Micro budget filmmaking

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Are you interested in micro budget filmmaking, but don’t know where to start? There are so many hoops to jump through when making a film, and we often hear that securing funding is the hardest part of the process, which we know from experience! The good news is, it’s totally possible to make an amazing film for a tiny budget. Here are our best tips and tricks to help you write a script that you can produce for as little money as possible.

Before we get started, I want to affirm that not only do I think you are capable of making a film on a tight budget, but I think that sometimes films actually benefit from being made on a budget. That may be hard to hear when you’re scraping together pennies and can’t even pay yourself, but a tight budget forces you to be thoughtful, creative, and scrappy. These are all things that will benefit not only this film but every film you make down the road, regardless of if you have a thousand dollars or a million. Self-funding (which, for most of us, is only possible on a very small budget) also means you don’t have to answer to studios or investors, and you own 100% of your project. Even if you happen to have access to tons of money to finance films (which, if you do, you should call me) I strongly believe that trying out micro budget filmmaking is a worthwhile exercise. 

One other note: filmmaking is very, very expensive, and people’s needs and means vary greatly. If you can produce a feature film for $40k, that’s amazing, but you shouldn’t feel like less of a filmmaker if you are producing something for significantly less. If all you have is 500 bucks and a weekend, you can still absolutely make some movie magic. What I don’t want you to do is to go into debt to make your movie. It’s one thing if there is someone in your life who can loan you 2k to film something (although you should have a rock-solid contract and repayment schedule) but it’s another thing to take out a personal loan or put things on a credit card. Don’t feel like you need to go into debt to make your movie.

Let’s dive in!

To write a micro budget film, you have to take stock of what you already have.

What do you have? This is a very broad question, but you’ll need to answer in detail. Grab a pen and paper or pop open a new Google doc and start listing all of the things currently in your possession that could help you make a film. These should be things that you don’t have to spend a single penny on. The trick here is to let the things in your possession shape your idea, rather than trying to find things that will work well for a concept you already have.

  • Equipment. Maybe you already own a cinema camera. Maybe you have a cell phone with a good camera. Maybe you have a tripod you found at the thrift store. All of these things are assets! You can get even more creative with this part of your brainstorming process. Don’t just limit yourself to filmmaking equipment. Do you have a piece of gauzy fabric you could use to create a cool visual effect, or a smoke machine, or a lamp that would help create some interesting shadows?
  • Locations. Kyle Edward Ball made Skinamarink in his childhood home. Jamie Flanagan told me that the concept for Mike Flanagan’s breakout film Absentia was created because Mike had access to a tunnel outside his apartment. The Blair Witch Project was shot largely in a state park. Remember, your house or apartment doesn’t have to be the best-lit, most beautifully decorated space to be a worthwhile shooting location. You just need a space you can fit a story into, and then you’ll make the magic happen. Think creatively about this; if you work at a coffee shop, maybe your boss would let you film there after hours. If you live near a state or national park, what’s the process of getting a permit like?
  • Interesting props. Does your grandma have a collection of dolls she’d be happy to lend you? Do you have a fascinating mask you bought at an antique store off the side of the highway? Does your sister drive a vintage motorcycle? My most prized possession is a huge, antique yellow velvet couch that I think would be very cinematic; how could I write a story that features that? My partner has a collection of beautiful electric guitars, so maybe I could write a screenplay about a musician. Think about what’s interesting, what might look high-budget, and what inspires you. Pro tip: if you want to borrow something from a loved one, ask before you commit to writing your entire movie around it.
  • Actors. Are there any aspiring actors in your life? Maybe folks who want experience, or who want to build their reel, or maybe they’re just your best bud and are willing to do you a solid and spend a few days on set with you? Obviously, a big part of our mission at New 32 is to pay everyone on our sets a living wage, but we want to acknowledge that isn’t possible for all aspiring filmmakers. Our ebook The Mindful Maker gets into the ethics of having people on your set that you aren’t paying, and will in general help you create a positive on-set experience for your people. Think about the specific actors you have access to and what you can pull off with those people. If you happen to have a professional actor in your corner who wants a fun project, you have a lot of options. If your daughter has always wanted to give acting a go but has no experience, you might be slightly more limited, but that doesn’t mean you can’t pull off something amazing. This is one benefit to building a creative community; you have people who believe in you and are willing to work on your stuff, even without pay.
  • Skills. When I say skills, I both mean filmmaking skills and other, unrelated talents and hobbies. Maybe you’re an amazing editor, or maybe you are a makeup wiz. Maybe you know how to sing, or garden, or create amazing floral arrangements out of grocery store flowers. Think carefully about what talents you or your close friends bring to the table that might make your movie stand out. If you know how to sew, what could you create? Make a list of all your skills, and the skills of the people close to you. Nothing is too small or too unrelated. All of these things have the potential to save you money, or even to help shape the story you’re creating. For example, I’m a writer, I’m a good cook, and I know how to put together a great outfit from a trip to the thrift store. I could handle writing the script, providing on-set meals for cheap, and costuming. My spouse is a musician and is great with animals. I could ask him to help me with the soundtrack, and maybe with his support I could incorporate my dogs into the film. You can also think about what skills you feel you could learn using free online resources like Youtube. This could be anything from Unreal Engine to becoming your own boom operator.

