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How To Produce Your First Independent Film


7 Steps To Consider


By L. Saber


The independent film community produced many great filmmakers that started making films with nothing more than a camera and a dream. In today’s world of technology there are many superior camera products making it possible for anyone to produce a good quality picture and capture great sound. Here’s what you need to get started.


1.A good story. By a good story I mean a compelling plot with a beginning, middle and end that’s peppered with twists and populated with realistic characters that communicate through simple, real-life dialogue. The trick to any good story is to find something in which the general public is interested. This could be current events or a popular magazine article. If you aspire to write and direct your own movie, you might find a published author who will work with you in translating the book to the screen. If the book already has an audience, this will make it easier for you when trying to market and distribute your film.


2.A development team. This includes a UPM (Unit Production Manager) and 1st AD (First Assistant Director) that are able to breakdown the script and compile a comprehensive budget. What that means is that you take a look at your individual scenes and pair them up with scenes that can be shot in the same location. For example, if your opening shot takes place at the beach and there’s another scene later in the movie that takes place at the beach, then you should shoot both scenes at the same time so you can maximize the use of the location and avoid “company moves” (a company move is removing and packing your lights, props, etc. and moving to a different location. The removing of the lights is also referred to as “striking the set”). You’ll also need a Location Manager that secures your permits and obtains releases for private locations.


3.Money. Once you know what story you want to produce, you know how much your film will cost and you know where you’ll be shooting the scenes, you have to raise the money to pay for all this. I don’t recommend the use of credit cards to finance your movie. Credit is very expensive and you’ll end up owing a lot of money if your movie doesn’t recoup the production budget. My recommendation is to start with family and friends and make these people—that care about you, your career and your dream—your producing partners. Talk to an accountant or lawyer familiar with the arts and have them help you draft a deal memo that you can present to your investors. Having a deal memo that outlines the terms will make you look organized and professional. Make sure that the money your friends and family will put up will not change their lifestyles for the worse if you can’t pay them back. I would start with a film that won’t require a lot of money, just to get your feet wet. However you go about securing a budget from friends and family, make sure you get proper legal and accounting advice from professionals familiar with the industry as well as federal and state laws regarding this type of transaction. You’ll find that a lot of cast and crew members will be glad to work for free on your production just for the opportunity to be part of the filmmaking process. I would recommend that you pay each person on the crew and cast a nominal fee. Even if it’s $50 or $75 per day. This will at least pay for their gas to get to your set and will make them feel like you appreciate their participation. The other important element of making your crew and cast feel like they’re appreciated is to feed them. Make sure you include warm meals and bottled water in your budget for each day of shooting. Be fair to those who help you and they’ll appreciate you as a producer/director and human being.


4.Actors. You’ll need to cast your movie. Start by frequenting your local community theater district. Go to plays and keep an eye out for people that are convincing in their performances. There are a lot of undiscovered stars in the theater community and they’d be happy for the opportunity to showcase their work on screen. You can also try the college and university drama department and local talent agencies. Once you get involved with an agent, chances are, they’ll want full day rates for their clients, which will drain your budget quickly, especially if the client is in the union. Speaking of agents, if your story’s based on a book to which you have the option, an agent might be willing to present your story idea to their up and coming actor clients. You never know until you ask.


5.Production team. You can shoot a movie with a skeleton crew. If I had to choose, the three most important elements of any production are picture, sound and quality performances. That means that your set must be lighted properly so that you get a quality picture, your sound should be clear and crisp and your cast should be understated and believable.


a.UPM. Hire professionals in key positions such as a UPM and 1st AD that will keep your production on schedule and on budget. This person will make sure that the crew and cast will show up for work when needed.


b.Director. I assume you will direct the picture, but if not, hire a competent director that shares your vision of the story. The director will have to keep things moving on the set, work with actors and crew to achieve the essence of each scene and transfer it to the screen.


c.DP. You may be a good camera operator and shot some spectacular home video, however, there’s more to it than point and shoot. Make sure you have a professional director of photography to light your set and compose the shots.


d.Gaffer. A gaffer would be great, if you can afford one.


e.Sound. A location sound operator will help in capturing the best sound possible.


f.PA. Having film students on your set, working as production assistants (PAs) will make the lives of your skeleton crew much more bearable. They can help, with lights, pulling cable, setting up C-stands (lighting tripods), striking the set and much more.


g.Craft Services. Anyone in your circle of friends or family that knows anything about food or cooking can fill this position and keep your crew and cast happy with snacks and a warm meal.


h.Make-Up/Wardrobe. Someone who has a talent for doing basic make-up, such as, applying concealer and powder to cover blemishes and take away shine should fill this position. Special effects make-up (if needed) needs to be done by a professional.


6.Equipment. If your production is low, low, low budget you should know these manufacturers: Canon, Panasonic, Apple and Avid. If you can’t rent or buy your own equipment, find someone with a Canon or Panasonic HD camera and a good iMac with Final Cut Pro HD. Transfer your dailies (scenes and/or takes you shot) and transfer them to a hard drive. Find an aspiring editor with knowledge of Final Cut Pro HD or Avid and start cutting your scenes together.


7.Marketing. You should try to enlist the help of a distribution company from the start. See if a distribution executive will take an interest in your story and is willing to give you advice in terms of elements needed for distribution. Usually, a famous cast is desirable, but its not always necessary. Your story can be the star of your film, or a special effect unique to that story. Think in terms of The Matrix. Although Keanu Reeves stared in the film among other reputable actors, one of the attractions was the special effects. Similarly, in The Six Sense, Bruce Willis’ star power brought the audience to the box office, however, the clever twist at the end certainly helped give the story an extra boost. The point is that you don’t have to spend a lot of money on special effects, the device could be as simple as a clever twist or a human-interest story based on true events.


Remember to keep the above seven elements of filmmaking in mind when you start on your venture. If you’re serious about this journey and you’re ready to begin, this will be the most exciting time of your life. I know it was for me and it felt like a huge accomplishment when I had the premier of Placebo Effect in Los Angeles, followed by a limited theatrical release. §


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