What Does Indie Micro-Budget Development Look Like?


You do not need money or anyone’s permission to have your own indie development department and film slate.  No matter where you are in your filmmaking journey, you can start today, right now, to define what you would like to be working on if the stars aligned as well as what you expect out of your filmmaking partnerships.

You have some ideas for films you’d like to make.  Or maybe you just know you passionately want to make films, but haven’t found the time and energy outside your day job to actually make one. Maybe you’ve made a couple shorts, but are standing at the edge of the diving board looking into scary feature waters.   Maybe you’ve even made a couple features and done the festival circuit, but still find yourself asking, “now what??”  If you want to be a producer, you need to start producing, which in my opinion means developing your taste, relationships, and defining yourself, your brand, your signature, your greenlight process, whatever you choose to label it.  The other day a colleague of mine voiced it this way, “What would someone who is successfully doing the thing you want to be doing…be doing right now?”  Act AS IF you are that person and do as many of those things as you can until you arrive in a similar position.  In other words, greenlight yourself, and put in the work you would need to do if you did, in fact, have someone grant you the budget you seek or the validation you crave.  Don’t wait for funding to develop relationships with artists whose work you want to produce.

Here are some questions and exercises you can ask yourself that cost you nothing, but pay dividends when it comes to being ready when the phone rings.

What kind of movies do I want to make?

Not a general genre one word answer, though that is a start… from a story standpoint, what films move you?  What films can you not turn off if you catch a scene on television?  What films do you wish you’d made?  What books have you read that you wish were films?  What scenes are the PERFECT scenes in your memory?  What ruins a film for you?  Additionally, do you have any personal mandates?  Define them!  Your sets must be family friendly and inclusive?  Great.   Your stories must not be thrillers based on sexual violence against women?  Excellent.  Spell that out for yourself in writing.  Sound design and music are incredibly important creative elements to you?  Add that to your mission statement.  As a producer, this list of films can start to help you define your development roadmap.  As an indie producer, you’ll be asked to produce everyone’s REALLY GREAT IDEAS, but make sure they fit YOUR criteria for being a really great idea you want to spend three years of your life on.  This is how you start to develop your slate.  This is how you get better at discerning which projects are right for you and which will end up burning you out.  This is how you decide who you want to have coffee with and whose scripts you want to read.

What are my observations about the marketplace?

You get to form your own opinion about this, for free!  Read the trades, follow critics and distributors on social media, attend film festivals and ask big questions of the people you meet.  Start to make your own observations about what is getting programmed and where.  What is getting distribution in theatres and VOD?  Can you get your hands on any case studies?  That list you made about the films you want to make – take it to the Motion Picture Library and read as much as you can about the making of those films and their development and post-post production journeys.  Were their PR campaigns successful?  Who was their audience?  Would that film have a hard time getting made today and why?   The first step to overcoming a challenge is actually identifying what the challenge is. Look at your slate through the filter of your educated opinion about where the industry is going.  Take it one step further and actually put pen to paper to journal your thoughts and crystallize your opinions.

Who do I already have in my corner?

As you go public with your best Megan Rapinoe, “I deserve this!” cheer as you toast your successes – take notice of who is as excited as you are.  Get those people on board your development train.  How can you turn enthusiasm for your brand of filmmaking into resources?  Make lists of all your assets and in kind support.  Continually review these lists to see if they make any of your incoming potential projects more viable than others.  Sometimes it is easier to develop other people’s talents than your own when you believe in those artists – pushing someone else forward creatively is a great pillar of development.

What kind of person do I want to work with?  What are my red flags?

In my opinion, life is too short and art is too hard to work with people that you don’t align with either professionally or creatively.  For me, professionalism and values always win out over how talented a person may be, assuming a pool of very talented people, and I try to guard against toxic work environments.  Developing your own list of criteria for collaborators and formalizing it into benchmarks during development will help the health of your professional relationships.  Define how to recognize the hallmarks of a director you want to work with and how you might identify red flags in an interview or notes session.  Do they listen to you?  How to they receive your constructive criticism?  Do they respect your boundaries?  Just like making a list of films you feel passionately about, making a similar list of what professionalism means to you will be fruitful in your development process.  When you have given this thought, you’ll be better at interviewing potential crew and talent.  You’ll naturally ask better questions and set expectations clearly at the onset of a project.

What can I do each day to make my projects inevitable?

Ted Hope asked this question at a Film Independent roundtable years ago and I have never forgotten it.  No matter how little money you have, there is something you can do to develop your project.  Focus on those little tasks rather than waiting until a fairy godmother grants you permission to create.

Now that you have a list of projects and your personal filmmaking mission statement in hand, make a spreadsheet of all the projects you have in one state or another and make columns for their status.  Visit it daily or, at minimum, weekly, and work on what compels you.  If something no longer pulls your attention, move it to the bottom or get rid of it.  Little by little, progress can be logged.  What gets recorded, gets done.