The crazily falling price of film technology and the advent of social media and the “gig economy” have all come together to make it possible for filmmakers without Hollywood connections to produce feature films. Filmmaking tools that used to cost literally millions of dollars can now be had for hundreds to a few thousands of dollars. Aspects of filmmaking can now be “internationalized”, bringing down costs further. Not surprisingly, there’s plenty of great features that have been made for next to no money. Some of them have gone on to great success.
Of course there’s the out of this world income that Paranormal Activity picked up; shot for a reported $15,000 it grossed a whopping $193 MILLION! But while that’s an outlier (ie. don’t expect it to happen to you) it’s certainly true that there are microbudgets that have had great success. Many successful films, such as Primer, Bellflower, The Animal Project, For Lovers Only, Tangerine and numerous “mumblecore” films, have been shot for close to nothing.
So, it’s possible to make a feature film for next to nothing and have it do well, at the very least in terms of launching the careers of their filmmakers. But what is the recipe? How can microbudget filmmakers repeat these successes?
These are some key elements to the success of your microbudget feature film:
This is maybe the most important: don’t try to make a typical Hollywood genre picture with 1/10000 of the budget. All you end up with is a cheap looking knock-off. Without the high priced equipment and crew, music, special effects, etc. all the weaknesses of Hollywood films are exposed and none of the strengths are possible.
Other than Paranormal Activity, all the films mentioned above have pushed the boundary of their genre or broken long-standing rules. Even Paranormal Activity, shot like a cheap video monitor, broke traditional rules of aesthetics and took the “found footage” genre in a different direction, which felt fresh and surprising.
For Lovers Only, shot for a reported $0 (that’s not a typo, though it is a claim based on a certain amount of marketing hype), explored a non-traditional romance – adultery – that used avant-garde cinema techniques from the French New Wave to amp up the romance. It also had a story structure that was loose and dreamy, again, amping up the romantic ambience of the film. It helped that it was shot as a road movie in the country of romance, France.
The lesson is clear: experiment, break rules, dig deeper than what is on offer from the big, commercial films.
You want to write a space opera but you don’t know how to do it. That’s OK, you can watch some how-to videos on Film Riot, right? Bad idea. While a microbudget is a good place to experiment in terms of story, it’s not a good place to experiment with high stakes effects.
You need to be brutally honest but also open-minded: What are your resources? Do you do circus performance, like juggling or aerial silks? Or parkour? Can you bring those unique talents into the film? Do you build mud huts or robots? Do you have access to a green screen wizard or know Adobe After Effects like the back of your hand? Is there a de-commissioned insane asylum near your house or an old barn? Do you have a cool motorcycle that would be great for a road movie?
Most people have far more resources than they realize but they are thinking about the Hollywood movie they WANT to make and not the awesome no-budget feature that they CAN make.
Think about all the things you have and can do, all the people you know and what they have and can do – right now. Seriously: make a list. Then take the theme and story you’re passionate about and build it around that.
You’re going to need a great team to get your film made. You don’t want to break your teeth trying to be writer/director/producer (and maybe star and cameraperson) on set. You don’t even want to be in pre-production trying to do it all on your own.
Having a producing team of people who are enthusiastic about the project and see it as their own will also lift the financial burden off of just you. If you want to make a $10,000 film and you divide that four ways, you reduce your personal costs to $2500, which is much easier to swallow.
But having a solid team also allows you to have much better planning, better scheduling, better budgeting. When you’re making a microbudget and you don’t have any “contingency fund” to dip into in case you don’t make your days, planning will determine whether you complete your film or not.
Of course it’s great to find more experienced people, preferably at least with some short films under their belt. But just remember when it comes to your team, your crew AND your cast, enthusiasm is usually more valuable than experience.
Also remember – it goes in both directions. If you want to keep your (unpaid) crew around you have to be the best, most competent, kindest person on the planet. You have to be the person who keeps their cool when everyone else is losing their minds. In other words to create a great team, you have to be a great leader.
Hollywood does this, of course – with teasers, behind the scenes, and “making of” films and featurettes. You should too. Chronicle the entire process of making your film and share – on an ongoing basis – with your budding audience. Because this is so important you should have someone on your producing team whose sole purpose is to generate marketing buzz. In case you haven’t heard of this role, the filmmaker Jon Reiss coined the title Producer of Marketing & Distribution.
People love to see photos and short videos. People find romance in the filmmaking process. There’s something magical about creating stories. Let them see how you do it. They’ll want to see the final product. That means making sure you have a stills photographer on your shoot and, if possible, a videographer.
While you’re thinking about marketing, think about whether you connect with any niches. Niches can be the lifeblood of any microbudget marketing venture. Is your film about gay firefighters – that’s a niche that you can find online, on Facebook, Twitter and elsewhere. Is it about a particular location, a sport with fanatical participants, style of music, etc. These all have particular niches that exist online and can be found without much effort.
Too many filmmakers think that crowdfunding is about raising money. It’s not. Not primarily anyway. It’s about building a fan base. The money is a nice bonus, a symbol of your fan’s commitment to your goal.
With crowdfunding, and marketing in general, you need to be aware that at first your audience of fans will probably not extend beyond your friends and family – and perhaps those of your cast and crew. Is it any surprise? Do you go see bands you’ve never heard of just off a poster you see on the street? This is going to be a more than one picture process. The film Tangerine was a big breakthrough for the filmmaker, an “overnight success” – it was also his fourth feature film.
That’s why you shouldn’t try to raise the money you need through crowdfunding, you should raise the money that you can. In other words, sit down, go through all the friends and family you think will give money and estimate how much. Then divide it by half. It is better to ask for $2000 and raise $5000 than it is to ask for $15,000 and raise $5000.
You’re trying to use the crowdfunding campaign to raise excitement and enthusiasm for your film and to pre-sell copies of it. Nothing kills excitement and enthusiasm more than a terrible failure.
You’ll notice that not once did I mention the gear that you need? That’s not an accident. I interviewed an Indian filmmaker recently who shot most of his first feature on a Canon Rebel – a crop-frame, prosumer DSLR. Their “camera slider” was a sweater that they set their camera on and pulled slowly across a table. They’re in negotiations with India’s version of Netflix to sell the film and with a more established producer to make their next film. Too many filmmakers obsess about gear.
The quality of even cheap gear now is such that, unless you’re shooting a film that really, really needs a particular camera for a specific reason, nobody is going to know – especially if you have a gripping story. Sure, have decent sound gear and a camera that works. But Tangerine was shot on an iPhone 5S and it went to Sundance. What’s really important are the other things – the story, the team, how you have built buzz and the uniqueness of your vision. With a little magic, if you can bring these elements together, you stand to make a great film and launch your career out of it.
To read more in-depth tips on how to make a microbudget feature film, check out my free ebook by clicking the image below and downloading it today.
ABOUT THE WRITER: Shawn Whitney is a filmmaker who has worked as a development executive for the past 8 years with a production company in Montreal, Canada. He also freelances as a story editor, providing support in the screenwriting phase of development for numerous writers and directors. He has taught workshops on nano-budget filmmaking for filmmaking organizations and festivals and has also taught screenwriting at the University of Toronto and Ryerson University. He has sat on festival juries and is a senior programmer at the Victoria Texas Indie Film Festival. He is also himself a screenwriter, with a Made For TV film under his belt and TV series' in development, and a writer-director-producer who has made two no-budget feature films. You can read more about his journey to award-winning feature filmmaker here.
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