With micro budget filmmaking, you have to think about money… a lot.

This part isn’t super fun for most people. But remember: a tiny budget forces you to be creative, and that will only serve you and your career, both short and long-term. So take a minute and put together a realistic budget. Like I already said, you shouldn’t be going into debt for this (or any) project, especially because, as we all know, you aren’t in control of if this film is going to land distribution and turn a profit.

  • What are you personally able to put into this project? Regardless of if it’s $10 or $10k, you need to think realistically about your budget, your savings, and what you can comfortably afford to invest. If it’s going to take a few months to produce this project in your spare time, how much can you realistically save until then? 
  • What can your community provide? Here is another opportunity to think creatively. If each of your friends pitches in $25 to a crowdfunding campaign, what would that leave you with? Are your relatives supportive of your filmmaking dreams, and might they be interested in pitching in some money to become executive producers? Do you have filmmaker buddies who you could pitch your idea to, who could donate time, money, or both to become a part of this project?
  • Are there any grants you can apply for? Maybe your city or state has grant opportunities. Maybe you’re part of a community that is underrepresented in film; there are specific grants for women in film, LGBTQ filmmakers, and filmmakers of color. Do some googling and see what you can find!

With micro budget filmmaking, you need to consider your priorities.

Once you’ve taken inventory of all this, set your budget. This will help dictate what production elements you can incorporate into your film. It will also help determine things like the length of your film; if you have $500, maybe focus on creating a kick-ass short. Take into consideration things like post production costs that you can’t handle yourself, festival entry fees if that’s something you want, travel, special effects, and anything you need to hire someone to do. This is true for filmmaking of any budget, of course, but it’s especially important with micro budget filmmaking. You need to be very thoughtful about what limited money you have and how you want to spend it.

  • Write your script. With your specific budget in mind, write the best script you can utilizing all of your resources, from people to props to locations to money. For me, I’d come up with a short story that centers around that cinematic yellow couch I’ve already mentioned, and I’d film it in my house and backyard using my friends as actors. My house has a moody, artistic feel, so maybe I could write a drama about a struggling writer trying to make ends meet. Using those same assets, I could also write a horror film about somebody who is trying to “make it” as a painter but is haunted by a traumatic past. Or maybe there’s a comedy in there, one about a musician who takes themselves extremely seriously but doesn’t have the talent to back it up.
  • Decide what’s important to you. Maybe you have next to no money but just can’t get in the right headspace to film on your cell phone; renting a camera is a top priority in your budget. Maybe you have a free location, but it’s important to you that you hire professional actors. In that case, paying your cast well is your priority. Maybe you really want to take this on the festival circuit; look up submission fees and travel costs associated with the festivals you want to go to. Perhaps there’s an amazing location near your home that really inspires you, but you know you’ll have to pay to rent it. Remember, your budget should reflect what’s important to you as a filmmaker.
  • Do your research. There are tons of articles on the internet about micro budget filmmaking. On our blog alone we have multiple articles about how to save money on set, our favorite free resources for filmmakers, and tons of interviews with indie filmmakers who share how they pulled off their micro budget film. We also have tips on how to write a good screenplay for beginners, the stages of film production, and so much more. And we’re just one resource! There are tons of blogs, podcasts, and Youtube videos out there that will help you create a plan to move forward in a cost-effective way, as well as teach you new skills that, once you learn, are free for you to use moving forward.
  • Pre-produce the hell out of your project. It’s a cliche for a reason: if you fail to plan, you plan to fail. Spending a lot of time in pre-production will make your movie faster to film, cheaper to film, and overall a better experience for everyone involved. Remember, time is money, so if you have a schedule that allows you to get things done quickly, safely, and maximizes your resources, you are that much more likely to stay within your budget.

That’s all I have for today! If you’re an experienced indie filmmaker, what advice would you give to folks who are just starting out in the world of micro budget filmmaking? Drop me a line and share your words of wisdom!

Molly Stein-Seroussi

Molly Stein-Seroussi

Author

Molly is an author, screenwriter, blogger, and brand manager for New 32 Productions. They are passionate about sharing content that helps filmmakers live a more productive, informed, and well-balanced life. They live in North Carolina with their spouse and way too many dogs.

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