The true story of acquiring the funds for the full dance/drama/musical feature film Back To 1.
by Doug Penikas
The reason I decided to share the journey to 1 million for Back To 1 is to inform filmmakers of the potential challenges they may face making their own independent films. So many factors come into play, and it is easy to get lost in the different promises that are presented to you by people willing to help for a price. I hope my experience is educational and eye-opening to others.
If you told me when I was a kid that one day I would want to write, direct, and eventually produce a dance movie with original music, I’d probably run away from you in a zig-zag formation. I love movies, and as a kid, the action hero movies were all I wanted to be part of, simply because the characters lives inside the big or small screen looked way more thrilling than going to school everyday and sitting in the same seat.
Cut to over twenty-five years later, having spent my teens training as a dancer and my adult life as a dancer/actor in the entertainment industry, I can now say…Yes! I’d love to make a new dance movie with original music. Little did I know the challenges that lay ahead, and I hope my journey getting Back To 1 funded will inspire and enlighten other filmmakers currently on their own journeys.
So here we go…
Why I became passionate about this kind of movie
From early 2007 until now, 2021, I’ve been working as a professional dancer/actor in feature films and television shows. Every single time I was lucky enough to land a dance gig, it was pure bliss. I got to work with some of the best talent in the business, from all departments, and in those years I discovered something — joy.
The projects I had been part of had brought happiness to its viewers and helped them escape their daily lives for a few hours. It was truly a remarkable feeling to be part of something that was special to a total stranger. I honestly recommend that experience to anyone.
The best part, I got to dance, or act, with friends and co-workers in different random scenarios on shows. I enjoyed it so much that I knew deep down there must be a way to create this kind of joy again and again. After all, people do this for a living.
So, I decided for my second feature film I would write and direct a new movie that would allow me to hire professional dancers, create original songs, and tell a new story that takes viewers behind the curtain of the dance and music world. That was the general birth of the idea of what I wanted to do next as a filmmaker.
I also wanted it to be as professional as possible. So when the time came to hire actors, dancers, and crew members, even though it was another gig to them, another day at the office, so to speak, I knew I had to go through the proper channels to get to production.
Plus, it shouldn’t be too difficult. I already knew a couple of producers that worked with big studios, directors, union dancers and union crew, some are close friends and other co-workers. I knew how to write solid scripts, and I’ve already directed a feature. This will be great! The “necessary” qualifications and what I would be able to bring to the table would be hugely beneficial and a pennies toss compared to what the main studios spend on feature films. Win-win.
Early story efforts
The story of actually writing Back To 1 began in the year 2012, but was sparked by an idea that had been lurking in the back of my mind since 2008. I was in the final stages of post on my first feature, Blood Type: Unknown. I don’t remember who the exact person was that asked me what my next project would be, but I knew my best choice was for it to be some sort of dance movie.
Most likely a movie musical or movie with original singing and dancing in it. For most of my career I knew mainly dancers and choreographers in the industry. Those were my immediate contacts and I wanted to work with as many of them again as possible. Go to work, get to dance, Why not? It’d be fun.
“What’s the idea about?” I was asked, and I explained that I had been wanting to make a short film that involved a ridiculously talent piano player. Who this character is or was, I didn’t know yet, but this short film idea had been lurking in the back of my head since 2008. I was working on a Disney movie and was living in a hotel for a few months. I loved it.
Everyday after work, I would walk past an empty piano in the hallway of the hotel on the way to my room. Each time I did, I wished I had paid more attention to my piano lessons as a kid, so I could just sit at the piano and play, but alas, I didn’t have the patience then and probably still don’t to this day. My imagination crafted the character of the piano player in my head, and I mentally shelved it for some story down the road.
I realized, years later, what was really forming in my head was a scene. Not a short film. After I completed my first feature in 2011, and made the decision that the next movie was going to take place in the dance world, the scene from 2008 ran to the front of my mind. I asked myself, “What movie is this scene from?” and then my mind raced, and filled every possible scene into this story. Who does this piano player interact with? If he’s on the piano…who’s dancing? That’s where the main character of the ballerina came into view.
A ballerina was ideal as that is arguably the foundation of all dance, and it’s really difficult. So, I had my two main characters, a ballerina, and a piano player…a dancer and a composer. I thought that had kind of an old Hollywood classic musical romance sound of a title to it. I ran with that as the title, for the early drafts of the script. The Dancer and The Composer. I also got a chuckle when I was asked by others, “What’s The Dancer and The Composer about?” It’s about a dancer and a composer.
