If you want to establish yourself as a filmmaker but don’t know where to begin, making a short film is a great place to start. Short films can be made quickly and inexpensively without the complex logistics that features require. While you may be committed to making your dream debut feature, remember that a short film can be your calling card as you enter the industry. It will give you the experience necessary to make a bigger project, and a well-made short that gets attention at festivals or online will also give you the credibility needed to attract investors when you are ready to make a feature. If you have a strong idea for a feature but want to start smaller, consider adapting that idea into a short and use that to try to get your feature financed. You can also make a pilot for a television show and use that to get your show made, as Charlie Day, Glenn Howerton, and Rob McElhenney did when they made a no-budget pilot for It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia.
To finance your first shorts, you might not need to look very far. Short films are not made with profit in mind, so rather than going after investors, you might look at people in your circle who would chip in to help you out. Crowdfunding platforms, such as Kickstarter and Indiegogo, are a great way to spread the word to your network, friends, and family members, and when you combine those contributions with personal savings and loans, it’s likely you will be able to cover your budget.
The trick is to keep your budget small, but you need to keep in mind how quickly costs can add up. For many filmmakers who are just getting started, you can get people to work for free, as your cast and crew will also be looking for experience and exposure. Even without paying for labor, though, your daily costs can skyrocket from paying for food, equipment, and production costs. Just as you look in your network for raising money, also be resourceful when it comes to getting locations, camera and lighting gear, props, and costumes. Be realistic with your short and know what you can successfully pull off within your budget. A well-made short with modest ambition will get you further than a short that is more ambitious but poorly executed.
Once you start making features and getting into higher budgets, raising the money becomes more difficult as you search for investors for your projects. Even for experienced filmmakers, financing remains a major challenge, and you need to prove to investors that your film has a shot at making money. Each film has a different pathway to success, and to attract investors you should put together a business plan that outlines the path you hope your film will take. To do this, you want to put together “comps,” which are comparable films that you expect your film to perform similarly to. Look for films with similar budgets, genres, and name-brand value in the cast and crew, and use their earnings to show the potential that your film has in the marketplace.
With IMDbPro, this process becomes much easier. You have full access to Box Office Mojo data, and you can search through the top films from over 200 genre keywords, which will help you narrow down the perfect comps for your film. The IMDbPro STARmeter comes in handy as well, as you can look at how your talent is trending and use that to pick films with a similar level of name-brand value that your film has. The IMDbPro pages of people and companies allow you to easily go through their films and see how they performed, and as you compare data, you can find the pathway to success for your own film.
In addition to showing projections for the film’s revenue and profits, you want to lay out your plan for your film after it is made, from getting it into film festivals, finding a distributor, and rolling out the marketing. Once your name is established or you manage to get talent with name recognition in your film, you can get a sales agent and raise money for your films by pre-selling the distribution rights in various territories before you even start filming.
While your business plan should be thorough in its detail, you also want to create a pitch deck, which condenses your business plan into an easily digestible package. This will cover the main points of your plan and let the reader know in five to 10 minutes whether or not it is something they want to invest in. This is your chance to grab their attention. Remember that investors receive many film pitches, so you want to show what sets your project apart and what makes you a reliable party to invest in.
After having a strong business plan put together, you are ready to reach out to investors. One strategy is to reach out to wealthy individuals in your community who are interested in investing in films. While films are known to be risky investments, tax incentives mitigate some of that risk, and the glamour of being involved in a film production attracts investors despite the low chance of seeing a return. Dentists and doctors are famously good investors for small independent films, and networking in your city can introduce you to many high-net-worth people who are looking for an exciting place to park their money.
You should also reach out to companies that invest in films; you can find these companies with IMDbPro. If you go to the Companies section, you can search for companies that specialize in financing. While not all financing companies are interested in making low-budget films, this is another area where your comps will come in handy. Go to the company credits for films similar to yours and you will see the production companies involved in them, complete with their staff and contact info.
Another valuable tool for financing your film is through grants. Grants are an excellent way for up-and-coming filmmakers to secure partial or full funding for their shorts, documentaries, and features—and grants do not require any money to be returned. There are many grants given out to films on specific subjects or to filmmakers from certain backgrounds, so look around to find the right grants to apply for and be sure to stay on top of the deadlines. While getting grants may seem less stressful than finding investors, the application process should not be taken lightly. You should put the same effort into your grant applications as you put into your business plan and pitch deck.
