Kelsey Grammer in Money Plane (2020)
The market for films has been going through a great upheaval and is markedly different today than it was a decade ago. As technology has advanced, so too has the delivery methods of entertainment. Consumers now have almost unlimited choices in how to get their content. The traditional means of going to the theater or watching network television still exist, as do cable and physical DVDs. But there are now numerous streaming platforms and distribution services, and that arena is growing. This means that films can be seen in the theater, purchased on disk, watched on television, downloaded, or streamed. This has created an unprecedented demand for new content to fill all of these distribution channels.
As the distribution channels have expanded, there has been a move towards film productions at the extreme ends of the spectrum. Studios have drastically increased their production and marketing budgets, looking to make their tentpole releases into grand spectacles. Disney’s Marvel spent close to $350million to produce Avengers: Endgame, and another $150million in marketing. These budget numbers are astronomical, but it paid off. Endgame recouped its $500million total budget in only three days and has gone on to earn more than $2.75billion at the box office.
This move away from mid-level budgets by studios has created a vacuum of demand for additional content that is being filmed by independent filmmakers. Some of the independent studios are producing content with budgets in the tens of millions of dollars. The majority of these independent filmmakers cannot afford to work at that level, but given the advances in film technology and the decrease in production costs, films that would have cost tens of millions of dollars previously are being made for a fraction of that. These smaller budget films are often broken up into two categories, Micro-Budget and Low-Budget. Micro and Low budget films are generally considered those that have a budget less than $250,000 or $2,500,000 respectively. This definition is supported by the Screen Actor Guild (SAG) having special tier agreements for those films with budgets under $250,000 (Ultra Low Budget Agreement) and for those films with budgets under $2,500,000 (Low budget Agreement, $3,750,000 if it meets SAG’s Diversity-In-Casting incentive)
This has led to a perfect storm of opportunity for independent filmmakers. There is a demand for content that is not being met by larger studios, technology has advanced enough that quality films can be made at lower budget levels, and the decreased costs mean that it is easier for film projects to break-even when going to market. This doesn’t mean that micro/low budget independent filmmaking is easy. It is still a complicated process, but one that can spur creativity and produce good quality films. This article provides general tips that an independent filmmaker should keep in mind for producing a micro/low budget film.
“The industry is moving toward the big and the small. I think studios will always want a few of the high-budget high-profile projects. And there will be more and more of the micro-budget stuff. Everything in between is getting cut back, the marketing costs and production costs are too high, they don’t make sense in a world of YouTube, video games, cable programming, etc. By all means, try to make your way to one of those big-budget projects. But also take time to write and produce on the micro-budget scale, because that’s where we’re all going to live in a few years.” — Terry Rossio, Oscar-nominated screenwriter
A lot of money may not be needed to make a great film, but a lot of money is needed to make certain kinds of films. Certain genres don’t work particularly well within the constraints of a limited budget while others seem to thrive there, specifically horror, thriller, and contained action. In some cases, these genre films are improved by their limited budgets instead of being hampered by them. Consider Paranormal Activity, or The Blair Witch Project or any of the follow-on films in the found-footage horror genre. A key part of what made these films so compelling was how they weaved lower production values into their storytelling. The fact that these films didn’t feel like traditional movies was a selling point.
There is nothing to say that the only films that can be done at the micro or low budget level are genre films. It’s just that the current market has shown that audiences seem to be much more accepting of what can be done with a limited budget when it is done in a genre film. A single-location thriller with a limited cast will have more audience appeal (and sales) than a similarly produced drama or comedy.
A good script is good, and a bad script is bad. But a good script may end up making a bad movie when the script demands too high of a budget. The script should be conceptualized and written with the budgetary constraints in mind. At the obvious level, this means avoiding period pieces, extensive car crashes, and high VFX needs. It also means that the script can’t be written as just a smaller studio movie. A studio movie that follows a predictable formula may still be successful because it attaches big-name actors and pumps money into marketing. At the micro and low budget level, there isn’t the money for that level of actors or large marketing campaigns.
“Low budgets force you to be more creative. Sometimes, with too much money, time and equipment, you can over-think. My way, you can use your gut instinct.” ~Robert Rodriguez
This is one of the biggest mistakes that filmmakers make when entering into the micro or low budget realm. They attempt to make a film based on a script that just can’t work without money. It’s not possible to adjust every script to work at a lower budget level, and it’s a bad idea to fight uphill to try and get these scripts made. This is where a good script can fail miserably as it is translated to the screen. Trying to make an action film about a disgraced spy trying to clear his name while he travels around the world fighting an army of assassins with lots of explosions isn’t going to happen at low budget levels. In these cases, it is better to put that idea on the shelf and start from scratch writing a script that will work at the available budget level. Take that same disgraced spy and drop him into a contained location where he has been captured and he needs to fight his way out, and it could work.
At the earliest stages of development, before even drafting the script, there should be a vision of how the film could be made for as close to zero dollars as possible. Filmmaker Robert Rodriguez famously made El Mariachi for only $7,000, developing the entire concept around what resources he had available to him. If the project enters into the conceptualization stage of development looking at what resources are available and what constraints exist, then it can steer the story so that it can be told with a limited budget. It is harder to go back and rework a script so it works at a lower budget level than it is to start with that budget level in mind.
