Indie Line Producing 101—The Dos, the Don’ts and the Oh Hell Nos

Meta Valentic - Pyragraph

Guest Blogger Meta Valentic began her career in the DGA Assistant Director Training Program. Her credits include Nixon, Lost, and the new CW series Crazy Ex-Girlfriend. Meta has produced five feature films, including the critically acclaimed Urbania. This post was originally published at Seed&Spark.

When it comes to making your film, your short or your web series, there’s one person who needs to pull together all of the teams’ resources: the line producer. A (possibly) official definition of a line producer is someone who creates, manages and executes the project’s budget, and makes sure the director has what she/he needs in front of and behind the camera.

What does this mean from the first blush of pre-production to the final day of shooting? First, it’s about the budget. I find that the question, “How much will it take to make the film?” is a luxury. The budget ends up with more revisions than the script, especially when the question above inevitably morphs into “this is how much we have to make the film—how do we do it?” Half the battle is identifying your fixed, hard costs vs. your free or deeply discounted line items.

As I massage the budget, I establish the favor bank. The favor bank is everything that you can get for free, donated, at reduced cost, or as a trade. Each person on the crew should be enrolled in the favor bank, and no favor is too small. On a web series pilot that I produced, I offered my house as the main location (big favor), and tasked PAs to keep track of the donated pop-up tents (small favors). Do not refuse any favor (unless it’s illegal or will actually cost you money in the long run), and keep an Excel spreadsheet to keep track of them for thank-yous.

Another issue to tackle is the unions. Most productions end up signing with SAG-AFTRA, and get ready for the avalanche of paperwork that comes with that. Luckily, has an online application that can streamline your process. The Directors Guild has several indie-friendly agreements that do not require an MBA to understand. Depending on your writer’s Guild status and your budget, you may need to sign with the Writer’s Guild. IATSE and 399 (Teamsters) are Unions to consider if your budget is above $1-1.5 million. On a $1 million feature film I shot in Los Angeles several years ago, one of the best things we did was contact a Teamster representative whom we knew and tell him about our shoot. He agreed that we were too small to become a 399 signatory, and gave us what is known as a “pass.” Once we got the Teamster’s pass, IATSE followed suit.

Now here’s a sexy topic: film permits. Don’t try and shoot without one. I have my own horror story. I was producing a two-day short film that started out small. We had a 10-15 person cast and crew and one contained location at a house. The homeowner had rented the house to film productions before, and he told us not to worry about a permit, because the people in the neighborhood didn’t mind and we were such a small crew.

Well, during prep, we grew. As we approached production, we ballooned to 20-30 crew members and a couple of large trucks. We did not think to revisit the film permit issue, and showed up on our prep day ready to load in our equipment. I think after the first “beep” of our truck backing into the driveway, the neighbors got on the phone to the police. Two officers showed up a few minutes later and asked to see our permit. Uh-oh. I left my co-producer on site to stall and raced up to FilmLA on a Friday afternoon to see if I could get an emergency permit. Spoiler alert: I could not. Film LA needs at least 72 hours to process any permit application and fees, no matter how much you beg. We had to shut down the film, send everyone home, and reschedule for a later date with a permit. That was an expensive lesson to learn.

Other points to include:

  • Find a great crew through your existing network—you know more people than you think!
  • Find crew through social media—Facebook, Twitter, etc. I found a couple of gems via Twitter.
  • Stay grounded in reality. Track your setups and pages shot per day. There’s a temptation to think you can speed up your shoot after the first day or two. This may be true if the crew needs time to form a good working team, but if you have the hard data you can know how much to schedule per day.
  • Nip problems in the bud. A crew member who is late/unhappy/dishonest usually doesn’t get better. It’s crucial to have people on your crew who are enthusiastic and want to be there. I’ll hire a less experienced, positive person over a more experienced grouch any day. The grouches end up killing morale and becoming a time suck for you.
  • Keep your Spidey senses strong. Sometimes you can root out a problem by calling out an inconsistency, by simply replying to a memo with, “Did you mean Monday the 22nd or Tuesday the 23rd?” when someone writes “delivery on Tuesday the 22nd.” Be descriptive in your emails and conversations: “The moss-green apartment walls need to be done by Friday” —in case the art department knew the ready date, but didn’t know the shade of green was moss. I sometimes feel like I find most problems on accident by asking for clarification on something that doesn’t sound quite right. Every time I ignore my Spidey sense and say to myself, “It’s probably fine,” I get bitten in the ass.
  • I use Movie Magic Budgeting and Scheduling to budget and schedule, but they are expensive programs. You can budget using Excel or some of the other programs out there, I just find Movie Magic to be very comprehensive and easy to look at.
  • Consider investing in EP’s The Paymaster or something equivalent to get the latest union rates into your budget.

Line Producing resources: (resource list of links)

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