The Film Business

Independent versus Studio Films: Which is Right for Me?

If you choose to freelance when first starting out, it might be easier for you to find work on smaller independent films.  Many independents are non-union, and because the salaries and required levels of experience tend to be lower than on traditional studio/union shoots, it’s a more plentiful source of employment.  And working on non-union films will give you more hands-on experience, because they’re not governed by union and guild restrictions limiting what each person in each position is allowed to do.  It’s also easier to get an internship on an independent, as there is always a need for additional labor that won’t tax the budget.  So if you can afford to work for free for a while, it’s a great place to get some experience, make valuable contacts and possibly earn a screen credit.

Independent films (or “indies” as they’re sometimes called) are very different from traditional studio films.  They invariably have smaller crews and shorter schedules and are generally financed by private investors, although some are funded by major studios operating under indie banners.  At one time, being independent always meant low budget, and low budget almost always meant non-union, but now that the unions and guilds are offering low-budget (and low-low-budget) agreements, more indies are becoming signatory.  These low-budget agreements allow producers to pay union and guild members lower salaries while preserving their pension, health and welfare benefits.

Since most majors handle their own financing, when you go totally independent, your financial backers and distributors will require you to carry a completion bond.  For a negotiable fee based on your budget, the bond company (after making sure you have a script with an adequate schedule and budget and a reputable and insurable cast and crew) will insure that the film is delivered as specified in all financing and distribution agreements.  They will review all major deals and assign a representative to oversee your picture.  Bond reps will receive copies of all scripts, budgets, schedules, call sheets, production reports, weekly cost reports, etc.  Should your production go through its entire budget (plus 10 percent contingency) prior to the completion of the picture, the bond company would take over the management of the film.  This rarely occurs, however, because it’s the bond company’s job to anticipate potential problems before they occur and to work closely with the producer, director, cast and crew to keep things on schedule and on budget.

Independent films

Image by: Pink Sherbet Photography

The following are some pros and cons of going independent, starting with the cons:

  • If you’re producing, you might be the one who has to raise the financing and shop the script or finished picture at film festivals and markets to attract distribution deals and dollars.  It’s a long road to travel with no guarantees along the way.
  • Being on a tighter budget, you’ll continually find yourself coveting more time, money and help and will have to be more creative and more careful about how you spend your budget dollars.
  • You will undoubtedly not be able to afford all the locations, props, equipment, sets, effects, extras and cast and crew members on your wish list, and compromise will become your middle name.
  • You’ll have smaller margins for error and less time to deal with high-maintenance personalities.
  • If you’re working non-union, overtime, meal penalties and/or health and pension benefits may be an impossibility.

The pros:

  • If you can raise the funding, you’re free to make a film that’s close to your heart, one with some profound social significance or one your gut just tells you will be a commercial money-maker.
  • There’s a growing market for indies, as significant segments of the theatre-going public are growing tired of big studio blockbusters and sequels.
  • For the most part, indies will afford you more freedom in the form of creative decisions, in having to answer to fewer people and in terms of fewer regulations.
  • If you’re doing a non-union picture, you can use a smaller crew.  Free of restrictions, a non-union director of photography can also operate the camera, production assistants and other crew members can drive their own vehicles, you can hire a two-person sound department instead of a three-person crew, and you can hire grip/electricians as needed instead of grips and electricians or an extra hair/makeup person as needed rather than one of each.

Working on studio films is far from a breeze, but you’ll generally have the benefit of a larger and more experienced crew, a longer schedule and larger budget.

Excerpt from Hollywood Drive: What It Takes to Break In, Hang In & Make It in the Entertainment Industry by Eve Light Honthaner. Copyright © 2005, Eve Light Honthaner. All rights reserved.

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