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A ‘feature’ is a full-length film that fills the programme; it’s the feature presentation, the main event! Largely defined by its screen time the BFI (British Film Institute) and AFI (American Film Institute) state that a feature is anything over 40 minutes, while the SAG (Screen Actors Guild) prefer 80 minutes. Currently, the average running time is 2 hours for many 12 and over age-rated films, with features spanning animation, drama or documentary.
The term studio feature refers to the major Hollywood film studios in the US, notably Universal, 20th Century Fox, Paramount, Warner Brothers, Sony, and Disney. They are filmmaking powerhouses that produced around 462 films during 2015. The studios themselves have diversified to include home entertainment, theme parks (popular films get their own attractions or become the subject of a film such as Pirates of the Caribbean) publishing subsidiaries and video games. The studios run their own studio production facilities but are mainly involved in finance, development, marketing and distribution, leaving the filmmaking to their subsidiary production companies.
The type of films we associate with a studio film is big-budget tentpole movies (Marvel, Star Wars), seasonal blockbuster releases (Frozen, The Santa Clause), and franchise films that hail multiple sequels (Fast and Furious, Transformers). Due to the status of the studios as multinational corporations, with arms stretching across a variety of platforms if the budget is big, and the cast boasts a string of A-listers, more often than not it will be a studio production.
What has classed a film as an independent or an ‘indie’ has been down to how the film is funded. If a film is financed without the backing of one of the big studios, and distributed via an independent distributor, it can be called an independent film. Traditionally most independent films were also classified by their look, feel and subject matter. Being able to work outside the system gave filmmakers a chance to experiment with their cinematic style and storytelling, regardless of mass marketability.
Today the world of independent film is slightly more complex. The studios began to create their own independent production subsidiaries, creating the type of character-driven films that are more associated with independent cinema. Independent production companies such as Lionsgate and Dreamworks sign short term deals with the studio distribution arms, so the financial criteria for assessing if production is independent or not is much less relevant. Filmmakers have approached this conundrum in a variety of ways; the consensus would be that an independent film is associated with the freedom of the filmmaker to tell the story, this can be shot on a shoestring or tied up with a distribution deal with the big six, it’s the type of story that counts.
As production costs have become cheaper due to the advent of digital cinematography, it’s become increasingly possible to shoot a feature film for very little money and keep production value high. Many independent films will be low budget productions, some will find a distributor and get a small theatrical release if marketable, and some will go straight to DVD, VOD or destined to reside in the great vault in the sky.
On average, a low budget is regarded as a film made for $1.92 million, which is still a significant sum of money. Just because the film has been made for less than its competitors doesn't mean it is doomed to a life on the $2 shelf. There have been many low budget films that have gone one to critical acclaim and box office rewards such as The Blair Witch Project ($60K Box Office $248M), Napoleon Dynamite ($400k box office $46M), and Paranormal ($15K box office $193M) to name but a few. However, sadly many are not commercial successes.
Micro-budget features are often the work of first-time directors and producers who have managed to get together enough funding to shoot a feature film. Micro-budgets are widely classified as anything with a budget under £150k (www.stephenfellows.com) as this is where the cut off for the SEIS tax scheme falls, some features have been shot for a lot less. It takes a great deal of determination to make a feature film, and if you're working with an extremely tight budget, the schedule will reflect that. The crew can be working some long days to get the most out of the hired in kit and locations. Feature films classed as ‘micro-budget’ have launched big careers for filmmakers such as Kevin Smith (Clerks), George Lucas (American Graffiti), and Robert Rodriguez (El Mariachi) to name but a few.
Studio productions are made by the subsidiary companies of Universal, 20th Century Fox, Paramount, Warner Brothers, Sony, and Disney.
Avatar still tops the poll for the most expensive film with a huge budget of $425,000,000. Avatar was backed by Fox, who put up $10 million for James Cameron to shoot a proof of concept clip demonstrating how the film would eventually work. Robert Rodriguez's El Mariachi comes in with one of the most commercially successful low budget films; it cost a mere $7,000 to make. Rodriguez famously funded half the film by taking place in clinical drug testing while living in Texas. Then there is everything else in between. Ultimately, if you have a camera, some SD cards, a terrific idea and some technically talented friends anyone can make a film.
Low budget productions can be squeezed into a three-week shooting schedule, while big budget films backed by the studios can easily be a nine-month project with three months dedicated to shooting. The budget dictates all when it comes to planning the shooting schedule, a film shot with adept cast and crew who are not strangers to the rigours of working with a small budget, can accomplish a tremendous amount in three weeks.
