Film Production: What Happens From Script to Marketing

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From indie movies to massive productions like Marvel’s “Avengers,” all films are developed following specific creative and strategic business guidelines. If you’ve ever wondered how a movie gets made, look no further: We’ve tracked what happens during every stage of the filmmaking process, with insight from creators in the industry.



Woman writing in a notebook near a laptop computerUndrey/Shutterstock

Developing & writing

All films begin with an idea. In some cases, a writer completes a screenplay and partners with a producer, often with the help of a manager or agent. Other times, producers are cultivating ideas, purchasing the rights to books or real-life stories that might make a sellable project, then hiring writers to bring it to the screen.  

“As a development executive, I look for projects that cut through the noise,” says Kenneth Kokin, former head of development and production for Perfect World Pictures USA and a consultant for NBC Universal. “I want to find something fresh that tells a story in a way we have never seen before—yet relatable. If the script is full of surprises, like the film I produced, ‘The Usual Suspects,’ or something that explores a question, as they did with ‘When Harry Met Sally,’ it will interest me. I also look for projects with known IPs where the story or characters have already been proven to capture an audience.”


Once the writer finishes a script, the producers work with a line producer to determine the project’s budget. This is done by breaking down the script, a process that involves analyzing the required: 

  • Locations 
  • Day scenes
  • Night scenes (these are more expensive because extra lighting is needed)
  • Actors
  • Crew members
  • Props and visual effects
  • Wardrobe
  • Rough shooting schedule 


After a budget is set, the producers set out to obtain the funds to make it happen. A person (or company) who is able to provide or secure funding for a project is an executive producer. Sources of funding often include: 

  • Private investors 
  • Bank loans 
  • Tax credits
  • Film grants
  • Pre-sales from sales agents and/or distribution companies that offer a percentage of the budget, usually depending on the talent attached
  • Product placement, which provides a percentage of the budget upfront
  • A production company willing to join the project during development and co-produce 

During this stage, producers are also packaging the project, which means attaching top-level directors and actors who make it more likely for financiers to sign on. 

Because the project is not yet greenlit and any success is hypothetical, development is a critical and complex stage that can last for years. This is where the term “development hell” comes from—it refers to a project getting close to pre-production, with talent and financiers coming and going along the way, but not reaching a final green light for decades. For example: Craig Borten wrote the script for “Dallas Buyers Club” in 1996, Matthew McConaughey was attached in 2009, but the film didn’t debut until 2013.



Preproduction is the preparatory process before shooting. This stage usually lasts between three and six months and is when all the essential crew comes aboard. 


The producers remain involved in both the creative and financial sides of the project during preproduction. They review script changes, consult with the director and department heads during the hiring process, and act as liaisons between the production and financiers. Producers also work closely with the line producer to ensure the film stays on budget as positions are filled, postproduction visual effects needs are targeted, and work gets started. 

“Everyone thinks a producer just sits there, talks to the actors, and reads the scripts. I think I spend as much time—especially during preproduction and early development—talking to lawyers and bankers and money people as I do talking to writers and actors,” says producer Barbara De Fina (“Goodfellas,” “Casino”). “Once you start shooting, it’s more about the creative, but you always have to watch the money.”


At the end of the day, it is the director’s vision that ends up onscreen. Therefore, the director spends the preproduction time ensuring every aspect of the film will look and sound the way they want it to. This involves working closely with the department heads and their teams to finalize plans for: 

  • Visuals: The director meets with their cinematographer to establish which lenses, camera angles, movements, and color palettes are right for the tone of the film. Together, they construct shot lists for every scene. On some projects, a storyboard artist will create a digital example of a specific short scene or sequence. 
  • Cast: Led by the project’s casting director with input from the director and producers, the casting process finds actors for any role that wasn’t filled during development.
  • Sound: The production sound mixer chooses what audio equipment will be necessary and tours possible locations to identify any challenges to properly capturing sound.
  • Locations and sets: The location manager scouts possible places to film, while the production designer and their team start conceptualizing looks for sets. 
  • Wardrobe, hair, and makeup: With input from the director, the costume designer, key hairstylist, and key makeup artist start to plan how every actor on set will be dressed and styled. 

After everything is director-approved and certified within budget, the various elements of the film are created. Sets and props are constructed, costumes are fitted and crafted, and rehearsals with the cast begin.


