How to Make Your Film on a Budget And Get it into Festivals
Andy Ferguson / WNW Member
Last month, my first short film Going Public screened at the SoHo International Film Festival. It was the culmination of a year-long process for myself and my friend/co-creator, Steve O’Reilly, that saw the project move through a variety of iterations before finally settling in as the short film that it ultimately became. In other words, we pitched the concept around ("It’s a comedy about a couple who tries to spice up their lives by having sex in public") but got tired of waiting for a greenlight so we just decided to make it ourselves.
Along the way, I’ve chatted with a number of creative friends who were interested in learning how the film actually got made. On the surface that sounds surprising, right? We’re talking about a bunch of people who have all made a bunch of really great things in the commercial world so, obviously, they understand how projects get made. But at the same time I get it, because before I started making content independently, I had only made it through traditional commercial/production channels and, when you do that, there are a lot of practical steps that just “happen” and it’s easy to take for granted the fact that they get done.
When you’re making something on a client budget, you never stop and ask “who’s in charge of making sure there’s water on the set?” There’s always water on the set! And food! And tape! And walkie-talkies that are connected to people who can make virtually any item you need or desire “appear” in about the time it takes you to decide where you should eat dinner after you wrap for the day. When you’re making something yourself, it quickly becomes obvious that if there’s a question about who’s in charge of something, the odds are the answer is “you”. You’re responsible for the water. And casting. And making sure there are shooting permits. And providing wardrobe. And paying everyone for their time.
To be clear, this is not a complaint. It’s just a mental shift you have to make when you’re shooting something independently. In reality, you’re hardly doing it yourself. There are amazing people helping every step of the way but, at the end of the day, it’s your production. So even if you aren’t “technically” responsible for doing any of the above tasks, you are ultimately responsible for making sure the tasks get done.
With that in mind, I wanted to share some of the most common questions I’ve gotten because I figured there are a few more people out there who might want to make something (do it!) and hopefully my experiences can help motivate you. And if that’s too ambitious, hopefully they’ll help you avoid some of the same mistakes I made.
Also, please take everything with a grain of salt. These are only my experiences, which pale in comparison to a lot of other people’s better and more complete experiences. I’m okay with that. I hope you are too.
I’ve got a great idea for a show or movie. Who should I pitch it to?
Anyone who will listen. The more you pitch it, the more concrete the idea will become and the more you’ll actually have to think the idea through. Plus, most people will tell you they love the idea (and they’ll genuinely mean that) and that’ll feel good and give you the confidence to keep pursuing your great idea. But don’t expect anyone to actually buy it or provide you with the necessary money to make it. Because it doesn’t work that way.
So then how does it work?
I don’t know exactly but I have my theories. From what I can tell, your “great idea” doesn’t really mean anything on its own. In order to sell a project, you’ve got to have some combination of great idea + marketable actor(s) + tangible audience/following. If you have two out of three, someone will provide you with necessary funds to make your thing. If all you have is your great idea, that same “someone” will provide you with a smile and pat on the back. But that’s okay because we live in a day and age where you can make your great idea without waiting for permission or a financial windfall. And you definitely should.
So what do I do after I decide to make my project?
In my opinion, the most important thing you can do is to find a great producer. Preferably someone who has experience producing independent content and is passionate about your project. Because you need someone who is committed to making projects and isn’t deterred by your budget (or lack thereof). This producer will truly be the difference between your project getting made and languishing on your computer. And I know that sounds dramatic and like a tall order to fulfill but it’s really not. If you don’t have someone who can recommend a great producer, there are sites like Mandy which exist to connect film industry professionals to projects just like yours.
How do you find your actors?
It’s really a combo of things – from doing a casting to discovering them at a comedy show/theater production to finding them on Facebook and straight-up asking them if they want to be involved. I once read that actors spend 90% of their careers unemployed. That stat is obviously impossible to verify but the larger point is that actors don’t get to work nearly as much as they want to work. Even the ones you really like and see on your favorite show aren’t that busy and are probably auditioning more than they’re actually working. So if you’ve got a project that you think they’d be great in, let them know. If they can’t do it, they’ll say “no.” But you might be surprised how many don’t.
If you’re casting from scratch, you can post new calls for auditions to sites like Actorsaccess.com. There are a ton of talented folks out there that you’ve never seen or heard of. Even if you can’t get a big name, there’s no doubt that you can get a big talent.
Do you pay them?
You can definitely get actors who will work for free but chances are you’re going to feel the “savings” at some point, whether it’s in the performance or the actor's commitment to the project. Real actors are trying to pay the bills by practicing their craft whenever they can. If you give them that opportunity, most actors are going to jump at the chance.
How much do you pay them?
Not as much as they deserve. SAG new media contracts work in a very speculative way (ie, if the project makes money, the actors also make some sort of revenue, but otherwise you’re probably paying a day rate.) As the creator, though, this works in your favor. You’ll have access to talented performers at a fraction of the cost of your commercial projects. Which is a weird feeling and something that concerned me before our first day of shooting. I was feeling apologetic and insecure about our “rates.” Luckily, our producer was able to offer up some insight that has proven true with every successive shoot I’ve had: actors want to act. They don’t care about the money as much as they care about the experience of acting (and everything that comes with it). That’s why they do it so if you can provide them with that experience, the vast majority of them are going to give you their very best effort. So don’t worry about the money. Worry about running a professional set. With a holding room where they can hang out between scenes. Make sure you have hair and makeup. And some basic crafts services. If the experience feels good and real, the actors will be satisfied.
What about all the post-production?
I think this is a challenge for anyone who makes a piece of independent content. Unless you work in post-production, you’re going to have to call in some favors or just pay for it, which can get expensive when you start adding up editing, music, sound design, and finishing. My advice is to learn how to edit. It’s actually pretty simple, the software is relatively cheap and YouTube is filled with lessons for beginners. Most importantly, of all the elements that are going to impact your story, editing is going to be the most significant. You know the story you’re trying to tell better than anyone else. I found that, even when I wasn’t doing the actual editing, I was so specific with my choices that I might as well have been.
How did you get into film festivals?
There are sites like Film Freeway that make it their business to list all the film festivals as well as their submission requirements and important deadlines. You can upload all your relevant information (project, credits, artwork) and submit to as many festivals as you’d like in just a few clicks. As for where to submit, that’s something that requires a little research to find the right fit or a recommendation from someone who knows festivals. Going Public was accepted into four festivals (Rochester, New Haven, USA Festival in Dallas, and SoHo). Steve and I had the opportunity to watch our film screened in multiple theaters, which was a legitimate thrill each time and an extremely validating part of the experience.
We still haven’t fully released Going Public yet and we’re hopeful that once we do, the film will find its way to somebody who shares our enthusiasm for this story and wants to see it developed further. We have ideas for how to make it as a series or a movie and we’d love to continue bringing these characters to life. Meanwhile, though, we’re shooting a new show called Team Mars. It’s about a group of would-be astronauts who spend three years simulating life on Mars. In Antarctica. It’s another independent production and we’ll be shooting in mid-August with the intention of releasing the first of six episodes in October. If you found this article helpful, I’m going to be writing about the whole experience of putting the show together on my website. Hope you stop by!