Filmmaking: Write, Direct and Distribute Your Feature Film
This is an all-encompassing guide for making an independent feature length movie. By the end of this course you will have the information you need to successfully make a feature film that you can distribute around the globe to be seen by possibly millions of people.
I’m sharing with you my experience as a veteran screeenwriter, director, producer and editor of 9 feature films. Normally film students pay a lot of money to learn this information at universities, and often all they really learn is cinema theory.
These videos tell you what you need to do and how to do it to make your movie.
This course covers:
- the basics of screenwriting
- turning your screenplay into a shooting script
- organizing and scheduling your film shoot
- tips on saving money
- calculating your budget
- contracts you’ll need with cast and crew*
- basic tips for filming, lighting and recording audio
- basic film editing instruction and concepts, along with tips to make the editing easier
- tips for finishing the film to give it the professional look
- thorough review of distribution options for your movie
- and tons and tons of details about all the steps in between
The videos include lectures, demonstrations and examples illustrating the information I’m sharing.
This course also includes sample spreadsheets, contracts, and a list of additional resources. You will get all the forms and resources I use to make a movie.
I LOVE filmmaking. I LIVE to make movies. If you have a story you want to tell, this course gives you the tools to do it.
*I’m not a lawyer. These sample contracts are not legal advice.
The Big Picture
I read a lot of books when I first started making feature films in 2005. The books were helpful, but often outdated since both the technology and culture of filmmaking changes rapidly. These videos will continuously be updated with the most current information about the best ways to make an indie feature film.
Although you can watch the entire series in a few hours, it will take months - probably a year or more - to go through all the steps of writing, directing and distributing a feature film. Fortunately these videos will be here for you when you're ready for the next step.
I suggest you watch everything at first so you have an idea of where you're going. And then you can go back and tackle each project individually.
The world does not need you to make another movie with big explosions. Hollywood film studios do that just fine all by themselves.
The world does want to hear your story - stories that only you can tell because of your experiences in life. That's what makes you as an indie filmmaker so important.
We have evolved to pay attention to stories when they are told in a specific order. Our basic instinct is to learn how to survive - and how to live better. So we pay attention to stories that give us a message we find useful in our own lives.
How you tell that story will determine whether anyone listens.
Here's the bad news: You are not making this movie for general audiences.
There is no such thing as a 'general audience.'
The more specific you are about who wants to see your movie the better your movie will be because you will be telling your story directly to them, and not watering it down so that other people 'might be interested.'
Lots and lots and lots of books have been written about screenwriting. You could spend the rest of your life reading books about how to write a screenplay.
Reading books does not get your screenplay written.
I'm going to give you the basics of what you need to know and then some resources to explore to guide you along your path.
This phase of screenwriting may be best accomplished away from your desk, away from home, away from anyone who knows you. This is the part where you daydream about the story you are telling.
After you've let your mind wander and jotted down the important ideas then you can return to your computer and put the story in order.
You may be resisting the 'formulas' I suggested in the previous video. I understand that. You are an independent person. You don't want anyone telling you what to do.
And I acknowledge your resistance.
Now that we have that out of the way, let's write your screenplay so that your audience will want to watch your movie.
The problem that many Hollywood films have is that the writers live in Hollywood. (Well, at least somewhere in the LA Basin.) And they are surrounded by other Hollywood citizens, and most of the conversations are about Hollywood. Which is boring. They know it's boring but they can't come up with new ideas for stories because the only stories they see are in the movies they are writing.
You have a huge advantage because you live in the real world. Listen to the people around you. They will be your fount of knowledge.
I know that massive earthquake scene on page 1 is really exciting, but how are you going to film that?
You're making a film with a very very modest budget. That doesn't mean you make a boring movie or a film shot in one room with 2 actors talking to each other about the meaning of life.
It does mean that you need to take stock of what resources you have available to you and be certain you are writing with that in mind.
If you want a scene at an amusement park, do you have a friend who owns an amusement park? Let's be pragmatic here for a few minutes.
Many filmmakers dream of seeing their feature film shimmering on the silver screen in a 600 seat auditorium with bouncy seats and cupholders.
Very few indie films play in movie theaters of that size because of the tremendous cost involved. And generally the only movies that screen in large theaters have a lot of explosions. (Are you noticing an 'explosion' theme here?)
If your movie isn't going to be the BIGGEST BOX OFFICE SELLER THIS YEAR, consider where it will do very well. For most indie films, that means it will be streaming online.
