New and emerging filmmakers’ first thoughts—understandably—tend to center around technical stuff, like which camera to shoot with or editing software to use, or the end-game, like what are the coolest festivals to apply to. These are important, but there’s so much more that has to happen before you shoot a single frame. Here’s my shortlist of considerations that will help take you from novice to seasoned filmmaker (counting down from 13 to 1):
13. Be able to finish it
Don’t start filming if you lack the resources (time, money, personnel) to finish it completely. Budget properly and don't start if you don't have all the money. Nothing generates harder feelings from your cast, crew, or financiers than an unfinished film. Sounds like something your grandfather might say, but it’s true. If you’re hoping for a distributor or an angel financier to help you finish your film, you might wait forever. If you don’t have everything you need to get the job done, you run the risk of having good people not sign on to your project at all, or bail after you’ve started.
Be ready to fill gaps in a moment’s notice by discussing a back-up plan with your keys during pre-production.
12. Have a backup plan
If you have an experienced and professional crew, which you will, and they are working for very little, which they are, one or two of them may leave for a better paying job. Be ready to fill those gaps in a moment’s notice by discussing a back-up plan with your keys during pre-production. Your keys will now know which crew members are capable of moving up or who to call to fill in a gap quickly if someone has to drop out of the shoot.
Director Bryan W. Simon and Cinematographer Denise Brassard on the set of his indie feature 'Along for the Ride.'
11. Block or die
Whether it’s a no budget, low budget or larger budget shoot, blocking and shot lists are essential for good communication between you and your department heads. They also ensure a more efficient shoot, and more importantly, stave off potential time-related disasters that could derail or kill your film. They are, in my opinion, the most important things you can prepare to make sure you have a successful shoot. The cast, crew and financiers will know who’s in charge by how you prepare. Time burns money and there’s never enough time on a lower budget film. The best way to get more time is to pre-block for action (actors movement) and pre-block for camera (where the camera stands and moves). Pre-blocking and floor plans are two of the simplest but most misunderstood and disregarded parts of the preproduction process. Get sample shot lists here.
A good editor will have ideas of what could be missing after looking at your shot list and diagrams.
10. Start editing before you shoot
Bring your editor in before you shoot one frame. The worst time to bring your editor in is after you’ve shot your film. By then, all the material you and your editor have to work with has been shot, and in most cases you won’t be able to go back to get any more. A good editor will have ideas of what could be missing after looking at your shot list and diagrams. They will also remind you of some insert or establishing shots that you can pick up on the fly and use later. Editors are attuned to what can fill in the gaps. I’ve utilized my editor’s skills in the preproduction phase of every one of my films and it has always been worth it. The type of editor you’ll want to work with will gladly donate their time to preproduction editorial so that missteps can be avoided once you start cutting your picture.
Randall Batinkoff as Terry in 'Along for the Ride.'
9. Appreciate your crew—and show it
One of the greatest signs of respect you can show your hardworking crew is to feed them well. Cold pizza or McDonald’s doesn’t generate much in the way of goodwill. Do whatever you can to make sure they have hot, high quality food for all meals, decent craft services, and that they get fed on time. Whether it is a no budget or low budget film, your crew will break their backs for you if you show this little sign of appreciation.
And give them the bump. Many of your crew will be qualified for more than what they’ve signed on to do, but they rarely get the opportunity to demonstrate these other skills and abilities. Some crew are willing to move up to a more prestigious credit without taking the associated pay raise, so that they can get that title under their belt.
And don’t forget to thank the crew every chance you get. There is no film without them. My father always said, “do business with someone like you’re going to do business with them again.” Treating your as if you want them to work with you again will go a long way to creating an on-set environment that everyone wants to be part of.
Listening isn’t a sign of weakness; it’s a sign of strength that will likely make your film better.
8. Be completely open to suggestions and ideas
Sounds simple, but it isn’t. This applies to before, during, and after principal photography is completed, right up through to the very end. Early input aids the entire process. Ultimately, it’s your call on any suggestion, and if it’s a great idea, you’ll get all the credit anyway. Really. Listen and consider what your keys and producers have to say. Listening isn’t a sign of weakness; it’s a sign of strength that will likely make your film better. If you’re open to suggestions, people will feel comfortable making them and some great things can happen. Which leads us to…
7. Don’t take any shit from anyone on the set
You will work with people that know a lot more about what they do, and perhaps, about what you’re doing. That’s good. But if you’re new to directing and you don’t take charge right away, your crew will test you. The most straightforward way to show that you’re in charge, and that you’re worth following into this battle of filmmaking, is to be prepared and decisive.
