How to Make an Independent Film
The advances in technology and their affordable prices have given nearly everyone the opportunity to make good films. But, just because you can afford some gear and write up a quick script doesn’t mean that everyone has what it takes to be successful in making independent films. This post details the steps it takes to really make a film, from the processes that go into writing a script to the promotional efforts needed, finding distributors, and making your production visible to all the right people.
Now, you can just put anything you want up on YouTube and see what happens, but the likelihood of you getting a viral success is infinitesimal. Finding success online today is about building foundations, meeting the right people, and making big moves to stand out in all the noise being published every day.
I’ll be going into more detail (Yes, more detail!) in a later post that will cover distribution and getting your films in front of larger audiences, but for now this bad boy came in at 6000 words and I think it’s a great primer for making independent film.
So, you have an idea? Guess what? So does everyone else. I wrote a post about Your Epic Film Ideas are Worthless that you should check out but to sum it all up for you: An idea is worthless in the film industry. If you want to have something of value, you need a script. A script is a blueprint of your film project, it’s where everything that happens on your film is carefully thought out and made real. I recommend that you write an outline of every scene, then write up a full treatment of the film, and finally format that into a standard format screenplay.
Having the industry standard format is something that you just need to do. Nobody cares about your rebellious or innovative way of writing a script, if you don’t provide something that actors, investors, and crew members are used to, they won’t take you seriously. Formatting a script is really easy, you can find dedicated software like Final Draft, Fade In, or Celtx to help you get it done automatically, or you can just format your Microsoft Word to do it for you. It’s really not hard and it is worth the effort to put together a script in a format that is both professional and standard to start your production.
A lot of people want to write in seriously awesome and amazing scenes and think that a script is a place to do that. In some instances, this is true, but you have to also remember that there’s a speculation script and a working script. Your spec script can have outer space scenes with huge robots and galactic explosions, but if you can’t afford any of that stuff, then you might wanna scale it back. Although I love a good read, if it’s unrealistic then there’s no point in trying. You aren’t going to get $500,000,000 for your film. If you do, then let’s talk about it sometime 🙂
Seriously though, you need to keep your expectations in check and make sure you can deliver on all of the promises in your script. It’s important that you take the time to make it as absolutely sound and amazing as possible, while keeping it grounded in what you can realistically achieve. We all have our Hollywood budget script in our desk somewhere (Don’t you?) but the truth is we probably won’t ever get to film it. Stay grounded, make your script, and aim to impress with meaning rather than VFX.
Register with Writers Guild of America
Register your work with the Writers Guild of America HERE.
Registering your work with the Writers Guild of America (If you’re in the USA) is an important step that you’ll want to take once your script if done. It gives you protection so you can send your project out to actors, investors, editors, crew, and everyone else with the knowledge that your idea won’t be taken and ran with. It’s an inexpensive safeguard that you really want to have in place.
It’s important that you get your ducks in a row early on. Having people sign legally binding non disclosures and all of the right paperwork is an essential step in making your production come to life. I won’t be giving any legal advice, but I will say that you need to have someone make sure that your offers are correct, your contracts are binding, and that you are protected every step along the way. One misstep can, quite literally, throw your entire film into an abyss it can’t come out of. You can screw this part up and never be able to distribute your film, be lost in legal battles, and find yourself homeless and destitute if you’re not very careful on how you handle the legal aspect of your business. That’s why I highly recommend making your first major contact an entertainment lawyer who can help you with all this stuff.
Seriously. You want to be a professional? You need to lawyer up.
Write a Trailer Pitch
Your trailer pitch is a foundation for your actual film project. These days, you need a solid visual reference of how you’re going to make your film look in order to get investors. This includes people who contribute on crowdfunding. A pitch trailer is far more than just a film overview. A pitch is a completely different beast than just a trailer, a pitch is something that sums up your entire movie from beginning, middle, to end. It gives investors a broad look at what your film is about and it helps them see the value in your production. This differs from a trailer, because a trailer is just a series of highlights to get audiences hooked on the idea of watching your film.