Man using a clapperboard on a film setguruXOX/Shutterstock

This is where the magic happens. Commonly known as principal photography, this is when all the necessary footage and audio is captured. Filming is often the shortest phase of the moviemaking process. While that might seem a bit backward, considering all that it entails—equipment rental, daily wages for actors and crew, insurance for liabilities, and lodging for talent—the goal is to acquire the best quality footage in the shortest amount of time.

It's all hands on deck for production. The majority of the key people involved in preproduction remain involved in this stage. 


The director calls the shots on set. They are responsible for leading the actors through their performances while working with department heads on how they capture video and audio. While the logistics are worked out during preproduction, the director ensures everything is running according to union standards before they yell “Action!” Because a director can’t be in two places at once, they are constantly delegating and answering questions from each department: 

Assistant director

The first assistant director (AD) creates the daily shooting schedule, based on the script breakdown and the director’s shot list. The first AD also writes up the call sheets, which lets the cast and crew know exactly when they’re needed on set. This role keeps everything on track; if an actor is running late in makeup or the director is at risk of losing daylight, the first AD has to step up to keep things running smoothly. 


From the star at the top of the call sheet to the background performers, each actor on set is responsible for bringing a performance to life. Each attempt at capturing a shot is a take.  Some directors, like Clint Eastwood, commonly ask for as little as one take for each shot; others, like David Fincher, are known for doing hundreds of takes. 

Script supervisor

The script supervisor guarantees continuity, which means scenery, props, wardrobe, lighting, and plot stay consistent from take to take and scene to scene.


Postproduction softwareBoxBoy/Shutterstock

Despite the name, postproduction doesn’t begin after the film wraps; it starts at the end of the first day of production, as all footage captured during the day (known as dailies) is sent to the postproduction team. 


Working together with the director, the video editor assembles the best takes of each scene into a rough cut. Editing a film together requires skills beyond just putting one clip after the other; it involves using different transitions to fit the tone and pace, inserting B-roll, and occasionally crafting a performance from several different takes. 


The sound editor is responsible for layering in the required audio—including dialogue, sound effects, and ambient noise—over the footage. While much of the dialogue is captured on set, occasionally a flubbed line or distracting background noise requires ADR. Once all of the sound is in the right place, it gets turned over to the re-recording mixer, who balances all of the different parts into a coherent sound design. 


After the footage has been assembled into a workable cut, the visual effects team adds any additional VFX, like CGI or green screen. On big-budget projects that rely on lots of CGI, the VFX team often makes adjustments and adds new effects both before and after postproduction. 


The film’s colorist enhances the director and DP’s vision, first by fixing cosmetic issues in the color correction process and then by enhancing the color in the color grading process. 

Once the edit, sound, VFX, and color are locked, the idea born in development is now a completed movie that is ready for distribution.

Distribution and marketing

Star Wars posterEQRoy/Shutterstock

Distribution and marketing help films reach a wider audience. Having a strategy for this stage from the beginning is vital. The distribution and marketing plan is part of a producer’s responsibility. 

“It’s where business and art clash or come together,” says De Fina. “Sometimes they fight one another. It’s business and art.”


Film distribution is the process of figuring out exactly where and how a movie will be released. Distribution companies or sales agents gauge a project’s potential sales, usually based on the talent attached. 

Aside from the budget, the distribution strategy focuses on the following: 

  • Whether a film will be a theatrical, streaming, or hybrid release
  • If or when the film will be available on streaming platforms, TV networks, and DVD/Blu-ray
  • Domestic and foreign availability in all of these formats 

Answering these questions in the development stage allows producers to budget the film more accurately—for example, spending global blockbuster money on a film that will only be distributed domestically is a bad move. 


Marketing is the process by which the distributor advertises the film’s release date and sells an audience on buying a ticket. Parts of an effective marketing strategy include: 

  • Trailers
  • Posters
  • Billboards 
  • Social media campaigns
  • TV spots  

Having a marketing strategy is equally important to a film’s success. Marketing costs, especially on high-profile studio movies, can account for a significant chunk of the budget. A report on the Warner Bros. film “Black Adam,” for example, revealed a global marketing spend of around $100 million to accompany its $195 million production cost. 

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