Most movie productions begin with the selection of the story to be told. The movie may be based on a novel, a play, or an original script. With documentaries, the movie focuses on a nonfiction subject. The second most important step after developing the story line or subject is to acquire funding. With commercial films, the company sponsoring the production pays the production costs and approves the steps in the process of making the film.

In the days of the studio contracts, the conception, production, and financing of films was all done within one studio. For example, 20th Century Fox would have producers, staff writers, directors, and actors and actresses, from whom they would choose for a particular film. Today's system is different. Although there are people who will sign contracts to do several films for one studio for a prearranged salary, most people work on a project-by-project basis. Producers now bring a project to a studio with an estimated cost of production and perhaps the main actors and actresses already cast, and a studio may agree to back the production. The studio will pay for the costs of producing the film and for the salaries of the crew and cast in exchange for the film's profits when it is released.

If the movie is successful, it will bring in more money from ticket sales than the film cost to produce. Movies have become very expensive projects, with some films costing many millions of dollars to produce. These films require a huge turnout in the theaters to make any money for the company that is sponsoring the film. Small productions need not sell as many tickets, but frequently the actors and actresses are not well known, and selling tickets becomes more difficult.

With the increased cost of film production, the independent producer has to be a good salesperson to be able to persuade a studio of the marketability of a film idea. If there are popular actors and actresses involved in the film, or a particular story line has done well before, the producer is more likely to find financing than if a new idea or unknown actors are involved. Some studios are more willing to take the risk of a lesser known cast and story if the cost of production is not too high.

Occasionally, a producer will go to a studio with just the idea for a film. With studio backing, they may be able to attract bigger names to work on the film. Studios have developed a "step deal" for this and other arrangements. With a step deal, the studio can withdraw funding from a project if the producer cannot get an adequate script or staff together.

Documentary filmmakers usually have more difficulty securing financing than a mass market motion picture. If the funding is sought through endowments, government agencies, or broadcasting stations, the producer and director should anticipate putting together a fairly lengthy proposal with extensive research on the selected topic. For example, the length of the documentary needs to be planned out and explained. A timetable for the research, filming, and editing has to be calculated. The potential investors also need biographical information on the more important staff members of the documentary so they know the background of the people with whom they are entrusting their money. The producer may have to produce a shortened version of the film (a pilot) to show what the full-length project will look like. It can take from six months to 10 years to secure financing for a documentary.

Once funding has been found for a project, a payment schedule is worked out with the producer of the documentary. Some funds are usually supplied up front, with various amounts distributed along the way and the remaining money delivered after the completion of the project.

A film crew on a documentary can be as small as four people—a producer-director, a camera operator, a sound technician, and a lighting technician—although some documentaries require a large staff. As with other forms of film production, the lower the costs, the easier it is to find funding.

After funding has been arranged, the filmmakers prepare to film. Whether making a documentary or a feature film, a script is needed. In the case of a feature film, screenwriters write and rewrite the script to develop characters, tighten the plot, and keep within time limitations. The action must be planned carefully. Timing, continuation of narrative, camera angles, and the many other details that go into making a cohesive piece of work need to be worked out as thoroughly as possible before the filming begins. If the producer waits until the actual production to decide on major aspects of the project, the costs increase dramatically.

Decisions about where the filming is to be done, whether in a studio or on location, go into the cost analysis of the project. Casting of the actors, actresses, narrators, and other talent that will be in the project affect the budget. How long the filming will take, the special effects required, and the overall size of the staff and production all determine the final budget for a film. The studio production department needs all this information before final approval of the contract can be made.

For animated features, the methods of funding can be either like that of the documentary or that of a mass market motion picture. Animated features continue to have great appeal to the public and continue to be produced, despite the incredible time and detailed work that must go into the manufacturing of an animated film. Each image to be captured in a film of live action needs to be drawn onto a clear plastic sheet. Simple movements, like saying hello, require at least eight different drawings shown in sequence to recreate actions of the body and mouth. A full-length feature takes at least two years to complete and may use more than one million different drawings. As computer animation is more widely used, however, the amount of painstaking work done by hand and the time it takes to produce an animated film have been greatly reduced. Although computers have automated some aspects of animation, the creation of three-dimensional animation (such as that of Pixar) on computers still requires incredible amounts of labor.

Depending on the size of the project, live-action filming can take several days to several months. The picture is normally filmed out of sequence. The film can be shot in a studio on a soundstage, where everything is re-created to look like an actual location. The film can also be produced on location, in the actual setting where the story takes place.

Once the filming is done, the film is reassembled in a studio. Special effects, music tracks, and any conversation that may have been muffled by other noises during the filming is added at this point. This type of work requires both precision and split-second timing to assure that the on-screen action matches the sound heard.

After the project is completed, the film is reviewed by the people in charge of the production. If the final product is acceptable, the film is released. This means that the film is distributed to the theaters. Now it is up to the marketing and distributing staff to build an audience for the film. Their job is to encourage the public to watch the production and to make the public aware of where the film is playing. Without an audience, even the best motion pictures will have little impact.

Most work in the motion picture industry revolves around Hollywood and New York City. Actors, however, can get their start in smaller productions in any number of cities around the country. Chicago's Second City Theatre, for instance, has been a training ground for such actors as Bill Murray, Steve Carell, Will Ferrell, and Bob Odenkirk, who became stars of television and film.