On one hand, you do want to listen to and consider input, as I said above. On the other hand, if someone says something like, “I’m going to do this and you’ll thank me later,” even after they’ve been given other instructions, it’s time to be a director. Be a mountain, be a lion, and lead. If they don’t want to do what you’ve asked, let them know that it’s your way or they are gone. You’ll never have a problem again when the crew sees how you’ve handled the situation. But remember, being strong and decisive doesn’t include being mean.
Even if cousin Lenny, the real estate attorney, is willing to write your contracts and help you out, hire an actual entertainment attorney to check cousin Lenny’s work.
6. Lawyer up
Why is it that some filmmakers think legal advice is too expensive? There is a misconception that it is not as important as other line items in your budget. Not having proper legal council can easily cost you much more in the end. Lawyer fees could actually be the most important investment you’ll make. Even if cousin Lenny, the real estate attorney, is willing to write your contracts and help you out, hire an actual entertainment attorney to check cousin Lenny’s work. You’ll need to have a proper “rights bible” and clearances, and this starts with the proper lawyer. Missing one little thing can mess up your distribution deal and no amount of money spent later can fix that.
Jay Johnson and Bob from Bryan W. Simon's comedic documentary 'I'm No Dummy'5. Like a good neighbor…
Every filmmaker’s responsibility is to protect their crew and their locations to the best of their abilities. One of the first things I hear from no budget or low budget filmmakers is that they can’t afford insurance. If you can’t afford insurance, you have no business making films. Period. Even if you don’t have a lot of money to shoot with, it is unconscionable not to cover the health of people who believe in you and your vision, and are working for free or next to nothing. Just because you are making “art” doesn’t give you the right to disregard the wellbeing of those that are helping you. Go into some other line of work if that’s how you feel. If one of your crew slips and breaks an ankle on the set, they may not work again for months. It’s your responsibility to take care of them. It’s that simple, I share this rule because it’s the first thing filmmakers tend to skip to cut corners.
Think small and your crew will do big things.
4. Bigger isn’t always better
Think small when it comes to crew. There are a lot of obvious economic reasons for minimizing the size of your crew. Lower payroll, less food, less housing if you’re on location out of town, etc. But there are two more good reasons why a small crew can take you farther and faster. First, if everyone is in constant motion, it creates a lively and exciting atmosphere. No boredom allowed. Conversely, when someone is sitting around a lot, they don’t feel as invested in the common goal with everyone moving forward as a team. Secondly, everyone is now equally as important because they can’t slack off and let someone else do their work. Think small and your crew will do big things.
Vance (Dylan Haggerty) speaks with his dead father Jake (J.E. Freeman) 'Along for the Ride.'
3. A “not now” is not a maybe; it’s a no
One of the best lessons I ever learned was when I pitched my first feature project Along for the Ride. I was with a seasoned producer and we had a meeting with a production company that we wanted to partner with. In the meeting, they were enthusiastic, engaged, and very complimentary. At the end of the meeting they told us that they didn’t have room on their slate at this time but looked forward to revisiting the project in six months. I was excited. Six months, I can do that standing on my head. As we walked to our car, the veteran producer could see my enthusiasm and said, “A no is still a no.” I asked what that meant and he explained very casually, if someone likes your project they would lock you up. If they don’t, they will say something polite, but never say no. Very rarely in Hollywood does anyone say “no.” They don’t want to piss you off, so you get a polite brush off instead.
If you define success on your film as having made the very best film you can make—and if nothing more happens—you are successful.
2. There is no clear path...
… to making films. There are great filmmakers that have never gone to film school; there are great filmmakers that made great films with no money. You will be told to attach stars, or not to attach stars. You will be told to rewrite your script this way or that. You will be told to shoot a short film version of your feature, or not to shoot a short film version. Enter contests, apply for grants, submit to festivals, and on and on. Everybody thinks there is some formula, secret or path to making films. There isn’t. And the sooner you realize that, the sooner you’ll make your movies. Do what you think is best and may the film gods shine upon you.
1. Define success.
If I was allowed to share only a single piece of advice it would be, “define success.” If you define success on your film as having made the very best film you can make—and if nothing more happens—you are successful. If you define success as making a film, getting into Sundance, having the film picked up by Lionsgate or Sony, receiving a wide release, and making a huge amount of money, odds are you are going to be very disappointed. Potentially so disappointed you'll leave the business. There is simply not a guaranteed financial incentive for making art. If you can live with that, and continue making art, you are a huge success in my book.
There are countless other things new and emerging filmmakers have to consider, but if you start with these you’ll be on the right track to becoming a successful artist.
Bryan W. Simon is an award-winning and critically-acclaimed director, writer and educator. Bryan directed the big screen adaptation of the Tony® Award winning Broadway play, 'Jay Johnson: The Two and Only!' and the groundbreaking comedy documentary 'I’m No Dummy.' In addition, Bryan directed the celebrated indie feature 'Along For The Ride' and is the Co-Producer of the Seminar Series presented by The American Cinematheque in Hollywood.