A Practical Guide to the Film Production Process

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A Practical Guide to the Film Production Process

Much has been written on the various jobs and positions involved in film production and the creative skills required by them. Here’s a practical guide, with an emphasis on the underlying and sometimes harsh reality of the film production process, which every independent filmmaker should know.

The Development Stage

Film Connection graduate Ann Marie Cummings had a screenplay and TV pilot optioned

Traditionally, movies go through a development phase where typically the screenwriter and a producer meet to go over the story idea, and decide on their wish list for locations, director and key cast members. The real purpose of the development stage is to obtain the funding to bring the movie to life. The funding sought is determined by a preliminary budget which is based on the script and the costs for the director and talent. The independent filmmaker may approach the development process a bit differently, especially if they are also serving as the screenwriter and producer—which is often the case. The most important things that the independent filmmaker needs to accomplish in the development phase are to determine what their film is about and how much it will cost to make. A major Hollywood feature film doesn’t start until it gets the “green light” and this is equally true for the independent filmmaker—without funding, their film project doesn’t get off the ground.

The Pre-Production Stage

This stage doesn’t begin until funding is secured. With funding in place, the “final” script fleshed out. From there it is broken down so that a shooting schedule can be determined, locations, actors, directors and crew can be secured, and a final budget can be made. If the funding which was obtained in the development phase will not adequately cover all the expenses outlined in the final budget, something has to give, and the shooting script needs to be adjusted in accord with that change or
or more money needs to be raised. Having to raise more money can delay the production start date by a little or a lot. This underscores the necessity of getting the preliminary budget right the first time (during the development phase). Get it wrong and you’re essentially right back where you started.

The Production Phase

Film Connection graduate Rachel Svatos (with clapper) has worked on dozens of productions

This is the phase the general public associates with “making a movie.” It’s where lights, camera and action happen. Along with the post-production phase, it’s the most creative phase in the filmmaking process. Actors interpret the script while the Director of Photography utilizes lighting and camera angles to visualize the script by determining the look, feel, and mood of the film. Sets, wardrobes and special effects (practical effects as opposed to visual effects which are digital and done in post-production) contribute their own transformative “movie magic.” And the Director makes sure that each of these accomplishes the task of getting his/her vision of the story captured on film. Lurking in the background is the producer who makes sure the production phase sticks to the budget. Learn more about the process of directing and producing a film on the Film Connection website.

The Post-Production Stage

As previously mentioned, the post-production stage, along with the production stage are where creativity is emphasized. The editor’s job is to assemble all of the footage shot during the production phase, create any necessary visual effects and add in the soundtrack to best tell the story that is the movie. Some filmmakers get intimately involved in the editing process while others take a more hands-off approach, relying on the skill and talent of the editor to assemble the film. Once again, the producer lurks in the background to ensure the post-production phase sticks to the budget.

The Distribution Phase

Film Connection graduate Ananth Agastya (center) with cast & crew at film festival

The finished film started (during the development stage) as a story idea in search of money to make it. In the distribution phase, the finished film becomes the vehicle to generate money from the people who watch it. Ideally, the distribution phase brings in more revenue than it cost to make. While we’ve listed the distribution phase last because you can’t distribute a film until it’s finished, it’s not something you want to wait until the film is finished to begin. In a perfect world, your distribution deals would be locked in before you even begin pre-production. For the independent filmmaker this can be difficult to achieve without a substantial track record but something that should be given a lot of consideration since there is no guarantee that once you make a movie, the audience will come.

Final Thought

We often tend to think of making movies as being this wonderfully unique creative process. In reality, like any other business, it’s all about the money. From getting the money to make the movie, to repaying this money from the movie’s proceeds, the goal of making a movie is to turn a profit. Filmmakers with a successful track record in doing so will find funding their next film an easier process. Filmmakers with a track record of losing money will have a hard time finding funding. If you can master the money aspect of filmmaking early on—or at least learn to handle the money pressures, you will be able to focus better on the creative side as you progress as a filmmaker.


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