How to Produce Your First Indie Film

Getting a foot in the door of Hollywood isn’t for the faint of heart. It takes years of gruntwork, a slew of side hustles, and an unsettling amount of unpaid internships. You also need talent.

Instead of waiting around for someone to notice you, it’s becoming more and more common to produce to your own content. Just look at the stars of Broad City, or even Sylvester Stallone– they both started out by creating their own content. And with new editing software and ways to pay your crew, it’s easier to create than ever.


Spearheading creating your own professional work is daunting — producing an indie on the cheap requires a swiss army knife toolkit of favors and experience.

However, creating your own content will not only give you exposure when your work is released but it will also lead you to work with many people, who may connect you with others on their next project.

Estimating your budget

So you’ve written a great script. You’ve tweeted out that you’re going to produce it, so there’s no going back now.

It’s time to estimate just how much it will cost to produce by breaking down the script.

1. Break it down

A script breakdown is a list of all the elements you’ll need to make the script come to life from props to characters to stunts to special camera equipment to make up. To generate these lists, grab a highlighter and big red marker and a coffee. As you read through, it you’ll mark all the locations, props and personnel according to the script.

A line like: “He looked left and right at all the school children leaving the school” – implies a bunch of school children all leaving a school – indicating you need a school and school children and a lead for this shot to make any sense. It could also imply a school bus if you have a few thousands of dollars lying around.

Do this for the whole script. When you’re done, your script should look something like this.

Photo credit

2. Add all the elements into a budget

After you’ve broken your script down, you’ll want to use it’s elements to make decisions like how many people do you need in your cast and crew, what scenes will you shoot per day and how much time you’ll need in pre and post production.

There are software tools to help with all of these things but at the most basic level, you can just start with Google Sheets or Microsoft Excel to see where they get you. If you’re wanting to get fancier, you could look at Movie Magic Budget or Final Draft for breaking down your script.

Keep in mind that under the SAG Short Project agreement, talent are paid a minimum of $125 for an 8-hour day.

Fund your project

Professional film production is very expensive. Many people are involved, not to mention equipment that must be sourced, people flown around, housed, dressed, fed, equipment rented, locations rented, film cut, soundtracks added, not to mention the costs of keeping unions happy. Without a couple thousand dollar budget, a short film may struggle might struggle to enter a film festival. So unless, you have at least 20K under your mattress, you’ll need to raise some money for your project.

These are some methods that you can try out:

  1. Crowdfunding: Kickstarter, GoFundme — their both crowdfunding sites that have launched thousands of successful projects. But it’s not a silver-bullet. Don’t underestimate the amount of marketing work that you’ll need to do for rally enough donors to hand you money – typically you’ll need press, email blasts and some amount of follow up promotion on social media.
  2. Angel investors: Do you know some rich friends? Maybe they can be convinced to fund your project? Angel investors typically put money into films for their legacy not as a typical investment where they’re entirely looking at an ROI. Said another way, angel investors look at projects a little more like buying an expensive piece of art that will hang on their wall. Sure – they’d like for it to go up in value but in the meantime, they can show it to their friends and their friends can admire their “appreciation of the arts.”
  3. Film Grants: Most governments have some type of funding instrument for creative projects. They often are very specific to the region and many people don’t know about them. For example, Canada hands out film grants at both the national and the provincial level with different production company requirements for each. Hunting around and filling out a lot of forms, may pay you some dividends.
  4. Government tax credits: Most large film budgets have approximately 30% of their budget covered by government tax credits. States regularly compete with each other to beat each other in tax credits. While this may sound particularly enticing, be-warned, most government tax credit programs target higher budget productions. In New York, for example, budgets under 500K won’t be looked at.
Staffing it up

Once you’ve got some dough, it’s time to hire a crew.

Most hiring in the entertainment industry comes from word of mouth. Everyone has a friend that they can recommend.

And since everyone is looking for more work, for paid gigs, normally it’s just a matter of asking a few friends for recommendations to have your inbox overflow with people who are available.

If you are struggling to find the right people for you can use iActor, Backstage or StaffMeUp to find more people.

Renting equipment

If you’re going on the cheap, you can sometime staff people up that own their own audio, video and sound equipment but normally you’ll be needing to rent your own equipment for your shoots from a professional rental company.

Rental companies abound in New York, Los Angeles and Atlanta but if you’re in a little more remote location, I would recommend looking into Sharegrid or Kitsplit to rent equipment in your area.

