How to Know When a Project is the Right Project

From the outside, producing a movie appears to be glamourous, fun and exciting. It is an adventure that may afford you the opportunity to work with famous personalities, travel the world, and have experiences that most people only dream of. The process of producing a movie is rarely as engaging as this romanticized facade. In reality, movie production is an arduous and challenging process that requires massive amounts of time and money. Many filmmakers fail under the weight of the demands of production and end up in debt with little to show for their efforts.

Smart producers will carefully consider the factors that go into producing a movie.

  • Make sure it’s a project you LOVE – A movie can take you years to produce.  From the time you develop the concept or find the perfect script to the moment you turn over the master tapes to a distributor, years will pass.  As basic as it may sound, it’s important to find a project that you truly love – one that you will look forward to working on, even when the going gets tough and it seems that the odds of completing it appear impossible.
  • Your movie will always cost more than you think – Even the most experienced line producers fail to account for costly line items: weather that can wipe out entire shooting days, additional equipment that may be needed on set, days that may run into over time, payoffs to annoyed neighbors when you’re shooting on location, codec problems in the editing process… there are dozens of factors that can add thousands of dollars to your budget.  Be prepared to spend a lot more than you originally anticipated before beginning the process.
  • Your movie will always take longer to produce than you think – Movies will always take longer to produce than you initially think. Especially in the independent world where money is scarce, you will be forced to develop cheaper workarounds that while saving money, will ultimately cost you time. There is an old adage that says you can produce a movie with only two of the following three options:  cheap, fast or good.  If you want you movie to be inexpensive and good quality, it won’t happen quickly.  If you want you movie to be inexpensive and quickly produced, it wont be good.
  • Don’t be too ambition with your page/day count – Shooting 4-5 pages a day is a comfortable amount that allows you time to rehearse actors and carefully set-up each scene. Productions with limited funds will try to cram as many as 7-9 pages per day.  This won’t allow any time to light or rehearse and will drastically cut into the production value of the movie.  You have to ask yourself at which point are you going to compromise the quality so severely that you’ll hinder your ability to sell the film.
  • Don’t forget Post-Production – Many producers are so focused on getting the film “in-the-can,” that they completely overlook the costs and time required to complete the post-production of the movie. From editing and sound mixing to composing and mastering, the post production process often takes longer and is more expensive than shooting the movie.  It’s a god idea to work with your post-production house at the very beginning so you can anticipate and manage your costs by pre-planning your post-production requirements.

Approach the production of a movie like you would with any investment. Look realistically at the costs and resources needed to properly pull it off.

Does Your Film Need to be Rated by the MPAA?

A common question asked many many independent filmmakers is, “Does my film need to be rated by the MPAA?”  The MPAA, which stands for the Motion Picture Association of America is an independent board comprised of parents and clergy that view and rate movies. The rating system, G, PG, PG-13, R, and NC-17 helps parents select appropriate content for themselves and their kids. But, the rating has a serious impact on where a film can be released.

You’ve definitely seen the red or green band screens that appear before a movie trailer.  And yes, even trailers are rated by the MPAA.


FilmSkills recently partnered with Barry Freeman, former member of the MPAA and one of the people directly involved in the movie rating process. In his lesson, he teaches you how the MPAA functions, how a rating can affect a film’s box office revenue, when an independent filmmaker needs to have their film reviewed, the costs involved, and how to appeal a ruling.

In this lesson, Barry walks you through every step of the film ratings process, from how to prep your script at the beginning, to navigating the tricky review process itself.

You can check out Barry’s lesson and 240 other lessons from leading Hollywood Filmmakers by subscribing to FilmSkills Gold.

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Prepare Your Film for Distribution From Day 1

The process of making a movie is the same as the process of manufacturing any other product, and preparing your film for distribution from day 1 will save you a lot of pain when it comes time to sell it. Research the market, the audience, and what the distributors are looking for before you undertake a production. Most filmmakers spend massive sums of money and time on a movie only to discover that there’s no market for it. Smart moviemaking means figuring out a marketing and distribution plan before you begin preproduction.


  • Call and set up meetings with domestic and foreign distributors and ask to talk to a sales rep – The best way to reach them is by attending a film market like the American Film Market in Santa Monica.  Held each year, it’s a marketplace where distributors from around the world meet to explore and purchase content from producers.  Film markets are the best way to see what is selling and to where.
  • Ask distributors what genres are selling and what genres they feel will be hot in a year – For example, the horror genre is generally a consistent seller in the foreign market, is cheap to produce, and doesn’t require big name actors in the cast. Action-driven movies are less reliant on the dialogue, so even if the audience doesn’t follow the nuances of the performances, the action will be enough to sell the film.
  • Find out which actors you should approach to help increase the marketability of the movie – Which actors are bringing in the largest sales of independent movies in the foreign market? Some actors perform better in different markets, and producers know this.  Smart casting is not just about finding the right actors to play the part, but finding actors who can attract crowds in popular markets like Germany, latin America, Japan, and China.
  • Find out what format distributors prefer – Each distributor will require slightly different delivery specifications, be it 35 mm film, an HD, or digital format. This will help you decide the best camera and format on which to shoot your film.
  • What is the ideal length for the movie? –Many distributors prefer a movie around 90 minutes in length, simply because movie theaters can fit more movies into the daily schedule, thereby increasing audience turnaround, and profits.
  • What marketing materials should you collect during production to help in the distribution of the movie? It’s critical to start shooting behind-the-scene stills, videos on set, interviews of the cast and crew, and assembling bloopers for social media. Not only can you start building hype in the film during production, but these materials will come in handy when you send out press releases.
  • What are the average sales prices for the type of movie you’re making – By analyzing how much movies of a similar genre perform in the market, you can calculate the budget and determine how much money you should spend. Basically, you want to keep you budget low enough to ensure you see a return on your investment.

