Milan Chakraborty knows a thing or two about independent filmmaking. The seasoned producer behind indie hits like My Friend Dahmer, Assassination Nation, and over twenty-five feature films joined us for a recent episode of our podcast, On Production, where he shared a few of the secrets behind his success.
In this post, we’ll break down Milan’s advice on making waves as an indie filmmaker. From development to distribution, we’ll show you how Milan navigates the entire project pipeline, highlighting key insights and advice along the way.
But first, an introduction.
Originally from Indiana, Milan Chakraborty charted an unusual path into the entertainment industry.
“I studied accounting in college. So not a typical film background, but I don’t think there really is a typical film background anymore.”
While working as an accountant at Time Warner Cable, Milan attended a conference in Los Angeles. There, a stray observation piqued his curiosity.
Milan noticed that his friends working as assistants in Hollywood seemed happier than his friends employed as corporate executives back east.
Taking the hint, Milan requested a transfer to Time Warner’s Los Angeles office. About three weeks after it was approved, he found himself on his first film set, the production of a little movie called Batman Begins in London.
Milan spent the next five years auditing high-profile productions, learning the business from inside their books. Eventually, he became interested in producing. Not long after that, Milan Chakraborty decided to go rogue.
Milan broke away to produce his first independent film at the age of 29 and has not stopped since. He’s produced indie gems like Where Hope Grows, My Friend Dahmer, Assassination Nation, The Dark and the Wicked, and Four Samosas, among many others.
Today, Milan is the Head of Film at Marginal MediaWorks, Inc. Through Marginal, Milan and his partners focus on producing “premium storytelling, from singular subcultures and voices.”
They specialize in telling stories from underrepresented communities within commercially established genres, like horror, sci-fi, and comedy.
Below, we’ll outline five key lessons that Milan taught us about producing independent movies.
When Milan Chakraborty set foot on his first film set, he felt like a fish out of water. Even though he was in the heart of a blockbuster production, he wasn’t technically there to help make a movie.
“At the end of the day, my job was to observe and report, right? See my findings, report it back to the studio. It doesn’t matter if you’re auditing chicken coops or films. A lot of it, that’s how I kind of felt. I felt like I was observing other people living out their dreams.”
Milan would eventually go on to live out his own dreams. In the meantime, however, he was in the perfect position to learn. Through his role as an observer, Milan could ask questions that would later inform his career as a producer.
Milan cites an example from the set of Batman Begins. He noticed that the production’s catering bill seemed high and asked about it. The answer, provided by one of the producers, taught Milan a fundamental filmmaking truth: always feed your crew well.
That was just one small lesson, but small lessons can add up to an education fast. Milan credits his curiosity and pursuit of such lessons as quintessential to his success. He also recognizes the wider importance of sharing knowledge.
Producing an independent movie is a sink-or-swim endeavor, and Milan jumped into his first feature without a lifejacket. There was a lot he had to learn “the hard way” by doing and struggling and occasionally failing. Today, Milan believes in passing that experience on so that others can benefit.
“I learned it the hard way so that you don’t have to, right? It’s just like, if everybody learns it the hard way, that’s a very inefficient process.”
For Milan, an open exchange of ideas is good for the entire indie film community. When knowledge is sought and shared openly, everyone benefits.
When Milan first started producing, he had a hard time finding his creative voice. Because of his accounting background, people viewed him as “a numbers guy” and little else. The constraint weighed Milan down, until he realized he could lean into it as his strength.
“If someone on your team doesn’t care about the boring stuff, you don’t have a complete team. I’ll never be the biggest creative genius on a set, but that’s okay, that’s why we have a team. But I can help that person hopefully achieve their vision, and I feel like that’s the role of a producer.”
Milan points out that his background enables him to fill a unique position within an overall creative production team. His financial know-how empowers him to create a specific type of extra value, a fact that’s not lost on collaborators and potential investors.
Milan’s story illustrates the importance of identifying strengths and creating your own type of value. It doesn’t have to be an understanding of production accounting.