Your pitch should be both ambitious and achievable and should convey the theme, mood, story, and events in your film in a way that entices people to want to learn more. If you’re going to use a pitch for a crowdfunding platform, remember that it should be 3-5 minutes long, include an interview with you at the beginning and a call to action. Far too many people forget to add the call to action to contribute or share to their projects. Make your pitch in high quality, nobody wants to see a crappy interview video with a crappy film trailer. That turns people off, no matter how much of a fan they are.
You want to present yourself professionally. Look the part, sound the part, that old saying of “Walk the walk, talk the talk” is very important when pitching your film. If your contributors or investors don’t have faith in YOU they wont have faith in your production. Make sure that you give yourself every opportunity for success by planning out your pitch, rehearsing your lines, capturing high quality audio and video, and presenting it in a way that conveys your professionalism and love of film.
Build a Website
Having a website for your production is, in my opinion, an essential tool for building a successful platform. All of the big productions do it, they get their own website (FILM-NAME.COM) because they know the value. It’s not just a vanity thing. Owning your own website is a major part of the package because putting your stuff out there on YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, and other places, while essential, gives control of your materials to other people. It’s not expensive or difficult to make a great website these days.
It’s important to have interesting content on your website but that doesn’t mean you have to have yet another thing to constantly work on. You’re already producing the content that needs to be put on your website, so there’s no reason why you can’t have a great home for your film. Some of the things you should have on your website are:
- Plot Synopsis
- Write something engaging. Don’t be generic or boring. Make your film stand out from the 10,000’s of films being made a year.
- Updates on the Progress of the Film
- Facebook Page
- Twitter Page
- Investor Opportunities
- Cast and Crew Information
- Leverage the existing audiences of your cast and crew to your benefit by giving them a feature + bio on your website.
- Fundraising Campaigns
- Behind the Scenes Photos
- Marketing and Promotional Materials
- Press Releases
- Your press releases should be short, sweet, and filled with useful points for journalists. Don’t hype your film in press releases, give journalists and bloggers something valuable for their audiences and let them know that your production would interest their readers. This is how you interest them in writing full articles about your production. Make sure your press releases are laser focused.
- Interviews with Cast and Crew
- One thing I’ve found at Film Fervor is that fans absolutely love hearing about their favorite actors in interviews. You can leverage this multiple times throughout the filming process and it just helps you build your overall press package, so make sure to spend time here.
Your website is the first portal into your film world. It’s a great marketing tool because you can rank for your page on SEO (Search Engine Optimization) and tie in all of your social media accounts automatically. New posts on your website can feed your social accounts remotely.
All that is important, but the most important thing about your website is that it provides a place to capture emails. I’ll talk about this in the next section.
Get Emails of Fans
Capturing emails from your fans is an absolutely essential tool for long-term success of your project(s). Driving fans to an email sign up page is simple with WordPress and something like MailChimp and the benefits are immense. By getting fans to sign up to your mailing list, they are giving you permission to contact them with updates and information about the production. While this can include anything for attaching new actors to early release on trailers, interview, or whatever, the most important thing is that they’re giving you the opportunity to connect with them about fundraising. Crowdfunding is all about having an audience and an email list is the single best way to building one.
By connecting with your audience in email, you’re building a personal link to them and making them feel much more loyal to your project. Especially if you’re passionate and push that passion into your communication with your fans. Don’t skip this step, it’s going to be important later in the crowdfunding section.
Build a Social Media Following
Social Media is critical. Having an active social media presence is absolutely essential to promotion and gaining momentum for your project. In addition to being the most important communication tool for crowdfunding, it’s also a great barometer for the amount of people interested in your film. Investors, producers, distributors, and pretty much everyone in the industry are going to judge the popularity of your project by the amount of people following you on social media. The two biggest are, of course, Twitter and Facebook and they should represent the majority of your social activity but don’t ignore something like Instagram. Being able to post quick videos, updates, photos, production stills, promotional material, and other things to Instagram is a great way to find a visual audience that could help blow up your online presence.