Figuring out how your audience is going to see your movie affects your script, your camera work, your editing, your film titles, etc. It's good to acknowledge this now.
You've got a great idea for your movie and you've worked out the plot. You love it.
But will other people feel the same way?
This is the time to find out before you go any further with this specific script.
Have you made friends with the owner of an amusement park yet? If not, who do you know that will give you free access to film on their property?
We can take a lesson from Hollywood at this point. They save a lot of money when they film on their own property. But they 're-decorate' to make their backlot look like other places.
You can do the same thing.
Some kids are incredible performers. We have seen amazing movies starring children.
Working with kids can be a lot of fun and very rewarding. There's one thing you may not have considered about child actors: Their parents.
Cat videos are all the rage online. They probably always will be.
The reason cat videos (and a few dog videos) are so popular is because animals are unpredictable and we love watching these adorable critters be themselves.
Animals also steal focus away from your human actors. Be very deliberate about when and how you put animals in your film so that they heighten your audience's sympathy for your hero without stealing attention from his story.
Logos and brands are trademarked and cannot be used in any film you plan to distribute without written permission.
If you absolutely must use a specific product in your film, contact the corporate media office by email to make your request.
Otherwise there are things you can do to avoid legal problems in distribution.
This part may take a bit of time and it's important you get the story and dialogue and scenes exactly the way you want them. Don't fool yourself into believing you will work out problems during filming. Your script is the BEST version of your film. Get it right now.
Movie titles are advertising. I've got some tips for how to make the biggest splash with your film title so more people will see your movie.
Here's the last major step before you launch into pre-production on your movie: Make sure some members of your audience are interested in your script.
I've got a sneaky way to test audience reaction.
At this point you have a finished script. You have the dialogue figured out and you know where most of the locations will be.
This next step converts your script into a shooting script - a script that will give you all the information you need when you are filming each scene.
This final formatting of your script will make it easier for everyone - including you - while you are filming. Actors LOVE this.
Pre-Production Part 1
In this next section we're going to start gathering the resources we need to make this movie. Get these things done first so that everything later on will be easier.
Making a movie by yourself is tough. It's not just lonely, it's exhausting.
At the same time you don't want to be making a movie with people who try to take control or who argue with you about tiny details.
Choose a few team members now who will work with you on this film all the way through distribution.
Here's a HUGE timesaver. You will be so glad you did this now, and everyone else will be glad you did it as well.
There's a lot of information you need from your cast and crew, but you need it at various points through the production. Instead of gathering bits of information as you go, find out everything you need to know right now.
This steps take a lot of stress off everyone, especially you.
You have everything you need right now to decide when you're going to film. It's time to take a leap of faith and announce the shooting dates.
Whether you thought about this consciously or not, you know what your movie is supposed to look like. By clearly identifying now the film style you can make decisions later about camera equipment, how long it will take to film each scene, etc.
As indie filmmakers when we don't ask permission to show up and film it's called 'guerilla filmmaking.' There are pros and cons about this work style. I have suggestions for how to do it, when to do it, and when not to do it.
I love trains. I love riding trains. I love watching trains go by. I love seeing trains in movies.
Trains are incredibly deadly.
I strongly urge you to never film on railroad property.
If you absolutely must film on train tracks, you must get legal permission from the railroad. Contact the media relations office for the railroad company that owns the property you want to film. They will discuss possibilities with you. It is crucial that if you are filming on railroad property you are in telephone contact with the railroad dispatcher who is controlling train movements.
Film crew members have been injured and killed when they did not have permission to film on train tracks.
No movie is worth dying for.
Budget and Fundraising
This next section is all about money: How much you have and how much you'll need.
This is a longer video for a reason. I lay out how to budget your film. Once you get this basic budget template set-up, you can begin figuring out how you're going to get your movie filmed.
The first step in the budget process is to decide which crew roles you need filled and who is going to do it. You may be the sole crew member on your shoot (I've done that and it can work) or you may bring in four or five other crew members to film.
I outline the roles of crew members and how to film most efficiently.
People have to eat. There is a tradition in the film world that we (the producers/directors) feed our cast and crew. For practical reasons you need to keep everyone together on set to make the best use of your time. You don't want anyone leaving to get lunch.
Film production insurance is required if you are working with union actors or union crew members. It is also required if you are filming on government property, and many other businesses require an insurance bond as well.