Writing The Rough Draft
I had placed in the top ten in a screenwriters competition since my first feature film was made with an action/adventure script. I learned an extraordinary amount of screenwriting technique that I personally felt had elevated my writing ability. With this newfound knowledge of screenwriting, I set out to write the rough draft of the Dancer & Composer story.
To my surprise, this story was much harder to write than anticipated. For some reason the action adventure genre had been much easier to write. A dance drama musical was an entirely different mold. I did everything I could to see the story clearly. I wrote out storyboards, beat sheets. All of it. I divided the story into three basic acts, each with a beginning, middle and an end.
When I finally had the story moments in the order I wanted and all the characters, I wrote the rough draft in about a week and completed the 185 page rough draft June, 17th, 2013. A week or so later, I polished the script, fixed the typos with help from family and friends, and got it to be my official first draft.
I did a table read with nine acting friends from the acting studio I attended to hear how the script sounded. I had other eyes and ears on the story and took everyone’s feedback to heart, keeping the best note changes and discarding the ones that didn’t apply to the story. The majority of the feedback was good, but deep down I knew it was still missing the power that had inspired me to write it in the first place. Why? I didn’t know.
With the updated draft and all the good notes incorporated, it was ready to be shopped around and begin the funding process. This meant I would have to package the film. Have the script, a pitch deck, a budget and a shooting schedule. I figured that should be enough to shop around to gain interest.
I broke down the script into prep and shooting days. Scene by scene, character by character, prop by prop, and it came to a 35 day shoot at full union rates, not counting prep days. That equalled…very expensive. Definitely a big studio film budget. I designed the pitch deck, and realized the package needed more. It is a dance movie musical. What are the songs going to sound like?
I wasn’t a songwriter, and after a few truly embarrassing attempts at it, I hired composer Bryan Arata, whom I worked with on my first feature, to write music for three original songs, and decided once the music was written I would hire a lyricist.
I originally hired Bryan Arata to write three demo songs that would show a range of different styles that would end up in the movie. A big band production number, a rock number, and a power ballad. I would describe the scenes with the characters and he would write about thirty-seconds of a song and present that to me to see if he was on the right track.
I ended up booking a movie that shot in China for about two months. At the same time I placed in the top ten for another screenwriting competition to develop a television series. So with the time difference, I would receive new drafts of potential songs, be writing the TV series pilot and show bible, and then go off to dance rehearsals for the movie I was working on. This went on for weeks.
When I returned home to the states, I hired my writing mentor to review The Dancer & The Composer for pointers and he ripped me a new one. He even said to me, “It was like I’m working with two different writers.” He loved the TV series I had written, and basically told me to throw my current draft of The Dancer & The Composer out.
I incorporated his notes, and got the script down to about 94 pages over ten weeks. Again, for some reason, this story that had fueled my excitement to write it wasn’t connecting with people outside the dance world. This was something I had to crack, and I was up for the challenge.
While I rewrote the story, I began the search for a lyricist. A few candidates were presented but it was a dance buddy that recommended one of his broadway friends to be the lyricist. I listened to some of his stuff, chatted with him a bit, and decided to hire him to write the lyrics of the three songs that Bryan Arata had composed.
We all worked remotely, and the songs were good. To finalize the songs, I flew the lyricist from New York to California to add the finishing touches on the demos with Bryan Arata. I found the experience extremely educational and fun. Once the early demos were ready, the lyricist asked two of his broadway friends to record as vocalists and they were amazing!
Now I had my pitch package. I had the script, pitch deck, budget, and three original demo songs with broadway stars singing the lyrics. I was overjoyed.
The next step was to actually begin pitching the package and I didn’t know where to start. So I took the package to my packaging and sales representative of the first movie I did, and ultimately was told the following, The budget is too high, I can’t pitch this to anyone.
Too high? I didn’t understand. The rates were all union. The amount of prep and shoot days were realistic, and the budget was below average for a studio level movie musical.
Then the real challenges began to present themselves…
Back To 1 The Journey To 1 Million continues with THE MISSING PIECE OF THE PITCH PACKAGE.
For more about Back To 1 be sure to check out backto1film.com