How To: Produce A Short Film with Fox Cub Films
Getting the latest round of our How To series off to a cracking start is Savannah James-Bayly, who founded her production company, Fox Cub Films, back in 2012. Since then, she's produced over twelve short films, many of which have been shown internationally at BAFTA and Oscar qualifying festivals, and have had support from Film London, BBC Films, BFI, BBC4, NOWNESS and Grain Media. The Tung first came across her work via Define Gender: Victoria Sin, a luxuriantly shot, experimental documentary written by Amrou Al-Kadhi (an absolute powerhouse of a human who we've interviewed before in their incarnation as drag queen Glamrou in drag supergroup Denim), and after going through her back catalogue of work we knew we had to get in touch to find out more about how exactly she does what she does.
Hi Savannah! So, what was the first short film you produced, and how did it go?
The first short I produced was called “Camilla in the Looking Glass”. It was a very charming drama from writer/director, Maurice Caldera. Maurice and I met whilst I was working at National Film School in a university summer break and he was graduating. I still love that film! But I can’t claim much responsibility for its success - I barely knew a thing about filmmaking. What I did have was that youthful naivety that makes you think you can do absolutely anything, combined with a lot of passion to help propel things forward. That blind faith is actually something I wish I still had more of! Lucky we had a brilliant team of NFTS graduates who knew exactly what they were doing. I learnt a lot about running a shoot from the exceedingly competent production manager we had on it, Lawrence Mason. It also taught me that the most important thing on any project is to surround yourself with talented and experienced people. I’ve learnt a huge amount since then, but that’s a philosophy that I still hold - always strive for a team who are more knowledgeable than you!
What do you know now that you wish you’d known then?
Oh wow! So much! I think that most of all I wish I’d had more understanding and insight into the general landscape of short films and how they relate to the rest of the industry. I’d never really watched short films or been to a festival shorts programme, and I didn’t have any sense of a career trajectory or how to convert a great piece of work into a professional success. Now, before I start any project I try to consider where I want it to take me. And that’s not simply ambition talking - it’s essential to know when you undertake a short what you want to do with it at the end, because the process is a long one, and you need to know your motive for making it in order to sustain momentum and get it to an audience. Success looks different for every short film, but take the time at the outset to plot out your goals for the project.
When starting a project, what are the key boxes you make sure to have ticked?
The first and foremost thing is a great idea and a writer and director whose talents you are passionate about. If you don’t have that, then you’re setting yourself up for failure. It’s easy to get caught up in simply wanting to make something, especially when you’re just starting out! But the most fundamental step of the entire process is making sure you have a brilliant script and a director who can do it justice.
Once I get nearer production I quite literally have a tick list of things that need to be done. Even after thirteen shorts I still get anxious I’ll forget something essential. I have nervous nightmares that it’s the first day of production and I forgot to book any camera kit or send out call sheets! So my sacred list is my method of ensuring that never happens. It includes everything from the big things like hiring heads of department, getting insurance, booking kit, signing finance agreements, to the nitty gritty like paying the congestion charge on any vehicles and finding out people’s dietary requirements.
What, for you, have been the most successful ways of funding projects?
I’ve funded my shorts through pretty much every method I can think of. It’s hard to say what the “most successful” way is. Certain methods might better suit certain projects, but the reality is that any finance for a short is a blessing!
Getting support from public funders - like BFI and their regional partners or broadcasters like BBC and Film4 - comes with a huge number of benefits. They have brilliant teams whose creative and practical input can keep raising the bar for your film; their key role within the UK industry means their support can help attract cast and crew; and having the backing of an organisation with a reputation for discovering great new talent certainly increases your chances of getting your film in front of important industry people. But, it’s an approach that requires a lot more work in terms of the development process, the paperwork involved, and an openness to keep listening to their notes. That can be an invaluable experience as a producer if your long-term goal is to move into feature films, but if you want to do something quickly, in a more guerrilla style, or without any supervision then it’s probably not the right route for you.
Private investment is great, although it’s rare to find. The investors almost certainly won’t get any financial return, but that means that usually their motive is a passion for filmmaking or for the story you’re trying to tell, which can be a very positive partnering. Decisions are usually much faster and there are often fewer strings attached.
For other projects crowdfunding had real advantages - if you have a specific audience who you want to see the film, then it’s a great way of building a following and engaging people early on, and you don’t relinquish any creative control.
Another route is to respond to a specific brief, whether it be a commission for a commercial company, or a competition like the ones run by Jameson’s or Pears Short Film Fund. Although this is more creatively constrictive as your film has to satisfy their needs, these sort of open calls for concepts can spark you to think up ideas you might never consider otherwise. Some of my favourite shorts I’ve made have been conceived in order to fit a specific brief.
When marketing on a shoestring what are the priorities?
Social media is free marketing! Talk about what you’re up to on your social networks and make sure you share credit for the film by shouting out to your crew and cast. If they feel valued they’re much more likely to also promote it on their channels.
Film is a visual medium, so the most important marketing tool are your images from the film. If you’re going to spend money anywhere on marketing, put it into getting beautiful stills. Not only does this visual glimpse into the work help excite people about the film itself, it also gives you varied content to allow you to keep sharing different posts about the project.
If you keep reposting the same things on social media, people will get bored pretty quickly. Press for short films is hard as so many get made, but I discovered a lot of filmmaking blogs and websites are often looking for contributors, so I’d write “how to” features, or articles about the making of the film to not only promote it to their readers, but also in order to help generate more content to post on social media about the film.
Value others. Filmmaking is a collaborative art. Every single person on your team, from the director to the runners, is important and deserves respect for the skills and energy they’re putting in.
Be afraid to ask for help. Producing is hard. It’s a lot of work, and requires a lot of skillsets. You cannot do everything. Know where your talents lie and where you could do with support.