Some great places you can apply for grants are The Sundance Institute, Film Independent, The Film Fund, The Moving Picture Institute, Austin Film Society, Tribeca Film Institute, and Filmmakers Without Borders. Be sure to search for other grants, as many are available based on location, genre, and subject matter, and they can cover films still in development to films that are in the editing phase and need finishing funds.
Whether you make a short or a feature, you will want to submit it to film festivals. As an independent filmmaker without distribution in place, this is your best path to getting your film seen by audiences. Major festivals such as Sundance and Cannes have launched many filmmakers from obscurity to success, and the festivals your film plays in are the equivalent of your film’s CV. Festivals boost your film’s profile to distributors and critics, and many independent filmmakers who lack mainstream commercial prospects can sustain their careers by having their films play the festival circuit. Festivals are not only a place to show a film and get it sold, but they are also where you can meet investors for your next project, so always show up to a festival with ideas and preferably scripts ready.
As important as film festivals are, they no longer hold the monopoly on giving your film an audience. In fact, in some ways, building an audience is now easier than ever. Video streaming sites, such as YouTube and Vimeo, give filmmakers a chance to show their films immediately after they finish editing them, and social media platforms allow you to share your film with the public in a way that was previously impossible. While festivals are still the preferred route for serious filmmakers, the ability to upload and share your work means that an audience is always within your reach.
With video platforms such as YouTube and the power of social media, you can now bypass traditional distribution methods entirely and still find an audience. However, with a highly competitive marketplace, it is hard to break through. For features, a traditional festival and distribution model is a better idea. However, online self-distribution is a great way to get shorts out there. A more serious dramatic short film may be better off for festivals, but there is a large market online for comedy, and if you can deliver a continuous stream of content and make a sustained effort to engage with your audience via social media, you can build a following that you could leverage into a more traditional studio or network deal in the future.
A great way for independent filmmakers to find an audience online is through web series. A number of big television shows have started as independently made web series. Broad City, the brainchild of Ilana Glazer and Abbi Jacobson, began on YouTube for two seasons as it built an audience before it got picked up by Comedy Central. A similar success story came when a teenager named Fred Figglehorn launched the show Fred on YouTube in 2006. The show became a sensation, and it was brought to Nickelodeon for a series of films and a show.
Even if you make a web series that does not get picked up, a successful web series can grant you an audience with a network that would otherwise have been hard to get. When this happens, you want to be ready with ideas for more series. It helps to have pilot scripts to share, and you can create an even more compelling package by having pitch bibles for your ideas. A pitch bible will contain a description of the show, the characters, ideas for different episodes, and how story arcs will unfold.
Film sets often have dozens, if not hundreds, of people working on them. Split into different departments, a film crew is what makes a film go from the filmmaker’s vision into a fully realized production. Crewing up your film is one of the most important parts of the job, and filmmakers should know who they need to hire for their shoots to pull the production off. The scale of your production will determine how many crew members you need, and while overstaffing may stretch your budget thin, understaffing can make you lose time and make it hard to pull off what you want. Let’s take a look at the important positions and departments, what they do, and the key positions you should bring on board.
When you look at the credits of a film, you will notice that there are numerous producers as well as types of producers. Not all of these will be necessary to your film, and their roles are not always specifically defined, but in general, producers oversee the filmmaking process from start to finish, find the script or develop it with the writer, bring in cast and crew members, secure the money for the film, and work to get it seen by audiences. If you are making a low-budget short, the producer and director can be one and the same, but as you start working on larger projects, you will want a dedicated producer to handle greater logistical challenges as they come up.
It all starts with the screenwriter, who puts into words what the rest of the crew will work to put onto screen. If you’ve got an idea that you think will make a killer short or film, there is nothing stopping you from using a free screenwriting service such as WriterDuet or Celtx and getting started. As the screenwriter’s job happens in pre-production, they can also produce, direct, or do any other job they are qualified for on set. It is common to see filmmakers both write and direct, but screenwriting is a specialized craft and directors who are looking for material should seek out writers to collaborate with or already written scripts to make.
The director is the key creative vision behind the film, and they work with other departments to realize their vision. While directors are often regarded as the author of a film, directing is a collaborative job, and choosing and communicating with collaborators is a major part of the job. Directors sometimes write their own scripts or develop scripts with screenwriters, but they often come on board after a script is already written. The director works with different departments to come up with the look and feel of a film, and they determine what shots they need and how actors will perform a scene. Directing takes practice, so start small before diving into larger projects.
