Updated: Oct 1
Company structure, planning, and preparation are essential at the start-up of a film production. That importance grows immeasurably as the film develops during each phase of the filmmaking process.
But before we jump into how to start an indie film production, it is vital to learn exactly what's an indie production.
What is an Indie Film Production?
Indie is short for independent. An independent film is a motion picture that an indie filmmaker produces. Most commonly, these are movies that do not have the "The Big Six" studios backing the project.
"The Big Six" includes 20th Century Fox, Paramount Pictures, Warner Bros., Universal Pictures, Columbia Pictures, and Walt Disney Studios. According to Statista, these conglomerates account for over 83 percent of the North American market share and bring in billions of dollars in revenue each year.
An indie film is made with a relatively modest budget. Indie budgets can range from $15,000 - $15 million. I know you're thinking-- $15 MILLION!
Yes, there are independent film companies that have those types of budgets. These companies are considered mini-majors such as Lionsgate Films, The Weinstein Company, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Studios, and DreamWorks Pictures.
However, for this blog's purpose, I am speaking to aspiring independent filmmakers that usually, with some hard work and effort, can muster up a micro-budget of $15k - $250k.
Indie Filmmakers can conceivably shoot and edit a film, create and edit the sound and music, and mix the final cut all on a home computer.
The process of making an indie film involves many complex stages. The initial step is the start-up, which we will focus on in this blog. The start-up stage begins during the development phase, including finding a story, choosing a title, creating a business plan, assembling a team, incorporating and financing your film, handling paperwork, and establishing an online presence.
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Now that you're all caught up on exactly what an indie film production is. Let's take a look at some ways you can get the ball rolling on your indie film production. It's crucial to have a plan in place. The upstart of an indie production can be a frightening endeavor. However, if you have a clear plan from the jump, it can make the process much smoother. Taking the proper steps to set up shop in the beginning, will set your production up for success.
Here are 10 steps to starting an indie film production:
Choosing an Idea or Story
What film genre would you like to specialize in producing? For instance, Blumhouse Productions is known for mainly producing horror films.
I'm not saying you have to always stick to a genre, but it's important to find a niche that best represents your brand identity. An excellent way to figure out your brand is to determine what you enjoy watching or reading. Usually, the things you enjoy most will aid you with choosing projects to produce.
Once you select your idea, you can either search for scripts similar to your concept or hire a screenwriter to write the screenplay.
Choose a Title
Coming up with a good title for your movie may seem like one of the more minor tasks you must do as a filmmaker, but it's actually much more critical than most people think. Catchy movie titles help promote, distribute and get word of mouth going on your film.
Choose a title that embodies the spirit of the story. Make sure that it is memorable and is meaningful—something that attracts potential viewers. Once you have the perfect title chosen, make sure it's not already taken. This will require you to get a comprehensive title report to meet your errors and omissions insurance carrier and distributors' requirements.
Also, don't become married to your title. A distributor might decide to change it. 😕
Draft a Business Plan
Now that you have drafted a script and chosen a title, it's time to prepare a solid business plan. As mentioned earlier, taking the crucial steps of planning and preparation is the key to a financially sound and functioning movie production.
The film's business plan is drafted during the development phase of production. When crafting your proposal, you need to plan for production expenditures such as development and administrative costs, cast, crew, office space, taxes, supplies, equipment, etc.
The business plan should summarize the film production's goals and how the film will turn a profit. It should also include a timeline of the movie production and when an investor can expect a return on investment.
Hire an Attorney
The steps to getting an indie film production up and running are complex, so hiring an entertainment attorney very early in the development stage is vital. You especially want to hire an attorney who specializes in movie production services. All entertainment lawyers are not one and the same. Although, some will try to convince you otherwise.
An entertainment attorney will give you legal advice throughout the entire filmmaking process—from inception through distribution. Their job is to review all the documents you need to start your production. Here are a few legal issues they can assist you with:
Incorporating your production
Investors and Security Laws
Cast & Crew Contracts
Production Releases (Extras, locations, minors, etc.)
Licensing (Music, stock footage, film clips, etc.)
Incorporate Your Film Production
Typically, a production company formally organize their business as a Limited Liability Company (or LLC), an S-Corp, a C-Corp, or a sole proprietorship. Each of those legal entities has its pros and cons; however, a sole proprietorship has the most prominent drawback because the owner is legally liable for any lawsuits made against the company.
An LLC can help you avoid lawsuits that will drain your personal bank accounts. If someone files a lawsuit against your company, they can't go after the company's officers or individual members. They can only sue for damages from the Limited Liability Company.
Most production companies also organize an LLC for the movie production itself. For instance, my production company is T-CAT Films, LLC, which operates as an umbrella company for my movie productions such as BILU, LLC or Flashes, LLC. Creating entities for each of those projects protects my production catalog—meaning if someone files a lawsuit against Flashes, LLC, the rest of the production company's finances and assets will be separated from that suit.
Also, your production will need an LLC in order for you to work with the unions, such as SAG-AFTRA. They will request documentation of your Articles of Organization and other paperwork.