Now, keep in mind, having no social presence is preferable to having an inactive one. The very last thing you want to do is set up an account on Twitter and Facebook and have nothing on them. If you’re not able to find the time to post regularly or have someone post for you, you’re better off not doing it at all. Once someone judges your account to be inactive or abandoned, getting them to come back is like ice skating up hill. Very difficult.
Using Hashtags in your social media, especially Twitter, is a great way for your to quickly build up interested fans. The Hashtag #SupportIndieFilm is a fantastic tool that gets millions of views every week. It’s what we use at Film Fervor to promote to an enormous amount of independent film fans, filmmakers, festivals, and anyone else interested in the film industry. It was started by The First Glance Film Festival, I’ll talk about them more later, and has an absolutely huge user base.
Communicate often with fans through social media, comment on other peoples productions, follow festivals, interesting accounts, and other filmmakers and generally make yourself available online. We live in a world now that demands 24/7 access to the things we love and you shouldn’t be left out because you don’t have an easy way to be seen. Remember, your social media accounts should all point to your website in their bio’s and profiles.
Finding actors for your film isn’t as hard as it used to be. Celebrities big and small live on social media these days, a recommendation from a friend, or a carefully directed email can you get into the circle of even the biggest celebrities. While I always support aiming high, I do want to point out that there are awesome actors in the “mid-card” that are available for all sorts of projects and they work on indie films all the time. There’s a lot to be said about filming your friends and family, some people have gone on to see success in their careers starting out that way, but this post isn’t about filming home movies. This is about getting your laser-focused script into the hands of people who can catapult your efforts to make a film and distribute it.
Securing talent is a major step in getting investors on board and capitalizing on social sharing. A lot of amateurs like to put stock into signed Letters of Intent (LOI) and while they do have a purpose, they believe that’s all that’s really needed to get doors to open. The truth of letters of intent is that producers hate asking for them, agents hate writing them, and financiers ignore them. Unless the actor in question can be called up (or an agent) and get a confirmed “Yes” then it’s pointless. Letters of intent are frequently out of date and aren’t actually binding contracts. They’re basically just to show interest in a project. Get an actual agreement with your intended actors, that way it provides real gravitas to investors.
Now, all of that isn’t to discourage you and your efforts. In fact, I said all of that to prove to you just how important it is for you to get out there and do your own leg work. Actors get paid to act, first and foremost. They want to be in cool, innovative projects that help them grow as actors, build their positive portfolio, and gives them something entertaining to do. So, make sure your project is worth their time and can offer them something interesting, and you’ll find that there’s real potential to get people with huge followings and gravitas who can help make things happen for you, even if you’re unknown in the film world.
Locations are an interesting beast to slay. In some states you can find places that people will let you use for nothing, with no connection to the film commission or with anything other than an insurance policy and a hand shake. On the other hand, there are places that require huge investments, massive budgets, jumping through hoops, and climbing that ladder of painful experiences to get into. Some people will tell you that they can just pick up some “guerilla” techniques and film without permission but this is a huge mistake in my opinion. Yes, it’s possible to do it but I never recommend it.
Your goal here is to produce a professional production and to get it out there so audiences can see it. This means that you need to have all your paperwork in order, all of your permissions and releases, and act as professionally as possible. There isn’t a location on the planet that you must have in order to tell your story. It is way easier to re-write a scene than to try to raise $1,000,000 to film a day in some locations.
The key here is to use what you have, ask for what you don’t, and to be flexible enough that you can work around anything that gives you grief. By this point, you could and should have a team to help you with this stuff, but if you’re out there on your own and need to do the leg work, be sure to follow the simple social protocols of being nice, leaving places better than you found them, and doing whatever you can to make the experience a good one for the property owner. Remember, other filmmakers will want to approach those owners in the future and if you ruin it for them, you’ll be that guy. Don’t be that guy.
