Filmmaking is commonly broken down into three distinct phases: pre-production, production and post-production. The rule of thumb is that anything you do in one phase will cost you double if you try to do it in the next phase. When someone asks me "what is pre production," I reply "pre production is the most important phase of the filmmaking process."
Let’s take a closer look at the pre production process.
Download high-resolution chart here.
1. Laying the Foundation: Set up a company
The development phase is over, and you’ve got the green-light! Now what? Before you get to the ‘fun stuff’ like casting and location scouting, you need to lay the foundation for your production.
Every production is like a business (in most cases, productions actually are businesses, formally incorporated and filed with the state.) Before you can hire anyone or secure assets, the first major check in your film pre production checklist is establishing a business foundation. Will the film be produced out of a pre-existing production company? Will you form a separate corporate entity for it (often an LLC)?
Whatever you decide, set this up first. Every employee you hire, every contract you sign will be done through this business entity. Once you have a business entity, you can open a bank account, deposit the production funds, retain an attorney to oversee production legal, and hire your team.
2. Create a Preliminary Budget & Schedule
If you’re the only person on the project, you’re probably the film’s producer. Your next step is to bring a line producer aboard to prepare the film’s first real budget and production schedule. If you’re in need of a clean template for creating of preliminary budget, read our companion article Managing Your Film Budget Cashflow & PO Log.
On smaller productions, where the workload is lighter, you might choose to hire a combination Line Producer/Production Manager at this point. If you already have a director on the project, that’s great! It’ll only help the line producer create a more accurate preliminary production budget and production schedule. Once this is done, you’ll know what you can afford, and will be free to move forward with additional hiring.
Need some additional pro tips on creating your production schedule? Check out our practical guide on How to Make a Better Shooting Schedule with a Stripboard. For film production management software to generate stripboards, script breakdown sheets, and call sheets, check out MovieMagic Scheduling or StudioBinder.
Full disclosure, StudioBinder is the site that brought you this post, but we really do have an intuitive solution to create production schedules and call sheets. It’s also free to get started.
Setting up a shooting schedule using stripboards, Studiobinder.com
Creating a script breakdown sheet by identifying elements, Studiobinder.com
3. Hire Your Key Department Heads
There are many people who will work on your film by the time it’s finished, but you only need a few of them at the very beginning of the pre production planning phase. With a preliminary production budget in place, you can confidently hire more people to your team. At this point, you’ll bring aboard your director (if you haven’t already), your department heads (like your cinematographer, production designer, editor, costume designer, casting director, etc.) and, on larger projects, your production coordinator and possibly your production accountant.
Afterwards, you’ll be ready to start delegating. Make sure your line producer or production manager is signatory to the bank account, and empower your director to begin making creative decisions with the department heads.
4. The Creative Planning Phase
With department heads in place, the director spends some time doing the creative planning. All departments, at this point, are focused on identifying what they will need in order to accomplish the director’s vision. They meet regularly and communicate their needs to the line producer so that the budget can be revised.
Important questions will be asked and the highest risks will be identified. Will the cinematographer need special equipment for a specific shot? Will the production designer need more time to design and build a complicated set? Now’s the time for the line producer and/or production manager to find out!
5. Refine the Budget and Schedule
With all of this new information, the line producer or production manager can revise the budget and schedule. This is a particularly tricky phase of the film/video production process, because department heads and the director might have bigger ambitions than the film can sustain. It’s the entire team’s responsibility at to help the line producer / UPM find the balance between creative, budgetary and logistical decisions.
When fine-tuning your shooting schedule, make sure to factor in the psychology and emotion of your talent and crew into consideration. A happy cast & crew is a more productive cast & crew. Read 15 Pro Tips to Create a Better Production Schedule.
6. Securing the Things You Need
With the production budget and production schedule revised to everyone’s satisfaction, the next phase of the filmmaking pre production process is to get out there and secure the things you need for your film. Department heads and your line producer / production manager get bids on equipment, book rentals, price out props and building supplies, etc.
This is also when your location manager scouts shooting locations, and with the team’s approval, books the best options.
Pro Tip: Book Locations Early
Don’t forget to secure your location permits early in the pre production process! Some municipalities can take a few weeks to process permit applications. This is a good time to work on product placement deals, and to secure insurance, too.
7. Hire Crew & Audition Talent
While all this is going on, your team will grow. Departments will fill their ranks with additional crew, and the casting director will bring in auditions. Now’s when you sign union agreements and contracts so you can employ union members on your production. Your production coordinator will be kept busy sorting through the paperwork load, so don’t forget to be extra-nice!
By the end of this stage, you should be have secured your cast, crew, production staff, key locations, and the tools to produce the movie (or, at least, everything will be booked and on the calendar).
8. Final Pre Production Prep before Principal Photography
In the final days and weeks of the pre production process, heading into principal photography, your team will be busy with last preparations. Your director rehearses with the cast, and your department heads prep their departments. Some people have more work than others. For example, the production designer may be frantic, but the editor probably doesn’t have much to do at this point.
Keep an eye on your team, make sure everyone is keeping up, and support those who need help. The line producer, production manager, production coordinator and assistant directors refine the final production plan. The budget and schedule are refined and locked, the cast/crew list is updated, and the call sheets are prepped. It’s time for cameras to roll!
Hooray! You’ve gotten through the filmmaking pre production process, and headed full-steam into principle photography! Everyone is on-set, the camera is rolling (or doing whatever data cards do), and you’re probably wiped out. Relax! A friend of mine once told me: “I know I’ve done a good job as a film producer when I show up on set and there’s nothing for me to do.” Everything should be going pretty smoothly if you did your diligence during the pre production planning process.
So have a seat by craft services, grab yourself a snack, and take it all in.
This wraps up the first part of our How to Produce a Movie series. We hope this post shed some light on the key parts of the pre production planning process. Have any questions? Let us know in the comments!
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