Some filmmakers choose to get insurance even if they aren't required.
Many companies offer film production insurance. I suggest contacting Fractured Atlas (a New York non-profit organization) to ask them for a referral to an insurance company that offers the lowest premium costs.
Depending on your script and film style, you may choose a 'natural look' (no make-up), a more formal look (everyone wearing make-up), or a blood and guts movie with lots of special effects make-up.
I explain the least expensive ways to achieve the results you want.
The costs of film props depends entirely on your script and the time period of your film's story. As your are putting together your budget consider what props you'll need for each scene and how you will get them.
A few things I've learned about costumes:
1) They can be super expensive.
2) The camera doesn't usually see everyone's full costume.
3) Thrift stores can be your best friend.
4) Colors and patterns have an enormous impact on your audience subconsciously.
One book I love is Patti Bellantoni's "If It's Purple Someone's Gonna Die" which is available online and in book stores. Reading this book gave me a new understanding of how to tell story through the clothes my actors wear.
As we get to the bottom of the budget we are finally itemizing the stipends and payments you may choose to pay your actors. Everything above this item in the budget was a necessity (except maybe insurance). Whether you can afford to pay your cast depends on how much everything else cost to this point.
Some indie films star well known actors and because of the actors' fame, these movies have a much better chance to be distributed in more territories.
Even though SAG/AFTRA offers a couple of contracts suited for low budget films, there are still unavoidable costs.
The Ultra-Low Budget Contract has positive and negative consequences, explained in the video. In August 2018, SAG/AFTRA adopted a new contract for New Media which had previously offered significant benefits for indie filmmakers. The new contract is almost identical in requirements to the Ultra-Low Budget Contract now and of limited value.
This is the final big budget line item.
Music is crucial. EVERY film uses music.
How you get music and what you pay for it depends on resources you have and artistic decisions you make.
With several budget items you can't determine the actual cost until you know how many days you'll be filming and how many people will be working each day. (Stipends for cast and crew, food costs, equipment rental fees, location rental fees.)
At this point it's time to plan the filming schedule, choosing which scenes you will film on which days.
I love this part of the process because it's like solving a puzzle.There are a lot of factors to consider when putting together the schedule. Take your time working on your film schedule, get something to drink, put on music in the background, spread your pages out on the floor or over a big table and dive in.
Now that you've worked through all the steps in this section you have a good idea of your film's budget. At this point you can decide if there are items you need to cut or borrow to fit within your allowable resources.
How are you going to raise the extra cash to meet the budget expenses?
You could do it the old fashioned way. I don't recommend this, but it's important you know how the studio system works.
Crowdfunding is how most indie filmmakers pay the bills.
This is a lengthy video. There is a lot to talk about. In fact there's so much to talk about I could go on for hours. Instead I'm giving you the overview of crowdfunding. This video lays out what crowdfunding is and how to do it.
If you want to more information and more tips on crowdfunding, I love the Crowdfunding Clas video series available free at www.seedandspark.com
Independent filmmakers do it all. In addition to making the movies we also publicize our movies. No one cares as much about your film as you do and if you don't tell your potential audience about it they'll never discover it.
We can't wait until the film is finished to begin marketing it. We want to build audience anticipation and grow an audience for when the film releases so it will make immediately have an audience and succeed in distribution.
I recommend creating a website for your film studio, not just for your individual films. You want to have a fan base and your studio website will be a resource your fans will check for many years to come.
Your studio website needs to include a blog. Whether you are updating your film fans on the production process with written descriptions or with videos the blog is a crucial tool to expand your future audience.
Many filmmakers wait till their film is finished before getting it listed on the Internet Movie Database (IMDb.com) because IMDb requires proof that your film exists. There is a way to get your project listed in pre-production, just like the Hollywood studios do, and I give you the steps to make it happen.
With many different social media platforms you have options for choosing how and where you want to publicize your film and interact with your audience.
Facebook is designed to support online conversations better than Twitter or Instagram or other social media sites.
Create a page on Facebook for your film and use this as the base for sending out news updates on your film, including posts from your studio blog.
The most important key to successfully utilizing social media is participating in the community you join or are creating. Having a presence on a dozen social media sites won't benefit you if you aren't engaged on all sites.
Every site has a different culture, a different way of communicating among members. Reposting from Facebook onto Twitter onto Instagram isn't very effective.
Choose your sites wisely according to where your audience is hanging out.
