5 stages production

5 Stages of Indie Film Production: What You Need to Know

Film Production is created in 5 phases: development, pre-production, production, post-production, and distribution. Each phase has a different purpose, with the overarching goal to get to the next one, and ultimately on to distribution. Each stage varies in length, and different roles suit different stages. Sadly, some projects don’t make it all the way, as some fall over in development and pre-production.

If you’re serious about working in film, you’ll slot into one or a few of these stages in the role you pursue. Here is a useful outline of each of them, to give you an introductory glimpse into the film process.

1. Film Production – Development

This is where the project is birthed. It is the creation, writing, organizing and planning stage of a project. In development, a preliminary budget is made, key cast are attached, key creatives are chosen, main locations scouted and multiple script drafts may be written.

It’s all the groundwork to show what the project will be and how much it will cost to make. It starts the moment a Producer thinks of a project or a Writer starts penning words on a page.

Development can take months or even years to get the project green-lit by a studio or funded independently and move into pre-production. Green-lighting a film means the studio has approved the idea and will finance the project and move into production.

The crew involved in the development stage is quite minimal compared to all the other stages, as it’s just a small group of creatives and executives crafting the story and associated budget. Once a project finds finance, it will move into the pre-production phase with an emphasis on shooting dates and time frame for the project to be finished.

Once the project has been approved and financed, a preliminary budget is developed by the production team. It’s a rough outline of how much money they need to make the film. The amount of money required depends on the type of film being made.

For example, a studio-backed project will require more money than a self-financed film. The budget also includes the total amount of money needed to shoot the film. The budget is created by a Production Executive and the Producer. The Producer will oversee the budget and ensure it’s accurate and is met. They may work with a Finance Executive and a CFO.

Production (Budget) Once the preliminary budget is approved, a detailed budget is developed. This is when a Producer and the Director, along with a small crew of creatives, begin writing and developing a detailed budget. The budget is broken down into three key areas: production, post-production and distribution.

These are the three primary costs of making a film, although there are many other costs such as location scouting, catering, wardrobe, props, equipment, set construction, legal fees, advertising and much more.

As a Producer, you will need to be responsible for all three areas. You will have to oversee all aspects of the budget and ensure they are met. The Producer may also need to be involved in negotiations with vendors, distributors and financiers. The Producer may also need to work closely with a finance executive and a CFO.

Finance (Budget) Once the budget is approved, the Producer will need to secure financing for the project. There are many different types of financing available, including: Equity Financing – A Producer will need to raise funds from investors. This is the most common type of financing available. – A Producer will need to raise funds from investors.

This is the most common type of financing available. Debt Financing – A Producer will need to raise funds from lenders or banks. A Producer will need to raise funds from lenders or banks.

Tax Credit – A Producer will need to apply for a tax credit on behalf of the film. Some states have tax credits that are available to filmmakers. A Producer will need to apply for a tax credit on behalf of the film. Some states have tax credits that are available to filmmakers.

Government Funding – A Producer will need to apply for government funding. This can include:

Federal Grants – A Producer will need to apply for federal grants to support the film’s production. – A Producer will need to apply for federal grants to support the film’s production.

State Grants – A Producer will need to apply for state grants to support the film’s production. – A Producer will need to apply for state grants to support the film’s production. A Producer may also be involved in negotiations with vendors, distributors and financiers. The Producer may also need to work closely with a finance executive and a CFO.

Casting – Casting a film is the process of finding actors who fit the roles in the script. Once an actor has been cast, they are required to sign a contract with the Producer. A Producer may also need to negotiate with the Actors Union to obtain union membership for the cast and crew. A Producer may also need to work with the casting director to find the right actors for the roles.

Casting directors will need to review resumes and headshots of potential Actors, and then schedule a screen test or audition with potential Actors. The Producer will then decide whether or not to hire an Actor.

The Producer may also need to negotiate with the Actors Union to obtain union membership for the cast and crew. A Producer may also need to work with the casting director to find the right actors for the roles.

Casting directors will need to review resumes and headshots of potential Actors, and then schedule a screen test or audition with potential Actors. The Producer will then decide whether or not to hire an Actor.

A particularly well-known example of troubled development was Mad Max: Fury Road. Development & pre-production on the fourth installment of George Miller’s Mad Max franchise, which first launched in 1979, began in the late 90s with a script penned and shooting planned for the early 2000s. A plague of bad luck followed.