Financing Your Film
In order to get your project off the ground, you will need to find funding, and that's where your business plan comes into play. You will need to use your business plan to secure a small business loan (including a line of credit) or to reach out to potential funders. You can research possible avenues of funding online. Here are several options you can look into:
Family or friends (loans, donations, etc.)
Get a part-time job and funnel the funds towards your film project
Film production tax incentives
Hire A Production Accountant
Entertainment payroll is a complex job, so you'll need an accountant skilled in movie financing to take care of your production's accounting. On micro-budget films (250k or less), you might be able to get away with doing your own bookkeeping but come tax season, you will need to engage a certified entertainment tax accountant who understands the allowances for film expenses.
Production accountants are proficient with the various rules and regulations associated with the different entertainment unions regarding fees and payment. They also understand how to handle the submission process for the state's film production tax incentives.
Handling Your Business
I'm sure when you jumped into the film industry, you were only thinking about creating phenomenal motion pictures (or was that just me… Ha! 😜). You probably didn't realize how much film business minutia you would have to learn and be responsible for daily. When you're in charge of a production, you'll need to make sure that you set up the following operational activities:
Set up a business bank account
Get an employer identification number from the IRS
File an operating agreement and articles of organization
States and municipalities may require business licenses (if applicable, depends on the location of the LLC)
Pay annual business taxes
Understanding tax and employment law and allowances
Attain production insurance and worker's compensation
Create a budget and comparable analysis
Choose a payroll company
Apply for union agreements (SAG, IATSE, Teamsters, etc.)
Assemble a Team
Producing a film is a collaborative process, and when you're assembling a team, you want to make sure that you're hiring the best people for the job. In the development stage of production, you want to hire at a minimal the following positions: (Budget dictates how many people you add to the team.)
Screenwriter – writes the screenplay.
Line Producer – breaks down the script and creates the budget and schedule.
Director – creates the vision.
Casting Director – cast lead actors.
Production Designer – develops the art direction and set design. On micro-budget films, you might be able to wait until the pre-production phase to hire the production designer. It depends on if your story have intrinsic set designs.
Director of Photography (DP) – On micro-budget films, you might be able to wait until the pre-production phase to hire the DP. On bigger budgets that require the DPs input about intrinsic shot designs and major equipment rentals, they need to come in during the development stage.
Other creative filmmaking positions such as actors and crew are usually hired during the pre-production phase.
Promotional Website and A Social Media Presence
If you have the skillset to create a website, then do so. If not, hire a web designer to create a simple but informative website for your project. Now, if you're on a really tight budget, a website may not be in the cards for you. However, I would highly encourage you to learn how to use some of these website platforms that make it really easy for you to learn, such as Wix or Squarespace.
If all else fails, create a Facebook business page with all of your production company and film's information such as your contact info, movie's logline, synopsis, trailer, and still images of the film.
In this day and age, it's crucial to have a social media presence. It would be best if you started early building a presence online. You have to nurture the audience through social engagement. Use a blend of still images, posters, trailers, memes, and videos to create bite-sized content to connect with your audience.
In this blog, I've shown you how independent filmmakers jumpstart their film productions. By planning and preparing, you can resourcefully create a micro-budget film that will pay off onscreen. If you apply the tactics you learned, you should be able to pull off an independent film production. Just to recap…
You've learned how to choose a story.
You've learned how to choose a compelling title.
You've learned that a business plan is key for a functional operation.
You've learned that you should hire an attorney for legal advice.
You've learned the importance of incorporating a film.
You've learned about several ways to finance a film.
You've learned the importance of hiring an entertainment accountant.
You've learned about handling the business operations and documentation.
You've learned about assembling a professional team.
And, you've learned about the importance of a website and social media presence.
An excellent exercise for you would be to create a start-up projection of all the development activities to be performed and when they will occur. Generating a start-up projection is a great way to organize your production schedule and keep interested parties abreast of all actions. Here's a worksheet to help get you started: Start-up Projection Worksheet
Remember, this is not a pointless exercise. Planning for your film begins in the development stage. This exercise would be one of your first steps towards figuring out your start-up strategy.
Oh, and let me know how this exercise works out for your project.
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If you're seeking a clearer understanding of how to implement AI into your production strategy, I invite you to accompany me on YouTube. I share six exciting ways AI can revolutionize the movie production process, streamline development, and boost your chances of success.
Of course, Diversity in Cinema Academy has many other resources that I love to share with you, but I wanted to keep this blog strictly about Starting an Indie Film Production.
If I had to pick two resources I couldn't live without for starting my film production, it would be these two tools.
Tool #1 - The Producer's Handbook
Tool #2 - The Pocket Lawyer for Filmmakers
Aside from the tools above, I also use many other resources to help me prep for a movie production. Some of them are FREE and some are paid.
You can check out some of the other resources that I love using on Diversity in Cinema Academy's resources page. You can view all of the resources for Filmmakers, Content Creators and Screenwriters from the links provided.
From filmmaking tools, to content creation tools, to screenwriting tools... they all can be found in the tools section of Diversity in Cinema Academy's website. I highly recommend that you check out our tools store! :)
If you like it, please help me to share the resources link with a friend. I would really appreciate it!
Okay, that's all for now. I hope that you have found the information I provided helpful!
Enough information, start your production!
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