August 10, 2016

13 Things New Filmmakers Should Consider But Rarely Do

Bryan W. Simon
Taking these steps will make your production go more smoothly and get you that much closer to pro status.

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. 

Bryan W. Simon and Cinematographer Denise Brassard
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.

Bryan W. Simon and Cinematographer Denise Brassard
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.

I'm No Dummy
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.

Along for the Ride
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.  

Your Comment

13 Comments

I struggle with #7 and a lot, and it tends to bleed into my daily life as well. It's just good life advice. And thanks for pointing out #2, it needs to be said. Great list!

August 10, 2016 at 1:48PM, Edited August 10, 1:48PM

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Seth Burke
Director/Editor
102

Insurance? How does a "new" filmmaker have money to purchase insurance? If you can get money to make project from anybody other than mommy, daddy, or kickstarter, you are not a new filmmaker. What percentage of people working in the film industry have health insurance? What was your budget for "Along For the Ride"? Where did it come from? How much went to insurance? How much did the indie film make?

August 10, 2016 at 3:20PM

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Jake
307

I suspect the author is talking about DICE or at least liability coverage - not general health insurance. To get coverage, I recommend reaching out to Larry Walsh at http://www.entertainmentinsurance.com/

August 10, 2016 at 3:25PM, Edited August 10, 3:29PM

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Daniel Reed
Hat Collector
801

It's funny - as a Canadian when I see "insurance" I immediately assume they mean liability and theft insurance for on-set. There are a lot of great insurance brokers and companies who specialize in film project insurance and given the consequences of not having it, it's actually quite reasonable, cost wise.

August 10, 2016 at 3:38PM, Edited August 10, 3:38PM

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Buddy, you can't really do anything without it. Rentals, locations, they all require insurance.

August 10, 2016 at 8:49PM

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Steve Yager
Filmmaker
388

That is fine, but you are not a new filmmaker if you can budget for the insurance to have a must have location. Rental insurance for equipment is much cheaper than covering your crew and cast for accidents. I have never seen a kickstarter ask for money for insurance. How much of No Film's School's kickstarter money for the basketball movie went to insuring the cast and crew?

August 11, 2016 at 10:47AM

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Jake
307

Daniel Reed's correct. I was speaking of Workman's Comp. and Liability specifically. They start at around a thousand dollars or so. My crews have ranged from 25 to 40 and even on a small three day shoot, I had a full insurance package. My statement was strong because I was hoping filmmakers understand that accidents do and will happen; to vehicles, equipment, and even crew. Insurance will take cover of all of that and not leave someone swinging in the breeze. It's up to you.

August 11, 2016 at 7:05PM

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Bryan W. Simon
Director
79

Great advice, thanks for the write-up.

#10, on editing: for my current project in pre-viz which I will have final cut, I'm making an animatic based on script read through recordings and storyboards to accomplish this and to provide pre-adjustments for actors and help the entire crew be on the same page.

#4, on crew: rent/buy/bring chairs! While I can try to keep my team as active as possible, there will be some downtime, and having a place for people to sit saves a lot of energy - just make sure your crew doesn't abuse it!

August 10, 2016 at 3:23PM, Edited August 10, 3:30PM

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Daniel Reed
Hat Collector
801

Insurance is the only thing that worries me out of this list. Its a must have, operating without it is generally a bad idea. However you cant make a $500 test project or short and have insurance. I have never seen a quote low enough to make that amount of money worth while, which good work can be done at that money level for web and small screen.

Really though Im surprised "Fractured Atlas" wasnt mentioned in the point about insurance. When I was a member they had some good links to companies who gave me some damn low quotes.

I wouldnt say that someone shouldnt do their craft at all if they dont understand or use insurance. Itd be extremely advisable and would incur personal liability if a filmmaker doesnt but to say stop shooting solo videos or trying out characters with light rolling gear because you cant insure the one or two people who help you seems alittle crazy.

August 11, 2016 at 11:36AM

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Chris Hackett
Director, Director of Photography, Writer
910

I think I saw some guy saying Allstate has some plans for like $60 a month.

Probably not the best but that is considerably better than dropping another $500 on a no budget short.

August 15, 2016 at 5:12AM

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Kyle Dockum
Videographer and Editor
633

Fantastic inspiring post. Thanks

August 12, 2016 at 10:59AM

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Dean Butler
Writer Director Shooter Editor
662

Great article.
This is the stuff that takes film making from a hobby to a profession -- professionalism. Sure, anyone can shoot video (my phone does that!), but to be a PROFESSIONAL comes with a load of responsibilities. And these are just a few (and good ones at that!).

August 23, 2016 at 1:57PM

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Erik Stenbakken
Videographer & Photographer
231

"There is simply not a guaranteed financial incentive for making art."

GOLD

September 27, 2016 at 12:10AM

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Nima Tajbakhsh
Writer/Director
236

Great article, loved almost every part of it!

"Think small and your crew will do big things."

September 27, 2016 at 3:08AM

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Tommy Plesky
Director / D.P / Editor
1952