You can learn more about this stage of production at our sister site Bulletproof Screenwriting.

The Gulf War deterred filming in the initial scouted location, and when shooting was relocated to the barren landscape and perfect post-apocalyptic desert vibe in Broken Hill, Australia, a decade-long drought broke.

Dirt and dust were replaced with lush greenery and wildflowers. After over ten years of planning and delays, the film was finally shot in Namibia and South Africa, with pick-ups in Australia. During this time, George Miller directed both installments of the Happy Feet films whilst waiting for the right time to finish his initial project.

The film was released and received massive critical and box office success – proving that sometimes the wait can be worth it.

2. Film Production – Pre-Production

Pre-production (or ‘pre’ as it’s called) is where scripts are amended, budgets are adjusted, actors are cast, locations scouted, the crew employed, shooting schedules amended, sets designed and built, costumes made and fitted, and everything to do with the shoot is planned and tested.

Pre-production includes all the steps taken before the actual shoot:

  • Casting
  • Rehearsal with the actors
  • Budgeting
  • Scriptwriting
  • Location scouting
  • Wardrobe
  • Prop shopping
  • Set design
  • Pre-visualization
  • Pre-lighting
  • Pre-composition

The pre-production stage can last many months from the initial greenlighting of a project to when cameras actually roll.  As this date draws closer, the crew grows with many people being employed about two to eight weeks before the shoot starts.

There is a big push in these weeks to finalize everything that needs to be prepped before cameras roll. Although years of deliberation, concept molding, writing and staring into space in a dreamlike daze is likely to occur in development, once shoot dates are confirmed the work becomes extremely focused on adhering to budgets and shooting schedules.

In some cases this is achieved by hiring in additional staff as needed for each department, and in other cases it’s achieved by bringing in crew who have worked on similar projects. If you’re an actor, you’ve probably been involved in pre-production at one time or another.

For many actors, pre-production marks the beginning of their acting career, so the process can be exciting and nerve wracking at the same time. It’s a great time to meet people, and to get a feel for what it’s like to be on set. The pre-production period also gives you a chance to meet other actors and crew members who are working on your film.

There are a lot of things that can happen in pre-production that might not have occurred if you were shooting the film months or even weeks later. If the budget is too tight to allow for a lot of people being paid, the director or producer might have to cut corners on certain things.

Pre-production is also the stage where directors, producers and screenwriters begin to work closely together on a project to establish a good working relationship. They will have many meetings, phone calls, emails and texts to discuss and finalize all aspects of the script, storyboards, locations, cast, crew, etc.

A common misconception about pre-production is that it’s the time when everything has to be finalized before shooting can begin. This isn’t always the case. There is usually plenty of time to go over and revise things that aren’t perfect. Ideally you need to be sure that you are absolutely certain of everything before filming.

The pre-production stage can last anywhere from one month to a year, depending on the size and complexity of the film project. It can start with an initial meeting between the writer and producer (or sometimes a director and producer) to establish a basic understanding of what the project is about and how it should look.

3. Film Production- Production

The production stage is where the rubber hits the road. The Writer, Director, Producer, and countless other creative minds finally see their ideas captured on film, one day at a time. Production is usually the shortest of the five phases, even though it is paramount to the film and where most of the budget is allotted.

Production is the busiest time, with the film crew positions swelling to hundreds and the days becoming longer in order to be as efficient as possible with all the gear and locations on hire. Let’s go over a few key areas of the film production process.

Line Producer

A Line Producer (LP) is responsible for all of the logistics of getting a film from start to finish. This includes hiring the crew, setting up the set, and making sure that the entire production is running smoothly.

The Line Producer is often the only person who has to deal with all the problems that occur during the shoot—which can include everything from finding a new location to handling legal issues. The Line Producer is also responsible for ensuring that everyone involved on the production is paid and that their contracts are in order.

First Assistant Director

First Assistant Director (1st AD) is a position in filmmaking where a person helps an assistant director and also takes care of other aspects related to the film such as, production office tasks, equipment management, budgeting etc.

1st ADs are a very important team member in a film production and ensure that all the elements of the production are in place and ready for the director to use. The role of First Assistant Director is to ensure that the director is happy with the work of the crew, so that he or she can focus on directing the film.

