Five Truths I've Learned as an Indie Producer

Credit: Lilia Le Dieu
Making movies requires determination and particular vision, and very often first-time filmmakers underestimate the role of a producer.

This post was written by Lilia Le Dieu.

Sometimes a director has to be a producer and wear both hats due to restrictive resources. Projects always benefit from a clear distinction between two roles, as creative and operational components should be divided for better focus.

As producers are involved from the beginning to the end of making a movie, there’s no surprise that they get to keep the Academy Award for Best Picture.

I'm Lilia Le Dieu, a freelance producer, and I'm sharing a few lessons learned throughout three years in the creative industry. I have worked on short films, features, commercials, and music videos in the U.S. and Belarus. My career started off with videography, film academy in LA, and eventually, I found my place in the field, working as a producer and director.

Like many filmmakers, I have tried various set positions, working as PA, first AD, and UPM. Since I also had a business background with a degree in marketing, producing made sense for me, as I was able to do scheduling, lead creative projects, control workflows, and turn unique concepts into tangible products. I'm also passionate about casting, and my eye for talent allowed me to attach incredible actors to past projects. My end goal is to set up a full-service production company.

My short films have collected over 50 official selections in international film festivals. My most successful project, the drama Breadcrumbs (2021) was selected by Beverly Hills Film Festival, won the Best Short Film category at Sweden Film Awards, and is currently negotiated to be expanded into a feature-length movie, potentially to be produced in LA.

Today, I'm sharing some knowledge that could be useful for other filmmakers, especially for those working on non-union shoots.

1. Overpreparation is key

Murphy’s Law works hard, but it works overtime when it comes to filmmaking. Anything that can go wrong on set, will go wrong. The rental house will screw up, transportation will get stuck on the 405, talent will accidentally drop a prop, you name it.

In my experience, being extra OCD about every little thing and having a backup plan for it pays off. Have insurance, literally and figuratively.

Obviously, you can’t completely avoid the issues, but you can reduce the number by over-preparing and making sure that each department head knows what to do in case something unpleasant happens. It is your responsibility, as a leader, to run things smoothly and keep the stress off the director's shoulders.

Credit: Lilia Le Dieu

2. Fire wrong people for the job, before it’s too late

This is a hard one, but inevitable, if you truly care about the result. If you’ve hired people, and they started to disappoint during pre-production, do not wait until the fire catches up. Talk to them, resolve conflict, or fire them and move on. When things go south and bitter, it might be very disappointing for everyone involved, but it’s always safer to part ways before your production starts. It is for mutual benefit, as they can also move on to other projects.

Set clear expectations in the beginning.

Every time I had to deal with someone and had a gut feeling that, unfortunately, they do not deliver, I cut ties and ended up finding someone a lot better. Things always work out.

How do I know if they’re the right person? Well, if they understand and genuinely care about the script as deeply as you do, it’s a good first sign.

Do not let anyone on your team affect your project negatively, just because you’ve already brought them on. You cannot please everyone. It’s impossible, especially if you want to be a good leader.

Behind the scenes of 'Paintless.' Credit: Almas Ismurzin

3. Budgeting is everything

The art of budgeting should be taught in schools because so many things go right when you prepare for the costs and allocate money efficiently. This skill is usually honed when you’ve dealt with projects of different sizes.

When completing our recent short film Paintless, I’ve learned that a lot of numbers are made up. Meaning that even though there is a minimum margin that everyone deserves for their job, every production pays differently, and people you hire can get very different payments for the same amount of work. If Adidas can afford to pay thousands of dollars for a minute of scoring for their ad, it does not mean that you have to pay the same to their composer.

My lesson was to stick to our budget, instead of trying to cater to the contractor's usual rate and negotiate to settle for a smaller payment in exchange for something else, or in the name of art. Networking helps a lot. Independent filmmaking isn’t usually the industry for making easy money. Creative and driven people work together to make something significant, and very often that means earning less and making sacrifices.

As a producer, I have to prioritize production’s interests and cut costs.

If you’re just starting out and don’t know the rates, ask around, compare, or offer the number and see how people respond to it. This is a good way to not overspend. In my practice, contractors that ask for unreasonably high payments usually are not as competent as you might think.

Credit: Lilia Le Dieu

4. Don’t underestimate post-production

This one sounds like pretty common sense, but I’ve seen so many filmmakers (including myself) prioritizing shooting a movie over actually finishing it.

Listen, it’s not hard to edit and color grade a film. What’s hard is to meet the deadlines/budget, keep the vision consistent without sacrificing quality, and make the most of the footage you have.

It’d be a bummer to shoot material that has great acting, visuals, audio quality, everything you aimed for, and then screw it up with mediocre sound editing or VFX. I would argue that in some cases post-production is even more important than production because it can completely transform your film. You can fix it in post. This argument is definitely valid for music videos.

So my advice would be this: get an A-team for your post needs early on, book them before you even start production, and be realistic about time.

And speaking of booking...

Behind the scenes of 'Breadcrumbs.' Credit: Almas Ismurzin

5. Reach out to EVERYONE

Filmmaking is a joint effort, impossible without the help of other talented collaborators. Once I find the right people, we stick together, as I make sure to attach them to every project.

So, where to find these amazing talents? Ask other filmmakers, look up credits on IMDb, post on socials. It’s like playing in a casino—sometimes you’re lucky and hit the jackpot with the third response. Other times it can take months and hundreds of interviews. I’ve had it both ways and my advice is to never stop looking.

Build an Excel sheet and track every contact you make. Some people might not be available for your dates, but you can reach out again for another shoot. Keep data organized and build an online Rolodex.

Don’t be afraid to contact someone who seems way out of your league. I’ve collaborated with Oscar- and Cannes-winning producers and sound editors because I was not afraid to send them our films and convince them to join. There’s a misconception that you need a big budget to attract the best talent, but my experience has proven this to be wrong.

Also, do the opposite. Email those people who might not have an impressive resume yet—you never know who is on their way to become the next Ramin Javadi. All of us have started somewhere.

If you have a good story, strongly believe in what you do, and do it well, the right people will support your passion, even if you’re operating on a small scale.

There’s a reason why a “produced by” credit goes right after the director’s—because you need to complete something cool out of nothing, and do it under the budget. Project management is key, and it comes with the territory of constantly running into walls and solving issues. But in the end, you’re rewarded with a great long-lasting result.

Because the euphoric feeling of accomplishment you get after successfully producing a film, despite the struggles of an indie filmmaker, is unlike anything.

What are the lessons you have learned as a freelance producer? Let us know in the comments.     

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6 Comments

Agree with all points, especially with the second one: nothing worse than to realize that you've hired someone terrible when yall already shooting. And about post, yes, you can fix it, but audio...better be done well on set :) hard to fix this one

July 16, 2021 at 1:40PM

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Matthew Ortiz
Producer, director, writer
88

What a great article, couldn't agree more about post-production.

July 16, 2021 at 1:52PM

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Solid article!
My favorite part: "In my practice, contractors that ask for unreasonably high payments usually are not as competent as you might think."

July 17, 2021 at 4:13AM

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Dylan Sunshine Saliba
Cinematographer
433

Great post! Would love to work with this kind of producer.

July 17, 2021 at 10:39AM

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Grant Vetters
Director
127

Nice post and definitely got me curious about the 'Breadcrumbs'.

July 17, 2021 at 11:58AM, Edited July 17, 12:01PM

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Anna
74

Such an important & relatable article. It is on point with almost everything covered related to film production, especially in the Indian film industry.

July 19, 2021 at 4:53AM

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