I’ve been producing independent film and television content for well over 20 years, and that has afforded me many opportunities to make mistakes, fail, try again, learn from those mistakes and do better. Indie producers have to be ready for failure — it’s going to happen — but that’s how we grow and improve. Making movies is hard. For anyone. Just getting a finished picture in the can is an achievement you can be proud of. It doesn’t haven’t to be Oscar-worthy as long as you stayed true to yourself and the story you wanted to tell. That said, I’m going to share below 10 things you can do as an indie producer to better position yourself for success. In other words, I’m going to help you learn from some of my early mistakes so you don’t make the same ones!
It Starts with a Script
Rushing a picture into production before the script is ready is a recipe for failure. You can make a so-so movie from a great script, but it’s nearly impossible to make a great movie from a so-so script. Take the time to do development the right way. Writing is rewriting, so don’t be afraid to share notes with the writer (or get notes if you’re also the writer) that will improve the script. Get unbiased, third-party opinions through writers’ groups or contests. The script will literally be read hundreds of times by cast, crew and the like before the film gets finished, so make it something people actually want to spend weeks (or months) of their lives on.
Get the Movie Made
I can’t count how many times in my career I had a chance to get a project greenlit, but had to accept terms and conditions that weren’t ideal. This could have been script changes, budget limitations, additional producers, whatever. Early on, I was often stubborn and felt like my vision was the only true pathway to success. Not only did I occasionally earn a reputation for being difficult, but it hindered me from getting pictures made. Bottom line, raising money is hard no matter the budget. If you have a real chance at a greenlight, but the terms are not ideal, consider the ultimate goal — getting the movie made! — and really weight what you can live with and without.
Realize that Not All Money is Good Money
After harping about getting your picture made, this might sound like a contradiction, but I promise you it’s not. Just because you have an offer for financing doesn’t mean you should take it. Offers oftentimes come with untenable strings attached — perhaps loss of ownership, involvement or profit-sharing. It may come from less-than-scrupulous people. It may come at the expense of you or your story’s integrity. It may cause you to ultimately sacrifice something greater, like another more stable funding source. Weigh the costs carefully. Use an attorney if need be. Make sure you fully understand the consequences of accepting funding and your responsibilities to that financier.
Conduct the Orchestra, Don’t Play
When people ask me to describe the role of a producer, I usually tell them I’m like the conductor of an orchestra. I may not know how to play the viola or the French horn or the timpani drum, but I know how to find the musicians, put them together and make them play. I know how it should sound. And I know just enough about each instrument that if something’s out of tune, I can find it and fix it. But I don’t play. I tell my crew, “Look, you’re better at what you do than I am. That’s why I hired you.” I tell them what to play and then I let them play. It’s key to trust your team members and empower them to do their jobs without significant micromanagement. If you don’t trust them, you either haven’t found the right people or you need to look inward.
Be Clear About Results
While trusting your team is key, so is managing expectations. There are three things you need to be clear about right from the beginning: 1) the result you want; 2) when you expect that result by; and 3) what resources (i.e., money, crew, equipment, etc.) you’re giving them to get you that result. If they assure you they can deliver, let them go do it. You’re there to supervise and troubleshoot issues, but I promise you the clearer you are about the results you expect, the less likely that troubleshooting will even be necessary.
Learn to Wear Many Hats
Very rarely does an indie producer get to sit back and just be a producer. Quite often, we have to be line producers, UPMs, post supers, development execs, attorneys, accountants, coordinators, even set PAs! I once had a budget so tight, I had to stand at the catering table and personally dish out portions of food to crew members just to ensure we had enough for everyone! The more skills you learn, the more knowledgeable you will become, and therefore the more valuable you will be to financiers, writers, directors and other producers. Moreover, it may allow you to save areas of your budget that could otherwise prove costly, making you worth your weight in gold. (For example, if you become adept at drafting and reading contracts, that may be less time you have to pay a pricey outside attorney.)
Put It on the Screen
If you’re the kind of producer who can make dimes look like dollars on screen, you’ll become more desirable to other filmmakers because they’ll want you to work your magic on their projects as well. Analyze what areas of your budget will really show up on screen and prioritize them. Maybe it’s something tangible and direct like a cool picture car or camera toy or special effect (as long as you can afford it), but it may also be something intangible like a good meal for your crew that keeps them happy, energized and working hard to get the shots you need.
Being a good producer is not just being a conductor, but also a circus performer. That’s because you’re always walking a tightrope between the financier and the production. On the one hand, you have to protect the money and make sure it gets spent appropriately; on the other hand, you have to give your director and below-the-line team the resources they need to bring value to the screen. The best way to achieve this balancing act is to accept the nature of trade-offs and get your people to do the same. Even if you can’t fully appease one side or the other, analyze options thoroughly so that you can present them with a choice. Maybe the director can have that crane shot, but he’ll have to settle for a cheaper and less desirable location.
Don’t Be Afraid to Say “I Don’t Know”
Whether it’s ego, fear or the pressure of providing a quick answer, too many producers are reticent to say those three little words: “I. Don’t. Know.” Of course, the follow-up to that should be, “But I’ll find out.” Remember those multiple hats we have to wear? Sometimes that includes “researcher.” Better to measure twice and cut once. No one will think less of you for not having all the answers upfront. In fact, they’ll probably respect you more for your honesty, directness and due diligence.
Be Prepared to Climb Back Down the Mountain
Now you’re thinking, what, I have to be a conductor, circus performer and mountain climber? Yeah, kind of. Many filmmakers understand what a climb it is to get their indie film made. It’s like scaling Everest! But what they don’t realize is that when they reach the peak, they’re only halfway done. They still need to get back down! And that’s a whole other journey! That part of the journey involves what you do with your finished film — attending festivals, generating publicity, marketing efforts, securing distribution and foreign sales, creating additional deliverables, paying residuals and backend participants, paying back financiers, and so forth. All in all, producing a picture is a multi-year endeavor that requires the tenacity to keep going until you finally find your audience — an audience that is willing to hand over their hard-earned dollars in exchange for the promise that you can keep them entertained for 90 minutes.
Now that you’ve learned from some of the mistakes I once made, go out there and make a few of your own! Happy producing!