You want to stream videos, movie trailers, movie clips, on your website. Most website platforms don't support video streaming but instead link to YouTube or Vimeo or Facebook.
Post your videos on your YouTube channel dedicated to your film studio. Even if you already posted the video on Facebook, upload it again to YouTube. This increases your audience reach.
I learned a lot from the Udemy course"How to Grow Revenue by Getting Free Radio Interviews" taught by Jim Beach.
I highly recommend the course because it is another free opportunity to reach audiences none of the other social media platforms will reach.
Jim suggests offering the radio audience a gift in exchange for emailing him. He talks about the value of building an email list to contact film fans directly - which is a great idea.
I thought of a free and fun gift to offer your radio audiences which you can make as well.
Pre-Production Part 2
We're getting close to filming! Finally! Now the fun part begins!!
Actors read casting announcements and judge the professionalism of the film shoot. You want the best actors to audition for your project, which means you need to present your project in the best possible way.
I explain what to write in the casting announcements to attract the highest caliber of performers to your film.
Auditioning actors can be emotionally challenging. The actors are nervous; you shouldn't be. And ideally you want to put the actors at ease so they give you their best performance.
There is a protocol that establishes what is appropriate at an audition and what is not. This video gives you all the insights of a seasoned film producer/casting agent.
You have a choice to make after you've decided whom you want to cast: How to tell them you want them to be in your film, and what to tell the actors you aren't casting.
It can be a bit tricky, especially since actors feel very vulnerable about casting decisions.
You can avoid hurt feelings and burning bridges with these guidelines.
Hollywood refers to these actors as 'Extras,' but they aren't extra to you. Your film needs people in the background unless you're making a movie about life in the Antarctic.
Treat Atmosphere Actors as actors and you'll be pleased with the results.
A daily call sheet gives your cast and crew all the information they need about the film day ahead. It's vital they get this information in advance so they are prepared, on time and at the right location.
I am not a lawyer. This is not legal advice.
I have utilized a contract and written memo deals with actors and crew members that have effectively prevented any misunderstandings.
Everyone working on your film MUST sign a contract with you or you will not be able to distribute your film, or you risk painful legal difficulties later.
You may be tempted to show up on set with a camera and just begin filming.
Your actors want to give you exactly the performance you want. They need rehearsal. Here's how to prep your actors before you begin filming.
Even though you haven't started filming yet, you want to decide how and where your film is going to be distributed because that will impact decisions you make during filming.
Knowing the end goal now means you have a much better chance of reaching it.
Presumably you've already asked your cast and crew about their dietary needs and you have that information on your contact spreadsheet.
Here are the least expensive ways to feed everyone.
*One note: You want to bring an ice chest/cooler with you to your film set at all times with bottled water and your cast and crews' favorite beverages. It's vital everyone has access to something they want to drink while they work.
Finally the most crucial decisions you need to make before you begin filming is creating either a storyboard or a shot list for every scene of the film.
Some people are visual and like to draw. Some people have an idea of what something should look like and can only convey that in words. Whichever style works best for you, you must go into your shoot with a detailed plan of your camera angles.
Assuming you are the director of your film, you are the leader of the team. Everyone is looking to you for answers because they want to achieve the results you want. They need to know what you want.
I've found the most efficient ways to run a film set so you can get the most filmed in a day. This video gives you the steps to a smooth running production which everyone will enjoy.
Making a movie is exciting! And lots of people want to see you do it!
Don't let them.
You have work to do. You don't want anyone to distract you or your crew and actors from getting your job done.
Since I don't know how much experience you have running a DSLR camera I outline some very basic fundamentals of shooting a feature film.
This video is not comprehensive. You may be a pro cinematographer. You may be a novice. Either way I hope you'll keep these points in mind that relate specifically to shooting a feature.
Just as with the video on Cinematography, I don't know your experience level with film lighting. This video is not comprehensive, but it does give you the basic information you need to design your lighting.
In my experience I have found simpler is better. You have a lot to film every day. You don't want to spend a lot of time setting lights which have to be adjusted every time you change your camera angle.
I hope you'll consider the ideas in this video to make your shoot run faster and still get quality results.
You are an indie filmmaker. You are not working for a major film production company. Why pretend you are?
It's great that you're an indie. You are going to make a beautiful film. You don't need to impress anyone while you're doing it.
A lot of indie filmmakers make a mistake because they are trying to emulate the studios. Let me save you the expense and the wasted time.
