If you’re reading this, I’m willing to bet you love martial arts movies. In the 80s and 90s, there were a ton of blockbuster films to hit the big screen. Now we have movies like the John Wick franchise and the IP Man saga to name a couple. However, overall, it seems fewer big-budget martial arts films are making it into theatres. Not to fret though, there are still a lot of flicks being made. They’re just made with lower budgets and find their footing on various streaming platforms.
Chances are you may have come across any number of these movies on platforms such as Amazon, Netflix or free services such as Tubi or Pluto. We even have a place for you to watch movies here at Black Belt Magazine (Black Belt +)! Because so many new platforms need content, more and more people are working to make their own movies. Unfortunately, the pay for these filmmakers and all involved is typically much lower than in the “old days,” but the positive is that many more people have a shot than ever would have in days gone by.
One of the main reasons people can shoot their own movies is that the cost to make a movie can be pennies on the dollar compared to big-budget films of the 80s. It used to be that “films” were actually shot on film. And you may not be aware of this, but the cost of the film itself was enough to keep many people from ever even considering making a movie. Now, in comparison, most movie shoots are recorded on reusable memory cards that cost very little.
Another limiting factor was obtaining a camera. Cameras used to be hugely expensive monstrosities. Sure, there are rental houses, but the cost was still high, and the technical know-how was through the roof. Now, filmmakers shoot movies on either DSLR or Mirrorless cameras that can be purchased for less than $900. There are even filmmakers out there that shoot movies on their Androids and iPhones. As you can see, the cost of the film and cameras have all but been eliminated as an excuse for not making a movie.
For those who already knew or suspected this, have you ever thought of building a team and shooting your own marital arts action movie? If so, I’m talking directly to you. If not, I hope you’ll stick around to get a glimpse behind the curtain and see how some films from one of your favorite genres come to life.
Before going forward, please understand this is meant to share some broad strokes and give a high-altitude aerial view of the movie-making process. This is not an all-inclusive instruction manual, and I do not claim for this to be theway. Though I have been involved in the entertainment industry in one facet or another since 2000, I know I still have a lot to learn. Today, I simply intend to impart some lessons I have learned along the way as an actor, writer, and ultimately a filmmaker. I’ll be sharing several resources that have helped me on my way in hopes they will assist those who dream of shooting a movie.
I would be remiss if I didn’t start by mentioning Dov S. S. Simens 2-day Film School. This course can be completed in person or at home via DVD or streaming. You can check it out here: TWO-DAY FILM SCHOOL
As mentioned before, I started acting professionally in the year 2000. I was in the theatre and worked my way into film in Los Angeles. I’ve played supporting and leading roles on stage and in feature films, but I recently decided to start making my own movies. That’s when I began a search for an educational program that could help expedite the learning curve and help me get to making content faster. That search led me to find the Two-Day Film School. Look, I don’t get a dime from referring people to it or any of the resources I’ll be mentioning.
My aim is to help people like you fulfill your dream of making a movie. If you’ve never made a movie and are serious about giving it a go, I can’t recommend that product highly enough. Since going through it, I have written an award-winning feature screenplay entitled “Savage Pawn,” as well as an award-winning short film that I additionally produced, directed, and edited called “Unus Polulus.” None of that would have happened had it not been for going through that program. All of this was done during the early phase of the pandemic and completed with very little money. My point in mentioning this is simply if you want to do it, it is possible.
Now, let’s take an overview of the process and see if this is a race you want to run…If not, you’re about to go on a behind-the-scenes tour of how a movie gets made. First, you need an idea. If you intend to make a movie, you need to have a passion for telling a story. I imagine that you have an idea floating around in your head. What is that story you want to tell? You may already have character ideas and settings or events in mind. But first, you should boil down what your idea/movie is about into 1-2 sentences. The result is what is known as a logline. The logline should express who is facing what challenge, how they got there, and who or what is standing in their way.
Once you’ve established this, you will want to move on to writing your screenplay. Before that step, however, you should write a treatment. The treatment is anywhere from 5-10 pages. It includes the title that you’ve come up with. It also includes your previously developed logline.
Then you tell the overarching story. This is written as you would expect it to read as a short story. Characters are described, along with major challenges, and overcoming obstacles are all included in the treatment.
After the treatment is completed, now it’s time to write the screenplay. One of the most popular resources for formulating your screenplay is a book called “Save the Cat.” This is a great read and guide for someone writing their first script. I won’t pretend to tell you how to write a script. Rather, I strongly recommend you read “Save the Cat” and apply what you learn.
When it comes time to start pecking away at the keyboard and quite literally write your script, you need to know that there is a specific format and software for writing screenplays. The industry standard is Final Draft. You can obtain it for around $200. Be aware, though, that there are other options you can use. I personally use a paid version of Writer Duet. Before signing up for their software, I used a free screenplay writing online program called Celtx, which worked very well.
You can choose whatever software fits your budget. Just know ahead of time that a program like Final Draft is advantageous for some production programs you may wish to use later when scheduling your shoot, etc. However, programs such as Writer Duet can typically be exported to Final Draft format should you want to transition later.
