What if you wanted to make your own movie? Part 1 of 2

The cost of making a movie

Maybe you are so smitten with what you've written, that nothing is fittin' but to see this wit in... a movie.

That line of thinking is called "producer." In that role, you have to turn your thinking cap around backwards and think about money and distribution. It helps if you have a business and budgeting background, and have a ruthless red pen.

There are many ways to make a movie, but unless you just don't care, the first thing you want to think about as producer is financial success.

If you make a Web series, you might be more interested in experience and creating a good series, and financial success is less likely to be a goal.

Financial success is based on the following:

1 - 10. A really good story that is unique and something audiences want to see. Personally, when I have a story I want to write, I think about where it will fit in the market, and then concept and market test it. If it doesn't merit an 8 on a 10 scale, I stop. I would be wasting my time. And from experience, that doesn't guarantee market success. Reality is, many movies only rate a 6, or even a 5, and they are made. You have to decide what level of success is right for you. Bear in mind that the audience rating turns into financial success.

11. Production values. Good actors can make a mediocre story look good, or a really good story look like a cesspool. It's the same with camera work and audio, and editing. Audio is very important, and poor audio ruins a movie. If a camera is moving when not following the action, then it draws attention to the camera and takes the viewer out of the story.

12. Financing. Nothing happens without money. You might get people to work for free. You might use techniques like those in Troma Productions, and have a rollicking good time doing it, and maybe even make a couple of bucks. But a market worthy production takes money. You have to decide what level of financing you can do.

13. Distribution. There are more distribution opportunities available to independents today than ever before. You can self distribute through companies like Distribber, to a wide market, but it costs money. Getting into one outlet will cost you around $1000.00. You can get your movie on Amazon for free, but they are selective.

14. Very little happens without advertising. People don't know your movie is there unless you tell them. A new movie with no audience ratings or audience selection will rest at the bottom of the pile. Advertising on cable channels cost around a tenth of broadcast TV advertising. But it still costs. And you have to make a commercial (largely a trailer). Google video ads for cable is a good place to do your advertising.

Next: How to approach production

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How to approach production

Every filmmaker is different. You have to find one you can work with. If a director works a certain way with a certain crew, you may not be able to control things you want to control. Once production starts, it's the directors responsibility to come in on budget.

The choices a producer makes has everything to do with the cost of making the movie. Bad choices cause major cost overruns, and can cause a production to not be finished because it is out of money. That's a huge loss.

Try to surround yourself with people who really know what they are doing. People who don't know what they are doing usually recruit a lot of other people who don't, and they can ruin your production, and your money is lost.

If you have a $10,000.00 budget for a 100 minute movie, then production costs $100.00 for every minute of screen time. You have to ask yourself if what you are about to record is worth the cost.

Take your red scissors and cut the crap out of the screenplay.

  • Cut redundant scenes. If the audience has already been told the information, telling them again is redundant.
  • Cut coming and going. Stories are not about opening the doors, having lunch, and all of the other mundane things people do. The audience will assume that they arrived, walked through the door, had lunch somewhere, said hello/goodbye.
  • Does a scene move the story forward, or is it just hanging there with no purpose?
  • Group your scenes by setting, and record those all at the same time. You will have to keep track of costume changes. It gets very expensive moving from location to location. If you have 3 location changes, then half your time is used up with moving and set up, instead of recording. So think efficiency. Also, it's good to pay attention to how many people are in the scene so you don't have the set flooded with people all day.
  • Is the setting necessary? Audiences are mostly engaged in dramatic action. Settings are of lesser value. You really have to ask if a day of travel to a unique setting is really worth it in the overall scheme of things.

First you need a director. Choose your director carefully. Some directors want to do 10 takes of a scene. The problem with that is it's very costly. If an average of 4 takes will do, then 10 more than doubles the cost of the production. In editing, I inevitably use the second take. The actors have done their best job. And it isn't as easy to splice different takes together because the actors rarely have their bodies in the identical position from take to take. Another problem is that film actors, unlike stage actors who repeat performances over and over, are not good at keeping the same energy and emotion in a scene past around 4 takes. I see steady degradation of performance with more takes. So directors know what they want in a performance and strive to get it, but doing more takes is diminishing returns.

