Recently I have received a number of indie films to review that are staggering in their ambitions. These are indie films with screenplays that take place hundreds of years ago (or what we would call a "period piece") requiring complex production design and wardrobe. They also call for special effects and have large casts. Yet, they went ahead and spent thousands of their own or (perish the thought) other people's money. I seriously doubt they will make their money back let alone a profit.
These types of indie films depress me on a number of levels. Sure, I actually do celebrate when any truly indie film gets shot and actually completed. But I also die a little inside knowing that they were pretty much set up for failure from the start. The main problem that ensnares intrepid filmmakers all too often is the overly long feedback loop which is indie filmmaking.
The feedback loop is very simple: you take an action, you get a reaction then you modify so that your next action is more effective.
In order to see an indie film all the way through there are many many actions to be taken. And it takes a long time to finish all of those actions (especially if you attempt a feature film). This means the timeline between your (multiple) actions and then receiving your reaction is stretched out - usually by a year and then some.
Imagine after all those actions and all that time and all that money spent...you get a tepid reaction at best and an embarrassing review or screening at worst. Now you don't even have the energy to modify let alone the money to start all over again. That is a very hard and inefficient way to work within the feedback loop.
I get it...a friend (or you) wrote a script or has an idea, they tell a few other friends who said they'd "act" in your movie and hey, you can shoot at your uncle's farm for free and we can all use our LARPing costumes and we can even get it shown at the local movie theater because my cousin works there and on and on. Soon your whole cul-de-sac is excited to get into the movies and you jump into your destiny. I'm sure you will all have a great time but it's not a way to make even a mediocre movie no matter what you read about Tommy Wiseau's THE ROOM.
When starting out into indie filmmaking, you need to shorten the feedback loop so you don't waste lots of time and money and sanity. My official suggestion would be to attempt and complete the following projects (and spending less than say...$300 on each one) before making something "big".
First, try and shoot a movie that is 5 minutes long without any dialogue that still tells a story. It's a good exercise for all filmmakers but this one forces you to focus on the storytelling using visuals. A lot of new filmmakers have their characters talktalktalk the entire plot as well as their motivations right into the ground. By not needing to record dialogue you will be able to shoot way more quickly and your friends won't be forced to try and "act" by bungling their lines. Oh and trust me, 5 minutes is a LONG time if your movie is boring...if your audience pays attention through the entire runtime you are doing great! Move on to the next test...
Now try and see if you can make a 10-minute movie using separate microphones to record dialogue. I make a point of challenging you to use mics for a couple of reasons. One, proper sound is criminally neglected by new filmmakers (often settling for the camcorder mic), two, by using separate mics you will be forced to actually set up shots and learn some tech (both on set and in editing) - plus your dialogue will be much clearer.
Finally, get as many people to look at your work as possible. Post it online, enter it into some local film festivals...heck send it to us here at DITR Films (www.ditrfilms.com). We will look at it and give you the brutal truth as gently as possible. Just get as many people besides your friends and family to look at it and tell you if it works at all.
I guarantee if you complete the above steps before attempting something like a feature or any project involving lots of time or money (whatever that looks like to you), it will put the odds in your favor of making sure that time and money was well spent.