The rules of producing and selling a movie are a lot like the rules governing the game of basketball. Each player must acknowledge and understand the parameters, the size of the court, the height and diameter of the hoop, the number of players on each side, and the time restrictions for an organized game to take place. Whereas some may find these rules limiting, many talented athletes have excelled at the game, even when playing within the guidelines. The same philosophy applies to the production of a movie, in that filmmakers must follow the distributor’s strict guidelines governing the content, format, casting, and genre for the film to be commercially viable. Using a little creativity and talent, filmmakers can certainly succeed within a distributor’s rules. Remember that the film industry is a business designed to make a product that sells and makes a profit.


Learn More at FilmSkills

Introduction to Distribution
Now that your movie is finished, it’s time to sell it and begin generating revenue.  But this is easier said than done – the costs of distribution, marketability of your project, and dozens of other factors will impact the price you receive.

In this module you will learn how the distribution process works, the way studios approach the process, the windows and time frames of distribution, how to approach self-distribution, and knowing your audience. Guiding you through these tricky waters are veteran studio executives from LucasFilm, Sony, and FreeMantle Media.

Unlock the distribution process so you can get the most for your movie.

Domestic Distribution
Making the film is only one part of the process. Selling it is the other. Whereas making the movie has been a stressful process, the game of finding a distributor, negotiating the contracts, preparing the deliverables, and facing the sometimes staggering costs of E&O insurance, conversions, and M&E mixes hit most filmmakers by surprise.

In this module, we will prepare you for the distribution process so you know what to expect, what materials are needed, and most importantly how to protect yourself in the high stakes game of film distribution.

Foreign Distribution
Selling your movie in the United States is only part of distribution.  Now, it’s time to sell your movie to the rest of the world, and in doing so navigate the challenging path to making money in the foreign market. With thousands of films produced and marketed every year, foreign distributors are faced with more choices than ever before. Knowing how this process works can put you at a tremendous advantage.

In this module, you will learn how foreign sales agents work, how to find a reputable agent, common scams used to steal your movie without paying you, what you will be expected to deliver, how to collect your money, and hundreds of other tips.  We take you to the heart of it all at the American Film Market to see – firsthand, how the foreign distribution process works.

Become the smartest person at the negotiating table by learning the process, and make a profit on your movie.

Online Distribution
The Internet has become a powerful alternative to traditional distribution outlets for independent filmmakers, but while this option seems alluring, it is fraught with challenges. Finding a voice and an audience online is a long and expensive road, and while the profit margins can be greater, so can the time and effort you put in for those profits.

In this module you will learn how to properly distribute your movie online, how content aggregators work, how to find a unique presence online, and how to leverage your online movie to get your next movie deal.

Invest your time wisely with the best results by learning the right way to approach Internet distribution.

Film Festivals
We all dream of an extravagant Sundance Film Festival premiere where we are showered with offers from anxious distributors stepping over each other to acquire our films.  While this certainly happens, the reality is that film festivals offer much, much more in the way of contacts, self-promotion, and an opportunity to pitch your next project to investors and producers.

In this module you will learn how to find a qualified producer’s rep, how to get into top film festivals, what to do once you are accepted, how to attract the right audiences at the screenings, and how to leverage the opportunity for your next production.

You worked hard, so learn how to maximize you and your film’s exposure at film festivals.

How to Effectively Work With Your Editor

The editor holds a very special position in the filmmaking process. An artist in his own right, the editor is tasked with assembling the rough footage in a way that fulfills your vision. However, whereas you have been involved with the film for months, possibly years, the editor has an objective point of view and can spot problems in story and pacing you may never see. For this reason, you must trust the editor and give him breathing room to build the story.

As the director of your movie, you’ve been involved in virtually every step of the process – from writing the script to shooting the footage on set. But now that you’re in post-production, you have the opportunity to work with someone who can bring something to the project that you can’t – objectivity.

The challenge that somebody has to have, and most often that challenge is met by the editor, what is actually relevant to the telling of the story. They weren’t on set, they didn’t get up at five in the morning and fight the mosquitoes to get that incredible opening shot as the sun came up over the swamp and people were dying left and right because the bugs were thick and the air was hot and it was just a miserable [experience]; they don’t care, they want to tell the story.