Once your script is in place, it’s time to start filling the roles. This is a process called Casting. There are companies that will do this audition process for you. They bring in actors to try out for the roles and present who they feel is best for your project to you. Or you can take control from the beginning. It really depends upon the production level and your budget if you will use a casting company or not. I will say an advantage to using casting services is that they often already know a ton of great people who can help make your movie more successful, but it is an added cost. You’ll have to decide for yourself whether or not to use an outside professional.
Next, you’ll have to choose your locations. This is “where” you’re going to be shooting the scenes. I should also mention that, when crafting a script, people will often write with the understanding of the locations available to them, shaping the script. This is more vital when budgets are small and certain locations can be used for little or no money. I mention this to share that the exact order of these steps can vary depending on the particular situation. Like the availability of locations, you may already have people in mind for playing roles, which can shape how you write the characters.
At this point, you have your script, actors, and locations. Before shooting the movie, it’s best to have some rehearsalperiods for the fight scenes you intend to shoot and, if you can, for the basic dialogue scenes. This isn’t always possible, but it saves a ton of time on set. That’s important because when you’re on set, even with a small crew, you still easily have a dozen people waiting around if there is a snafu in a fight scene that needs to be worked out, or an actor is not delivering as they should.
Your rehearsals may or may not be at the actual shoot location. It is ideal if they are, but budget and time constraints often make this impossible. In either case, rehearse what you can before shoot days, especially fight scenes. This also allows the DP (Director of photography…person running the camera) to see what will happen in the scene and start thinking of how to capture the action best.
Another thing you will want to organize before you’re ready to roll is called a shot list. This is basically a list of everything the director needs to catch on camera and audio to patch together later in the process to complete the movie. You do this by going through the script scene by scene and envisioning how you want it to look as the finished product on the big screen. As you imagine the finished movie, you write down what shots and audio clips you need to gather for each scene. After you have the list, you compile them by cross-referencing location availability with actor availability and figure out which shots to shoot on which days and where. (This is one of those scheduling issues that the previously mentioned production software can be beneficial in using.) This necessity for logistics in scheduling forces the vast majority of movies to be shot out of sequence. And because they are shot out of chronological order, it makes maintaining continuity more challenging and means avoiding injuries is even more important in every production.
While we’re on the subject of injuries, it is strongly advised to have production insurance in case of any mishaps. Things can happen, no matter how careful you are, so you should have a policy in place. Now, we will move on and assume you’ve completed shooting your entire movie. It’s “in the can,” as they say. Make sure to back up all your video and audio files, and then you’re ready to edit. Of course, if your budget permits, you can hire out to make this happen. If not, editing today is much easier than in the old days. Back then, they literally “cut” film and taped together the pieces to make a flowing movie. Now it’s usually done on a computer and is extremely easy compared to back then.
The industry standard for editing is Final Cut or Premiere Pro. That said, there are many other options that can be had for less than $100 or even nothing. I edited my short film with eight-year-old Sony Vegas Studio software that was about $50 on a nine-year-old $740 laptop. Was it the best option? Of course not, but it was my only option. Did it get the job done? Yes. (And mind you, this was all done during lockdown in 2020). My point is that you probably have a cellphone with camera, a laptop and $50 for some software. Can you see how it really is possible if you’re driven and creative?
Once you finalize the edit it’s time to hit festivals, get distribution, and release your movie. (It is wise to have distribution plans in mind before, during, and after shooting your film if you plan to make money with your project.) Festivals have many benefits, including being a way to see your movie on the big screen. They are also an excellent way to incentivize actors and get others to help with your project if you cannot pay much up front. If people know they’ll see the fruits of their labor on the silver screen, they’re more likely to step up and lend a hand, building their body of work in the process. A great place to check out potential festivals is https://filmfreeway.com/festivals. You’ll find festivals worldwide and some that may even cater to the niche of your project. That said, festivals are optional. The biggest thing I’ve discovered from festivals is that they can be great networking opportunities for those done in person.
When you complete your festival run, if you’re doing one, it’s time to get your movie distributed. That will likely be the biggest challenge. One place that is a common go-to for that purpose is at the American Film Market or AFM for short. AFM is an event where filmmakers try and sell their movies and get distribution, along with various networking events. Admittedly, I can’t tell you exactly how to make that happen, as that’s the step I have yet to personally master. I will, however, say that should you be unable to get a distributor and get your film on a platform such as Netflix, Tubi, or similar, you can always release it yourself on a platform like YouTube. Sure, it doesn’t have the clout or bragging rights like the others, but your work and your team’s work are out there. You will have made a movie for the world to see. You’ve created art for all to enjoy. Now, to make a living at it, you’ll need to master the final step of distribution.
There you have it. Now you know the basics of how to make your own martial arts action movie. It’s a grueling and exciting process. Many people think about it, but few actually do it. Are you one of the few?
Salute, Ian Lauer