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Techniques for Independent Production
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Old May 26th, 2010, 02:09 AM   #1
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Low Budget Feature

Howdy All-

I've been a big fan of this forum for years, and have found myself lurking about from time to time searching for knowledge on all sorts of topics ranging from the uber-technical to the completely abstract, but have rarely posted, due to a prodigious, nigh, obsessive use of the "search" button.

But now- I have been given the opportunity to direct an ultra-low budget feature ($50, 000), set to shoot in the San Francisco Bay Area in late November/early December of this year. And while I have directed several shorts, and worked as a DP, AD, and AC on a bunch of non-union shoots, I have never had the responsibility... uh, privilege of producing a full-feature, and as I'm sure you all know- 50g ain't all that much.

So, so far:

I have a great script that we (myself and 2 other writers) have been developing for the past year. We've done several table readings, and been critiqued by a professional reader. I really feel like the script is in good solid shape. It is a fairly straight-forward indie-drama, written for budget, with no crazy locations/stunts/or effects.

I have a 2nd producer, who is an actor and will play one of the leads. He is a member of SAG, and will be extremely helpful in the casting process, in dealing with SAG contracts, and helping drum up locations.

I have an executive producer who knows nothing of the process of film-making; but is enthusiastic, and willing to invest $50,000, the funds to create an LLC, and give us a free audition/rehersal space.

I have a production company that will lend us a fair amount of equipment (Canon 5D camera- no lenses, and grip truck).

I have created a budget that includes small salaries for the following positions for the 22 day shoot:

-3-4 SAG actors on any given day (Day rate/ per diem/ 15.3% insurance)
-Lead sound
-Lead Electrician/Gaff
-Data Management
-Artistic Director (Costumes/Set Dressing)

I have set aside funds for- insurance, catering, costumes, props, rehearsals, purchases, lens rentals, & incidentals.

What else am I missing here? Are there any big gaps? As I said, we are stretched to the limit with 22 days and the above expenditures, I'd like to know if I'm totally missing the boat on some key financial elements here. Any advice would be welcome.

I've heard a gazillion times over that we need lawyer... But what exactly for- How much should I expect to pay them? And What should I expect them to do? I've got the LLC, the insurance, the SAG contracts, and all the release forms in the works: so what am I asking them to do? I know that I cannot use any art/pictures/posters in the back ground of any shot that I do not have permission to use. I know that I need releases for all performer/contractors and locations... What else is there? What will a lawyer do for me? And how much of the slim 50g should I a lot to them?

Thanks in advance to anyone who takes the time to post a response!!!
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Old May 26th, 2010, 07:45 AM   #2
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Don't forget post production, something that tends to be forgotten, plus any marketing requirements such as production stills and actually going to film markets, which are vital.
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Old May 26th, 2010, 10:30 AM   #3
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You have no editor in your crew list and no budget for post.

Shooting tapeless requires special knowledge of how to handle & back up files. Each tapeless format is different. Many projects torpedo themselves by not doing this correctly.

Your shoot is scheduled for 22 days, but your post will take at least 6 months, assuming that you leave no gaps in coverage and require no visual effects. 2 years in post is not uncommon, btw.

You need to budget not only for an editor, but for final color correction & sound mix. These require special skills and professional equipment, so don't expect a college student to do this in his or her dorm room or in mom's basement. You may, however, be lucky enough to find a seasoned professional to do the CC or mix in his or her own basement for a reduced fee.

And what's your final deliverable? A film print will run you around $30k, a DCP for digital projection will run around $6k or more. A HDCam SR or D5 tape for digital master will be another couple of grand. Where's your budget for this?
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Old May 26th, 2010, 12:48 PM   #4
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Curious, since I am in the general area, and a 5D shooter.

