How can you spend your limited budget in the most intelligent way?
Writing a feature screenplay takes months of intensive, isolated, creative work. But once it’s ready to produce, you have to switch mindsets and become a pragmatic, business-minded director with a deep understanding of the time, money, and people it will take to make your film a reality.
There are a lot of articles about how you can make a movie for $1,000, and as the Duplass Brothers have shown us, you can. But that’s a certain kind of movie. If you intend to write and direct, you need to keep the following question in mind as early as scriptwriting: What is the scope of this film? (And if you want more on the very difficult process of funding an indie feature, see this Guide to The Basics of Film Finance.)
Even if you are working with a producer, we all know that in indie filmmaking directors have to wear a lot of hats. Here is a list of 12 crucial—and sometimes overlooked—items to prioritize when making a low-budget indie feature. Though not all of these tips are relevant to the cheapest, down-and-dirtiest kind of indie filmmaking, they're all important to seriously consider before your production.
Even sitting down for a few hours with an entertainment lawyer and a notebook could save you hundreds if not thousands in down-the-line legal snafus.
Development & Pre-Production
1. Find competent legal counsel
Business Structure. Chain of Title. Intellectual Property Rights. Legalese can make anyone’s head spin. But when you set out to make a feature film, you will be dealing with all of these concepts and more. This is where a good entertainment lawyer will come in handy. Your producer(s) may know something about the business side of filmmaking, but having dedicated legal counsel will save you both time and money in the long run.
Fortunately, there are some free services that can get you started, such as the Indie Film Clinic or Volunteer Lawyers for the Arts, a New York City foundation that offers pro bono legal services to emerging and low income artists, and websites like Filmmaker IQ, which has compiled a helpful list of forms and contracts for indie filmmaking. However, VLA has strict financial guidelines and cannot guarantee placement for all artists, and having free access to contracts does not necessarily mean you will know how to use them. So, if free services aren’t enough, but having an attorney on retainer for the duration of your production is out of the question, what do you do? Something in between these options is most likely the sweet spot for your film. Even sitting down for a few hours with an entertainment lawyer and a notebook could save you hundreds if not thousands in down-the-line legal snafus.
2. Invest in a good casting director (and cast!)
A good casting director may be one of, if not the, most important investments you will make in your film. Big name talent may not always sell tickets for tentpole studio features anymore, but a recognizable cast can make all the difference in the success of an indie. No one in this industry wants to take the first risk on a project. Having a star attached to your project will immediately add validity in a way that few other elements can. It will help you fundraise, get PR attention, get into festivals, and ultimately get distribution. But stars don’t take unsolicited scripts from first time directors (sorry, whatever you’ve heard, it’s a myth). This is where a stellar casting director comes in.
Casting directors have long-standing relationships with agents and agencies. These relationships are your golden ticket. If your CD believes in your project, they will go to great lengths to support it. The good news is, many casting directors work on a sliding scale and enjoy the challenge of casting an indie film. These industry angels will collaborate with you for a reduced fee and help negotiate the same with your stars. If you can afford it, take these fees. Bite the bullet and hire your perfect lead actor. Trust me, it’s worth it.
3. Use your prep days wisely
More than anything, this item is an investment of time. But for most of us hustling to survive in this industry, a day off isn’t free. Take the time to work with your team to break down your script, make storyboards and schedules, develop relationships with location owners, and consider every angle of your film’s production. (For many of these tasks, consider the industry standard applications by Movie Magic instead of simple spreadsheets.) Think about it this way: if you are going to invest a huge amount of money and time into shooting your film, why would you not take the same amount of care with planning? Seems pretty basic, right? Some people don’t see it that way. Be weary, because ‘wing it on set’ quickly becomes ‘fix it in post’ which inevitably turns into ‘should’ve done it right the first time.’ And in this industry, doing it right the first time can mean a savings of many thousands in post and reshoots.
Find people who have worked on a variety of projects and are excited by (rather than scared of) a small budget. And then pay them.
4. Hire a great crew
Investing in good people over good toys will benefit your film every time. Take the time to look at reels, portfolios and past work. Find people who have worked on a variety of projects and are excited by (rather than scared of) a small budget. And then pay them. A great cinematographer will know how to get the best image out of whatever camera and lighting packages you can afford. A great producer will know how to squeeze the most quality out of your budget, rather than just throwing money at problems.
