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Don’t Do This!: 12 Mistakes Commonly Made on Independent Film Productions

The mixture of risk-taking, cost-cutting and pure enthusiasm that is independent film production can lead to great movies but also, all too frequently, poorly thought-out productions. Here, from producer Maureen A. Ryan (Man on Wire), is a list of 12 mistakes often made by new filmmakers and their producers as well as many who should know better. It originally appeared in our Winter, 2012 issue.

1. Decide to shoot before you have the best script possible. You’re dying to shoot your first feature but don’t start prepping until your script is ready to be shot. It doesn’t matter if your mom loves it (she loves that finger painting you did in first grade too). Or an actor who you want to star in it thinks it’s the best thing you have ever written (he just wants to star in a film, any film). You need to get good, detailed notes from professionals who know what makes a good script. Do script readings and invite professionals to give feedback so you can re-write it to make it the best it can be.

2. Rush into pre-production without creating a thorough script breakdown. Once you have a great script that is close to what it will finally be — meaning that locations, production, costume design and characters will not change — you need to do a detailed script breakdown. It’s the only way you will know what you’ll need to plan and budget for. It will be the blueprint (along with the budget) to guide you through the rest of your plans to make the film a reality. Remember to use a good scheduling software to do the breakdown.

3. Fail to create a realistic budget. Don’t try to make your film based on how much you think you can raise or the maximum limit on your credit cards. Take the script breakdown and create an overall schedule. Then go line by line through a budget and estimate how much it will really cost. And don’t assume you will get a free camera and everyone will work for free. Put in money to pay for everything first and get to a number. If you end up getting free equipment later, you can always lower the budget. Lastly, if you are using SAG actors, remember to budget for the actors’ salaries based on the SAGIndie contract you qualify for. 

4. Only raise enough money to get the film shot but not finished, Too many filmmakers fail to raise the full amount to finish the film all the way through post-production and final master. They think they will shoot the film with all the money they have and then worry about the rest while they are editing. Bad idea. You need to finish the film completely to a final master before you can get it to film festivals or send it out to distributors for a possible sale. If you don’t have enough money for music, audio mix and color correct, you’ll be in “limbo” — so close and yet so far away from your world premiere. Don’t shoot until you have the full budget or reduce your budget for production so you have enough to finish the film entirely.

5. Don’t lock script far enough in advance. Once you have raised all the money for your budget and you begin official pre-production (casting, location scouting and hiring of crew), you need to be working off a script that is locked. Everything needs to be as it will be in the final shooting script except for dialogue changes. If you have a script that is still changing those elements, you are working with a moving target and will be wasting time and money because your department heads won’t know what to prep. Don’t start pre-production until the script is locked.

6. Run out of time and give up looking for the right actor for each role. Don’t settle for an actor or actress who is not perfect for the role. If you cast the wrong person you will have to live with that performance on set, in the edit room and in the finished film for the rest of your life. Continue casting and searching until you find the right talent. Then it’s time to start final pre-production.

7. Don’t request and contact two references on every crew/cast member that you plan to hire. It’s imperative that you check out two references for every person you plan to hire for the film. “One bad apple spoils the whole bunch,” and on an indie film it’s imperative that each person is excellent at what they do and has the right attitude to make the production a good experience for everyone. The corollary to this is if you do make a hiring mistake and you end up in production with the wrong person, make sure you replace them before they “infect” the rest of the crew. They don’t get better as time goes by, only worse. Do the research on each hire so you know you have a talented and dedicated crew.

8. Don’t do a “walk-through” before and after filming in each location. Those who fail to take “before and after” pictures of all their locations open themselves up to lawsuits, security deposit losses and insurance claims. Make sure you go around the location with the owner before the cast/crew arrives, make notes and take pictures of all prior damage. Have the two of you sign a sheet that agrees to those notes and then do it again at the end of the day. That way you protect yourself and the production.

9. Don’t set up a legal entity and don’t get insurance to make the film. Hire a lawyer and do your research about what legal entity you need to produce your film. Creating an LLC or corporation will protect you from certain liability factors. You don’t want a lawsuit from an indie film to jeopardize your personal assets like a car or a house. It is very easy and relatively inexpensive to create a corporate entity online. Also remember to purchase production insurance (general liability, equipment, auto and worker’s compensation) to protect you and the film from the liability factors that come with producing a film.

10. Don’t get signed releases, deal memos and legal paperwork for the film’s deliverables. You’ve completed your film, premiered at a great film festival and now a distributor wants to release your film. Congratulations! But before you get the check for the minimum guarantee and start paying back your investors, you need to send the distributor copies of all your signed legal paperwork (i.e. release forms, SAG contracts, music licensing agreements, written transcripts, copyright, crew deal memos and E&O insurance). If you don’t have it, you won’t be able to take the distribution deal. Make sure you have all this paperwork before you start pre-production and get it signed before you begin production and throughout the process of finishing the film. Keep back-up copies and have it all ready for when you get the big offer!

11. Collaborate with people for the wrong reasons. There’s a d.p. who has his own camera and will work for free so you pick him for your film. It turns out he isn’t a good collaborator and terrorizes the rest of the crew. Or you pick a producer because she went to a top film school but she doesn’t treat people with mutual respect and gets into a fight with one of the location owners while you are shooting. Make sure you pick collaborators based on the same values and ethics that you believe in. When things get tough, you’ll be glad you did.

12. Forget that it’s just a movie and you are not curing cancer. It may feel like the most important thing you have ever done and that may be the case for you. But keep a good perspective and a healthy sense of balance throughout the process of producing your film. Your family, friends, cast and crew will thank you — and want to work with you again!

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