Martin Scorsese is famous for saying, “Casting is 85 to 90 percent of the picture.” No matter how good your script and production values are, it is worth nothing if you do not have great actors to bring the characters to life. Aspiring filmmakers may be tempted to cast their family and friends, but it is important to get the best people you can. Even without a budget to work with, you can get talented, experienced actors and actresses from local theater groups and schools who are looking to show their chops.
Assistant directors (ADs) are the taskmasters of a production, and they keep shoots running smoothly, making sure everything and everyone is in the right place at the right time. Films have many assistant directors with their duties divided up, but on a small-scale production, you can get away with having just a 1st AD, adding on a 2nd AD, 2nd 2nd AD, 3rd AD, and so on as things grow more logistically complex. On very small shoots, the producer may double as the AD.
The camera department is headed by the cinematographer, also known as the director of photography (DP). They work with the director to make decisions on camera angles, lighting, lenses, color palette, and other visual characteristics of the film, and it is their responsibility to carry these out. Directors who are experienced with cameras and lighting may choose to be their own DPs, especially on smaller productions, but most productions should have a dedicated cinematographer. While bigger productions will have people who operate cameras and set up lights, a small short may see the cinematographer fly solo. As your projects grow in size, so will your camera department. The first assistant camera (1st AC) pulls focus, swaps lenses, and takes care of the camera, and this position is essential when you want to pull off more complicated shots and work with more advanced camera gear. If you are running more than one camera, you will need an additional camera operator. Another essential position as your productions grow is a digital imaging technician (DIT) who will back up your footage and keep your files organized, and even the smallest shoots need someone tech savvy to transfer the footage.
Grip and electric (G&E) support the camera department, setting up lighting and camera equipment, and they are often the handiest people on a film set. Grips, led by the key grip, are in charge of setting up tripods, dollies, tracks, cranes, and other equipment and rigging for the camera. The electric department, led by the gaffer, sets up the lights and is in charge of all of the electrical needs for a set. Grips do not set up lights directly, but they do set up diffusions, flags, and other gear that impacts the quality of the light. While smaller shoots with minimal equipment may not require much of a G&E team, if you are working with lights and plugging in anything that is high voltage, you want to make sure you have someone on set who knows what they are doing.
Props, sets, and set decorations are all the domain of the art department. The head of the department is the production designer, who works with the director to make key creative decisions about the film’s look. On a smaller shoot, a production designer is all you really need, and while you may feel you can handle the sets and props yourself, having a production designer with a great eye for detail will elevate your film and make it feel more authentic.
Hair and makeup is an essential part of the filmmaking process, with the stars spending hours in the vanity trailer each day before they appear on screen and larger hair and makeup crews to manage the entire cast. On a smaller shoot, you can get by with one person who does both hair and makeup. You may think it is unnecessary when the cast can do it themselves, but it is helpful to have a dedicated hair and makeup person who can keep continuity and knows how lighting changes the look of the talent.
Whether they will be designing clothes from scratch or going to thrift shops to find the perfect budget buys to suit your characters, you will want to have a costume designer who can help give your characters the right look.
Sound is an oft neglected component for aspiring filmmakers. Audiences will generally forgive low production values, but they will never forgive bad sound. Make sure you at least have a dedicated sound person to operate the mixer, mic up the actors, and hold the boom.
When the laborious process of filming your movie comes to an end, you may think the end of the tunnel is near, but editing requires great time and care, as it is as important to shaping your film as any other part of the production. A great editor does not just assemble your footage, but they make it come alive, working alongside the director to find the right flow and rhythm for the film.
Music can completely change the feel of your film, and while you may put in your favorite songs and soundtrack pieces while editing, getting the rights to these is unlikely. There are many services offering royalty-free music, which can be had for free or at a low cost so you can replace your temp tracks. Another option is to get a composer. While an orchestral score may be out of your budget, many musicians with home setups are looking to showcase their talents. If you want to license music, you can hire a music supervisor who can help you select songs in your budget that will fit your film.
There are many more positions that you may want to consider having depending on the needs of your film. A location manager will help you find locations and get the proper permission to film there, though on smaller projects the producer can handle this work. If you have any stunt work in your film, it is imperative that you have a professional stunt team to help you pull it off. Script supervisors are the unsung heroes of film shoots, as they keep track of continuity from shot to shot and take to take. And of course, you always need production assistants standing by to lend a helping hand wherever they are needed.
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