A good 1st AD can make or break a film. They also have to get into contact with the cast and crew of the film. This includes working closely with the actors, as they perform their roles on set. It also includes working with the other departments like art department, sound department, costume department, makeup department etc.

The First Assistant Director also has to coordinate the various departments of the film.

Director of Photography

Directors of Photography (or DOP) are responsible for the overall look of your production. You may hear DOP referred to as DP, Director of Photography. A DP is the person who is in charge of the camera work, which includes the camera operator, lighting, and set design.

He or she is responsible for all the photographic elements of the production. It’s important to know how to communicate effectively with them and make sure they understand the vision that the director wants to achieve.

This is essential to avoid costly and time-consuming mistakes. It’s also essential to know how to communicate effectively with your DP so that he or she can give you the best advice possible.

Your director may have specific ideas on how to light a scene, which is fine, but he or she needs to understand that the DOP will be making the final decisions regarding lighting.

The DOP will be responsible for knowing what type of lights are available and how to use them. He or she may have a preferred lighting style that you should be aware of when making your choice of camera equipment.

Production Schedule

If a director can not make his or her day then the production will fail. Every day on a film set the director is responsible for shooting a number of pages from the script a day. This schedule is created by the first assistant director.

The production schedule is where the information about the scene is listed. It usually contains the scene number, whether the scene is indoors or outdoors (INT or EXT), the day or night, the cast, the shooting location, the page count of the script, the estimated shooting time, a shot description, and other details.

The production schedule lists who the actors were who were present on set for the scene, as well as other cast members who may have been present on set. This list also includes crew members, such as camera operators and gaffers.

The information about the crew is found in the production crew section of the schedule. If the director is even off by a 1/8 of a page the production is in danger of not finishing on time and on budget.

Costume, Hair and Make-Up

The actors need to be fitted for their costumes and makeup after being brought in.Costume design is also key. The costume department needs to be ready with the right clothes for each scene. If you can imagine the person, you can probably make a costume that will help you get there.

The first thing to do is make a list of all the things you think will be important in the film. This includes everything from your character’s appearance, to his or her personality, to how he or she might react in certain situations.

Also be sure to include the kind of clothes your character wears and where those clothes are worn. If you’ve got a lot of clothing to choose from, you might want to see what your character would wear in everyday life. This way, you can base your costume choices on the clothing your character would wear if he or she were just going about his or her day.

The makeup department has to get everything set up for each shot and ready for the actors, including wigs, prosthetics, and makeup. The hair and make-up artists are the experts in their field, and they need to be ready for every type of role.

Production Design

A production designer (also called a set decorator or set dresser) is responsible for the overall look of a film, TV show, or commercial, including the sets and props. They create the environment for each scene, including the furniture, décor, and lighting. Their job is to make sure the set is as realistic as possible, but they also need to think about how it looks in the context of the story.

A production designer might be responsible for designing the sets on a movie, TV series or commercial, or might be asked to give an opinion about the sets created by other designers. Production designers can also work on location, such as shooting a documentary, but most are based at a studio.

In this case they will have a set built before filming, and may have to make changes during the shoot. A production designer’s responsibilities include:

To design a set, production designer must consider many different factors, including:

  • The budget The director’s vision
  • The nature of the project (e.g., a comedy or drama)
  • The type of set
  • Whether the set is practical or designed for visual effects (VFX)
  • How the set will be used in the story
  • How the set will look in context with the rest of the film, TV show or commercial

To create a believable environment, production designers need to pay attention to small details, including:

  • The size of the set
  • The materials used
  • The lighting, especially if it is night-time
  • The background, such as a wall or a street
  • The scale of the set
  • The furniture and décor
  • The placement of props and extras
  • The position of the camera and any special effects
  • Production designers may work alone or as part of a team
  • In the past, they were often hired by directors and producers, but now they usually work with production managers
  • The work of a production designer depends on their experience and what they are hired for

These are just a few positions of a film set. Now onto the next stage Post Production.


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4. Film Production – Post-Production

So you’ve thought of an idea, written a script, raised the funds, employed a bunch of crew to get it made, spent most of your budget, and hopefully have shot some decent footage in the process. Now it’s time to move into post-production. This is where the footage is edited,

This is where the footage is edited, the sound is mixed, visual effects are added, a soundtrack is composed, titles are created, and the project is completed and prepared for distribution. Although the shooting crew has done a lot of hard work, now the post-production crew face arduous hours of work ahead of them to piece together the scenes and craft a stunning story.