Do your best to use multiple cameras to record scenes, especially if they take place in one restrained location. Acting is action followed by reaction, reaction, reaction. So you want to get the other character's reaction to what the first character says. The main camera may not get it. A second or third camera can be aimed at the reaction character. Without that additional one or two cameras, the main camera has to be moved to the other angle and the scene done again. So even if it seems expensive to have another camera person, or two, it actually saves you money. They may be paid $125.00 an hour, and save you a third of the cost of the production. And you get better performances. If the director can't handle multiple cameras, don't use that director. Note that you may have to move other characters off the set to get reaction shots.

Catering is a major expense, but very necessary. Like an army, a film crew and actors move on their stomachs. Get serious about food, and if nothing else, cater from Bob Evans or other place with good food, and have 2 or 3 items for snacking.

The union rules were developed from experience, and are generally very fair. Use them as guidelines even if it isn't a union production. And, yes, you generally can get union people onto the production in many areas, even if it isn't a union production. Even if the union does say no.

Consider using green screen as a substitute for some difficult to reach locations. But green screen is tricky, so use someone who knows what he is doing or your footage is a loss.

Next: Equipment





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Equipment can be scary. If you don't have experience in the field, you don't know what you need, and a local studio will show you their truck full of equipment for every conceivable situation. You can end up buying a huge amount of expensive equipment to inhabit one corner of your storage area and never get used.

The price of equipment for making a movie has reduced from hundreds of thousands of dollars, to... unbelievable. Digital cameras don't require as much lighting, and have good low light sensitivity. Lights and diffusers (light boxes) can be inexpensive, although may not be as rugged as expensive lights. Reflectors are inexpensive.

Movie budgeting and scheduling. software costs around $400.00. If it's a feature film, you should probably get it.

Lavaliere (lapel) microphones, even the cheapest ones, work very well, and shotgun microphones aren't that expensive. In a lot of situations, you can't hide the lavaliere mic and transmitter, so you need the shotgun mic. You need to get the microphone as close to the person as possible, to get good volume and reduce noise. Always record to a second source in case the camera loses it.

Cameras are the largest expense. A Canon 5D will shoot 16:9 aspect ratio, 30 FPS, 4.2.2 color, H.264 output, and you have what you need. The 5D, with a lens, costs around $3000.00. If you are going to invest, get the latest model. The one coming will shoot 4K, which will make it possible to zoom in during editing with no loss of resolution for 1080P output. The 5D is used by professionals for movie recording. The Canon Rebel T3i will also shoot a decent movie. Blackmagic makes a line of cinema cameras that sell from $1000 to 4000.00.

The 3/16 audio plug on a DSLR camera is no substitute for an XLR connection. They come loose and you lose your audio. They work better with a mixer that mounts under your camera and then a short cable goes to the 3/16' input. The mixer is under $200.00.

You will need plenty of 16GB, or higher, cards for capturing to a card for transfer. Always, always, always immediately make a backup. It's a good policy to shoot a scene or several takes and then transfer to a computer and review the footage to make sure you don't need another shot before dismantling.

Tripods with monitors. You can get an acceptable tripod for $100.00. Any 8 inch monitor will do, and they are relatively inexpensive. Or just use the monitor on the camera. But it is easier for the camera operators to view an 8 inch or large screen. But the on camera monitors work.

For editing you will need a computer with 16GB of RAM, and the Adobe Premier Pro program will cost you $20.00 a month for a 1 year subscription. There are also Apple products. Actually any film editing program will do a relatively good job. I have Corel Video Studio for a backup. It often leads innovation.

An inexperienced editor may make your movie look like crap, and your money goes down the drain. Ask your editor how much experience he has doing color correction. Ask him about timing. An experienced editor who has done feature film, will make your movie look good, and get the timing right for dramatic action in the scene. An inexperienced editor may time cuts so that drama looks like comedy.

You don't need a crane, tracks, a helicopter, a Red camera... for most movie video recording. People are engaged by the story and on screen dramatic action. Camera tricks change their focus. Just use your red scissors. Your cinematographer can tell you when certain scenes will need a special lens.

When you engage a director, he will probably have a cinematographer that he likes to work with. Much of the above equipment may be owned and supplied by the cinematographer. So don't rush out and purchase equipment until you know your real needs.