Milan Chakraborty strives to make each crew member feel like they’re part of a team. From the most grizzled 1st AD down to the freshest production assistant, Milan believes that every member of the crew should feel that they are wanted. That their input is valued.
“For me, that’s just how you should treat people. It doesn’t matter what industry you’re in.”
There is, of course, a physical component of this concept. As Milan learned on his first set, you should always feed your crew well. You should also plan reasonable work hours and prioritize safety.
However, there’s also an emotional component. Milan works to connect with his crew on an individual basis, to make sure they feel taken care of. And it’s not just because he’s a nice guy.
As ambitious professionals, we tend to nurture a networking fantasy in which someone higher up the ladder reaches down to give us a lift. Milan notes, however, that that’s not usually how it works. More often than not, it’s the people around us that become our strongest allies.
Advancement in the film industry can happen suddenly and at lightning speed. The PA of today is the Oscar-winning director of tomorrow.
For that reason, Milan doesn’t think of himself as “above” anyone on his crew. He thinks of each of them as an important member of the team and values their expertise.
“There’s no one you can’t learn from on a film set.”
If you foster positive relationships with people on and below your level, it’s bound to have a positive effect on your environment. Basic respect and consideration can have a massive impact on the quality of your production.
For independent producers, physically making a movie is only half the battle. The work of attracting an audience is often just as challenging as production itself.
To give yourself the best odds, Milan Chakraborty recommends developing projects with a specific target audience in mind.
“Who’s the audience? Identifying that very early on. And not the audience if you have a hundred-million-dollar marketing budget, because that’s different.”
According to Milan, independent filmmakers should identify a project’s audience as early and as specifically as possible. It’s less about seeing how many quadrants your movie checks and more about knowing who you’re making the movie for in the first place.
“Whether it’s a movie like Moonlight or Parasite or so many others recently, on paper, it doesn’t work. There’s no financing model that makes those work. But you could tell the filmmakers knew the story and the genre and the actors- it was just so perfectly executed, it became undeniable. People in that core group - that niche group [for whom the films were made] – told other people.”
Milan draws an example from his own experience with Where Hope Grows.
Where Hope Grows was one of the first films starring individuals with Down syndrome with a national release, and the industry didn’t believe it would work. Milan and his partners, however, knew that there were 400,000 people with Down syndrome in the U.S. alone.
With the addition of families and advocacy groups, Milan was confident that the film would have a ready audience.
As it turns out, Milan was correct. Despite the naysayers, Where Hope Grows went on to be a festival success and made over $1.2M box office via Roadside Pictures. It outperformed most films that played top film festivals and with a higher "pedigree."
According to Milan, the job of a producer ultimately comes down to taking action.
“You meet a lot of talkers, whether it’s by background of being from the business world or just in general… Talk all you want. Get it done.”
Milan’s advice echoes that of other On Production interviewees, like Floor is Lava producer Irad Eyal. To them, the producer’s role is to do what it takes to get films made.
For Milan, this simple attitude implies an important shift in perception. Prior to making his first movie, Milan was reading scripts and taking meetings on the weekends. He says that was great… but nothing was getting done.
The moment that Milan decided to actually make a movie was the moment he became a producer. Milan’s commitment to action demonstrates a crucial characteristic for an independent filmmaker. When there’s no studio pushing you forward, you have no choice but to do it yourself.
Massive thanks to Milan Chakraborty for joining us on On Production and sharing his experience.
Headed into pre-production on your own independent film? Be sure to visit Wrapbook’s resource center for indie film producers. There, you’ll find critical information on everything from film financing to film festivals.
At Wrapbook, we pride ourselves on providing outstanding free resources to producers and their crews, but this post is for informational purposes only as of the date above. The content on our website is not intended to provide and should not be relied on for legal, accounting, or tax advice. You should consult with your own legal, accounting, or tax advisors to determine how this general information may apply to your specific circumstances.