Making films requires determination and a special vision, and very often first-time filmmakers underestimate the role of producer.
This post was written by Lilia Le Dieu.
Sometimes a director has to be a producer and have to wear both hats due to restrictive resources. Projects always benefit from a clear separation between two roles, as creative and operational components should be split up for better focus.
With the producers involved in a film’s production from start to finish, it’s no surprise they can keep the Oscar for Best Picture.
I’m Lilia Le Dieu, a freelance producer, and I’m sharing some lessons I learned in three years in the creative industry. I’ve worked on short films, feature films, commercials, and music videos in the United States and Belarus. My career started with videography, film academy in LA and eventually I found my place in this field working as a producer and director.
Like many filmmakers, I’ve tried different set positions, as a PA, First AD, and UPM. Since I also had a commercial background with a degree in marketing, producing made sense for me, as I was able to plan appointments, manage creative projects, control work processes and turn unique concepts into tangible products. I also love casting and my eye for talent has allowed me to retain incredible actors on past projects. My ultimate goal is to build a full service production company.
My short films have collected over 50 official selections at international film festivals. My most successful project, the drama Breadcrumbs (2021) was selected by the Beverly Hills Film Festival, won the Best Short Film category at the Sweden Film Awards, and is currently negotiating an expansion into a full-length film that may be produced in LA.
Today I am sharing some knowledge that might be useful to other filmmakers, especially those working on non-unionized filming.
1. Over-preparation is key
Murphy’s Law works hard, but it works overtime when it comes to filmmaking. Anything that can go wrong on the set become go wrong. The rental house is going to screw it up, the transport gets stuck on the 405, Talent accidentally drops a prop, whatever.
In my experience, it pays to have extra OCD on every little thing and have a backup plan for it. Have insurance, literally and figuratively.
Obviously, you can’t completely avoid the problems, but you can reduce the number by over-preparing and making sure each department manager knows what to do if something unpleasant happens. It is your responsibility as a leader to keep things running smoothly and to take the stress off the director’s shoulders.
2. Dismiss the wrong people for the job before it’s too late
This is difficult, but inevitable if you really care about the result. If you’ve hired people and let them down during preproduction, don’t wait for the fire to flare up again. Talk to them, resolve conflicts or fire them and move on. When things get south and bitter it may be very disappointing to everyone involved, but it is always safer to part ways before production begins. It is mutually beneficial, as they can also turn to other projects.
At the beginning, set clear expectations.
Every time I’ve dealt with someone and had a gut feeling that they weren’t delivering, I broke ties and ended up finding someone a lot better. These things always work.
How do I know if you are the right person? Well, if they understand the script as well and really care about it as you do, that’s a good first sign.
Don’t let someone on your team negatively impact your project just because you’ve already got it rolling. You can’t please everyone. It’s impossible, especially if you want to be a good leader.
3. Budgeting is everything
The art of budgeting should be taught in schools because so many things go right when you prepare for costs and distribute money efficiently. This skill is usually refined after you’ve dealt with projects of different sizes.
At the end of our current short film Lackless, I’ve learned that many numbers are made up. That said, while there is a minimum margin everyone earns for their job, each production is paid differently, and the people you hire can get very different payments for the same amount of work. If Adidas can afford to pay thousands of dollars for a minute of scoring for their ad, it doesn’t mean you have to pay their composer the same.
My lesson was to stick to our budget instead of trying to meet the contractor’s usual tariff and negotiating a lower payment in exchange for something else or in the name of the art. Networking helps a lot. Independent filmmaking is usually not the industry to make easy money. Creative and motivated people work together to achieve something meaningful, and that often means earning less and making sacrifices.
As a producer, I have to prioritize the interests of production and reduce costs.
If you’re just starting out and don’t know the prices, ask, compare, or offer the number and see how people react. This is a great way not to spend too much. In my practice, contractors who charge inappropriately high payments tend not to be as knowledgeable as you might think.
4. Don’t underestimate post-production
That sounds like common sense, but I’ve seen so many filmmakers (including myself) prioritize making a movie rather than actually completing it.
Look, it’s not difficult to edit and color a movie. The tough thing is meeting deadlines / budget, keeping the vision consistent without sacrificing quality, and getting the most out of the footage you have.
It would be a shame to rotate material with great rendering, graphics, audio quality, whatever your setting, and then screw it up with mediocre audio editing or VFX. I would argue that in some cases post-production is even more important than production because it can completely transform your movie. you can correct it by mail. This argument definitely applies to music videos.
So my advice would be: get an A-Team early on for your post needs, book it before you start production, and be realistic about the time.
Speaking of booking …
5. Contact EVERYONE
Filmmaking is a collaborative effort that is impossible without the help of other talented staff. When I’ve found the right people, we stick together because I make sure to assign them to each project.
Where can you find this amazing talent? Ask other filmmakers, look for credits on IMDb, post on social networks. It’s like playing in a casino – sometimes you get lucky and hit the jackpot with the third answer. Sometimes it can take months and hundreds of interviews. I got it both ways and my advice is never Stop looking
Create an Excel spreadsheet and keep track of every contact you make. Some people may not be available for your appointments, but you can re-register for another shoot. Keep your data organized and create an online Rolodex.
Don’t be afraid to contact someone who seems way out of your league to you. I’ve worked with Oscar and Cannes award winning producers and sound engineers because I wasn’t afraid to send them our films and convince them to do it. There is a misconception that it takes a big budget to attract the best talent, but my experience has shown that this is wrong.
Do the opposite too. Email those who may not have an impressive resume – you never know who is on your way to become the next Ramin Javadi. We all started somewhere.
When you have a good story, firmly believe in what you do, and do it well, even if you are on a small scale, the right people will support your passion.
There’s a reason a “produced by” credit goes right after the director’s – because you have to do something cool out of nothing and do it on budget. Project management is key, and it comes with the territory of constantly running into walls and problem solving. But in the end you will be rewarded with a great, long-lasting result.
Because the euphoric sense of achievement that you get when you have successfully produced a film, despite the struggles of an indie filmmaker, is unique.
What did you learn as a freelance producer? Let us know in the comments.