There are a lot of resources out there, on the web, that can help you find locations that you want or need. You can check out something like Locations Hub to search for places that are for rent and you can find some amazing places there, but one of the things I recommend to people is to make those contacts yourself. There’s nothing better than getting someone who is friendly to you help realize your dream of making a film. You’ll find people are more than willing to help support your dreams if you just show a little respect and courtesy to them, build up a relationship, and never make them feel like they’re being exploited. I think that’s one of the biggest lessons that some filmmakers need to remember: people are how you get things done.
Get the Gear
Film equipment is an enormous industry that grows by leaps and bounds every single year. Access to professional level equipment is getting cheaper and cheaper and the quality you can produce on a shoe-string budget is just mind blowing. I’m a firm believer in purchasing your own equipment but I’m also not foolish enough to overlook the incredible value in renting film equipment. I’ll first mention that you can rent a complete film making kit from a place like LensProtoGo for a relatively small amount. If you’re on a very tight budget (who isn’t?) consider renting a package for your first trailer and crowdfunding video.
Now, keep in mind, DSLR movies from cameras like the Cannon 5d MK III are still extremely popular and highly respected. You can shoot entire films with these cameras and kit them out to give you an awesome cinematic experience. You can check out my gear recommendations Here for cheap cinema lenses. Remember that lighting is much more important than the type of camera you’re using and that the next most important thing for your look is a good lens. Once you get past that, you need to be able to capture good quality audio. It’s basic, I know, but you’d be surprised at how many people get their audio wrong because they’re focused on crystal clear video. I’d rather your visuals suffer slightly and be able to hear it than not be able to understand what your actors are saying. Get good audio.
Film an Amazing Trailer
Trailers are absolutely, positively, the single best thing you can have in your pocket while producing your film. You can use them for crowdfunding (in the next section, I’ll discuss this more), for keeping current fans engaged, and finding new fans. If you have a great trailer, you can get some amazing viral success just by putting it up on YouTube and promoting it on social media. If your budget is tight and you don’t have a whole lot of time, start out with a strong trailer that you can use for your crowdfunding campaign pitch video and use that as a launching platform for more trailers.
I suggest that you make three trailers for your film. This gives you an immediate boost in perceived value and gives your fans and investors a bigger picture of your overall production.
You’ll want to focus on theme for your trailer. You need to hook your audience immediately, whether it’s compelling dialogue between two characters, an unexpected event of some kind, or a powerful piece of music. You’ll then need to escalate. If you’re writing horror, make it scarier and scarier as it goes along, until you end the trailer with a big climactic and frightening scene or implication. It’s the same no matter what you’re making, start big and fast, escalate, and end powerfully. The most important part of your trailer should be originality and memorability. Nobody care how much you remind them of their favorite trailer/movie, everyone wants to know what YOUR FILM offers them.
Crowdfunding has become the standard in the independent film world as far as funding is concerned. There used to be a time when people looked down on crowdfunding, thinking that the only real professional way was to get fanciers on board and go through the old song and dance. Those people are either A) Crowdfunding now or B) Not saying it anymore. I always recommend crowdfunding because it is a great way for you to get publicity and traction for your film, not to mention money. If you build up a large enough audience with enough people believing in you, you can find some major success with crowdfunding.
Your goal shouldn’t be just to make some money. Crowdfunding is a major effort and requires a huge time commitment to do well. You need to secure about 30% or more from people you know, before you launch the campaign. This is called a soft-launch and it’s vital to the overall success of your campaign. Also, your pitch video (remember earlier, the trailer?) needs to be powerful, engaging and interesting. Make sure to SHOW NOT TELL in your pitch video. Far too many people tell the camera “this is what you’re going to see” instead of showing them what they’re going to see.
Crowdfunding is all about the visuals. It’s about selling the concept, the experience, and the sizzle of your project. If you get people excited about your project, you’ll have a much easier time finding your funding. More importantly, if you have a huge success, you’ll benefit from much more media exposure. Even getting $10,000 on your campaign can really help you continue your goals. Remember, crowdfunding shouldn’t be 100% of your budget and you should never, ever, rely on it as your only source of funding. Think of crowdfunding like an extra way to promote your film, to get some money on the side, to connect with your audience, and to continue to keep your film in the minds of the people you’re looking to impress.
