Good Will Hunting, Get Out, My Big Fat Greek Wedding, and The King’s Speech are only some of the many successful indie movies out there. And while most big movies are created under the control of large studios, like Disney or Warner Bros, that doesn’t mean it’s the only way to create a good film. An independent movie created without any help from a studio can clearly be just as powerful and effective.
Especially with the rise of the creator economy, resources are becoming more available, equipment is cheaper, and distribution platforms are popping up left right and center, giving anybody and everybody an effective path to create and share their work with audiences.
Indie films, or independent movies, are simply movies that were made without a big studio. They often have a lower budget, but can still range pretty widely from having microbudgets of only a couple thousands of dollars, to a couple of millions. Everything is written, produced, and funded by a private production company. And that’s why, most of the time, they aren’t that high in quality, and they don’t make a lot of money.
When studios are involved, it makes it significantly easier to get a movie made. After all, they have funds, resources, and more to help you gather everything you need to bring your idea to life. But they don’t always go for the ideas pitched to them – which is one reason many will turn to make a film independently. But while there are cons to making indie films, there are also a lot of positives.
Making a movie with a studio means you don’t have to worry about financing, distribution, and getting resources. American studios specifically have loads of internal resources they pull on to gather the team, plan the film, fund it, and distribute it. But this means the film is now getting made on their dime – so they aren’t just going to let you run the show.
When you sign on to work with a big studio versus producing your movie independently, you lose a lot of control. There is less freedom for you as a creator, and it becomes about systems, roles, and structures. Studios have their own ways of doing things to make sure they come out with something tangible, and that they make their money back. Meanwhile, indie films are a lot less structured, but will often flop and never make it to the screen.
A studio’s process is always the same, whereas indie processes vary significantly from film to film. And this also means there is a loss of flexibility, as studio’s are much more controlling when it comes to scheduling and budgeting. They will send people to studio shoots that will closely monitor the production on the daily, to make sure everythings on track.
Some filmmakers who have done both kinds of predictions, notice there’s definitely a bit of a difference in environment. They say indie films can be much more fun and creative, and many of the micro budget ones, especially, are focused on risk-taking, learning, and creating for the sake of creating. It becomes a growth experience and a great opportunity to meet people, without the pressure of a studio breathing down your neck.
Indie films are not formulaic. They don’t have good estimates on budgets or returns, and it’s all a bit of an experiment. So, in other words, making an independent movie means you have a lot to lose – but also a lot to gain. You get the freedom to tell your story your way, and learn a lot in the process.
As content creators, and especially as beginner filmmakers, the first movies you are going to create are most likely going to be independent, and you may make them with your small network of creatives, and share them through platforms online, like YouTube.
But every indie film is different – and this simple guide won’t necessarily happen sequentially. You may have stars that you’ve casted before you have your script or schedule. Or, casting will be the last thing you think about. What’s important is that all of these elements are covered in one way or another, and that you understand most of these things are going to be living documents that are ever changing – and all your plans will most likely get turfed.
But that’s the beauty of indie movies, and it’s a part of the process you’ll just have to embrace.
Especially if you are going to make a movie on an extremely restricted budget, you’re probably not going to have a ton of money to blow on locations, resources and effects. Which is why, before you completely decide on your independent film idea and script, you should first look around you at what you have available and accessible to you.
Making an independent movie that you can realistically get done in a way that won’t look cheap and rushed, requires using what you have and making some sacrifices along the way. And this is also a great way to find inspiration if you are struggling to come up with an idea – just look at what locations, props, people and equipment you have. Get inspired by what’s around you, and make a story out of that.
Once you have a general idea of what you want your independent movie to be about, it’s time to write the script. Your script is the foundation for everything that follows in the production process. And while anyone might be able to write a killer script – it actually takes a lot of time, energy, and practice to actually make something that’s translatable to the screen, and realistically something you can do with limited resources.
So, write out your ambitious script. Go wild. And then, once you’ve gotten your ideal vision down of how you want to tell your story, take a step back. Look objectively at what you need to make this film happen, and ask yourself if it’s realistic for your budget, time, and resources.
Ask yourself: is this realistic? And if it’s not, but it’s crucial to your story, see if there’s another way you can show the same message. Instead of showing a fiery car crash, see if there is another way you can demonstrate the accident using other filming techniques. Always keep in mind your goals and resources for the movie, and make sure the script aligns.
If you don’t already have a group of people interested in your film, now is the time to find one. You’re going to want to build your executive team first, and then start looking for other supplementary roles. Find your producer, director, AD, lighting director, and director of photography. Look at all of the essential roles in a film production, and pick out which ones you know you are going to need.