1. What are you editing with (Vegas /Cineform here)

2. What kind of lenses you looking for (35 mm primes or ?)

3. When do you expect to shoot ?

4. Is crew filled.

5. Where is shoot to be ?
Chris J. Barcellos
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Old May 26th, 2010, 02:51 PM   #5
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You're right, $50,000 isn't a lot. What are your plans for after the film is done? This is the problem I ran into... I funded my feature myself and now we're stuck with the realization that marketing a film costs money.

If you plan on making a serious push for a theatrical run or straight to DVD you're going to need some amount of promotional money. Without a proper sales rep (which costs $5,000-10,000) you're really looking at a crapshoot for getting discovered (just my POV, anyone else feel free to chime in).
Late December. A feature film by Matthew Overstreet & Christopher J. Adams.
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Old May 26th, 2010, 08:37 PM   #6
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Thanks Everyone!

Wow, thanks for all the responses, guys. Okay I should have said in my original post that the $50,000 is a shooting budget only. The executive producer is confident that he will be able to raise another 20ish for Post/Promotions.

Brian- Production stills are a great (and clearly important) idea that I've totally missed- thank you. I don't know if I could add a whole extra daily position into the budget for that, but perhaps I can pull in some favors on certain days.

Arnie- The "Data Management" position in the budget is for the day to day imputing/organizing of the footage, we plan on buying a dedicated computer and lots of storage for the production. One of the co-authors will do the rough edit for free, and a polish edit will be done by a pro and included in the separate "Post-Production Budget," as will color-correction, post sound, and scoring. There are no SFX in the project. As for deliverables, it will really depend on what sort of festivals we can get it into/ interest we can drum up through marketing. I realize that this will all potentially cost $. But again, the 50g's is a shooting budget only. We know we will have to spend more down the line. We are in this for the long haul and realize that we may not have a finished product for several years... I really appreciate all of your thoughts and input.

Chris- The shoot will be in the Bay Area- the locations are not all firm, but so far most are in Berkeley & Marin. The crew is not all set, I have some ideas, people I've worked with in the past- but I'm definitely open and interested in chatting with anyone from the area. We plan on shooting mid-November thru mid-December. 35mm primes would be great, I'm not a huge fan of zooms, but whoever we hire as DP will definitely have a strong say. I would imagine that a 24mm, 35mm, 50mm and 85mm are all completely necessary, a 16mm and a 135mm would be welcome additions as well. I know that the co-author (who will do the rough edit) would prefer to cut in Vegas, but I'm going to encourage him to get and learn FCP, so that when when pass it on to a pro to do the Final Edit there will be no compatibility issues (assuming, perhaps falsely, that most pro editors would want to use FCP).

Matthew- That's really good to know that a sales rep will average $5,000-10,000 I understand that a good sales rep can be key in terms of getting your film into the right festivals. Thanks for the tip- I will definitely be including that in my Post budget.

Again I want to thank everyone for taking the time to respond. Please keep the ideas flowing!
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Old May 26th, 2010, 09:19 PM   #7
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Hey Matthew- Did you have a lawyer on your feature? If so, what did you pay them? What services, exactly, did they provide? If not, do you regret not having one? Did it cost you in the long run?

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Old May 29th, 2010, 01:09 AM   #8
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What is your reason for having your co-author do the initial cut? How many feature length films has he cut and have they gone on to distribution?

Edited because I have the time to finish my thoughts:

I've made several feature films that have gone on to distribution, a few of which were in your budget range. You succeed at that level by having a good script that draws in working professionals who like the project enough that they do not demand their normal fees. Working professionals get tired of working on crappy films regardless of what level their operating on - even at studio level. They're all looking for a labor of love that they can thrown in on that will be worth their time. Working actors are always looking for new footage for their reel. Same with editors.

What you want to do is maximize the opportunity for a working professional to come in at a rate you can afford, and to expand the number of professionals whose eye you can catch. Lots of good editors have direct ties to distributors and can get you in the front door with ease. You'll fly through the quality control protocols and everyone will be happy.

