How To Start (AND FINISH) a Fan Film – 4 Tips for Filmmakers

Ok, fair warning: this post is a little more riddled with personal experience than some of the others, including a touch of shameless self promotion here at the beginning to make the rest of it make sense.

I like stuff, and I like to make movies about stuff I like, and sometimes that stuff is other movies. So, I made a thing (you don’t have to watch it, but I’d sure like it if you did! It’s only five minutes long, and not particularly terrible!)

That’s me in the film, for the record, as well as a number of other credits (Behind the Scenes note: the Director/Editor/VFX Wizard on this was also the postproduction guy behind the CombatCon promo videos last year!)

Tangent over, mostly. Sort of. Now. Why am I sharing this?

Last year, I was on a Star Wars high (like a lot of us were) after the release of The Force Awakens. It reinvigorated a part of my childhood creativity that I had never expected to experience in theaters again. Yes, the movie was divisive, but I’m going to point blank say – I loved it.

I’ll be available at CombatCon to either have a drink bought for me or have tomatoes thrown my way, depending on which side of the fence you fall on.

Geek-nation-dividing opinions aside, the important part is that I was inspired. We find inspiration in everyday moments, in books or other artwork, and from a huge variety of places individual to the person. I found some personal inspiration from Star Wars, and wanted to make something Star Wars. My “usual suspects” of collaborators here in Tampa had never done a “fan film” before, or a tribute style film piece, so we decided to go forward. Given our mutual love for all things combat and nerdy, I wanted to share some of what we learned in that process in case you decide to go out on your own and make a fan film!

1. Find a specific inspiration so you know WHY you’re doing it.

Ok, this sounds easy, but look at my example. I’ve always loved Star Wars but never been driven to create a fan film before now. “I like _____” is absolutely, in my opinion, NOT enough of a reason to keep you motivated throughout the process of preproduction, shooting, and postproduction.

The fanart that inspired our Star Wars fan film “The Last Hope” (Art by PunMagneto on DeviantArt)

We stumbled across this WAY cool fan art one day (pictured above) and thought “Boy howdy, I sure would like to see that come to fruition, and I don’t think it’ll ever really happen in the movies – let’s make it!”

There was an aspect of the universe that we had a chance to speculate about, come to our own conclusions for without being spoonfed by existing narrative, and that combination of “existing universe, unlikely scenario” was our perfect storm.

This brings me to my second tip.

2. Add something to the universe that the fans can’t get already.

It might sound like fun to reproduce, shot for shot, a particular favorite moment from a book, tv show or movie. That would be a super exciting exercise for any filmmaker, and would probably lead to a lot of skill development and understanding of the original director’s choices.

Unfortunately, geekdom is flooded with content these days by the original creators (Marvel over-saturation, for example). The potential audience for fan films doesn’t want to see “Fan-service” or things they could just watch the “real version” of.

Consider yourself as a part of the target audience – what would be a film you want to watch? Why would you watch it? What about it would make you tell your friends they needed to see it to?? You might be wrong, because you aren’t the WHOLE audience – one person is a very small sample size, in scientific terms, after all – but at least you know the creative analysis and motive comes from a genuine place. In my humble opinion all art should, whether derivative and fanfiction type work or original content, or it doesn’t work.

3. Don’t treat it like a fan film.

So, this may seem sort of obvious, or it may seem extremely counter-intuitive, but let me explain. Treat your film like a new installment, not a fan film. We approached our film from the perspective of having seen what Abrams did with The Force Awakens, and what Lucas had done in previous works, and took the approach of “If we were handed the reigns right this moment, how would we make something fresh but also contiguous to the universe and the style/tone.” I’m not sure we necessarily succeeded, that’s a pretty subjective thing and I’m not nearly that pompous as to say “NAILED IT!”, but it’s about the approach.

This creates a much richer and more engrossing production process for making the film – at no point should it feel like the film equivalent of a diorama book report (I made a wicked shoebox Call of the Wild in 4th grade, in case that is a marketable skill anyone is looking for).

It’s weird that Dukes of Hazard 2049 is a school reading option, but this version of the General Lee is pretty sweet.

If it feels like trudging along through work and you’re not happy doing it, then this fan film process isn’t on track. Especially because…

…one of the things we have to accept making a fan film is that…

*clears throat obnoxiously*

4. YOU AREN’T GOING TO MAKE ANY MONEY. 

That is the first thing you need to accept almost immediately when starting on this project, but I’m listing it last, because if the other steps fall in line, it won’t matter.

A fan film is a passion project – a labor of love to create something that you understand is likely to have no tangible return. This means that it needs to be enjoyable, and that it needs to reward you in non-tangible ways. You can build a bit of an insurance policy to make sure that happens though!

  • make sure your team is a group of people you trust and who are totally committed to the project
  • absolutely push the boundaries of the skillsets of those involved who are willing to experiment – you don’t have a client or a producer (usually except for yourself), so if something takes longer because there’s a learning curve, or a first attempt totally bombs, there’s very little risk compared to a professional production (I encourage this when working on your own passion projects whether they’re original or fan, actually)
  • enjoy the process – engage in preproduction, sketch storyboards, put together a production bible – don’t just go through the motions either: really engage in what you’re doing like it’s the biggest and baddest thing you’ll ever get to work on
  • Stop when it isn’t fun – when you’re doing something that costs money, and doesn’t MAKE money: if it stops being enjoyable or fun, take a break; your deadlines are self-imposed and mostly fictional, and you have bills to pay. You may just not have it in you today – art that comes from a forced place is NEVER as good as when it comes from inspiration
  • Be disciplined – so, contradiction time: don’t blow it off; don’t force yourself to work when you’re beaten or exhausted or miserable, but discipline yourself to move past those times and work when you might not be in the mood; while I was doing the sound design for our Star Wars project, it never sounded like something I wanted to do at ten o’clock at night after working all day, but I’d fire it up, listen to what I had, and then BOOM, you’re in the zone and fist pumping the 987th lightsaber effect you got to sound “just right”;
  • Be proud – be proud of your accomplishments, especially in relative terms; a lot of people end up using a fan film as a first project, because it gets them off the couch and behind a camera (or in front of!) – it’s not going to be perfect, it’s not going to be as good as it “could” have been with more time, more money, or more experience, but BE PROUD OF IT! You made it! You made a thing! High fiving a lot helps in my experience, and literally saying out loud “Holy crap people, we made this thing!”

So all of that being said – I highly encourage you to do a fan film at some point in your career/life making films. It’s fun, it’s exciting, it’s a little bit freeing to not have to be responsible for EVERYTHING in the fictional world. It can be a challenge to try and shoot something in a preexisting style.

Filmmaking is about passion – and if you’re passionate about something, make a film about it – just be realistic with your expectations, and enjoy the process throughout. Happy fan-film-making, nerds!