Here are some tips for your crowdfunding efforts:
- Assemble a Team: It’s so hard to do a crowdfunding campaign solo and be successful. Your team, the people helping you on the project, your crew, and especially your cast needs to be involved in the crowdfunding effort. Every single member of your team should be emailing, tweeting, and posting on all social media to their audiences.
- Keep your perks in check: One of the worst things you can do with crowdfunding is to have a successful campaign and then spend 50% or more of your total funds fulfilling perks. These things can destroy your budget quickly (which is why I recommending having multiple sources of funding in the first place) and can ruin your chances of actually getting a film out to the people. Make sure that you’re calculating every cost and keeping your budget in mind when planning perks.
- Keep your Campaign updated: You need to plan for weekly updates for your campaign. Pretty much every crowdfunding platform has the ability to update, blog, communicate, and generally add new stuff to your campaign. You should always keep your efforts going with new stuff, interviews, goals, press, posters, everything and anything that provides VALUE to your contributors. Updating your campaign page is one of the best ways to keep your community and fans involved in the process.
- Start Strong. Stay Strong: Most campaigns find the bulk of their contributions in the first third and last third of their campaigns. There’s always some sort of lull in the middle of the campaign that, trust me on this, can drive you absolutely insane. It’ll make you question all of your choices, make you wonder if you’re going to succeed, and generally cause you to age a thousand years in the span of two weeks. This is where you need to double-down, add new perks, keep the hype going and realize that everyone suffers through that hump. Just keep at it, stay strong and end strong.
Finding investors for your film is a painful and arduous process that, unless you can fund it yourself or have incredible crowdfunding success, we all must go through to see our visions come to life. Keep in mind that there are some major differences between something like a Kickstarter backer and an investor. An investor is someone who is looking to make their money back over the long haul and owns a piece of your project. There are a huge variety of people who may be interested in investing in your film, people that are looking for a connection to the movie industry or people who believe in your project. One thing they all will need is a plan.
A business plan for your film isn’t something that is sexy or entertaining to make, yet it’s the foundation on which your film will be built. A well thought out, researched, and vetted business plan will give you an idea of your budget, your distribution strategy, how, when, where, and why you’re filming, who is all attached to your project, both cast and crew, as well as the financial return on investment that the investors are going to need to commit.
We live in a digital era now, an era where you can find international distribution with a few Google searches but you need to be careful on how you divvy up the rights to your project. Investors are looking for a return, like I said, so they’ll want to know that you have given your business a professional treatment and that you understand the business side of the film industry. You can make deals with distributors early and use that money to help finance the film, but remember that everything you do is a give and take. If your film is a runaway success and some big distributor wants to put your film in 1,000 theaters, yet you’ve sold away your rights to a smaller distributor, you’re going to be out of luck.
It’s important for me to let you know that I’m not giving legal advice here. One of your first and most important hires should be an entertainment lawyer with experience in making film deals, handling insurance, dealing with distributors, and making sure to protect your assets across the board.
Remember though, nobody is going to give you any money unless you ask. Making the ask is a difficult thing for some people, but you need to be willing to do it in order to see your dream project come to life.
Make the Film
So, you’ve gotten to this point and you’re ready to start filming. Congratulations! This is a big step. Now, the real work begins.
By this point you should have your cast and crew ready, your script locked, your locations and gear available, your schedule planned and everything in place to get your cameras rolling. Now you just need to film the scenes, get the coverage, check everything is good and get into post production. There’s not a whole lot I want to add here but just make sure that you’ve taken every step along the way and that you’ve done your due diligence. I’ve seen a lot of people get their gear, talk people into acting, and have no early idea what to do next. Don’t be that guy.