Post-production begins while the shoot is still going, as the footage is gathered as soon as the first day of shooting commences. This helps see the project finished as soon as possible, but can also help identify problems with the footage or any gaps in the story while the shoot is still happening. If needed, shots can be picked up on later days without too much interference in the shooting schedule.

While there are some elements of post-production that can be done ahead of time – such as editing a script or creating a visual effects breakdown – most of it is done after the shoot ends.

Once the shoot is over, the footage is stored on media such as hard drives, DVDs, or on a server depending on the kind of shoot and the budget. The footage is then loaded into a software application called a “digital video editing system” (DVES). Some popular editing systems are AVID, Final Cut Pro, Adobe Premiere and Davinci Resolve.

Most DVES are very similar, but they have their own quirks and workflows, and are designed for specific purposes. Some of these DVES are better at handling certain types of footage, while others excel at certain tasks, and are not as good at others. A lot of what makes DVES work is how they handle footage.

What is footage? As discussed earlier, footage refers to any recorded information. It can be anything from a still image, a moving picture, or even sound. While you can use a smartphone or other device to record audio or video, most people use dedicated equipment for that purpose.

Durning the post production process you edit the footage you have shot with sound, then add sound effects and music. Then you go to the color grading process where you adjust the image to correct lighting issues and stylize the color. You also add any visual effects that are needed.

5. Film Distribution

Without a stringent and robust distribution strategy, the other four stages of production are somewhat redundant, at least from a business perspective. Distribution is the final stage in a project for producers looking to make a return-on-investment. This can be from cinema distribution, selling to a TV network or streaming service, or releasing direct to DVD.

Whatever the distribution plan is, the producers will have spent many hours planning and marketing their piece to ensure the biggest audience and largest return. With the digital age and rapidly converging technologies, viewers are watching content in new and different ways, meaning that the distribution phase is constantly evolving.

Although distribution is the final stage of the project, the channel of distribution and marketing of the project will be planned in pre-production. If it is planned badly and fails to garner good distribution, then all the other phases will be wasted as nobody views the final product and covers the cost of the project. Hopefully, a project moves through all stages smoothly and efficiently and thus a Producer begins the cycle again on another project employing both myself (and possibly you!) once more.

If it is planned badly and fails to garner good distribution, then all the other phases will be wasted as nobody views the final product and covers the cost of the project. Hopefully, a project moves through all stages smoothly and efficiently and thus a Producer begins the cycle again on another project employing both myself (and possibly you!) once more.


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8 Crucial Mistakes to Avoid on Your First Feature Film

Filmmaking you say? Making your first feature film? But I only have one feature (Blessid) under my belt and one other in development. Who am I to give you advice? Correction: I am not giving you advice. I am merely telling you about mistakes and why you don’t want to make them. And on that topic, I am very well qualified.

Mistake #1: Not knowing your purpose.

You’re going to be spending the next five years of your life – if you don’t give up, that is – making your movie. So you better know why you’re making it before you spend the time and money. Is it for art? Then spend way less. Is it for exposure? Still, don’t spend much. Is it for commerce? Okay, but unless your name is “The Heir” try not to spend over $100,000. If you are a 5-tool film guy (writing, directing, producing, editing, deliverables) you can make a great film for under $50,000. But if you’re a writer looking to direct … you’re going to need to pay people to carry you to the finish line.

So if it’s art – do it for under $5,000 and try to get it crowd-funded. And do a short under ten minutes long so you’ll improve your odds to get into film festivals. If it’s for exposure, spend $10,000-$20,000 because you’ll want to make it a bit more polished with good music, sound, and video. And you might even want to pay a known actor to make sure people watch your movie. In that case, make it $30,000-$35,000.

Mistake #2: Not getting legal representation.

Some will say that not allocating the funds to obtain proper legal representation is often a first-time filmmaker’s biggest mistake. And it can be a fatal mistake. An entertainment lawyer will run 3-5% of your budget, and it’s worth every penny. Especially if you it’s your first film, you are getting investors to give you money, and you are winging it.

