While moviemaking is an art, there is also an art to the business of planning a production.
As a producer—whether a hands-on, physical production type or one who works more closely with a line producer—you are responsible for making sure this process goes as smoothly as possible. But no matter how well you do your job, there are always going to be problems to solve.
The true art of producing, then, is being prepared to solve those problems while keeping the production on schedule and budget—all while giving the cast and crew everything they need to make a great movie.
So how do you physically make your movie? Here are some tips I’ve learned from working on commercial and feature shoots.
LAY THE FOUNDATION
Get that script done! Before you do anything, get the script you are writing—or the script you hired writers to write—as polished as possible.
Rewriting is a vital part of the moviemaking process that can easily become mind-numbing and frustrating. If the script continues to change drastically during pre-production, you’re going to start backtracking in your planning and budgeting. Everyone gets so excited about wanting to make the movie from the word “go” that you want to make sure this initial burst of enthusiasm doesn’t go to waste if the script still needs work. Also, a lot more doors will open and better deals will be had throughout the process with a great script as opposed to just an adequate one.
PRELIMINARY SCRIPT BREAKDOWN
Once the script is ready, I like to do a rough breakdown of it. Use a computer program like EP Scheduling or just make a quick list of estimates: Roughly how many days will you need each actor to be on set? How long will you need certain locations? Are there any stunts? Any crowd scenes? Children? Animals? How long will you need to shoot? How long are you able to shoot?
Answering these questions will help wrap your head around the size and type of production necessary to tell your story in the most effective way.
If this project is a true labor of love—where you are putting the film together by whatever means necessary—you’ve probably already thought about (and maybe even tailored the script around) what resources are available to you. Whether it’s free locations, contacts with state film commissions, celebrity talent, experienced crew members, great deals with the unions, tax incentives or parents willing to cook for the cast and crew, everyone has something that can help the production and potentially save a line item of the budget.
GET FAMILIAR WITH TAXES AND LEGAL REQUIREMENTS
Have an understanding of state and federal payroll tax fees, insurance (errors and omissions, or E&O, as well as production), legal fees, completion bonds (if your budget is more than $1 million) and unions (SAG, AFTRA, DGA, WGA, IATSE, Teamsters, etc.). Know what your options are in these areas because the more prepared you are, the more time and money you will save. Some of these costs also vary with budget levels.
You and/or your line producer will put together a budget with a number in mind, either because financing is already in place or because you know how much you would like to spend on your movie. Remember that a budget is very fluid and will change constantly throughout the entire process. Ideally, some areas will be a bit overestimated and some a bit underestimated, so that things can even out in the end. However, the more prep work you do for your budget and the more detailed you are, the closer you will be with your estimates.
Every film shoot goes into overtime and many go over budget. Your assistant director should give you a heads up on meal penalties and overtime before either happens, but always plan for it. Try to pad the budget with as much of a contingency as possible so you can avoid having to go back to your investors, dip into completion bonds or find additional investors to help finish the film.
Have an idea of what materials you will need to deliver the film to a buyer or distributor. (Your lawyer should have a sample list.) This way you can see all of the things you may not have thought of but will be responsible for, such as continuity reports, closed captioning, sound deliverables, MPAA rating certificate, Dolby license, different aspect ratios for master deliverables, etc.
This is an often-dropped line item for smaller budgets, but it is very important for film delivery and could be extremely helpful for the shoot. If you’re looking for resources, cast, crew, locations, etc., spread the word; people excited about movies will respond to the call and those who don’t will at least now be aware of your film.
Also, figure out a way to budget for a still photographer on set, a behind-the-scenes video crew for the electronic press kit (EPK) and a unit publicist during the shoot—or at least a publicist on a monthly retainer for your festival premiere. You’ll need these items to help sell and deliver your film.
Competitive bids from different rental houses and post-production facilities can keep your budget down. Get bids as soon as possible to help figure out how it affects your budget. Don’t be afraid to negotiate!
Knowing your crew is crucial. How fast is your DP? How do your department heads work? How much support staff does each department need? Are your keys used to low budgets? How do they handle stress?
Check references and get to know your crew as much as possible during pre-production. Try to keep an open dialogue between you, your production staff and the technical crew so that you’re always aware of everything they need and can try to provide it for them.
PRODUCTION STAFF (A.K.A. DON’T DO IT ALL YOURSELF!)
For a low-budget production, it’s easy for moviemakers to end up wearing multiple hats on set. If you’re the producer and you’re handling the paperwork, budget, petty cash, receipts, schedule and dealing with issues that arise on set, you’ll be spread so thin that areas of the production will suffer.
Your production staff is a direct reflection of you and the backbone of any production. An experienced and organized production staff will be ready with solutions that will make your life a lot easier and keep things running smoothly, no matter what the challenges.
Start the casting process as early as possible. Talent offers can take some time and once you set a start date, you want to be ready with a cast that can ideally prepare with the final material (see pg. 38). Make sure to allot for additional cast expenses that might come up during contract negotiations such as trailers and rental cars. For low-budget productions, taking a “most-favored-nations” approach—where every cast member is paid the same and receives the same perks—can help control costs.
Spend some money on extras like snacks and games to help keep crew morale up throughout the shoot. Make the cast and crew feel well taken care of so that when you put them in tough locations and through crazy work hours, they know that you appreciate them. Cast and crew generally understand low-budget moviemaking and they know that they might be doing a job for experience instead of a paycheck. If they are donating their time, try to make the experience as comfortable and fun for them as possible.
Because production involves spending a lot of money at a very quick pace, plan on some chaos. It’s so easy for time and expenses to get away from you. But if you really do your homework, ask questions, stay organized, keep in constant communication with the 1st AD, remain on top of finances with the production accountant and give yourself and your team as much prep time and resources as possible, you’ll have a better chance of a very successful shoot. Yes, it’s a lot of work, but it can be done. Good luck and have fun! It’s the best job in the world!
As a founding partner of Santa Monica-based production company Steele Films, Laura Boersma has produced a wide variety of commercials and film productions.