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Film & TV

How to Make an Independent Film: Step-by-Step Guide

Written by MasterClass

Last updated: Oct 31, 2019 • 5 min read

Independent filmmaking is a useful avenue for first-time filmmakers or those shooting with a low-budget, but there are other reasons some choose to produce films outside of the studio system. Independent films—or “indie films”—are controlled more by the creator in terms of content, voice, and style. With a lack of big budget and fewer crew members at their disposal, indie filmmakers can be more hands-on with their film productions, and have greater freedom to tell the story they want to tell.

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What Is an Indie Film?

An indie film is any feature-length or short film that is made without a major studio or big production company attached. Indie filmmaking is often low-budget, which in the film industry can mean anywhere from a few thousand dollars (“micro-budget”) to a few million. For instance, directors Eduardo Sánchez and Daniel Myrick’s The Blair Witch Project (1999) only had a budget of around $60,000, while Jason Reitman’s Juno (2007) had a budget of $6.5 million, and Danny Boyle’s Slumdog Millionaire (2008) had a budget of $15 million—all of which are considered independent films.

What to Consider Before Making an Indie Film

  • The script. Whether you’re trying to find a feature film to produce independently or writing the story yourself, it all starts with the script. While it’s true that indie films allow creators more control over their content than studio films, that doesn’t mean you can just make any movie. Any story that requires big special effects, multiple far-off locations, or lots of computer-generated imagery (CGI) will likely not be the right choice for independent filmmakers, especially if this is their first feature film.
  • The production budget. How much money will your film need to get made? How much do you personally have to contribute? How much will you need to raise? Unless you’ve found yourself a financial producer or an independent studio willing to chip in, you’ll have to find a way to secure funds. Along with the cost of your production, the budget must also cover the developmental costs of pre-production, insurance for your production, and post-production, where all the editing and sound mixing will take place. Some other fundraising options include asking family and friends to help, or using a crowdfunding site like Kickstarter or Indiegogo.
  • Your cast. Studios often rely on big name actors to market their films to audiences, but big name actors cost money. Carefully weigh the worth of different casting possibilities. Don’t spend a lot of money on a small role just to give the film a boost in name recognition. Instead, invest money in an actor who will raise the bar for the rest of the cast. Be prepared to go searching for this talent—whether it be at improv clubs, storytelling events, or open casting calls on the internet—there are plenty of talented actors you can find that won’t break the budget.
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How to Make an Indie Movie

Without the resources of Hollywood studios, the roles they serve will fall to you and your limited crew, making budget filmmaking a more DIY process than a Hollywood film. While there is no one way to make an indie movie, there are some basic guidelines you can follow:

  1. Find your script. All films, regardless of the budget, start with a script. Make sure the concept can fit within the confines of a low-budget production. For instance, a science fiction film that requires many effects, backgrounds, and intense makeup will likely not be an ideal first choice for an independent film. If you yourself are the screenwriter, carefully consider your creative choices, like genre, number of characters, and setting. Making a story more cost effective for yourself will benefit you in the long run.
  2. Sort your budget. Once you have your story, figure out how much money it’ll cost. The budget will affect your cast and crew, equipment, locations, permits, and post-production. Even if you’re the writer, director, and lead actor of your production, you’ll still need to hire a handful of somewhat experienced people (ideally those who have worked with your budget range before) to help collaborate with you on your filmmaking journey. Knowing how much you’ll need to spend on each department will make it easier to track production finances, and keep you from going over your limited budget.
  3. Hire your crew. Figure out the most crucial roles of your production and fill them first. For example, if you’re the one directing—especially if it’s your first time—you should be looking to hire an experienced cinematographer (also known as the director of photography, or “DP”). Having a DP who understands your vision and can take charge of the camera, lighting, and various other technical aspects of your shoot can not only help increase the production value (how the quality of the film looks), but save time so you can focus on your other responsibilities.
  4. Get your cast. There are many different types of low-budget agreements for SAG eligible actors, but those costs can add up. According to the SAG-AFTRA low-budget criteria, the current day rate for an actor is $125. That amount may not seem like a lot, but if your shoot takes eight days, that’s already $1,000—and, you’ll still need enough money in your cast budget to pay for any other actors you’ll need (and contingency funds in case you go overtime). This is where searching venues for performers can come in handy.
  5. Prep your shoot days. Make a production bible that includes your shot list, scene layouts, character notes, schedule, and any other necessary information you’ll need while shooting, as well as a contingency plan. All productions experience setbacks, like losing a location or inclement weather affecting an exterior scene. If there are weather conditions written into a scene, plan to use natural elements to your advantage whenever possible. Instead of artificially staging weather conditions with expensive equipment like rain machines, wait to film your scene during an actual rainstorm. You must plan for worst-case scenarios and figure out how to turn them to your advantage.
  6. Mind the post-production. Editors can turn a good film into a great film. It doesn’t matter if you’ve shot perfect scenes—without an editor to put them together, they’re useless. Unless you already have experience using editing software, it is advised that you set aside money to pay a professional for this crucial stage. Sound design is also critical. Bad sound mixing can make a movie feel amateurish, but good sound design can completely elevate a production, and make it feel more professional. Post-production is where your vision finally comes together to create a polished final product.
  7. Submit to film festivals. Once you’ve shot and edited your film (and screened it to peers for feedback), it’s time to show it to the world. Indie film festivals like Sundance or SXSW are some of the bigger festivals out there, but will require money to travel to unless you already live in the area. However, festivals can help secure your project a film distributor, which means that you’ll finally have an audience for the independent film you’ve made.

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