Producing an Indie Film – A step-by-step guide
A film producer plays a critical role in every aspect of filmmaking. Right from the inception of the story to its completion and even later, a producer has to oversee the minutest details associated with a film. The challenges associated with producing a film increase when it is an independent film that does not enjoy the perks of various big banner productions.
But with some planning and a well-thought of execution plan, an independent film can go a long way. Something that Producer Manas Malhotra learnt while producing his recent film Jugni. Basis his experience, here is a step-by-step guide that charts the path to producing an indie film.
The first thing that strikes you when you think of producing a film is – where is the money going to come from. The money in today’s day and age is not just the amount needed to make the film but also what you need to put the film out. An important decision that an independent filmmaker needs to consider is – you probably won’t be able to raise enough money to put the film out, so should you make it in the first place? That’s the first and most important decision that they have to make.
There is always the option of going out and making the film, because till you don’t do it, you won’t know. But the other school of thought says – figure how to raise money, decide a model and the kind of recoveries can happen and then in a more planned manner, approach the film. As a filmmaker, you need to decide, which approach would you like to take.
I was somebody who used to live by the second approach – plan, raise the money for the film, for the P&A and then start making the film. But when it actually came down to making a film (Jugni), I jumped into making it; without even having enough money to complete it. So each one has to find their own path.
- The most preferred and easiest path is to raise money through the friends and family approach, which a lot of independent filmmakers tend to take.
- The second approach is crowdfunding, but it’s not easy. We only hear of the success stories of crowdfunding but don’t know about the other 90 – 95 per cent failures. Another thing with crowdfunding is that it also depends upon the budget that the film needs. The crowdfunding universe in our country is fairly limited and not as developed as it is in the West. The maximum amount that I’ve heard of any film raise through crowdfunding is 40 lakhs. But a lot of the independent films today will cost a lot more than that. So crowdfunding could be a part-funding model and not necessarily the ‘only’ financing model for the film.
- Then there are the standard studios and production houses that have access to actors and therefore the funding.
- One could also look at the international co-production approach. But again, you can only raise a certain amount of money from international funding. And a lot of the money that you raise has to go into the country that the money is coming from. Technically if you are shooting in India, it doesn’t help much.
- There are also a few funds but they largerly cater to bigger budget films.
Your script could come from either a writer or a writer-director. In today’s day and age if you have a writer whose written a script that you want to make into a film, you will either have to buy the rights or the writer could be a friend and you’ll decide to make the film together. Similarly, if the writer is a writer cum director, the same approach applies. You have to figure if there is any money involved at this stage. Ideally in the independent space there isn’t any money that exchanges hands at the script stage.
Even if you are getting into a Lab, there isn’t any money involved, but a Lab gives you much more exposure. For example, the NFDC Screenwriter’s Lab that gives you exposure to mentors and Film Bazaar gives you access to possible producers.
Whether or not to take your script to a lab completely depends on your film. In our case we didn’t feel that our script (Jugni) fit into a Lab. We also knew that we weren’t too far away from a final shooting script so a Lab would have made it a lengthy process. So one needs to assess if the film is the right fit for a Lab.
After the script is locked you probably start two processes simultaneously – the casting and crew hire. When you get into casting or hiring the crew, you also need to have a timeline for the film in mind. When is the best time to start the shoot – is it best to start the shoot when you have the right cast in place, given that as an independent producer you will not get the stars. Or is it best to start when you can get the best crew for the cheapest price. Every producer needs to make these decisions.
Would you rather get a new set of actors and work with them – which is much easier and reasonable and they be flexible about their dates. And you figure the technical crew, which is more open to working on independent films at cheaper prices and could also add some PR value to the film. For Jugni, the date was initially kept moving but at one point we said, February 1, 2014 it is. We go with those who can now fit in to the timeline and if they can’t, we just look for the second best option. At some point you need to start closing or the process can keep going on.
In our case because we were shooting outdoors, and 75 per cent of our film was set in Punjab, the biggest challenge was taking the cast and crew over there and taking care of their transportation, boarding and lodging within whatever budget we had. We looked for hotels in and around Chandigarh but the city isn’t cheap and we couldn’t find anything in the budget that we had set side – Rs. 700 a day, for a double occupancy room. Finding a hotel in that budget in today’s time is extremely difficult. We finally found a hotel that was not in the best part of the city and we later learnt that it went by-the-hour. A few of us reached a week earlier and hired local help to clean the hotel for five days before the crew came in. We didn’t just clean the hotel but also got new linen, bath towels, curtains etc. When the crew came in, it didn’t look like a by-the-hour hotel. We were more worried when the actors were coming in. Even though we mostly had first time actors, there were a few who had done some films earlier. But fortunately, it all came down to the fact that we were completely honest with everybody. We went out of our way to make sure that the stay was comfortable. And the one thing that we didn’t compromise on at all was the food. That really helped build trust between the crew and us. Plus we kept the same food for everyone. That made it a lot easier for us to get the best out of the cast and crew. Also keeping the crew in the same hotel helps, as there is a camaraderie that develops. These little things are very important in an independent scenario. Ultimately it’s all about how you manage people.
Once the basics are sorted and the shooting begins, then it’s all about completing the shooting on or before time. Ours was largely an outdoor shoot and it mostly kept raining. But our crew was really amazing and we had a very good first AD who planned everything really well. And the director was also a producer on the film, so she understood that we needed to be quick. We actually managed to finish our outdoor schedule around 3-4 days before time.
