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Indie producer offers inside tips

The Antoinette Westphal College of Media Arts & Design, in partnership with the Greater Philadelphia Film Office, welcomed Los Angeles-based film producer J. Todd Harris to the URBN Center Annex March 2 to host his one-day film seminar, “Producing the Independent Film.”

The goal of the seminar was to give students interested in pursuing a career in film an inside look at the intricacies of producing an independent film, from planning to post-production, and what it takes to succeed in Hollywood. Harris used his career as a producer to put the film industry into perspective to the audience of budding producers, directors and screenwriters.

Harris, who produced the Golden Globe Award winning film “The Kids Are All Right” starring Annette Bening, Julianne Moore and Mark Ruffalo, encouraged the audience to pursue film careers but made sure to discuss the reality of the high stakes and competition in the film industry.

“Studios have a different lens that they look at projects with, and it has changed a lot in the 20-plus years I’ve been in Hollywood,” Harris said.

Hollywood’s film preferences have changed significantly, according to Harris, who explained that films now are much faster paced because audience’s attention spans have shrunk.

“There are certain movies that got made in the ‘70s and ‘80s that I love that would not get made right now,” Harris said.

Because Hollywood is so fast paced, Harris emphasized the urgency of making a movie pitch to executives, which he referred to as an “elevator pitch,” short and concise. He allowed members of the audience to take the floor and give their own elevator pitches and critiqued their delivery.

Along with immense competition, filmmakers are also faced with a dilemma of picky film studios, such as 20th Century Fox and DreamWorks. Harris warned that of the approximately 4,000 films that are submitted for consideration to play at major film festivals, including the Sundance Film Festival, only around 115 are accepted. Of those 115, major studios only pick up 10 to 15.

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“That is putting a camel through the eye of a needle,” Harris said.

Harris urged the nearly filled screening room that the best way to get started is by producing a few independent films without the help of major studios. He urged that making the plunge into film producing is essential, just as he did coming out of college.

Harris, who discovered his love for producing while studying business at Stanford University, borrowed $20,000 from his grandfather and eventually found himself working for Davis Entertainment Filmworks.

Harris got his big break when he was sent a script in 1994 called “Denise Calls Up,” which was picked up by Sony Pictures Classics. Harris said that the film was shot in 22 days with a budget of approximately $600,000. While the film was not extremely successful, it was the start he needed.

A producer also has to think about who the audience is going to be so that when crafting the idea for a film or picking out a script, the producer can appeal to as many people as possible.

“Do you really paint a painting so that you and only four friends can look at it?” Harris asked.

Although it is important to appeal to a specific group or brand, Harris said that he didn’t exactly follow the rule of thinking about “Who is it for?”

“I probably made my first 30 movies just because I could, or I liked them or I wanted to. I never really thought about who was going to see that movie, how I was going to market the movie,” Harris said. “I don’t think most young or early first-time filmmakers have that luxury of making a movie without thinking about who the audience is going to be.”

However, he did not scold producers who chose movies based on their own preferences.

“If we were all stuck in the box of making movies based on ‘Who is it for?’ nothing really groundbreaking would ever come out of it,” he said.

Harris explained that he loves the flexibility that comes with being a film producer.

“You could march to your own drum as a producer. I also like the fact that you can work on several things at the same time,” Harris said. “If you were an actor and you were working on a show or a part, you have to be laser focused on that.”

While writers focus on writing and actors focus on acting, Harris explained that producers have a vast array of tasks necessary to make a film happen. One of the most important yet daunting tasks is to raise money for the film.

“I spend a lot of time raising money because without it … there is no movie to make. And someone has to do it,” Harris said. “If you’re a producer and don’t like raising money, that’s OK, but you better find a partner who can do it.”

He informed the audience about the importance of having a business plan and putting together finances, including seed money to jumpstart the film. Harris displayed a business plan for Branded Pictures Entertainment, of which he is the CEO and founder. The audience was also shown a finance plan, which included funds for script rewrites, legal expenses, marketing and casting consultants, travel, and presentations.

“Sometimes producing is just roll up your freaking sleeves, do that schedule, do that budget, figure out who to hire and make the trains run on time,” Harris said.

One of the biggest lessons Harris gave to early filmmakers looking for somebody to fund their film is to seek somebody willing to take a risk.

“My advice is that you find a person who loves you, loves this project so much, that they’ll take a risk and give you some starter capital, knowing that you may never get that movie made,” Harris said.

Harris’ most recent films include “Bottle Shock,” starring Alan Rickman and Chris Pine, and “Piranha 3D.” Harris is a founding member of the board of the Napa Valley Film Festival and a member of the Producers Branch of the Motion Picture Academy.

Tickets for the seminar were sold to Drexel and Temple University students as well as industry professionals.