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10 Filmmaking Tips from an Indie Filmmaker and Former Film Festival Programmer

  1. Just do it. Make your first film, and don’t be afraid to fail.

It’s easy to come up with reasons why we can’t do something and hide behind the fear of failure, but I say embrace it! Mess up, make mistakes. Every successful person I know has failed time and again, so don’t waste time fearing failure. You can’t improve your art if you aren’t making it. That being said…

  1. Listen to criticism.

….be open to criticism. Filmmakers can lean toward narcissism. Check the ego at the door. Show your work to others and listen to their criticism. Having others watch my work (even my bad work) helped me identify what my strengths and areas for improvement. Not being open to criticism will only hinder your progress.

When I ran a film festival for several years, I could tell which filmmakers would grow as artists. Filmmakers who attended the festival, despite their film not being accepted, and watched the films that did get in were giving themselves an advantage. They began to see why their film was not selected. Maybe it was a thematic issue. Maybe a certain element of their film needed to be improved: sound, acting, etc. That knowledge made them better filmmakers. If you get into a festival, watch as many films as possible and take note of which films win awards and why.

  1. Film school isn’t a *must* — your filmmaking experiences can be your film school.

I made an early film that was not good, but I learned so much through that experience, and I consider that early attempt at a feature film to be my “film school.”

I’m not anti-film school, but I also don’t think it is a requirement for success as an indie filmmaker. I have a B.A and M.A., but not in filmmaking. You can become a filmmaker through making films and watching others make films (as a Production Assistant or an acting extra). If you need classes, starting with a few community college classes. Don’t assume there’s just “one way.”

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  1. Watch lots of films – independent and established.

I ran a film festival for 7 years and learned a lot about filmmaking through that process. Watching other people’s films can teach you a lot — and you learn as much (or more) from “bad” films as you can from the good ones. You learn from what doesn’t work.

  1. Follow your passion.

With independent filmmaking, I think a true passion for the project is helpful. It shows through for the audience and makes you more willing (as a filmmaker) to really live with a project for a couple of years (or longer), which is what it might take for that project to be successful. Giving up a lot of your time and resources to a project you aren’t passionate about can drain you, and that negative feeling can come through in the project.

  1. Craft stories that can be told with the resources you have.

My award-winning film, SMUGGLED, grew out of the desire to make another feature film, despite limited resources. We needed to create a compelling story that could be told with the locations we had access to and with the funds we had. We had access to an empty auditorium, so we were able to build “the box” that was used for the hidden compartment underneath the bus in which the mother and son in the film are being smuggled across the border. Often, at the film festival, a film that could have been good fell short because it was too ambitious for the budget/resources at hand.

  1. Don’t get caught in the “celebrity” trap.

None of the actors or filmmakers with SMUGGLED were recognizable, “known” talent or had an existing name that individuals in the industry or at festivals would know, but for our goals and budget, we didn’t need a celebrity to be successful. By not being married to the idea of having a famous person in your film, you may free yourself up to “just f***ing do it.” (See #1).

  1. Support other filmmakers.

If you go to a film festival with your film, attend other screenings and watch the films of other filmmakers. Connect with other filmmakers through social media. Seed&Spark‘s bi-weekly #filmcurious twitter chats each Tuesday at 11 a.m. PST/2 p.m. EST are a good place to start. Watch other independent films and view other indie filmmakers as part of your “team,” rather than as “the competition.” We can make the whole indie film pie bigger instead of fighting over crumbs.

  1. Consider teaching film.

For my production company, Think Ten Media Group, our sustainability is connected to the filmmaking programs that we run, specifically a partnership with LA’s BEST and our Spotlight On Hope Film Camps for Pediatric Cancer patients. Helping other people make their films makes me better at making my own films. Making films with kids keeps me creative and energized.

  1. Find filmmaking partners that have complementary strengths and share your interests.

You don’t want “too many cooks” in the kitchen, rather you want an amazing pastry chef, sous chef, executive chef, restaurant manager, etc. on your team. Bring together people that are good at what they do, so you can flourish at what you do.

Don’t forget to consider the business side of filmmaking as well. Having some entrepreneurial knowledge on your filmmaking team and someone with marketing savvy is extremely valuable. Making the film is only half the battle (maybe even less than half). It’s important to know what to do with the film once you’ve made it — and even better if you can build a relationship with your potential viewers before you make your film.

Join the conversation: share indie films we should be watching and your best tips for indie filmmakers!

Jennifer Fischer

About Jennifer Fischer

Jennifer Fischer is a writer, producer and teaching artist as well as the co-founder of Think Ten Media Group. Her multi-award winning feature film, "Smuggled,” saw her tackling distribution, successfully securing theatrical screening events at universities, colleges and community organizations throughout the United States and abroad. Her short film series, THE wHOLE explored solitary confinement and mass incarceration in the U.S. and premiered at Amnesty International's 50th Anniversary Human Rights Conference in New York City. Fischer ran a film festival for 7 years when she first moved to California. She curates various films for the City of Santa Clarita's 10x10 event as well as organizing and moderating panels for various film events. She is currently writing and producing an interactive experience entitled, THE LEECHES.