That being said, if you start off with a cut by an inexperienced editor, you will greatly limit the number of professional editors who will be interested in working with you. We charge full rates if we have to clean up after an editor with less experience than us because that's a more difficult and less interesting project. Next, if you edit on Sony Vega, you will have only a handful of people available to you. The odds that you're going to get a world class editor (and you can for very little money with a good movie) if they have to clean after someone who is less experienced and work on Sony Vega is very, very slim.

On the other stuff, you don't need an attorney for anything at this budget level. The distribution contracts are standard, and there isn't likely to be enough money upfront to make it worth your while to involve an attorney. Depending upon what your movie is about, paying the $3500 for the MPAA rating may very well be worth the investment. SAG is easy - especially at this budget level. They'll want a $1000 bond from you which they will return when you finish your paperwork. The initial paperwork will take 20 minutes to do. The closing paperwork about an hour. If you're confused, they will sit down at the desk and walk you through the entire process. They'll look up actor's info - whatever you need. SAG is great to work with. Most sales reps aren't worth the money. They rarely manage to get anyone into a festival, unless you, yourself, have already gotten into a major one. Lots of people will rep you if you get into Sundance (you won't), but no one will get you in there unless they discovered you at Telluride. It's like that. Film festivals receive staggering levels of submissions. The San Diego festival gets over 1800 each year. Ultimately, they, like everyone else, go with films that they have ties to.

What I would encourage you to do is put together your own PR budget. Either hire a local firm, or read some books and do your own work. Maybe invite local filmmaking classes out to the shoot. See if you can get community papers to cover your work. When it's all done, take your press clippings, and make your decision about festivals or screening yourselves. Festivals are a huge crap shoot but your best bet is with local fests where you can manage to meet the directors. If you get into a fest, you still need your own PR campaign on your film's behalf. Submit early and don't bother with rough cuts. Don't rush your edit for a film festival deadline because they rarely actually accept films that aren't really polished. Early is important because the judges won't watch your film if you submit later.

Oh, and payroll services will frequently provide Workers Comp as part of their overall package. Insurance typically runs around $4500 for a feature in this budget range. Depending upon the current market, you can sometimes save money if you use a payroll service like NPI in Glendale. SAG loves it when you use payroll services because they don't have to worry about your actors getting paid.

Last edited by Lori Starfelt; May 29th, 2010 at 05:30 PM. Reason: I remembered something new.
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Old May 30th, 2010, 10:53 PM   #9
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Thanks Lori

Greetings Lori, thanks for all the stellar info!

It's funny just a few hours before I read your post I was having a conversation with the co-writer who wanted to do the rough cut about how maybe it would be better to have someone with more experience and "fresh eyes" for the project do the cut from the get go. He seemed fine with that, so after reading your thoughts on how a non-pro "rough cut" may devalue the project in the eyes of a pro editor, I think I can safely say that we should just try to get a solid experienced editor on it from the start. What realistically should I budget for the editor in our post production budget? I realize that that is a tough question to answer, and that virtually every situation/editor is different, but could you possibly give me a reasonable range?

I do feel extremely confidant in our script (doesn't everybody feel that way about the stuff they work on though?), and we are already getting some very positive responses from the actors that have read it. In fact one of the producers is a sag actor that I invited to come in and read for the writers at a table reading during script development. He believed in the script so much that he has signed on to play one of the leads, and help produce. I truly believe that it is an extremely actor friendly script, and I'm hoping that we continue to have luck in attracting talent to the project. As far as getting an experienced Editor to read the script, I guessing that I should start with posting ads on various forums (Craigslist, Mandy, DVinfo...) I've read in your previous posts that you are a big proponent of things like Craigslist, making a point to say that even major pros will check out the ads from time to time; and that a well written, enticing post can occasionally attract "A" level talent. I would also think that as we move along, and get more people involved in the project that more names will come up for potential editors. Do you have any other suggestions for getting the script into the hands of a high quality editor?

