Book review: From Reel to Deal - Everything You Need to Create a Successful Independent Film

Submitted by Robert Alstead on Mon, 01/05/2004 - 16:00
From Reel to Deal

Dov Simens opens his book with a warning. "After reading this book, there are no excuses! For everything, yes everything, needed to succeed as an independent filmmaker is in these pages."

This wildly extravagant statement is perfectly in keeping with the character of the author and the style of the book. If it inevitably falls short of this claim, it's only because the subject is larger than one paperback of 400 plus pages.

But brevity is good, and this makes an excellent roadmap for any indie filmmaker looking for a way through the film production cycle or those feeling daunted by the task of seeing a feature film project through from beginning to end.

LA-based Simens bases Reel to Deal on the 2-Day Film School that he created and teaches in North America. Quoting Orson Welles ("Everything you need to know about filmmaking can be learned in two to three days"), Siemens suggests that his streetsmart program can save you four years and the tens of thousands of bucks in fees to have a film school "preach and coddle" you.

Although there are chapters on digital filmmaking and DV post-production, the emphasis is much more on making a 35mm film, shot for $5,000 upwards.

But first the ex-Vietnam vet peptalks the callow wannabe filmmaker into believing in him/herself. Start calling yourself a "producer," he says. "Have you ever seen the word 'filmmaker' as an opening credit? The answer is no".

Once he's got you thinking you can do it, Simens takes you to filmmaking boot camp, ploughing through everything from writing the script to negotiating distribution rights: demystifying, entertaining, drilling, and coaxing you to make that film happen.

His chapters are short and to the point, making copious use of bullet points and intermittently emboldened one-line tips (with a little attache case icon labelled "Top Secret") to ram a point home. He ends each chapter with lists of "to dos", contacts and further reading.

It is a thoroughly American publication, both in style, content and perspective, which is good and bad.

Simens' can-do attitude and candour, is thoroughly refreshing. He calls a spade, a spade. BS is BS.

He offers savvy tips and different options at each stage of the filmmaking process. He's particularly good at running the numbers (the "real numbers" rather than the "marketing numbers") and advising you on what cheques you need to write, thanks to his extensive experience as a line producer.

However, the numbers are in US dollars and the various industry bodies and related organisations mentioned - for example, for completion of legal and corporate paperwork - are American. Great if you plan on making and selling your film in North America, not so great if you plan on making your film elsewhere.

That said, much of the advice - on working with your cast and crew, preparing for the shoot, budgeting, deal-making, etc. is fairly universal in theme. And few filmmakers can afford to ignore the North American market.

Advice ranges from technical information, like how much film stock you need to shoot a one-and-half hour feature (simple answer: depends on how much you can afford), to the sensible but easily overlooked stuff: when prepping for a shoot, he says, "Take vitamins. Get into shape." The book is positively brimming with tips and nitty-gritty details and insights into how the biz works.

Filmmaking being a collaborative process, there's plenty on dealing with other people in the industry from the importance of smoothing relations with your Director of Photography to deftly handling those predatory acquisition executives when your "darling film" goes down a storm at its film festival premiere.

Simens doesn't fear provoking outrage, which is why he is so quotable. For example, on raising the finance he suggests trawling through the Yellow Pages for doctors and dentists: "Dentists are the wealthiest group of stupid investors in North America."

When looking at various avenues for distributing your finished film, he remarks that distributors are like attorneys: "Everyone hates them. Everyone has an attorney joke. But, like it or not, we need attorneys. And, like it or not, you need a distributor."

Professional writers may cringe at his analysis of them and their craft. On the other hand you have to chuckle when he crudely depicts the Hollywood script formula with an amusing graph. Some of his sales tactics would make a second hand car salesman blush, but sound conceivable.

Simens' forceful personality makes this not just a practical coursebook but something that is entertaining and empowering. By the end of book, he has left few stones, or excuses, unturned. Especially, if you are shooting on 35mm in North America.

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Buy From Reel to Deal: Everything You Need to Create a Successful Film (Warner Books, 2003) from Amazon