Make Promotional Materials
Promotional material is a big part of getting traction online. It doesn’t have to be expensive but it can be if you’re not careful. If you have access to a graphic designer and can work out a deal with them, you’re going to be in a really good place. I recommend that you get multiple posters made for your film that feature the characters of your film in key moments of the story. Look at the way Hollywood produces posters, they’re big, bright, bold, and eye-grabbing. You should emulate them because they have over a century of experience in making people want to see movies. The more professional you make your production, the more of an opportunity you have to succeed.
An easy way for you to get additional promotional materials is to take some of your existing trailers and cut them down into themed, focused, clips that show off a particular character or event that’s happening in your movie. I love to see clip shows of characters that highlight their progress though the film, whether they’re heroic, frightened, asshole, or saints. If you have a large cast, consider making a character highlight for the main handful and using that as a promotional tool. One, your actors will love you for highlighting them and two your fans will get more personalized with the characters.
I’d also recommend you get someone to film a “behind the scenes” of your production while you’re making it. You can hire someone specific for this or just get someone you trust (with video production skills) to follow along and do interviews, time lapse of you building sets, and other cool features of your film that can add serious value to your production. You can also use these behind the scenes things as a bonus on release. Just do it. Its worth it.
Film Festival Tours and Money
Film Festivals are a crucial component in the independent film circuit. More than any type of prize that you can earn at festivals, your access and acceptance into these events provide you with exposure and connections in the industry as well as potentially getting awards to help your promotional efforts for future distribution. You should be planning for your festival tour fairly early in your production schedule and budgeting because a big mistake I see a lot of filmmakers make is that they forget that submitting to film festivals is a rather large cost. Depending on the festival, it’s size, age, and importance, you can easily spend $10,000 or more in submission fees throughout your festival tour.
There is a possibility of festivals waiving fees for certain films and filmmakers, but really, don’t ask for that. These festivals exist to help you promote your work and to get you noticed. Don’t be that guy.
Use a service like FilmFreeway to search through the appropriate film festivals and tally up the overall costs of the tour. Keep in mind, you’ll also need to cover things like room, travel, meals, in most cases. Some of the big festivals can provide these things, but it’s been my experience to make sure you have enough budgeted to make your own way.
Now, about which festival you should choose for your film, everyone wants to be in Sundance. Its the festival that launches careers and puts people on the map. It would be great if everyone could get into Sundance and make their bones, but they only have a small selection every year. Look at this PDF for previous rules and make sure that you comply with all current submission guidelines. There are countless film festivals that would make a great starting point for your production that are much easier to get into and can help launch your career.
So, you’ve made it? This is it. Where you release your film to the world and bask in the glory of being a successful, distributed, well loved filmmaker. That’s cool. You and your team have done an amazing job and, hopefully, you’ll be able to use this project as a future investment that will pay dividends for a very long time. What do you do next? …
Do It Again
It’s not enough to make one film. If you’re anything like the rest of us, this bug is something that you can never get over. You’ll need to tell more stories, you’ll get better at all of the sausage making, you’ll find a niche that you love, and you’ll build a group of people that you can count on to help you with your next project.
Film is a collaborative effort, you hear it all the time, but in the grand scheme of things you need to be able to get along with the people you work with. You want to do this for fun, excitement, and because you have stories to tell. Don’t do this because you’re in it for the money. Don’t make films because you want to be in the film business. Make films because you love them and your brain boils with awesome ideas that need to be told.
It’s not about the first film you make, it’s about the fiftieth. It’s about how you grow your career, get more influence, tell bigger stories, and be able to make a mark on the industry that you love by being a part of it.
I hope this helps you in some way, I know that I’ve drawn a lot of inspiration from the 6,000 words this post turned out to be and I know that it’s helped me get a better understanding of how I go about producing, writing, directing, and facilitating a film. Yes, it’s hard work. Yes, it will make you go crazy if you let it, but there’s nothing better than seeing your name appear on a big screen, surrounded by people who love what you’ve accomplished.
So, let’s get out there and make some movies!