Indie Film Scheduling for Success


Scheduling a film is an art in itself.  While creating a schedule on an indie might fall to a Line Producer or AD, you often need a good schedule before you are able to hire either of those people.  You need a schedule to draft your budget and you need a budget to raise your funds.  Learning to estimate the realistic scope of your project is such an important skill to build as a producer.  I prefer to create my own schedule rather than farm it out even though it takes a lot more time than I would like, because it is the task of actually trying to schedule the film that helps me truly wrap my head around the production.  I’m faced with the realities of the script in a way that I could continue to blissfully overlook if I didn’t have to delve into the schedule matrix myself.

As I’m putting the pieces of the puzzle together, I prefer to work the schedule with an old school board and strips.  Fortunately, I went to film school at a time when we still used the real board, so it’s a familiar method of working to me that I’ve hung onto, at least for my first draft of the schedule.  I use MovieMagic Scheduler to print my strips of scene headings, but if you don’t have that software, you could definitely do the same thing just by typing the info onto horizontal strips of paper.  I actually cut them into strips.  I take envelopes and on the outside of the envelopes I write the name of the locations.  I keep my strips sorted by location.  I get a posterboard and actually physically lay out the strips and juggle them around as I play with the schedule.  When it’s in an order I feel good about trying, I go back into MovieMagic and move them around digitally and print a new stripboard schedule.

By sorting the strips into locations, I can see very quickly if I have way too many envelopes.  That’s a problem I’ll note and either discuss at my next meeting or pause and (before spending a million hours drafting a schedule), call my team and brainstorm how we can condense or reduce the number of locations.  Next, I look at which locations have night shoots and group those envelopes together.  If we are going to have night shoots, typically I want to group them into the same block on the schedule if I can.  Before I worry too much about the actors’ schedule conflicts, my goal is to build the best schedule I can for an ideal successful production experience.

The key questions I ask are:

  1. What is the most challenging location logistically in the script?
  2. What is the most challenging scene(s) for performance in the script?
  3. What is the most challenging scene(s) for the crew in the script?
  4. What are the givens of the schedule I need to keep in mind as already locked in stone? For example, the location we are traveling to MUST be the first week or we only have our name talent for the final weekend.

Typically, I don’t want the answer to any of those three questions to be in the first week of production.  I want the cast and crew to be in a great rhythm of working together before they tackle the biggest challenges.  I want the night shoots to be manageable with turnaround.  I want each week to be balanced, gradually increasing in intensity, but ending on something that feels like a coda to the crew.  If I can find a location early that has an easy home base where people will feel relaxed and easy load in-load out, I can build my crew morale and make it more of a given that we will make our days.

We recently shot a film in San Antonio, Texas in the summer.  We purposefully scheduled the first few days in air conditioning at a very friendly location and saved the hottest outdoor locations for the middle of the shoot.  We got through those tough hot and remote days and then ended on three days in an air-conditioned hospital set.  Making your days involves more than just the challenge of the actual shots you’re shooting.  Making your days also considers the environmental and morale factors, the human factors.  Similarly, your page count starts low, builds if it has to, and ends on a day you know you can make.  Can you build in some buffer in case you have to push a location off to a lighter day due to weather or unforseen delay?

My goal is to make the first day a scene that really lets the director and actors bite into some juicy piece of the script without being too ambitious.  The crew gets inspired and excited about seeing the film come to life, but the first day nerves don’t interfere with the quality of the work.  Rip the band-aid off, get our groove on, dive into this amazing thing we are going to pull off with confidence, but choose something that is as sure a bet as I can come up with.

So, I have a draft.  I look at it and ask myself honestly, walking through each day.  Am I asking too much of any one day?  Do the weeks seem balanced?  Am I going to wipe my crew out with company moves (as few as possible, please!)?  Am I completely terrified of this schedule?  I try to look at it from each department point of view.  Will my art department have enough lead time?  Will I need extras way too many days?  Am I shooting an idiotic order for major props or wardrobe that go through transformations/destructions on screen?  Is anything about my schedule going to cost extra money because of the way it is laid out?  I want to feel the schedule is an exciting challenge that I believe in.  Your Line Producer and AD may completely revise this when you’re greenlit, but this is an informed starting place that exposes the challenges of your project.

Look at it on the board.  Look at it on an actual calendar.  Put in as many actor conflicts and location conflicts as you can and look at it again.  If you have too many days, perhaps your script is bigger than you thought.  Not every movie can be made in 12, 18, 30 days.  This is how you discover the movie you have.

Don’t kill the brilliance of your movie with a bad schedule.