theatrically in limited release throughout the country. It was featured in most major press outlets as well as hit somewhere in the top 25 of iTunes. The DVD comes out in August. You can preorder MY AMITYVILLE HORROR on Amazon now or search it on Google to check out what other people say about it, for better or worse. I just want to tell you about some of the process it took to get to this point. If even a tiny little bit of what I did right or wrong will help someone else to succeed on their project, then that makes everything all the better. Karma in filmmaking goes far.

How did I do it? The answer is decidedly not sexy. It was excruciatingly hard work, often (and usually) on top of a full time position. I could not have done it without the preceding years of experience in various areas of “the industry”, not to mention the years of networking which has caused a great hole in my bank account. Let’s also not forget that I am extremely lucky. But all of that is beside the point. Let’s get to it. We’re going to go down the rabbit hole exactly as I did, from preproduction to where the film is now, awaiting acquisition in the international marketplace. Please pardon me if your questions are not specifically answered, but leave them in the comments and I will address them as best I can; it’s hard to remember everything over three years and counting.

PREPRODUCTION/HOW I WAS SUCKERED INTO THIS

I had just gotten off of an associate producing gig that was less than ideal when a college friend told me a friend of his was looking for a producer for his documentary. Hesitant at the thought of the interminable amount of time involved in documentary work as well as how generally difficult it is to sell docs, I agreed only to a meeting.

The meeting was at the director’s house with the other producer attending. Eric, the director/producer, was extremely passionate about his subject and showed me some sizzle footage he had shot on a previous shooting trip to New York. John, the other producer, was more silent but still offered comments on budget and legal.

I remained hesitant but when I was told that it would be about the oldest son of the family that the Amityville Horror is based on and his personal experience growing up in that famous “haunted house”, I was hooked. I felt that between Eric’s sensibilities and the subject matter, that if ever there was a completely independent documentary that had a chance to sell, this was it. I didn’t want to let on immediately though, so told them both I needed some time to think. Eric likes to remind me of this now, of course. Anyway, he gave me a good amount of further research and materials to look at and I went home after several hours of discussion. I think it was the next day, but it may have been up to three, before I said yes.

From then on out, we met for hours upon hours, usually on the weekends. This began in September 2010, but I lost my job in November and we began meeting daily as Eric was working evenings. It became common place for Eric’s roommates to see me there at all hours of the day and night.  The meetings were often just Eric and I as John had an hour commute to where we were, so they were very freeform. We discussed ideas, Amityville in general, as well as new sources and possible threads we could investigate. We talked a lot about how we could create visual interest so that it wasn’t just a bunch of talking heads. There was a lot of conversation surrounding whether we wanted to incorporate recreations or not (we chose not to). We were concurrently coming up with promotion ideas, most of which were never used, but there was already a website and Facebook page that would be updated as regularly as there was anything to post. We tracked films that were similar and started to put together a true production plan.

Neither of us had produced a feature length documentary before but that didn’t faze us. (Perhaps it should have; oh, the bliss of ignorance!) Regardless, Eric had a treatment and idea of where he wanted to go, which of course changed immeasurably as we lost or gained access to subjects, locations, footage. I arranged meetings with anyone in my network that I could think of that would give us advice including other documentary producers and assistants to larger profiled directors. I created lengthy lists of things to do and worked with John to prepare budget after budget, production schedule after production schedule. We were prepping as we were determining when we would shoot as we had limited budget and limited time. I was also constantly interviewing for new jobs and the threat of consistent employment always hung over our heads. We finally decided to shoot in New York in February 2011.

A lot of people ask about where we found the financing. In our case, the executive producers were people who were aware of the content matter previously and came on board shortly after initial pitching and budgetary work. However, I don’t think there is any great secret to financing a film. You literally just have to find the money. Whether that is through established Hollywood avenues, Kickstarter or asking everyone you know and everyone you meet, it’s a delicate art of explaining your vision and being a hustler. That isn’t to say it’s easy at all, it’s just not rocket science. We likely would never have found financing under the Hollywood model.

Once we settled on the shooting dates, it became the logistical nightmare that all UPM and Line Producers are well aware of; however, it was John, Eric and I handling everything. Thankfully, much of the legal paperwork was being handled by John, which freed Eric and I up for logistics. Negotiation for hotel rates, figuring out whether we were going to go guerrilla or get permits, determining what equipment and cameras we would use, how much we were going to allot for meals, creating a schedule – all very exciting but everything requires so much conversation that it becomes tedious. Doing all of this from California made it even more difficult because we couldn’t afford to location scout ahead of time and so could not truly account for the time it would take to move crew so our scheduling was very loose by necessity. We also consistently had subjects that would initially agree to participate and then drop out so we would scramble to make up the difference, hoping to be able to amass enough in our abbreviated time to shoot to flesh out the ideas that were conceptualized in those meetings. There were also those that we were hoping would participate in the filming once we were there, but we didn’t have true confirmation.

We had grids for everything and consistently updated them, along with the myriad lists and overall production book that we guarded with our life. We tried to plan for as many contingencies as we could. The inherent difference between narrative and documentary is that you can talk, plot, conceptualize, plan and map out as much as you like, but after a certain point, there’s nothing more that you can do because there is no actual script that you can break down. You just have to trust the people you are working with and your gut because once you are shooting, there’s no going back. Getting on the plane to New York with John and Eric was one of the most terrifying and exciting moments of my life. We didn’t sleep. All we did was hash out, again and again, every single aspect of the plans we had made. For the entire five plus hour flight. We must have been hell for the people sitting around us as it was a red eye direct from LAX to La Guardia.

NEXT UP: PRODUCTION… In the meantime, if you want to find out more about the film, check out www.amityvillemovie.com.

Andrea Adams

About Andrea Adams

Andrea Adams Spellman is a Colorado transplant who has worked at companies including Anonymous Content, WME Entertainment, Team Todd and Davis Entertainment. She has received credit in Disney’s ALICE IN WONDERLAND, THE ROMANTICS and CHRONICLE. Andrea produced the documentary MY AMITYVILLE HORROR on Netflix, DVD and VOD. Andrea now works for a software company that supports the entertainment industry by day and (attempts to) write by night. Andrea fosters dogs through Much Love Animal Rescue, is a Daughter of the American Revolution and a P.E.O. member. She got married in September 2015 and her current obsessions include her husband's shrimp tacos, Stranger Things and tennis.