You said that depending on what the movie is about it may be worth it to invest in the MPAA rating, can you elaborate? What circumstances would it be particularly good for? PG/family friendly movies? These days it seems like all the harder stuff is being promoted as "Unrated," as if that automatically means more sex and violence. Our film would definitely be "R" for language & sexual situations.

Thanks for the advice on the Lawyers and Sales Reps. I'm going to spend the next day or two requesting quotes from various production insurance agencies, any strong recommendations on that front? I was looking at Supple-Merrill & Driscoll Inc, Frankel and Associates, & Fractured Atlas, any feelings on any of those companies? Also any particular payroll service recommendations? Will any old payroll service do, or do they need to be Film-specific?

Thanks so much again for all of the great info. I really, truly appreciative you taking the time to write to random strangers like me, and impart some wisdom. That's some seriously good karma, yo!
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Old June 8th, 2010, 12:12 PM   #10
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Put an ad up on Ēraig's List Los Angeles and San Francisco under gigs for an experienced feature editor and you will get dozens and dozens of responses from qualified editors. You can get an editor with network and feature film credentials in their own right, to cut a feature for $2500 - $5k. They may not be famous, but they will be very, very good. You just have to take the time to look through the responses that you get and actually watch the reels. If someone really catches your eye, ask to see a feature that they've cut. If someone has got more than 10 feature length projects, and it's not just cheap horror and direct-to-video action, they're probably very good. Pick the person whose work you like best, and approach them directly. Don't make them do a monkey dance, and don't tell them that you're talking to other people. If they've got a lot of experience, they're going to feel like you're jerking their chain. You're just meeting with them to see if you're comfortable with them. If you are, give 'em the hard drive, the check and call it a night. If you're not paying union wages, then you must take some care to not insult people. Asking for references in your initial contact, and following up on those references, which should be backed by IMDb creds, is completely acceptable.

Names will come up. Just decide that you want an editor that has cut X number of feature films, and stick to that. I have two stories about this. A neighbor of mine was an extremely successful editor - he cut big, big commercials. Coca Cola. BMW. Anheuser Busch. Stuff like that. Made big money and won a lot of awards. The worst day of his life was when he decided to tackle cutting a feature film. He sat down with 22 hours of footage and said he, literally, wanted to kill himself. After two weeks, he quit. So, cutting shorts and cutting commercials is not the same thing for everyone that cutting features. Also, being an assistant editor on a feature is not the same thing as being the alpha and the omega on cutting. The other story involved a female director we know who has produced several direct-to-video horror flicks and has done well for herself. She hired a guy to cut a feature for her that had 2 or 3 feature credits and a whole lot of other IMDb credits. He'd obviously been around the industry quite a while and was doing well. He would not turn her project over to her for notes. He just wouldn't do it. Months go by and she can't get the project back from him. He'd leave when she'd stop by. Not answer the phone. Finally, she waited for him and just entered his office while he was there. She pulled a gun on him, loaded it in front of him, and that's how she finally got her footage back. He hadn't cut a single frame of it. This is why you want someone who has serious experience cutting features. It's a daunting task.

MPAA ratings - there are lots of vendors who will not carry an unrated film - I think Red Box among them. Getting the MPAA rating seems to be one of the things you can do to set yourself apart a bit. Also, if you decide to pursue theatrical distribution at some point, it will dramatically enhance the number of theatres that would be open to showing your film. The last I checked, it takes about two months to get a screening date. Just know this, and as you go through your process make your decision.
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Old June 13th, 2010, 01:52 PM   #11
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Someone made the news not too long ago for making a zombie feature for about $80.

I say this to make the point that, only you can decide what's missing from your budget. You decide what you want to spend money on and what you don't-- you can spend money on nothing if you want. It's based very specifically for your own skillset-- if you're great at applying make-up, take money out of the make-up department. If you're skilled working with your hands, you don't need to spend money on props. Figure out what you can do, what you're willing to do, and spend your money on the things you can't/won't do.

Good luck.
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