Depending on how large your budget is, you may have a pretty small team, and some people might be doubling up on roles. But if possible, get as many people on board as possible – and find people who know what they are doing, and know things you don’t.
Figure out, realistically, how many people you are going to need to pull this off, and come up with how much you are willing to pay them. If you are a micro budget film, you may not even be able to pay. Sometimes, simply finding people who want to build a portfolio with you, or who want to volunteer as a side job will be enough.
Post crew calls on forums, on your social media, ask friends, friends of friends, and family. It can be a great way to make extra connections, and meet new people to work on future projects with. After all, film is a collaborative process, and the people you work with dictate the outcome.
You will also want to create what’s called a production bible for your film, and start gathering all of the information you need to make your movie. You will need shot lists, storyboards, set designs, treatments, equipment lists, budgets, schedules and more, and you will hold it all in this document. By the end, the entire thing could be upwards of 500 pages if done thoroughly.
But even though you will always be adding to it, take the time before your film to sort out every possible small element that you will need to produce this film successfully. With your bible, you will have everything in one place, and one solid guide that everybody can follow as the project moves along. And while this is definitely a living document, meaning it is never fully finalized, it’s still an essential guide to have nailed down when you start – and it’s also something that can also be used as a pitch for investors. It gives them all the information they need to see you’re organized, serious, and worth investing in.
Once you’ve got your script finalized and everything that you are going to need to make your independent movie, now it’s time for the fun stuff: budgeting. You’re going to be including your budgets in your bible as well, and the budget elements won’t be “finalized” until you complete your assessment of everything the film is going to warrant – and quite honestly, even then, it won’t be “finalized”.
As much as you can try and stick to your budget and plans, there will most likely be changed and unforeseen costs. Especially in indie films, budgets get stretched, timelines get messed up, and stories get changed. And that’s part of the beauty and spontaneity of it. What’s important is that you come up with your desired budget, and try and get your funding to support it.
Have contingencies in place and make cash flow statements. Take all of your information and figure out how much this independent film is going to cost you. See where you can make cuts, and try to foresee any extra expenses you might run into. Make sure to do your research, and check out guides like this one to help you get started on creating your indie film budget.
Once everything for the film is sorted, it’s time to look at what needs to get done, and make a schedule. Take into account your locations, and maybe which days will be cheaper to rent certain spaces. Looking into what places allow free access to parking on certain days, at certain times can also be helpful to work into your schedule – when you’re on a budget, it’s good to keep the small things in mind to help save as much money as possible.
If you already have specific actors in mind, you might consider their availability as well when making your shooting schedule. Some movies will fit their schedules to accommodate their leads if they really want them in the film. But often, on a microbudget, you will craft this schedule and then just find whoever you can to fill the roles.
Learning how to fund your independent film is the next step. Sometimes, you won’t get the funding until after you shoot the film – and sometimes, you might land investments from other production companies who believe in your idea. But most of the time, you will need to take loans and then hope to make enough money from the film afterwards, to pay them back.
Most indie filmmakers will use crowdfunding as a main source of funding for their movie. There are many online platforms like Kickstarter or Indiegogo that can help you raise money, and will only take a small commission for their service when people invest in your film. While some might not have much luck with crowdfunding, some will.
Better yet, hold a fundraising party or event with friends and family. Sell merchandise and get creative on how you can raise money to make your film. You could even ask those closest to you to invest instead of giving you a birthday or Christmas present that year.
Another way to source money for your independent movie is to look into any grants or scholarships you might qualify for. And depending on where your film is being shot and what your budget is, look into any tax credits that are available to help cut your costs a little bit, and alter your film to fit their requirements.
When you start casting your film, it’s key to pull on your network – especially if you’re trying to keep it low-budget. Figure out a decent wage you are able to offer your actors or, if you’re really tight on money, simply find people who want to work with filmmakers to make a portfolio, just for fun or to get experience on set. You can post ads on social groups or ask friends and family for a bit of their time.
Reach out to local acting agencies and agents and see if there’s anybody interested in auditioning for your movie. Sometimes, even actors from these agencies will sign on for very little compensation, or even nothing at all, if they are genuinely interested and believe in the project. But keep in mind: anytime actors are working for you for free, you must be mindful about paying for food and transportation, as well as making sure that they get something out of the experience as well.
And now, it’s time for the moment you’ve been waiting for after months of preparation: production. If you’ve never produced a film before, this will be the most exciting, most exhausting experience of your life. Depending on how intense your shoot and schedule is, production is going to take up all of your time for the foreseeable future– but it’s where the magic happens.