“My example was Robert Rodriguez. In an interview, he’d said, ‘Take stock of what you have and work with that. I had a bus and I had a turtle, so I worked them both into the script!’ I thought I can get my hands on a convenience store…So I went home, and got my job back at the convenience store, fully intending to shoot the flick there. And I started writing like mad. I guess the first draft of it was about 164 pages, pretty long, so I handed it over to my friend Vincent. I was like, ‘What do you think?’ And he was like, ‘It’s really good. I think you should do it.’” — Kevin Smith
A few small independent movies with no named talent have gone on to be huge successes. If the film premieres at Cannes, it will get distributors interested without big named actors. These are the exceptions. Planning to premiere at Cannes is not a feasible strategy for most films. That means that the majority of films will rely on the reputation of their actors to create buzz and help obtain distribution. The first question that every single sales agent or distributor ever asks when hearing about a new film is “Who’s in it?” There should be an answer to that, and the answer should be the biggest/best names possible.
The Biggest Mistake in Student Films is That They Are Usually Cast So Badly, With Friends and People the Directors Know.– Brian De Palma
If the goal is to sell or distribute the film then the biggest names available are who should be targeted to star. A whole article on the why and how of landing big-names for the film can be found here.
When talking about casting, the target is getting the biggest names with the best credits possible. Almost the exact opposite is true when it comes to the crew. It can seem like a good and exciting thing to bring on crewmembers who have worked on numerous studio films with high budgets, hoping that their experience adds credibility and deep knowledge to the film. But many of these crewmembers who have only worked on big-budget studio movies have never had to make a film without high-cost equipment and overstaffed crews. When presented with problems, their only solutions will be expensive ones. This will lead to budget overruns and a difficult and frustrating production for all involved.
A crew that has previously worked on micro and low budget films will be used to finding creative low-cost solutions to problems. They will bring the necessary skillsets and can-do attitude to the production. To successfully make a micro/low budget film, the team needs to consist of professionals who bring more than their filmmaking skills, they need to bring creativity, flexibility, and problem-solving skills as well.
The adage “Failing to plan is planning to fail” should be the mantra of any producer attempting to create a film at the micro/low budget level. The flexibility that money provides is a luxury not available here. The production should be planned out well ahead of time, with contingencies in place. This includes a detailed shooting schedule, task lists, and a breakdown of responsibilities. Given the constraints that the production is working with, any hiccup that occurs can drastically damage the budget and the ability to bring the film to completion.
Investing the time in the early stages of development to plan out the entire pre, filming, post, and sales process will pay bountiful dividends during the production by saving costs and headaches that would arise if they had not been foreseen.
The production isn’t done at the yelling of “Wrap”, and the costs associated with finishing and delivering the film should be a part of the budget from the very beginning. It is a common mistake among smaller filmmakers to raise and budget only enough money to get them through principal photography without a detailed plan of how to get all of that footage turned into a film or delivered to distributors (or released).
Hand in hand with the planning phase of the production, every step should be budgeted. This budgeting should start with the initial conceptualization of the project and every expenditure related to the project for its entire life should be included. This can include fees to apply to festivals, marketing, screener copies, and all of those other little costs that seem trivial when just starting.
Producing a micro or low budget film is not for the faint of heart. Every dollar is precious, so producers need to look for ways to leverage their funds as much as possible, through raising soft money, bartering for as much free access and services as possible, and ensuring they are getting the best deal on every contract. Soft money, through incentives and credits, is a key part of every film’s financing plan but can be a make-or-break component of a micro/low budget project. Details on how to use tax incentives and credits to help finance a film can be read about here. Raising money is important, but controlling the spending is even more so. Every dollar spent is precious and the production needs to get the most out of everything they purchase. There is almost always a way to squeeze a little more out of what was bought or to get something a little cheaper. Working with a limited budget requires thinking outside of the box, and often requires a lot of Do-It-Yourself on the part of the producers and department heads.
The market for films and the process of filmmaking have been in a state of change that has created great opportunities for independent filmmakers. Having a modest budget is no longer an impediment to the creation of a good quality product or a barrier to distribution channels. There are added challenges with the production of micro/low budget films, but there are also benefits. By being able to work at a lower budget level, there is less need for compromise and less external controls than if a larger investment was required.
Independent filmmakers should embrace the challenges of working at the micro/low budget and continue to create good content to fill the demand vacuum. Not only does this allow more stories to be told, but it decreases the stranglehold of control that the major studios have held on the entertainment market.
“What’s different now than when I started is you can make your own stuff now. It’s cheap enough that you can film your own movie, edit your own movie, and distribute your own movie if you want to. If it’s a big production you’re going to have to deal with compromise if you’re lucky, because you need a lot of resources. I always recommend keeping it small enough that you can maintain that control. Because even if you win the lottery and somebody buys your thing you’re not going to be happy with a lot of the compromises that are going to take place. It’s too painful. You have to counter balance that with how much heat it’s giving you or how much money you’re getting when you’re starting off and getting your foot in the door. But now I think more and more people are getting their foot in the door by doing really good work on a small scale. And then scaling up as people are looking for fresher voices.” — Jon Favreau, Producer/Writer/Director