The HODs – first AD, Director, DOP etc. have to primarily be in sync to be able to manage time effectively. There are a lot of things that are not in our control. For instance, on the first day of shoot, we were to do a scene in a village in Punjab, and the actors were supposed to land the previous day but due to fog they couldn’t land in Chandigarh. They landed in Delhi in the evening and it was too risky to drive them down. So we had no option but to shoot something that we had planned for Day 14 as only those actors were available on that day. So it completely depends on how in sync you are with your team to be able to manage the schedule effectively.
By nature itself, one wouldn’t do a VFX heavy film in the independent space, unless it’s a horror film. Horror films, because of the nature of the film, don’t normally have a high production budget but are heavy on Post. And in our country, be it independent films or non-independent ones, by the time you come to the post production stage, you have actually used up a lot of your money; so the post is like an afterthought. You can either go with a studio that gives you a bulk deal for a DI, sound, dub etc. Or you split it up with smaller studios or individuals that specialize in particular things. It completely depends on convenience.
Once the film is complete, you need to look at each film based on its merit. Nobody can ‘make’ a festival film. But the ideal scenario would be to send it out to a festival and see if it runs. In the festival pace there are only 4-5 festivals that are of PR value – Toronto, Cannes, Venice, Locarno, Sundance, Berlin. In India, nothing other than Cannes matters. And Cannes is picky about the projects it takes.
So it’s a choice that you have to make – whether you start your journey with a festival and then move to theatres, or if, as a filmmaker you feel that your film is a festival film only, then you try and maximize that like a lot of films have done. For example, films like Labour of Love, Liar’s Dice etc. have hired agents only for festival screenings. And they have made money out of the festivals, which is a fairly decent revenue opportunity. Or you can do what a Masaan did – started its journey with Cannes and immediately after, released the film in India. But that is a big risk in itself because once you’ve released the film in India, a lot of international territories will not buy your film because of chances of piracy. Wherein The Lunchbox came much later to India – after a lot of festivals, releases and sales across the world.
So it ultimately depends on your preference as a filmmaker. In our case we knew that ours wasn’t a festival film. We had nine songs out of which six were lip sync. And festivals don’t generally like lip sync. We had done a test at the Viewing Room at Film Bazaar last year, where festival representatives saw the film and told us that it’s good but doesn’t work for them. That’s when we decided to directly do the India theatrical.
You start with the process of trying to get a distributor – the distributor can be a studio or an independent distributor. There are quite a few independent distributors out there who will not put in P&A money but will release the film for a commission. One should ideally get some reference for independent distributors before you go out.
The one thing about an independent distributor, which might be better than a studio is that, this is their way of making money for themselves. So they will actually try, in theory, to put out each film. Also, there are some distributors who have a lot of clout in the market. For example, Anil Thadani who distributes Excel and Dharma films. Someone like him may have enough clout with theatres to say that he won’t give them a big film unless they play this small film. Again that’s in theory. Nothing can be guaranteed because it depends on the programming team of the theater.
As an independent film producer, 99.5% of the times, a studio will not put in P&A money for your film. And many of them will not release your film until you put in a certain amount of money. Or they could take an upfront advance between 35 – 50 lakhs to cover their overheads and then you put in the P&A money you have and they will release the film. There isn’t a set amount for this, it completely depends on how much you can raise. You could alternatively go to an independent distributor who may or may not ask for the advance amount.
Most independent films do not have the music element but for Jugni, it helped us because we had names like A R Rahman and Vishal Bhardwaj associated with the music. It helped with the PR. But you don’t know what goes into making the songs popular. We felt that our film’s music was very strong but maybe because the film didn’t work, the music didn’t work. It did help us get Sony Music on board who then put in a certain amount of funding, but that was put into the music and not the film. Their agenda is to obviously market the music but that is not necessarily helping the film as much.
When it comes to marketing, there is a mistake that many people make. And that is to only rely on social media. The whole hype around how social media helps independent filmmaker is so big, but in our experience it didn’t work out. In my opinion, social media marketing needs to be backed by mass media. Of course we didn’t have the money for TV or media net, so we couldn’t even go there.
With social media, people could be talking about your film on Facebook but that doesn’t necessarily mean that they will go and watch it. Secondly the people who are talking about your film are generally people whom you know. What about the people who are beyond your friend list? The assumption that people make is that everybody is talking about the film. But that is not the case. These are things that one realizes over time and with experience.
In today’s day and age there are so many other options available for revenue. If your film is not too expensive, and the filmmaker is not hell bent on a theatrical release, then there are other avenues available, where you needn’t spend all that P&A money that goes in a theatrical release. In all honesty, the chances are that your P&A funds might also not get recovered when you do a theatrical. But that’s a decision that the director and producer need to jointly make.
There are various online platforms that buy content. Either they do it on an MG (minimum guarantee) or MG and revenue share or rev share only and so on. So one can approach these platforms and if the film goes to around 25 platforms that pay you a flat amount of say one or two lakhs each, it can be a good recovery option. You also have terristrial rights – Doordarshan – that pays a decent amount of money for screenings.
You also have the DTH platform. Satellite channels are more inclined towards big star-driven films but if your other monies are covered by other platforms, you could even try and do a syndication deal with various channels. Though for smaller films, it might be better to sell the rights individually. So you sell DTH, Digital, International etc. all separately.