An article in the L.A. Times described how the star of an independent movie entitled “Magic Man” was disheartened to see that most buyers walked out of the screening in Cannes before the first 10 minutes were up. By the end of the movie, there were hardly any buyers left in the room.
I feel bad for the producers of that movie and hope that they succeed in selling it and finding their audience. For the rest of us, there is a priceless lesson to be learned from this story: the first 10 minutes of your independent film had better be absolutely off the meter. If that isn’t the case, most viewers — especially jaded film buyers — will not make it past the first 10 minutes. The three-act screenplay model still holds and is an intrinsic property of stories rather than an option that you can choose to ignore, but it is almost like independent films need to follow an embellished version of the model, namely, “setup, confrontation, resolution, with something absolutely incredible in the first 10 minutes.”
You see, this is partly why you spend good money on film stars, when you can afford it: it buys you time. If you have the incredibly charismatic Scarlett Johansson on the screen, or someone like Russell Crowe, their onscreen presence in itself offers plenty of value to the viewers, so you have a little more time to set up your story. It’s a pleasure to see them on the screen, so establishing a compelling story, although still essential, is not quite as urgent. Instead of 10, you have 20 minutes, maybe even 30 if you’re lucky (don’t count on it).
But if you don’t have stars, you had better show the audience something within the first 10 minutes that will compel them to stay there instead of quietly getting up and moving on to the next screening.