Both of these sites allow you to rent equipment from other filmmakers in your area, rather than a rental company, which both supports the community and saves you money.

Decide Union or Non-Union

One big decision to make for a low budget indie is to decide if it makes sense to hire unionized professionals or not.

While members of SAG-AFTRA, DGA, and WGA can significantly make a production better, hiring any of them on your production will introduce a level of complexity and increase your budget in a way that you might not be prepared for and may cause you to pull your hair out.For most indie producers, deciding to go union or non-union usually comes from wanting to work with some particular talent or director. Looping them into your project will require you to go through the hoops of being a much more buttoned up production.

If you decide to go union, be ready to

  1. pay everyone according to labor rules (as employees)
  2. purchase production insurance and workers compensation
  3. become a union signatory and contact them to initiate the process well before you ever start shooting (at least 2 months in advance of shooting).
  4. work with an entertainment payroll company, like TakeOne to assist you to pay everyone. SAG actually requires you to use a payroll company.
Get legal

1 Get a Business Entity

If you’re running a production – it is usually a good idea to register as a company for liability purposes so that if you get sued or somebody gets injured – it’s the company which is responsible and not you.

I would recommend getting an LLC for your production needs. This can be a really simple process and just requires filling out a few forms online.

Once it is set up, you will want to ensure that all the contracts that people fill out are from your business to the individual.

2 Get a Business Bank Account

Given that you’re going to be paying vendors, insurance company and running payroll, you should sign up for a business bank account so that you can pay everyone out of it and pool the funds that you raise from outside channels into it.

Many banks provide incentives for you to sign up for a new bank account. Chase periodically offers a deal of $300 for just signing up.

3 Set Up Your Crew as Employees

It is standard in the entertainment industry to pay anyone who shows up on set as a tax-withheld employee.

This means that in addition to their gross wages, you as their employer, will be responsible for also paying the employer taxes as well on top of their wages. Each of your employees will have their regular taxes withheld on their paychecks. Anticipate paying an additional 20% of their wages for various taxes in doing their payroll.

Calculating payroll and actually withholding funds as a part of the payroll cycle is quite a pain, so most a service, like TakeOne to ensure their payroll handled correctly for them.

A word of warning:

While you may be tempted to try to pay your cast and crew as contractors to avoid paying employer taxes, we would strongly advise you against it. Not only is it required by union signatories to pay their cast and crew as employees, according to the labor code, if you control the time that somebody needs to show up to work, they need to be classified as an employee.

State labor depts usually come asking questions long after you have wrapped your production, when somebody you hired for a single day on your shoot files for unemployment insurance and they mention to the state that they worked on your production. This is really common in the entertainment industry since many people are often living paycheck to paycheck, the work is haphazard and many people do become technically unemployed after doing a few gigs.

If they come asking, they will hit you up with a fine for a labor code violation, which will be much more expensive than any money you saved not paying employer taxes. Be warned!

4 Get Workers Compensation Insurance

Workers compensation insurance covers bodily injury at the workplace is required of all employers and you are no different.

Most large productions leverage the insurance policy of a payroll company – who serves for them as the employer of record for all their employees. TakeOne, for instance, cover workers compensation for contractors and employees for all projects that we service.

5 Get Production Insurance

Unionized projects are required to secure production insurance covering all types of things that can go wrong on set. This can include auto rental, rental equipment and liability for anything that goes wrong on the production.

Securing production insurance requires you to fill out a detailed questionnaire covering the locations you’re shooting at, the age range of your cast and the shooting conditions you’re covering.

From all this information, an insurance company will piece together for you a quote covering all the things that can potentially go wrong. Typically the cost of the insurance will vary from hundreds to thousands of dollars depending on the length of the time of the shoot and the risk assessment of the insurance company.

Anticipate about 1-2 days of back and forth with an insurance broker to secure a precise quote for your production. They will ask things like “how many seats does the car you’re driving have?”, before being able to give you a precise quote!

I recommend chatting with the good people at Film Casualty to price together a package for you. They are some of the fastest people to turn around a quote for you and have very reasonable prices.

Get Ready To Shoot

Creating your own content involves hundreds of moving pieces and is more akin to running a logistics/accounting business than painting a painting.

Like anything in life, the more you do it, the more all the things that were hard initially will become easier. The lessons you’ll learn making your first indie are well worth the headaches and pitfalls that will come from producing.

Editing and distribution are a different story…

Happy Indie’ing!
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