The Industry Newbie: Defining Your First Project – Format and Budget


In my first Industry Newbie article, I spoke about owning where you are in your career, giving yourself permission not to know everything, and setting yourself up for success by choosing a project that lets you fail. Once you have those things down, it is time to find your first project. And that is what I will talk about today: discovering which project is the right first one for you. Please note that my experience is in narrative fiction. If your focus is documentaries, I recommend consulting with an experienced documentarian who can advise you on any additional factors to consider.

Which Format is Right for You?

There are three primary formats for narrative fiction, and I’ll give pros and cons for choosing each as a first project:

  1. Short film – Pros: requires fewer human, monetary, and time resources to produce; can be submitted to festivals; can be sent to and watched more easily by industry contacts (you are only asking 15 minutes of their time, not 90); can qualify for an Oscar if it wins at one of the qualifying festivals. Cons: virtually no market for viewership outside of festivals; virtually no market for distribution. Bottom Line: A short film is a superb playground for practice and building connections, and gives you a project you can send to people (production companies, potential reps, casting directors, etc.) as a sample of your work, but is unlikely to garner you attention beyond a few festival accolades.
  2. Web/Digital series – Pros: gives you more freedom to create your own length based on the resources you have (you can stop at 3 episodes or make 6); because each episode stands alone, it gives you more opportunities to pivot in a situation where you need to make a production change, for example you lose a location or an actor; can be submitted to festivals; some options for distribution and for re-development for TV; can be submitted to the Emmys. Cons: Depending on length, may require more resources than a short film; requests more time from people in order to watch the entire project (so they may not watch it); harder to send to contacts as a compact sample of your work (they may just watch the first episode and not continue). Bottom Line: A web series has more distribution options than a short film, but has fewer festival options and is likely to require more resources than a short film.
  3. Feature film – Pros: greatest opportunity for festival submissions; greatest opportunity for distribution; can qualify for an Oscar if it wins at one of the qualifying festivals. Cons: substantially more human, monetary, and time resources required to produce than either a short film or a web series; many more opportunities for things to go wrong in production and to cost you unplanned time and money to fix; requires commitment over a much longer period of time to complete the project; difficult to produce if you do not already have fundraising and crew contacts. Bottom Line: Unless you have the money and contacts to produce a feature, it is not the best choice for your first project. I highly recommend beginning with a more bite-sized project, like a short film or a web series, that allows you to make mistakes and still complete the project in a reasonable amount of time.

Which Budget is Right for You?

You can make a project for virtually any budget. The key is to know ahead of time how much money you can either self-fund or comfortably raise. That way you can choose a script that can be made within those budget guidelines. I recommend self-funding your first project for these reasons:

  • It is difficult to get money from anyone who does not know you if you do not already have a sample of your work to show.
  • If your plan is to continue making projects after this first one, you do not want to put yourself in a position of asking money from the same people over and over again – they may not be interested in giving a second or third time. If you self-fund your first project – even if that means the budget is smaller – you give yourself more freedom to crowdfund on your second and probably higher budget project.
  • Because this is your first project, you must give yourself permission to make mistakes. Taking money from people who know and love you will put pressure on you to “do it right” when what you really need is the freedom to fail. You also do not want to have to report back to your friends and loved ones that the project could not be completed for whatever reason. If you self-fund – with an amount that you can comfortably spend – you can truly play, take risks, make mistakes, and most importantly learn! Those should be your goals on your first project.

Once you have decided the format you want to produce and the budget you have, you can find a script that meets those guidelines. If you are a writer, you’re in luck! You can write a script yourself that fits that format and budget. However, if you – like me – are not a writer, you need to find (a) an existing script that meets your criteria or (b) a writer who is willing to write a script that meets your criteria. In the upcoming pieces I will talk about finding scripts and writers, and beginning to gather your key crew. As always, if you have any questions or topics you’d like to see addressed in future Industry Newbie articles, let me know.