I personally worked on a film project that will be 75% completed forever. It will never be finished, it will never see the light of day, and no one will ever make a penny of their projected income or return on investment. It was a $1.75 million dollar bust, $1.25 of which was put in by the director herself. It’s one of the lessons-learned in my past—the kind that when scrutinized for actual financial impact cost more than a Harvard degree, which is why I rarely let myself scrutinize.

That film isn’t bad. The footage is awesome. It’s a documentary spanning 21 different countries, so it’s visually breathtaking. The director wasn’t sure how the footage was going to come together, and although she had a rough idea of the journey she planned to create for her audience, she remained open to hear the story that the camera wanted to tell, recutting the film several times to vary the message or enhance the story with some unexpected glorious footage that had to find is way to the final cut.

The color looks great. I’m sure the final color correction would make little adjustments to keep things consistent from shot to shot after it’s all cut together, but visually there was no problem.

The sound is terrible. Absolutely terrible.

Voiceovers done as narration in the studio are crystal clear and very loud when compared to the rest of the audio, which is primarily wind noises, even when interviews are audible. The absolute best of it sounded like the audio from my high school plays, which were filmed with a static camcorder from the very back of a theatre full of people who tended to talk through the production, which, to be fair, wasn’t really worth the $4.00 they paid to get in—$5.00 without a student ID.

For a while, we all thought the sound would be fixed in post—that the final sound would balance out with no wind noises and the interviews, most of which needed a voice-over for translation anyway, would be clear. What became clear is that some things aren’t really fixable.

While I’m certain that enough skill, talent and technology could have pasted together something that was vastly improved over what we started with, we ran into two primary problems. First, it couldn’t really be recaptured even if the director could afford to fly around the globe again, and second that those who posses the skill, talent and technology to even undertake such a mess with the footage as it was are well-deserving of their high pay and the director had run out of funds.

Someday, maybe, a version of the film will come out with nothing but voiceover narration and orchestrations. That’s an easy solution to a $1.75 million dollar problem, and in the grand scheme of things, that’s a better choice than giving up, but we’re not there yet. Right now, we’re in the broken-hearted can’t-wrap-my-mind-around-the-new-version stage where the director decided to leave it 75% done rather than accept that her original vision has to change. She might recut it again anyway. As long as she’s still editing, it hasn’t failed, it just hasn’t succeeded yet.

Over the years, we all fell away, and to the best of my knowledge, she’s living a quiet life outside of entertainment, still saying the film is about 75% done. I’m personally only owed $50,000 in unpaid work, so I’m pretty low on the list of people who have a right to complain. I don’t think the $1.75 million even includes unpaid folks like me, that’s just the money spent.

What can we learn from this cautionary tale?

If you work on spec, assume you won’t be paid and you’ll never be disappointed. If you wouldn’t donate your time, don’t, because that might be what you’re doing and you have to be ok with that up front. If you can afford to do it, do it, because that’s where awesome indies come from, but counting unhatched chickens will not pay your rent.

Contracts are cute. Legally enforceable contracts are even “binding”—the legal term for being stuck with the results—but if they aren’t accompanied with money, they may not be worth the paper they’re printed on. Sure, a judge would demand you get paid, but if the person who owes you money doesn’t have any, you have a “legally binding” judgement worth $0.00 in the real world, and you paid court costs for the privilege.

If you try to do everything yourself, accept the possibility that you might not get everything right. No one specializes in everything. They say it takes 10,000 hours to become an expert on something. That’s 1,250 eight-hour days. That’s just shy of three and a half years, straight, with no days off, and usually we have to do other stuff in life, so odds are it will take about twice that. That means every seven years you can become an expert at something new, but that’s not how people work. Generally, people don’t have the option to stop what they are doing well and start something they know nothing about every seven years, just for personal growth. That means if you want the best person for the job, you have to be willing to admit that sometimes that’s not you, and if you can’t afford to hire help then you can’t afford to do the project, because money not spent on the necessary expertise may not be money saved, it may be part of the $1.75 million lost.

And nothing, nothing, nothing replaces getting it right the first time. If the director had brought one extra person and quality sound equipment, that film would have been released in 2012. Compared to how much was spent trying to fix the unfixable, that would have been cheap.

Horror movies can take place in one location, like a haunted house or isolated cabin, which saves a ton of money. Documentaries don’t require costuming, props, effects or even casting. There are always places where money can be saved strategically in ways the audience never sees. You have to have the tools to capture the footage and audio or you won’t have the pieces to assemble into your film. Don’t cut corners on the equipment or your entire film will be something the audience never sees.

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