In Hollywood, there are two distinct types of films: Studio films, which are made by the big movie studios, and indie films, which are made outside the studio system by independent production companies. Working on one or the other is a vastly different experience, no matter what role you play in the film industry (crew, creative, investor, etc.).
In this article, I’d like to lay out the main differences between studio films and indie films. If you aren’t sure where you want to work, this will help you make your decision.
It’s no surprise that studio films typically spend more money than independent films. Naturally, budgets have a huge impact on the kinds of films that get made.
Raising a lot of money in the indie space is tough. Lack of distribution means there’s more risk involved, so investors aren’t willing to put up much cash.
It’s a lot easier to raise $2 million than $20 million (not that it’s easy to come up with $2 million by any stretch). If you want $2 million, there are hundreds of potential investors you could approach. But if you need $20 million, there are only 10 or 15 places to raise that kind of money.Working on studio films vs indie films is a vastly different experience. Click To Tweet
There’s also a whole world of indie fundraising that happens within the agency system. An agent will package a client’s project and first shop it around to whichever studio makes sense (Rogue for horror films, Sony Classic for period dramas, etc.). If they can’t sell it to a studio, then they take it to an indie producer who has access to capital and/or some system of getting projects made.
Studios don’t have to run around town begging for cash, but they have an elaborate internal process to decide if they’ll make a project and how much they’ll spend (more on this in a moment).
Studios have specific ways of making movies. They each have their own method, but there’s always a method. Disney has their way. Universal has theirs. Paramount has their own way. They’re roughly the same, but how they finance, how they staff, and how they deliver content at the end of the day is specific to each studio. This is all guided and managed by development and production.
A studio’s process is uniform throughout all of their projects. The people who run production do it in the same way for every film. Every picture has its own specific needs, but by and large how they finance, staff, and deliver a movie is the same across all of their work.
In the indie world, how things are made aren’t standardized or follow a methodology. How they make their movies depends entirely on the people running the production. In some cases they have no idea what the fuck they’re doing.
Typically, a studio develops a project, options the material, packages it up (with writers, actors, and a director), and consults with anyone at the studio who has a say in whether it gets made – development, production, marketing, foreign and domestic distribution, etc. A control sheet defines the movie and describes as many details about it as possible. They also make predictions about the film’s commercial or awards success. This all happens under the senior management umbrella.
This process is very formulaic and completely unscientific. They can estimate how much the movie can make and budget against that estimate. Honestly, they’re pretty damn accurate most of the time. When I worked with Disney, they had a whole team of people devoted to figuring this out before anyone outside of development and production ever saw a draft. The point of the system is to predict profit as closely as possible to make a cold, rational investment decision. I never heaard any executive say “oooh fuck it, this movie HAS to be made no matter how much it costs, we don’t need to be profitable on this title.” NEVER!
In the indie world, things are far less scientific. They package something together without knowing many details, apply a budget (which is pretty arbitrary at this point), and figure out how to raise money for it. They might add some legitimacy by getting some foreign sales distributor to estimate sales. Once they get some money, they make the film and hit the festival circuit to find distributors.
Indie financing is gambling if you have to make the fucking movie before you find someone to distribute it. These filmmakers have no idea how their movie will perform. Whereas studios produce profitable content 90% of the time (and true stinkers that lose money are quite rare), indie companies are likely to make money 10% of the time. The VAST majority of indie titles made with private equity fail to make any money. A lot lose their entire investment, and many never see the light of day (no one ever buys it or sees it).
“But what about indie films such as My Big Fat Greek Wedding, Like Water for Chocolate, or Saw? They made shit loads of cash!” Those are the outliers. You can’t rely on them and when you see examples of upside using outliers like these in a PPM (Private Placement Memorandum) you should RUN for the door with your wallet firmly in your grasp. This is a hallmark of the Hollywood Con Man!.
There is a massive difference between the way crew and creatives behave on a studio film versus an independent film.
On a studio film, there are always adults in the room. There are people in charge of making sure the production sticks to its budget and schedule. They ensure the studio gets exactly what the filmmakers promised they would make.
The studio’s production team generates and responds to cost reports every day. There are the daily hot costs that lay out what was spent on the previous shoot day and whether those costs were expected and reasonable. Then there’s the cost report that tracks every expense each week within the production’s budget.
If a studio sees something they don’t like, they will fire people. I’ve seen it happen. I’ve seen people walked right out the fucking building. Creatives are rarely fired because their vision is baked into the film and actors are never fired, but no one on the crew is irreplaceable.
There’s a lot less theft on a studio film, too. The studios track every single penny. There are very specific controls in place with procedures to follow.
Indie films have less structure, so crew and creatives have more freedom as to how they behave. There are fewer controls in place to govern people and money. This creates inefficiencies and opportunity for larceny.
For instance, what happens if a wardrobe person is late to set and delays shooting by an hour? A studio will have procedures to discipline or eliminate that person and resources to find someone else. An indie film, however, would probably just eat that cost.
Theft is rampant on indie projects as well. In fact, I’ve never seen so much fraud and deceit in my career than when I worked on indie projects. It’s easy for money to disappear when there is no executive watching it.
Which is Right for You?
Honestly, you’ll have to make a decision for yourself. There’s no way I could walk you through that decision. The best way to decide is to work on both and make up your own damn mind.
Personally, I prefer working on independent films. That may sound odd since I give them shit from time to time (including in this article), but that’s the truth.
I was the head of physical production at Harpo Films for five years. I’ve managed television shows for ABC and feature films for Disney. I loved working on those projects, but I don’t like working for big corporate machines. When you work for a big company, you play a very narrow role in the grand scheme. You do the exact same cookie-cutter job from one picture to the next. I don’t find it rewarding.
Indie films, however, feel like startups. You have more freedom to staff the production the way you want and create your own procedures. Yeah, this can lead to problems with inexperienced people, but it’s a lot more interesting! Plus I tend to enjoy the content indie films make more than the big superhero pictures that the studios put out.
But you may find the stability and slow grind of working in a studio more attractive. When you are building a career, however, work on studio, network or OTT shows. They have all the money and support you need when you are learning. Keep in mind, your upward movement and career advancement will be slower on these shows.
It’s up to you. Like I said, try both to make up your mind.