Producers are looking for stories that are original and compelling, but also marketable and attractive to talent and financiers. Some producers have a relationship with a publisher who will alert them to any new work that may be of interest, they talk to colleagues and pay close attention to the industry and film markets. Keeping on top of what other companies have on their slate is essential for producers, being in competition on a similar script can mean complications when looking for investment.
Once a concept, script, article or treatment has been earmarked for further consideration, the production company establish who holds the rights, and ascertain who has been involved with the story to date. Anyone who has worked on the script or treatment will need to be approached; producers should be meticulous in attaining all permissions before they proceed. This is called the Chain of Title Report, and can often involve the company's Legal Department to make sure all legal rights to the material have been fully explored. Many problems can arise from seeking out permissions at a later stage; some may refuse to grant permission, which can be disastrous/expensive if the project has been green-lit.
When entering development (or pre-pre-production), a budget is conceived for the development period which will factor in; scriptwriting services, legal fees, travel, publicity and marketing, location scouting, entertainments, general overheads, schedule and budget creation if it needs to be outsourced. This can be extremely costly, so the production company will have two options. One is to meet the cost of development themselves, as external funding can compromise a producer at a later date. The second is to seek investment from an external source such as a network on VOD distributor.
Once development funding is in place, a screenwriter is hired to work with the producer to develop the story. Producers may decide to bring other writers on board at a later date, but initially, the screenwriter is brought in for two drafts and what is known as the ‘polish’, meaning a workable draft to include in the pitch. How many drafts are entirely dependent on the scale of the production. It is entirely possible that those two draft and polish will be enough, but it is more common to see another screenwriter brought in. The film of Spooks (2014) had run to 25 drafts before they entered production, which goes to show how the process can vary. Once a workable draft of the script has been produced, the producers begin looking for the main body of investment and finance, which is the true determining factor of a film seeing the light of production. During development the following people will be involved:
Film sales company
Film finance company.
Putting together the pitch for investors can be one of the most challenging aspects of the producer’s role, a film financing company can be brought into the mix if needed, and the services of a sales company (who will sell the film to foreign distributors). A pitch package would consist of:
A treatment of the script, which can be anywhere from a page to a more detailed ten-page document.
A copy of the rights to the story, all options and acquisitions agreements.
An investment proposal, clearly laying out the terms and conditions of the investment.
Comparable box office returns on films of a similar genre or tone.
Market research on current trends, with emphasis on work that has just gone into production.
Talent attached to the project. The director and cast are the primary selling points, as would be the screenwriter if they are well known in the industry. A letter of interest from all parties is a good indicator to investors that securing the talent is possible. Any crew agreements that are set.
A copy of the budget. Strategies for funding and distribution, with any evidence of commitments or interest.
Look book. This can include mood boards or any material that would convey the mood and tone of the project.
Any examples of press coverage the company have managed to generate, which would include any marketing materials they have commissioned such as posters.
While looking for investment, a co-production can be considered. Many independent films from the UK are made in conjunction with other European production companies. The division of labour is often applied in these situations; one company will work on securing the finance for the project, while the other works on securing the talent and developing the script. A co-pro has other added benefits as production can take extra tax incentives if the co-producer is based outside the UK.
The majority of independent films rely on a mixture of finance to get a film made. This is why no two scenarios for financing will ever be the same, and there is no definitive way of getting a film financed. In short, it’s complicated. The struggle to find funding in today's financial marketplace is ever more competitive, and the odds of reaching the required sum to move into production can be slim. The process requires practical, logical people with good business acumen to help producers navigate a startling array of options; this is where a film finance company can help.
Film finance companies work with producers, investors and financial institutions (such as banks) to pull together the right sum and correct structure of money to move the film out of development and into pre-production. The mixture or breakdown of money with which a film is financed is often referred to as the film's finance plan.
Some film finance companies have access to their own capital and can lend or invest directly into a project, while others may approach a bank with a package in hand in the hope of accessing that particular institution's funds. However, regardless of where the capital is sourced, finance companies will often demand to be the first, or one of the first, to recoup money from the film's success.
There are various sources and types of capital available when piecing together a film’s finance plan. Some such options are:
Pre-sales with foreign and domestic distributors
Tax credits from both home and abroad
Minimum Guarantees from distribution deals (theatrical and home entertainment)
Equity from private investors (or private institutions)
National TV broadcast deals
Crowdfunding (less the financiers more the filmmakers)
One a project has been green lit they move into pre-production, and this is when a host of crew members and production come onboard. The size of the crew will depend on the budget; which stands to reason. A large budget feature can include an Art Department that runs into the hundreds, on a low to micro budget it can be a production designer and a small team.
