(Module 4) The Five Stages of Filmmaking

Moneymaking is the major part of the Hollywood filmmaking machine. After all, it is a business. And, while it’s true that some films are still created for the “art of cinematic experiences,” today, those “art films” are few and far between. Most of those types of films will only be seen on festival circuits, indie TV, online, in limited release, or in art house cinemas (during non-pandemic times).

illustration-of-lumiere-film-136395144099203901-141223162640Today, it really is mostly about the “art of the dollar.” While some film aficionados will cry for the days of the “true art form” revival again, I’d like to remind them that money has been a part of the cinema nearly since its inception. On December 18, 1895, the Lumière brothers offered the first public screening of a film in Paris to 35 audience members. The cost was one franc a person (approximately 20 cents), and about 28 days later the Lumière brothers were earning 7,000 francs per week. And with that, filmmaking as a business was born. The Lumière brothers served as their own writers, producers, directors, editors, and film distributers. They had to handle the entire filmmaking process from development through exhibition. Sure, it was a challenge for them, but they found a way to do it. If they were living today, they’d find it much more difficult to make big bucks. Now, there are usually hundreds (if not thousands) of people involved throughout the various stages of filmmaking (sometimes just on one film), and there’s good reason for that (as you’ll find in this article).

Film Media Photography Movie Filmography Concept
Film Media Photography Movie Filmography Concept

While some would argue that there are only three stages to filmmaking, I’m more inclined to offer the five-stage model: Development, Pre-production, Production, Post Production, and Distribution/Exhibition. Let’s take a look at what happens in each.


We all need a plan, and that is no different with filmmakers. The first stage of making films covers everything from finding the story, to raising money, to identifying key personnel. On average, it may take a year or two of planning in the development stage before pre-production can ever begin for a major studio release; for some films, it can take a decade of more to develop a project. One of the major components evaluated during this stage is the budget for the film (including the advertising/marketing of the film after completion). Avengers: Endgame had a production budget of $356 million with an additional $150-$200 million added towards marketing costs (depending on which resource is accurate).

Here are some of the things to expect in the development stage:scriptbreakdown1

  • The Idea Stage (The Story is found)
  • Fundraising (“Show me the Money”)
  • Director Selected (and hired)
  • Key Cast and Crew Approached
  • Shooting Blueprint is Outlined
  • Locations Scouted


Creating shooting schedules; securing equipment; visualizing the project; being 1020773color-films-print-kodak-portra-160-2-tiff-light-effectrealistic and understanding what you want your film to convey; and knowing exactly how you want to make that happen are just some of the elements that you’ll find at this stage. This is where dreams come to die … many filmmakers begin to understand their limitations at this point, because this is when the budget numbers start to become a real… where the rubber hits the road… where the understanding of costs really start to make your head spin.

Here are some of the things to expect in the pre-production stage:

  • Cast and Crew signed on
  • Locations locked
  • Budget is locked
  • Financing is locked
  • Sets Designed and Built
  • Shooting Script & Storyboards finalized
  • Training and Rehearsals for cast
  • Schedule initial release date for distribution and exhibition


filmThis is when the fun begins – on day one of principle photography. When the filmmaking production process kicks in, the key cast and crew will be in full-force. Long days in treacherous conditions can wear out the weak of heart, body and mind. Everything that has been brainstormed, evaluated, and anticipated during the past one-two years (or more) leads up to this moment …the shoot. The Director now takes charge, and he/she controls the process. The director is now in the spotlight, and many will offer him/her credit for the success of the film, or criticize him/her for the film’s failure.

Each shoot is different based on size of budget, production staff, acting talent, experience of director, weather, locations, and alternate plans. It is essential during raiders-of-the-lost-arkthis process for the director to keep the film on target, on budget and on schedule. If the shooting schedule gets too far behind, studio executives or the financial backers may show up on the set to right the ship. The production stage for a feature film can last anywhere from four-weeks, to several months, to years (this all depends on the scope and budget of the project). Castaway (2000) with Tom Hanks , Oscar-winner Moonlight (2016) were both shot in about a month. Parasite (2019) took about four-months to shoot,  while major epic films like Lord of the Rings can take a year or two to shoot.