It’s always good to check out your locations before your production days come, to check out the sounds, the lighting, and how busy the surroundings are at any given time of day. This way, everything is in place for when you start your shoot. Everything you have prepared for will hopefully play out nicely once you get on set. And along with your schedule, make sure that you have a critical path outlining exactly how each part of the day, and each task will pan out. Outline who is picking up the equipment, dropping it off, how, at what time, who’s getting the food, who’s driving where – everything.
You’re going to need to have clear, organized roles where everyone knows what they are in charge of, because you won’t have any big studio running the show. And in all of the craziness that’s about to happen: don’t forget to have fun. Take in as much of the experience as you can – it’s often in these moments, that we learn the most, make the best connections, and make the best memories.
After your film is shot, it’s time to cut it together. You’re going to want to make sure you do as much as you can during pre-production and production, to avoid any astronomical costs in post. The last thing you want to do is spend hours shooting, and then have to go reshoot if you did something wrong.
Nowadays, while you should definitely invest in a professional if you have the budget, post-production can actually be done pretty easily by yourself. With the ease of technology today and the plethora of resources online, you can learn industry standard software like Final Cut Pro, and you may be surprised at the results you can get. Again, deciding on how you want to approach post production comes with looking at your goals, abilities, and resources.
Distribution is where having a studio involved comes in handy. But as an indie film, it doesn’t mean you can’t get your work seen. Check out the list of festivals that you qualify for, and start sending them off. Or, hold your own premiere in person or on YouTube – but keep in mind, some festivals won’t allow you to premiere at their screenings if your film has already been premiered elsewhere. Remember to look closely into guidelines, and find the festivals that fit your goals for the project.
And then it all comes down to marketing. Share your process of your film online from start to finish, and especially push it once you start getting accepted into festivals. This can be a great way to get people interested in your work, get investors interested, and it helps you build credibility as a creator.
Making it as an indie filmmaker is a process, and it comes with learning, and building networks to help get your work made. Every single one is an experience, and sharing your work is how you make the most of it. Even if it flops in the end – at least you still took on the challenge.
Sometimes less is more. You don’t always need the fancy equipment that costs tens of thousands of dollars. You don’t need that ARRI camera. Sometimes, a Canon DSLR will do the trick. What really matters is that you know how to use whatever camera or equipment you have access to. Get comfortable with it, and practice. Equipment really is only a part of the filmmaking process. In fact, there’s an entire festival now dedicated to iPhone movies. Resources are only a setback if you allow them to be – what matters is the story, and the art in how you tell it.
To get equipment, look into cheap rental places, invest in some simple devices you can use again and again, borrow some or simply just get creative. Use skateboards or wheely chairs to get a smooth dolly shot, or stand on a roof (safely) to get an overhead shot you’d usually get with a drone. Sometimes a little creative problem solving can go a long way in saving you money and getting similar, if not even better, results in the end
When sourcing wardrobe pieces, look into cheap rentals, thrift shops, ask friends, family, and simply look at what you have in your own closet. Often, for really low budget movies, actors will bring their own and do their own basic makeup – unless you have specific requirements for their characters.
Getting permits and insurance is going to depend drastically on where you are shooting. These can be costly, and be a lot of work to secure for your shoot. That’s why it really helps to hire someone or get advice from someone who knows about this process. Make sure you have the proper paperwork ready in your bible before you shoot, do your research beforehand, and look into your municipal guidelines.
If you’re stuck on where to look for locations, it’s all about pulling on your network. Post online that you are searching for a certain location, use Facebook groups, and don’t be afraid to ask businesses or companies – some might be willing to give you a break on a price, if you agree to help them with publicity. It’s all about getting creative and being relentless. And remember: it’s always good to have a backup plan if a location falls through.
The last thing you want is people backing out of a project – especially when you’re already barely scraping by with what you have. Unfortunately, with independent movies, there’s less money involved and, therefore, less incentive for people to stay. You have to be wary about who you bring on the team, and who you rely on.
Sometimes, you’re not going to be able to get everything you want out of your indie film. You may have gotten a deal on a certain location, but now the landlord can’t afford to rent it for you at that price anymore. You might miss out on getting a really cool effect or scene that’s in your head, because it’s just not plausible. You have to learn to be flexible, and be okay with letting go.
It’s very possible to make an indie film on a budget – even if it sounds hard. Many indie films (with bigger budgets and better resources, of course) have gone on to win Oscars. If you can work hard enough to build up your filmmaking abilities, credibility and skill to land investors – you could be on the big screen yourself, one day.
Take advantage of the creator economy, and the accessible information you have to become a better filmmaker. It’s all about believing in your content, telling your story and always focusing on improving.
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