This principle applies to every department head, and each one is important for a different reason. As an early or first time director, these people will support you in times when you feel unsure, and guide you towards creative solutions that you might not have otherwise seen. Not only is your team an essential investment for your film, it’s an investment for your career. The film industry is built on relationships and collaboration; fostering these relationships early is what keeps any film professional working throughout their lifetime.
5. Make sure no one is hungry
As an addendum to the previous item: once you’ve hired a great crew, keep them happy! A happy crew will be energized and motivated to make your movie happen. And everyone knows the best way to keep a crew happy is with good food. That means no pizza. It’s worth noting that healthy, substantial, and varied craft services not have to be expensive, if done creatively. Your (great) UPM should know all about that.
The amount of pixels in your camera doesn’t matter if what's inside your frame is sloppy and under-designed. Invest in aesthetic.
6. Attend to what’s in front of the camera: production design and locations
When prioritizing for production value, art should be your top investment. The amount of pixels in your camera doesn’t matter if what's inside your frame is sloppy and under-designed. Invest in aesthetic. Creative and considered art can elevate a film and express your voice in an essential way. It is a visual medium after all. The flip-side to this is investing in locations that already have the right look for your project. These locations may cost more to secure, but will cut down the time and money it takes to turn an unfit location into the setting of your dreams. Finding the right balance between these two areas can save money and give your film the unique look it deserves.
7. Don't overlook production sound
Sound is one of the most overlooked departments on set, but also one of the most important. In the theater, audiences are far more likely to forgive a shoddy image over bad sound. Viewers have learned, through film language, to understand a range of traditionally “bad” shots as artistic intent, but poorly done sound is jarring, breaks the illusion, and can often ruin a viewer’s entire screening experience. Because of this, it is imperative to rent quality sound equipment and to hire a good mixer and boom op. Do not ask your mixer to do both. Do not ignore your mixer when they ask for another take or to turn off the air conditioning. Honoring these requests may come at a slightly higher cost, but the production value gained is well worth the investment.
8. Create a diversity of shots
Another way to add enormous production value to your project is through diverse and considered shots. As with item #6, this does not necessarily come as the result of an industry-grade camera, but rather through creative solutions to establishing a visual aesthetic. In addition to working with your DP to find the most evocative ways to shoot your scenes, you can also invest in some items that will help you achieve shot diversity without breaking the bank. Renting a package of lenses that will give you the most framing options should be your first priority. After that, tools like high quality filters and a system for creating movement (such as a dolly or slider) will help give your film a professional finish.
Your colorists, sound designers and mixers can focus on creatively enhancing the vision that you’ve established on set.
9&10. Good finishing makes a difference
Any filmmaker getting their feature ready for post probably knows an editor who will cut it for a reasonable rate. Colorists, sound designers and mixers are harder to come by and will certainly cost more. Not budgeting for post is a common mistake among first time filmmakers. Don’t let this be you! If you’ve followed this article's advice so far, there won’t be too much ‘fixing’ to be done, and your finishers can focus on creatively enhancing the vision that you’ve established on set. This may be the last stop for your film, but there are still many, many storytelling decisions to be made. As NFS has said before, good color correction and sound design can dramatically change the world of your film.
Unless you are one of the lucky few who has solid industry connections, you will need someone in your corner to brag on your behalf.
Distribution & Beyond
Once your film is finished, it’s likely that you’ll want it to be seen. As with post-production, budgeting for “life after finishing” is often overlooked. Festival fees are expensive, especially the most well known ones. And authoring Blu-rays and DCPs, shipping, printing marketing materials, and traveling to screenings can all add up. Fortunately, if your film is good, you will start receiving invitations to festivals and suddenly start seeing fees waived, but don’t count on it. None of these fees change drastically year to year, so plan for this stage in pre-production by creating a rough list of festivals and attendant costs to estimate the budget.
12. A PR Person or Team
A dedicated PR person is key to your festival and distribution strategy. Unless you are one of the lucky few who has solid industry connections, you will need someone in your corner to brag on your behalf. This person will help create buzz around your film in the form of write-ups, interviews, and reviews—none of which come organically, but rather from established relationships with hundreds of journalists and publications. You can write a killer press release yourself, but without the contacts to read it, very little gets accomplished.
These are just a few of the many, many important elements involved in making a film. Did we miss something? Add your thoughts in the comments section below!