Understanding the 5 Stages of Indie Film Production
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.
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.
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. 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.
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 crew swelling to hundreds and the days becoming longer in order to be as efficient as possible with all the gear and locations on hire.
The crew works extremely hard during this period, with shooting hours each day ranging up to sixteen hours. Projects run to strict schedules with cast only contracted for a certain timeframe, so the crew is crucial in squeezing out every bit of energy to see the project successfully completed on time.
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, 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 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.
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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Matt Webb is the author of Setlife: A Guide To Getting A Job in Film (And Keeping It). He is an Assistant Director with credits including The Great Gatsby, Mad Max: Fury Road, Hacksaw Ridge, Pirates of the Carribean and Alien: Covenant.
Setlife: A Guide To Getting A… is a must-have guide designed to prepare you for what happens on a typical day on a film set. Matt Webb’s no-fuss, practical tips are essential reading for anyone chasing a career in the film industry. The book is available for $25 from Amazon.
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