             – Larry Jordan, Award-winning post-production trainer, member of the Directors Guild of America and the Producers Guild of America


The biggest disservice you can do for the film is to sit over the editor’s shoulder and direct each edit. This common mistake not only takes away the editor’s creativity as an artist, but also your ability to make objective decisions as to how the film will cut together.  Let’s face it, you have spent months, possibly years working on the movie and know every detail of the story. Subsequently, plot holes may be invisible to you as you mentally fill in gaps with your knowledge and familiarity with the story. That’s why working with an editor is so important – editors come onboard later in the process and aren’t exposed to the creative process during production. When they receive the footage, they can objectively build the story with the available shots.

One of the most difficult scenarios with a director, is one who is a little too controlling for their own good, because sometimes, directors, and it really comes from a state of passion, I find, they have their vision, and they’re so set on their ways that they can come into the editing room and completely dominate the process. And it’s a very uncomfortable position for an editor to be in because it doesn’t give the editor time to really explore the footage on their own and see if there are alternative ways to create the scenes.


                   – Brad Schwartz, Emmy-winning Editor, “Top Chef,” “Dancelife,” and “Viva Hollywood”


Be smart and give the editor guidance that allows him to build the assembly cut alone. Once the assembly cut is finished, can come in fresh, watch the film and give the editor notes as to what changes need to be made.

Some tips and tricks to keep in mind when working with an editor:

  • Concentrate and focus – The editor is the keeper and manipulator of the footage, builder of the story and the objective eyes of the director. Tasked with building the best possible story out of potentially thousands of shots, sound effects, lines of dialogue and music cues, it’s important to be completely immersed in the story and footage.  Part of being able to concentrate is setting up a quiet area where he can work uninterrupted. Make sure the editor can aside specific time to work on the film, turning of the phone or television so he can fully immerse himself in the world you are creating. Although it takes hundreds of people to produce the footage, it really rests on the shoulders of the one editor to put it together.
  • A good editor spends more time thinking than editing – The actual physical process of cutting a film is fairly quick and easy; but the majority of the editor’s time is spent discussing the ordering of scenes, what shots work and which don’t, options and alternate ways of telling the story, how to improve the performances, how to correct pacing issues, and address the flow of the story. The editing process involves a little bit of cutting, but a lot of thought, discussion and analyzing to determine whether the edit has improved the movie. Welcome, and be open to, this dialogue, for it is in these conversations that the real art of editing happens.
  • If you’re directing the movie, bring on an experienced, objective editor – No matter how good of an editor you think you are, NEVER cut your own film. You know it too well and will mentally fill in plot holes because you know the story so well. You need the objectivity of a third party.

Ultimately, a good editor needs time to wrap his head around the material to find the best way to assemble the story.  Trust him, and let him have a pass at the material before you jump in.  You may just be surprised at the result.

Shoot for the Edit

Believe it or not, the editing of a movie begins well before you shoot the first frame. Filmmaking is a tedious process of shooting a scene numerous times from many angles using only one camera, and it’s important to consider in pre-production, how these shots will be edited together. In the editing room, the editor assembles shots so the action in the scene appears to have had occurred only once, and was covered by multiple cameras positioned around the set. This can be tricky because the quality of the edit depends heavily on how well the footage was shot on location.

When on set, always shoot for the edit by envisioning how every shot will be cut together. A great way to ensure continuity between shots is for the actors to perform the scene in its entirety and cover as much of the scene as possible from each camera set-up. The more rehearsed the actors, the more consistent their performance from take to take; the more consistent the performance, the better the continuity of the footage.

Although editing is the process of assembling footage shot in the field into a meaningful, logical sequence, smart directors and cinematographers will determine how to edit the shots together before stepping foot on set. Shooting for the edit will help you better achieve your vision, control costs by eliminating extraneous set-ups and streamline the editing process.

Shooting for the edit covers several aspects:

  • Planning camera angles and movements – During pre-production, think about the relationship between each of the shots in the shot list and how they will ultimately cut together. Storyboarding the shots, or using software that allows you to animate each shot will help you visualize the flow the each scene.
  • Plan to maximize the coverage in every camera set-up – If working on a tight budget, shooting each camera set-up from a wide shot, a medium shot and a close-up will instantly triple the options available to the editor.

One technique I employ when planning my camera angles is to place the camera where an observer would be compelled to look during a scene. As I block the actors, I take note of where my natural human tendency is to look. If I feel the need to look at a character’s face in a certain moment, odds are I will need to cover him in a close-up. If I am pulled to stand back and watch an entire action unfold, I will think about covering that part of the scene in a wide shot.

The camera is really an extension of the audience, so treat it as such. Pretend as though you were taking an audience member by the hand as the scene unfolds around you and walking him or her to different parts of the set to experience the action unfolding. What would be the best vantage point to see the action? Where would the audience member stand? How close or how far would he or she be? All these answers can translate directly into the positioning of the camera.