You will need your entertainment lawyer every step of the way – from pre-production (business plan, investor agreements) to principal photography (actor and crew agreements, location releases, appearance releases) to post (post supervisor, composer, sound/foley agreements) to distribution (distributor agreement – definitely have a lawyer review this for you). Fortunately, somebody has already written a book about making a low budget movie when you’re outside of Hollywood.

This is it: Independent Film Producing: How to Produce a Low-Budget Feature Film. Buy it. Read it. And thank me later.

Mistake #3: The non-perfect script.

Writing is hard work. But revisions are necessary. In fact, you should expect to re-write a script several times with the assistance of a professional script advisor throughout the process. The steps might go something like this:

1) Treatment

2) First Draft

3) Advisor Input

4) Second Draft

5) Advisor Input

6) Third Draft

7) Live Actor Read & Input

8) Final Polish

Taking a year to write a film script is not uncommon – unless someone is paying you to write it and wants it much quicker. Then do 1) Treatment, 2) First Draft, 3) Revision and 4) Final Polish.

Mistake #4: Rushing through pre-production.

Often a filmmaker will not schedule sufficient time for pre-production. He/She moves too fast through pre-production. Rushing into production will unavoidably lead to mistakes. Unfortunately, these early mistakes are built to last, and hard to overcome at the low-budget level where the money that you and any financial backers have to “fix it in Post” is likely non-existent.

Mistake #5: Under-manning your crew.

Before I made Blessid I never thought much when I saw an “Assistant Director” credit on screen. I sure do appreciate what this person does now – which is basically managing the set so the Director can focus on making the film. A bad AD can ruin the mood of the whole crew – adding tension to the actors and crew. A good AD is like a good composer, seamlessly improving the flow of the film from beginning to end. Line Producer is another person who will save your budget (and your butt) in pre-production through the end of principal photography.

A Script Supervisor(to take notes for continuity and missed content) is also important to have. And finally, a Digital Imaging Technician(DIT) is an important link between the set (or the cinematographer) and the post-production house (or the editor), configuring the media and hardware as per the need of the project.

Mistake #6: Not leaving an appropriate amount of time to become a SAG signatory.

Even if you plan to do an ultra-low-budget or micro-budget film if you use SAG actors your production company will need to become a SAG signatory. And there really are no short cuts. So leave yourself a good three weeks, as SAG recommends, to get the paperwork squared so you can start your production in good order. What are the steps involved? I will spare you the details, and instead, simply provide a link.

Mistake #7: Not setting aside funds for the SAG Actor Bond.

I’d never even heard of a SAG Actor Bond. I just thought that when I was finished with the paperwork to become a signatory I could yell “Action!” and be on with it. But if you have negotiated salaries with SAG actors for your film, you need to set aside certain monies in a bond that SAG holds. And you need to do this before you begin filming.

If you are using a payroll company who can demonstrate you have set the appropriate funds aside, this is usually 40-50% of negotiated SAG actor salaries for features. So if you are paying SAG actors $5,000 – you need to come up with an additional $2,000-$2,500 dollars to let SAG hold throughout principal photography.

If you don’t use a payroll company you could very well be expected to pony up the entire amount in bond PLUS 10% (pension) PLUS 15.3% (health and benefits). And SAG may not inform you of this until a few days before you begin shooting. So rather than having $5,000 set aside in your budget for SAG actors, the true cost would be $11,265 ($5,000 to cut checks during filming and $6,250 for the SAG Actor Bond before filming begins).

Mistake #8: Not getting a name actor for SAG productions.

I truly believe SAG actors are the cream of the crop. And I am thrilled with the performances in my first feature. But if I were to do it again – I’d keep the same actors and get one recognized name for a small but necessary role (1-day shoot) to give my distributor extra “oomph” when they try to market my film to broadcast TV or in foreign markets. Bottom line: If you are going through the paperwork and hassle of a SAG production, get at least one familiar name to make it that much easier to sell the film later on.

About the Author:

Bob Heske is a multi-award-winning filmmaker, screenwriter, graphic novelist and indie comic creator. By day he churns out compliance marketing content for financial services; by night he is maniacal at his keyboard – creating characters and dramatic conflicts far more interesting than he is. You can watch his first film BLESSID on Amazon Prime here. Blessid is directed by Rob Fitz and stars Rachel Kerbs, Rick Montgomery Jr., Gene Silvers, and Chris DiVecchio.

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