Indie Film ProductionOver the course of an independent film production, the producer’s responsibilities stretch the gamut from psychologist to policeman to accountant to salesman with a host of other tasks filling the gaps. And while there’s no magic formula to becoming a successful producer, the good ones all share one important characteristic: belief in the film they’re producing. George Lucas, of Star Wars and Indiana Jones fame, says it best:

“You have to find something that you love enough to be able to take risks, jump over the hurdles and break through the brick walls that are always going to be placed in front of you. If you don’t have that kind of feeling for what it is you are doing, you’ll stop at the first giant hurdle.”

For many first time producers, the hurdles are the scary part because they don’t know what to expect. The following list contains some of the most common hurdles producers face during a film’s creation and offers tips on how to deal with them.

1. Script Development

The Hurdle: Whether you’ve found a script you love or you’ve hired a screenwriter to develop an idea, the story is the spark that starts the filmmaking process. Many times, however, differences in the core team of the producer, writer, and director cause rewrites, delays, and tension.

The Jump: Respect the writer’s creative autonomy. If the script is written already, think about inviting the screenwriter into the production instead of just buying the story. This writer captured your attention. He/she may have ideas that will capture audiences as well.

If you’ve hired a screenwriter to develop an idea, be sure to give him/her enough creative autonomy to succeed. Sometimes, this means you should keep the director from looking over the writer’s shoulder. In a podcast on this topic, Crag Mazin (a screenwriter whose credits include Sensless, Rocketman, and Scary Movie 3) gives the following advice:

“Just like [the director] need[s] to get takes one through three in before anybody starts yapping in their ear, I feel like the writer needs some space to just write the script. So if the director’s not writing, as long as everybody is connected on the vision and the rough idea of what the story is, you just…Yeah, it’s not a good idea to have them over your shoulder while you’re doing it.”

2. The Director’s Working Style

The Hurdle: Some director’s are collaborators on set. Some run the show 100% of the time. Some want assistance from the screenwriter to develop story elements. Others want the screenwriter replaced if the story isn’t developing on film properly. From the venerated auteurs to the wide-eyed rookies, directors can make or break a production if other team members don’t mesh with his/her style.

The Jump: Find a director who can merge the roles of transformational leader and taskmaster. According to Psychology Today, transformational leaders have four main characteristics:

  • Serve as the ideal role model for followers.
  • Inspire and motivate.
  • Demonstrate concern for the needs of others.
  • Challenge followers to be creative and innovative.

At the same time, the director must play the role of taskmaster. He/she is in charge of finishing the film on time and on budget. Plus, it’s the director’s creative vision that ultimately ends up on screen.

One of the keys, according to Mynette Louie, winner of the 2013 Independent Spirit Piaget Producers Award, is the ability to adapt. “It’s critical for a director to be able to adapt…and figure out how to make lemonade from lemons,” she writes in her IFP.org blog post. “Being adaptive and thinking on your feet also helps when there are happy accidents. Filmmaking is organic and unpredictable, and when the right mix of elements strikes on set, a good director will know how to capitalize on it.”

3. Development and Pre-Production

The Hurdle: The story has taken shape and you’ve moved on to the daunting task of planning the shoot. At this point, a mountain of non-story concerns come into focus. Obtaining the right permissions, location access, and equipment rentals become a vicious circle of regulation, cost, and insurance nightmares.

The Jump: Be willing to accept risk. If a set design grows in cost or a shoot is planned for a remote location, don’t automatically tighten the purse strings. For example, Elizabeth Gilbert, a 20th Century Fox executive who oversaw production of Life of Pi said this on the eve of the movie’s release: “It’s the biggest gamble I’ve ever taken.” The movie cost $120 million, had no marketable stars, and opened at the same time as other blockbusters. How’d it turn out? The movie grossed more than $600 million worldwide (according to Box Office Mojo) and won four 2012 Academy Awards. So, even if your film doesn’t have a big budget, risk-taking is a key hallmark of a successful movie.

4. During the shoot

The Hurdle: You’ve received a lot of low-cost help for your indie film production. The sets buzz with energy and action. But the buzzing soon begins to inhibit the shoot.

The Jump: The producer should be prepared to be the on set etiquette police. In his blog post titled “3 First-Time Producer Mistakes,” producer Dan Baker gives this advice: “I don’t like to be yelled at, especially over trivial things. I’m sure you don’t either. Unfortunately…I’ve got bad news for you would-be producers: prepare to be the bad guy.”

From noise level to equipment placement, you need to be an authority on set so the creative team can make the movie. This also goes for feedback and notes. The producer should create an atmosphere where feedback is:

  • Presented in an appropriate manner. For some directors, feedback may not be allowed at all on set.
  • Solution-based. Pointing out problems just half the battle. Offering solutions is helpful.
  • Completely work-focused. Personal attacks have no place on set.

5. Post-Production

The Hurdle: Everything takes more time than it should: musical scores, sound effects, error and omission clearances, and editing.

The Jump: Be prepared and watch the budget closely. For errors and omissions clearance, you can obtain insurance with post-production exclusions during production. This way, you may be able to speed up the final clearance. For all other post-production tasks, be sure to keep track of the money. In talking about budget watching, Baker says, “Looking back, I should have implemented weekly accountability sessions with the department heads, and made reporting expenditures easy through a web-panel or spreadsheet.”

Conclusion

Once post-production wraps, your movie is finished and ready for distribution. Unfortunately, the producer’s work still isn’t done. The hurdles involved in distributing and publicizing your movie are just as endless as the tasks required during the film’s creation. But these tips, along with on-the-job experience, will help your production finish successfully.