Next: Budgeting

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The cost of making your movie depends on a huge number of factors. The only real way to tell is to go through each scene, list the location, the props, the actors, the special effects, the crew, required equipment, cost of catering, and itemize the cost of each. At this point you need a production script, and number your scenes so you can keep track. Your director has to agree to the budget.

Preproduction. During table reads and rehearsal sessions, you pay your actors, and you may want your cinematographer there. He will need to know locations in advance to check for problems and know what is needed to set up, and consult with the director. If preproduction rehearsal is done well, actors may practice once before each take during production. Because scenes are usually recorded out of sequence in production, I find that actors forget some of what they rehearsed, and lose some energy. All problems should be worked out in preproduction so that it doesn't slow production recording. Preproduction time is less expensive than production time, and rehearsals usually take longer. Most actors will rehearse while waiting on their scene.

After grouping your scenes together, you need to know from the director how many scenes he can record a day. I do 5 to 7. If you have to move locations, you might only do 1 or 2. Some scenes require a lot of setup, so they may take the entire day, or two. There may be costume changes and makeup between scenes, adding an hour or more to each scene.

So you make a list of scenes, and calculate how much time each will take. Don't forget to include makeup, a little rehearsal, crew setup, in the 8 hour day. Keep in mind that it is less expensive to work 10 or more hours (1.5 x pay for hours over 8) than to come back the next day.

Who do you really need on a set? You can get by with just the director, which could be you, and cinematographer, camera guy 2 or 3, makeup person, audio person, and the actors. You might also want a gaffer to handle cables and electrical, a rigger to move and set up things, a line producer to monitor costs and getting items, an assistant director to keep the flow smooth, maybe another producer to help, a second audio person for the shotgun boom mic, a wardrobe person, a script manager, a location manager for props and location things, a catering person to arrange and replenish craft services. The director needs to keep his mind on the set, and not be bothered with all of this other stuff.

How much you pay people depends. You potentially can get people to work for free. It's done, and they might feel good about it. The SAG union ultra low budget rate is changing in July 2016 to $125.00 per hour. It's a good rate to pay everyone in the production. If they work beyond 8 hours, they get 1.5x that rate. You may want to pay your lead actors and the director more. It's possible to get a recognized actor for not much money, and it can make a big difference in sales revenue.

Calculate the number of filming days by dividing the number of scenes in the screenplay by the number the director says he can shoot each day, and then multiply by 1.2 because everything may take longer. Look for any anomalies that will take longer to shoot. So if you have 70 scenes, and the director can shoot an average of 4 a day, then you have 18 shooting days. Plan on going over each day by an hour or two, and add that to your calculations. Now you know how many days will require catering.

For 4 actors for 8 hours, plus director, cinematographer, 2 camera people, audio person, wardrobe, makeup, and producer (you), that's minimum: 12 people x $125.00 = $1,500.00 a day for a bare bones production, if everything goes really well. It won't. There will be two hours of setup, which is overtime for some crew. Add to that, catering.

If there are 18 shooting days, that's $27,000.00 for production days. Add to that catering, plus preproduction, plus post production editing and music. You and ther director will work with the editor in post production. You may need trailers in some locations for makeup, green room (rest area), honeywagon (toilets), eating, wardrobe. You may also have transportation costs and lodging costs for remote locations. A recognized and internationally popular star may cost you $5000.00 per week, or much more, plus accommodations and transportation. A good director may cost you much more than the $125.00 others make. Directors get what they negotiate. Talk needs over with your director and cinematographer, and others who have experience in production, to see what you need.

So if you have a $50,000.00 production, and you spend $25,000.00 on distribution and advertising, that's $75,000.00 you need to recoup in sales revenue. If you are in enough outlets, and can get 1% of the potential audience (50,000,000) and you make $1.00 on each viewing, that's $500,000.00 in revenue, and you've made a lot of money. That would be very unusual. But you might break even. A lot of things can and do go wrong. You may lose your $75,000.00 investment.

Film Courage: Making A $500 Movie Vs An $85,000 Movie

Next: Part 2 with distribution, advertising, quality and uniqueness, and getting started

Reference, Legal

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