After spending the last 23 years in filmmaking, I have discovered a few things. The best way to become a filmmaker is to make a film, period. If you are waiting around for someone to discover you, finance your project or save you, you will be waiting a long time. Secondly, career success in this industry comes from building a larger body of work. Simply put, the more films you have in your catalog, the more return you will likely see in the long-term. This is why, in my opinion, it is important to set your filmmaking sights on the long-term, as opposed to that first film sitting in front of you.
I am a huge advocate for micro-budget films. I honestly think that the future of indie films lives in the sub-$100,000-budget range. Margins of return are shrinking and it’s becoming much more difficult to recoup your costs through streaming and video deals. (This is why I typically advocate for first-time filmmakers to make their movies for as low as $50,000.) However in doing so, one must understand how preproduction plays into shaping the quality of your micro-budget film. The more time you work things out and prepare, the better your film will look. In some cases, you can make a studio-esque quality feature film for very little money, but it takes planning.
Here are a few basic points you can use to help you turn your first film into a streamlined and professional-looking picture.
Write intimate and genre-specific material.
If you are developing your first movie, one of the things you should consider is which type of genre your script is in. Obviously, each genre has its own nuances and challenges, but for the first-time filmmaker, you need to choose a genre that supports your budgetary realities. For example, horror films typically lend themselves to lower budgets. The audience base is typically not as focused on star power. This helps you from a budgetary standpoint. That being said, you must find good talent no matter what you do.
Genres can also be extremely helpful in your marketing efforts. You can tap into current data trends like keyword relevance and brand positioning. Genres are fairly predictable from a marketing standpoint, so working within a well-defined genre camp can be helpful. Generally speaking, you must know who your audience is before you make your movie, otherwise, you might miss the opportunity to build support. Take time to figure this out before you start making your film.
Keep it simple.
If you are planning your first film production and your screenplay includes multiple locations, large ensembles of the cast or loads of visual effects and stunts, you may be stonewalled by logistics and budget. It is very important for you as the filmmaker to lean into your limitations, rather than work against them. Challenging yourself is fine, but do not do so at the expense of your investors, cast or crew. I recommend writing smaller screenplays between 75-90 pages max. Keep things simple and force yourself to tell better stories with less baggage.
Build your shot list before you get to set.
Now, this may seem elementary to most professional filmmakers, but it surprises me how many directors do not have a shot list before production starts. The shot list is the quintessential tool a film director has on set. In my opinion, the movie is made during the preproduction process. If you know the dynamics of your story and can put a visual plan in place for its execution, you will not only streamline your production time but will also maximize the quality you capture. Anytime I make a movie, I sit down with my director of photography. We spend at least three days going through the entire script and making a detailed shot list for everything that we plan to shoot. Now obviously things change once you get the set, but that initial plan allows you to make quick adjustments. The best benefit of having a shot list is it allows you to see the entire film ahead of time. A shot list can also help your editing process down the road.
Use lookbooks and style guides.
During my preproduction process, I will spend a few months gathering source material. These could be things like other movies that are similar to what I am making, wardrobe options, lighting looks and set dressing. I will even make a lookbook for my cast. It is much easier to show a casting director my ideas on paper as opposed to telling them. From that point, I can share all this information with my creative team. This allows me to align my visual ideas better with my crew.
Consider enlisting the help of a good field producer.
Every indie filmmaker wears multiple hats. If you are the writer, director and producer of your film, you may need to consider hiring a field producer who can help you coordinate the logistics on set. As a director, you should be focused on your performers and the camera stuff. The last thing you need to be worried about is logistics. Take some time to find people who can help you stay organized.
These are just a few things you can do to get yourself organized for production. In the end, the goal should always be to build a beautiful body of work. The more films you do, the better you become at navigating all the elements of production. By taking your time, working small and planning thoroughly, you can elevate your filmmaking experience. I hope this information helps. Keep making movies!