After (and sometimes before) your audience watches your movie, they want to know how you made it.
The element of mystery in filmmaking is gone. Give the audience what they want; show them how you did it.
With everything you're doing on the film set, still photos are quickly neglected and that's a huge mistake. You need still photos for your film's posters and marketing materials.
And you can't simply grab still shots from the footage you shot. I explain why.
Some filmmakers feel the need to shoot every line of dialogue 20 times. And this wastes time and money and frustrates your cast and crew.
It's essential you get enough coverage so you can edit a cohesive film together. But don't get too much.
You can listen to most movies from the kitchen without watching the TV screen and you haven't missed much of anything.
People listen to films.
You must pay as much attention to the audio recording as you do the film recording.
As tired as you may be at the end of each film day, you still have work to do after the cast and crew go home to sleep.
Here's the easiest way to import your camera and audio footage into your editing computer so you can get some sleep as well.
The only way to know if your actors aren't giving you the performance you want, the lighting looks terrible, the costumes are wrong, or your shots are out of focus is to watch the dailies.
You want to watch the footage from every day's shoot before you begin the next day so you can correct problems before they sabotage your film.
Now that you've successfully finished filming you can finally make your movie.
Up until now you were gathering materials. Now you start creating. These videos give you an overview of the steps you'll take to make your feature film.
You probably have 18 hours or so of video files. And as much or more audio tracks.
Organizing all these files so you can find what you need overwhelms many people.
I've found a simple way to get all the files placed where I need them so I don't waste time searching for footage as I edit.
You learn how to edit by doing it.
You can read books and watch videos for insights but the real learning process happens when you experiment.
This video gives you some of the most essential guidelines for the art of editing.
I learned a lot from these resources as well which you may find online or in libraries:
"In the Blink of an Eye" by Walter Murch
"The Eye Is Quicker" by Richard D. Pepperman
"Cut By Cut" by Gael Chandler
The documentary film "The Cutting Edge: The Magic of Movie Editing" (2004) narrated by Kathy Bates
Now that you have done your first edit of your feature film play the entire movie, without stopping, to see what you have. The rough cut will be great in some spots and challenging in others. It won't be perfect and shouldn't be because you are exploring the movie as you edit it.
As with editing, color correction is very subjective. It is an art form unto itself. Professionals don't agree the 'right' way to color any given scene, which means your choices on how to color your film are as correct as anyone else.
Color correction makes the difference between a YouTube video and a professional feature film. This is essential if you want to release a motion picture that will be received with praise.
Your film titles need to match the style and tone of your film. Action/thriller movies have complex title sequences built with motion software or animation. Dramas usually have simple titles at the beginning and end of the film.
Regardless of the style you choose for your graphics, there is a protocol in the United States about the order that you give people credit in the film.
I sincerely hope your film doesn't need Automatic Dialogue Replacement (ADR) because the audio recorded on set is unacceptable. But if you don't have good recordings of your actors' performances, here's how you get them now.
Again, people hear movies. Creating a soundscape is essential for immersing your audience in your story.
Distribution is a huge job for indie filmmakers. We can't simply make the movie and walk away. We have a lot of work ahead of us to get the movie in front of the audiences that want to see it.
Hollywood studios send their movies to theaters and then make their money from selling products and streaming their films. The traditional distribution route is rarely the best way for indie filmmakers to make money.
There are many places people may see your movie. This tutorial goes through the list of options and tells you how to get your film on these platforms.
Some filmmakers decide to put their films into the festival circuit. This can be a way to connect with film buyers (distributors). It can also be a great way to find your film's audience.
Screening your movie at film festivals costs money that we did not allocate in the budget. If you choose to go this route you will need to raise more cash for submission fees, travel fees, food and lodging at the festival.
Two major websites for submitting films to festivals:
You can sell directly to distribution companies in other countries.
One of the best ways to meet foreign buyers (distributors) is at the European Film Market in Berlin, Germany or the American Film Market in Santa Monica, California.
Aggregators are essentially sales agents.
Many companies have sprung up in recent years catering to indie filmmakers. Search online for film aggregator companies and research who they sell to and what percentages they offer filmmakers.
If you are self-distributing your film, authoring a DVD to sell on Amazon, from your website, and at film screenings can be valuable.
DVDs are complex to build. Plan to take your time if you decide to undertake this.
A very handy tool is www.google.com/alerts I have alerts established for my films, my name and my film company name.