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The truth about independent filmmakers
We celebrate the independent filmmaker success stories: Kevin Smith’s Clerks, Robert Rodriguez’s El Mariachi, Edward Burns’ The Brothers McMullen.
Theses stories and others like them inspire people everywhere to go out and start making movies. Each year, hundreds, if not thousands, of low-budget independent films are produced in every genre imaginable.
Here is the sad truth: most independent movies are terrible, even unwatchable. They make no money—for the filmmaker or investors.
If you don’t believe me, sample some low budget movies on Amazon Prime, Hulu, Netflix, or YouTube.
Go watch a few right now. I’ll wait…
Pretty sad, isn’t it?
It doesn’t have to be that way.
Why they suck
Before we get to the reasons, let me first say this:
Bad independent films are preventable!
I don’t want to discourage anyone from making movies. Quite the contrary, I want to see more independent movies.
I just want to stop you from making BAD movies.
The best way to avoid making bad movies is to understand why so many people make bad movies and avoid making those same mistakes.
Most independent films fail because:
- The script is terrible
- The acting is amateurish
- The production quality is awful
Script and story problems
You can’t make a great film out of a lousy script, especially on a small budget.
Most indie films have poor scripts. The screenwriter usually doesn’t understand story, structure, conflict, theme, plot, character, or much else about film scripts.
This is entirely preventable.
You can learn screenwriting from books, videos, classes, workshops, and other resources. Most of these resources are free or inexpensive.
Once you learn how to write a screenplay, you have to write screenplays—lots of screenplays. It takes a lot of practice to become a good screenwriter.
You also need good feedback on your scripts. Get feedback from knowledgeable people. Learn from that feedback and improve your scripts.
I get it, you’re impatient and want to start making your movie right away.
Do not make your movie until your script is amazing.
Quick side note: follow me on Twitter (@mediamitch) for links to good screenwriting and other filmmaking resources. Never stop learning!
I watched several trailers for new indie films last weekend. Few of these films had good or even decent acting.
Almost everyone recognizes bad acting when they see it. Bad acting is hard to watch and listen to.
The audience cannot take your film seriously if the acting is bad.
Do not put your friends (and yourself) in your movie (unless you happen to be talented actors).
Find good actors. Hold auditions. Get the right actors for the roles. Find a way to pay them.
Do not skip this step. Your movie will not succeed without good actors.
Bad production quality
Most low-budget films look and sound terrible. It’s obvious the director, camera operator, and sound person have no idea what they’re doing.
Luckily, you can learn what you need to know about shooting and lighting a movie with free or inexpensive online resources.
Education is a wonderful thing.
For example, you can learn not to shoot on locations with plain white walls.
You can learn how to properly operate a boom (and find out what a “boom” is).
Spend some time on YouTube learning about cinematography, lighting, recording location sound, set designing and set dressing, directing, editing, sound design—the list is endless.
Better yet, use a small, experienced crew. If you can’t afford experienced crew, build your filmmaking team and make sure they learn the filmmaking skills required for their roles.
Finally, a common problem in too many indie films is bad sound.
Don’t neglect the audio. Poor sound quality will ruin your movie and make it unbearable to sit through.
Your next step
Once your team is in place, you’ve found good actors, and your script is amazing, make a short film. You will learn more from making this short film than a formal film school education.
Once you complete the short film, learn from it. Does it look like a real movie? Does it sound like a real movie? Is it entertaining? Have you told a good story? Does it all work?
Get feedback on your short film and lots of it. Listen to this feedback and learn from it.
Enter your short film in festivals and contests and see how you stack up against the competition.
Have you learned all you can from this experience? Good, now go make your next short film.
Do not attempt to make your movie until you can make really good short films. Here’s a simple litmus test: if your short films are really good, they should be getting noticed at the film festivals and winning film contests.
Are you ready?
Have you reached the point where your short films are really good?
NOW you can make your movie.