Here are some of the things to expect in the production stage:

  • Lights,
  • Camera,
  • Action
  • … and Sound
  • The Execution of the plan happen here



editing-_d18377This is when puzzle pieces all comes together. In many ways, this can be one of the most challenging stages of filmmaking. I’ve often said that the most important job in film is that of the editor. The editor must find a way to take the chaos and mayhem of thousands of images, notes, sound takes, music, special effects, and more and develop it into something cohesive that will please the director, the producers, and most importantly … impact the audience. That job  can truly be one of the most difficult tasks of any crew member.

During this stage, test-audiences can weigh in on a test-cut (or rough cut) of the film. Based on those focus group reactions, changes to the final cut of the film can be minor, or they can be incredibly significant. There have been several occasions when the audience feedback actually changed the outcome or “feel” of the film. One example: March 2016, a Suicide Squad (test cut) got substantial negative feedback because it lacked humor, and the story was incredibly dark. That particular cut didn’t resonate with the audience, so reshoots and rewrites took place during the post-production stage, and impacted the final cut of the film. 

Here are some of the things to expect in the post-production stage:behind-the-screens-121014

  • Editing
  • Reshoots as needed
  • Special effects (Foley and CGI)
  • Final Music Added
  • Final Sound Mix
  • Test Screenings and Focus Groups
  • Final cut put together for …


Distribution & Exhibition:

When the film is finally ready for fans, many things happen. The licensing deals are finalized; 421merchandising with commercial partners (toy companies, fast food franchises, video game creators, cereal companies, etc.); and saturation marketing through social media; cast/crew interviews; and deciding where (and when) to exhibit the film – all happens within this stage. Domestic, international, and digital distribution rights are all finalized during the first part of this stage as star-wars-movieshop-twente-star-wars-film-merchandwell.

This is when we as an audience will get to decide if they are willing to pay for a future sequel or not. If audiences don’t pass over dollars to view (in whatever format) these films, the impact can be very clear to filmmakers. In filmmaking, there is usually a three strikes rule. If a filmmaker has three consecutive (financial) failures, their filmmaking stock hits bottom … sometimes they never recover. Audiences have the greatest and most significant impact on the success or flop-factor of movies, and filmmakers. We (the audience) have the power.

Here are some of the things to expect in the Distribution & Exhibition stage:

  • Marketing, promotions, merchandise licensing
  • Movie trailers with wide distribution
  • Key cast, directors hit Talk Show circuit
  • Film festivals, Movie Theatres
  • Domestic or International Release
  • DVD/Blu-Ray, TV, On Demand, Digital/Streaming Distribution
  • Critics and audience reviews 

Noel T. Manning II    1.30.21






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Barsam, R. M., & Monahan, D. (2016). Looking at movies: An introduction to film (5th ed.).

Corrigan, T., & White, P. (2015). The film experience: An introduction (4th ed.). Boston, MA: Bedford/St. Martin.

Pramaggiore, M., & Wallis, T. (2011). Film: A critical introduction (3rd ed.). Boston, ME: Pearson Allyn and Bacon.

Manning, N. (2021) The stages of film: More than a camera and an idea. Boiling Springs, NC. Lecture for the GWU Film Critic

Null, C. (2005). Five stars!: How to become a film critic, the world’s greatest job (2nd ed.). San Francisco, CA: Sutro Press.

Quiray, G. C. (2014). Under the tent-pole: A primer on moviesblockbusters, oscar winners, alternatives, and you. Dubuque, IA: Kendall Hunt.

Shepherd, J. (2019, April 18). Marvel have spent a record amount promoting avengers: Endgame. The Independent

Winokur, M., & Holsinger, B. W. (2001). The complete idiot’s guide to movies, flicks, and film. Indianapolis, IN: Alpha Books.


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