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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. For that go to someplace with decades of insight like Film Trooper, Indie Film Academy or of course Indie Film Hustle. 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.

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About the Filmmaker:

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 KerbsRick Montgomery Jr.Gene Silvers and Chris DiVecchio.

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