Members of production tend to arrive around the same time on scripted feature films of all budgets. The producer and director will already be attached to the project, as will most of the principal cast. Breaking it down the production crew should come on board in the following order (depending on the budget and scale of the production):
UPM (unit production manager)
Asst. production accountant(s)
Background casting agency
Asst. location manager
Supervising art director
Asst. art directors
Asst. set designer
Visual development coordinator
Visual development illustrator
Assistant costume designers
1st AC (for kit prep)
As the production ramps up to the start of the production date more members of the crew come on board. It is not uncommon to have the DoP come into the project just before the start of principal photography rather than at the beginning of pre-production unless of course, the project is reliant on big VFX or 3D work. The following crew positions include the Production Department listed in pre-production, these roles largely depend on the budget for the film, on a micro-budget you may not find the additional junior roles listed below.
Production sound mixer
Boom op or 1st asst sound
Sound assistant or 2nd assistant sound
DoP (HoD for Camera, Grip and Electrical Departments)
DIT and assistants
Stereographer and assistants (3D)
Best boy grip
2nd unit team
Best boy electric
Electricians or ‘sparks’
Unit location manager
Assistant location manager
Head of transport
Set PAs (all types)
1st assistant editor
2nd assistant editor
Supervising costume designer
Assistant costume designers
Key set costumers
Supervising art director
Asst. art directors
Standby art director
The production office has a few weeks to put its affairs in order then the post-production producer will drive the film to completion. If the edit has been running in tandem to the shoot, the director can find themselves presented with a rough cut of the film on day one. Most likely the production will move to one of the post-production companies that work across all aspect of the industry. Post-production companies are endlessly evolving to fit the needs of their clients. Post houses can vary in their remit; there are small companies who focus on one area of the post process (offline editing, post-sound, online and grading) all the way to larger companies who facilitate the whole package, expanding over the past few years to incorporate VFX facilities into their operations. Each company will be adept at dealing with a range of requirements from production, with the in-house production team taking responsibility for the workflow and care of their clients.
Many productions opt to work at a specific post production facility that house all the elements for finishing the film.
1st assistant editor
2nd assistant editor
Sound design supervisor
VFX technical team
The distribution company will research and decide the best time to release the film in consultation with the sales team and the Marketing Department. During this period the Sales Department of the distribution company will be in negotiation with exhibitors to arrange the theatrical release of the film. A film’s run on the big screen is entirely dependent on how well it performs in the first few days of opening. Exhibitors react quickly to the data they are provided with on a daily and sometimes hourly basis, and a change in cinema schedule is rapidly achieved to create the best chance for profit. Exhibitors will utilise their screen space to get the most out of the films they are showing, whether that’s multiple showings over two or three screens, 3D projector capability or have the capacity for 4D viewings.
After the window to show the film theatrically has closed, distributors will enact their strategy for the home entertainment release; which can involve reworking the marketing strategy to appeal to other demographics. Home entertainment will encompass TV, DVD and BluRay, VOD services and satellite and cable outlets. Non-home entertainment outlets include cruise ships and in-flight entertainment services. Distributors can hold the rights to a film for 7 or more years depending on the contract. During the time they hold the product they will prepare regular reports documenting the P and A spend and the earning or box office taking to be shared with producers via the international sales companies who continue to represent the film.
Heads of the Department are usually responsible for nominating the crew they wish to work with. It is then up to the UPM to perform contract and rate negotiations. For set PAs the ADs will be responsible for hiring their team, PA's and interns for any of the technical departments can be recruited via the production office. HoDs can be presented with a stack of resumes if they don't have anyone in mind to fill the role.
To work on a major Hollywood feature, you're going to need to be in stage 3 + of your career plan and most likely need to have joined a union. It takes a solid resume and some experience of the role to be considered for this type of production. You will need at least 3 -5 strong professional credits on your resume before many people are given a chance on a high budget movie. If you are at stage 1 - 2 of your career plan and already boast a list of credits on professional productions (having taken time during studying to invest in gaining experience) your resume may well find its way into the pile.
If you are reading this at Stage 1 of your career plan, look to collaborate on projects, but do make sure they are productions observing best practice and experienced crew. Check out the producer's credentials and make sure you come away with what you need, some contacts and experience of working with a professional crew.