Do you find yourself watching a film on the big screen, thinking “I could do that!” That is, until the credits roll and you see just how many people it takes to make one film. Well, if you’re trying to direct the next Marvel blockbuster, that’s probably not going to happen tomorrow. But that doesn’t mean you can’t start out by making your own independent film.
Once you have an understanding of independent movies, you’ll find that making your way in the industry is a lot more attainable than you may think. And, just like indie directors Taika Waititi or Chloe Zhao, that big Hollywood director gig could be right around the corner.
What is an Independent Film?
If a movie opens with the Disney logo, you’re not watching an independent film. In America, an indie is any film produced and distributed without the help of the Hollywood studio system. They are often made with significantly lower budgets and either have smaller theatrical releases or make their debuts at film festivals.
Thanks to advancements in camera technology, the transition from film to digital, and the proliferation of film festivals, independent films have a larger platform than ever. They’re also garnering critical acclaim: Spotlight, Moonlight, and Nomadland are all independent films that have won the Academy Award for Best Picture.
Famous Independent Films
There are so many independent films that have transcended their humble beginnings. Here are just a few examples.
Night of the Living Dead
George Romero spent most of his career in Pittsburgh, kickstarting the modern zombie genre with his visceral 1968 horror film. And, since the film is in the public domain, it is easy to see.
John Carpenter’s slasher classic is one of the most financially successful independent films of all time, grossing $70 million on a $300,000 budget. It also spawned 12 sequels and tons of slasher films in the 1980s.
She’s Gotta Have It
Spike Lee’s first feature was shot in Brooklyn over the course of 12 days and quickly proved that he was an important American film voice. The film provides a frank view of the Black female experience, which was absent in Hollywood at the time.
Quentin Tarantino’s first film is a dream Hollywood story: a video store clerk writes a script that winds up in the hands of a famous actor (Harvey Keitel) who helps finance the film and offers to star in it. The film is the talk of Sundance and gets national distribution… and the rest is history.
Tarantino’s film buddy Robert Rodriguez made this film on a literal shoestring budget of $7,000. Rodriguez’s book Rebel Without a Crew is an insane account of the production and gives insightful advice on low budget filming techniques.
Famous Independent Filmmakers
There are countless filmmakers who have started their careers in the independent film world—Martin Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola, and George Lucas, for example—and went on to direct big Hollywood projects. However, there are plenty more who made their names in independent film and stayed there for most of their careers.
One of the original independent filmmakers, Cassavetes used his acting salaries to finance his own writing and directorial efforts. His films Shadows, Faces, and A Woman Under the Influence are incredibly important to independent film history.
The aptly-named “King of the B’s,” Roger Corman specialized in low-budget science fiction and horror films in a career that spanned six decades. He helped start the careers of many New Hollywood directors like Ron Howard, James Cameron, and the aforementioned Scorsese and Coppola. His book, How I Made a Hundred Movies in Hollywood and Never Lost a Dime, is a fascinating account of his career making independent films.
While most people today know him through the hit Broadway musical Hairspray, Waters is an independent film pioneer. Working in Baltimore with his “Dreamland” cast, his transgressive films Pink Flamingos, Female Trouble, and Desperate Living are midnight movie mainstays.
Another pillar of the midnight movie circuit, Lynch’s 1977 surrealist horror film Eraserhead became a word-of-mouth phenomenon, grossing seven million dollars. After a brief foray into Hollywood, Lynch went back to the independent world for seminal works like Blue Velvet, Lost Highway, and Mulholland Drive.
Reichardt has been making some of the most effective independent films of the past decade. Her work has a hyper-realist approach to storytelling and a focus on working-class characters. Old Joy and Wendy & Lucy particularly stand out for their minimalist approaches to filmmaking.
How to Be an Independent Filmmaker
There are two routes you can take when you want to make your first independent film, and they are both completely valid.
Make Traditional Indie Movies
The traditional way to make an indie movie is a lot like making a Hollywood movie, just on a much smaller scale.
Step 1: Nail Down the Idea
First, you need an idea, something you could feasibly shoot on a low budget. It also helps if it’s something you’re passionate about, because you’ll be spending a lot of time with this project.
Step 2: Get Funding
Is your uncle a rich, bored dentist who could “lend” you $50,000? Take him out for coffee (or something that won’t stain his teeth). Or, cast a wider net and start a crowdfunding campaign. It helps if you can share a budget or a script—anything that shows you’re serious about the film.
Step 3: Assemble Your Crew
Even if you plan on producing, directing, shooting, editing, and starring in your film, it’s still beneficial to have a few helping hands along the way. Do you need a caterer? Probably not, but it wouldn’t hurt to have someone hold the boom mic. Also, make sure you can pay everyone. A little compensation can go a long way.
Step 4: Shoot the Dang Thing
Set a shooting schedule and do your best to stick to it. Be flexible and ready to roll with the inevitable punches. Be gracious with your crew—no one wants to work for a tyrant—and buy them coffee (or something that won’t stain their teeth).
Step 5: Put it Out There!
Once your film is in the proverbial can, it’s time to put it out there. Have a screening for trusted friends and family. Show it to your financiers so they know they put their money to good use. Don’t be afraid to go back to the editing room with any constructive criticism you may get.
Step 6: Submit to Festivals
Now it’s time to get your money back. A lot of distribution deals for independent films happen at film festivals like Sundance or Telluride. So, submit your film to as many festivals as you can. With a little bit of luck, it will get accepted and, if the right person sees it, you can make your deal. Hopefully, you will have a little money left over to start the process again.
Make iPhone Indie Movies
In 2015, indie filmmaker Sean Baker shot the feature Tangerine entirely on an iPhone 5S, proving you don’t need loads of fancy equipment to make something that looks great. Using an iPhone offers the potential to film something for far less money.
Step 1: Get Your Gear
First, you may want to invest in a little technology. Apple devices have iMovie built into them but don’t offer much storage space, so an external hard drive helps. Other things you might want to consider: an anamorphic lens adapter, an app like FiLMiC Pro that can help with automatic focus, a camera stand, and a few lav mics to help with sound. Phone included, you could get all of this gear for under $3,000.
Step 2: Gather Your Set and Crew
Next, think of the things you have on hand—the family van, an abandoned barn, your grandmother’s collection of Beanie Babies—anything you can use, preferably for free. Build your idea around these things. Also, convince your closest friends to work with you. Time on the couch could be spent better by creating something together.
Step 3: Film
Start small. Making a 90-minute feature film is a big ask when you are just starting out. A short film, generally one that is 40 minutes or less, is a good primer for a larger project and it can turn into that work that will attract other opportunities to make a feature.
Step 4: Get it Out There (in More Ways Than One)
In addition to submitting to festivals, upload your film to Vimeo. They do great work promoting their creators and you could even get your film chosen as a Staff Pick. The internet is an excellent place for self promotion.
When all is said and done, you could potentially make your first independent film for under five thousand dollars. So what’s stopping you?
Get Out There and Do It
In 2015, Mark Duplass gave a keynote speech at SxSW festival in Austin. In it, Mark is a big proponent of “The Three Dollar Short Film”—a five minute film you make every weekend with four or five of your best friends.
It’s easier than ever to make one of these: You’re carrying a high-powered digital camera in your pocket right now, most computers are equipped with editing software, and there are even apps like TikTok that let you save and edit your work as you go. So, if you have that story in your heart that you just have to share with the world, get out there and do it!
Get Started on Your Indie Filmmaking Journey!
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