The Basics to Making a Low Budget Film
Budgets... To the free-thinking, creative mind, this word threatens to stifle any and all plotlines. But it doesn’t have to be that way. There are many advantages to making films on a shoestring budget. They allow you to tell a unique story that doesn’t have to homogenize itself to hit every global market, instead it can be released to a niche market and have a great effect. The point of low budget filmmaking is not to compete with the big studios. Instead, create for the overlooked markets. With a low budget film, you need to spend less in order to make a profit, allowing you to make more films later. In this article, we will be discussing: script strategy, the importance of planning, using the resources at your disposal, and tracking your finances throughout the process. This is going to be fun!
Micro-budget films that did well
Independent filmmakers consider a micro-budget film to be a feature film made on less than $25,000. Making a good film with this level of budget is remarkably difficult. It requires strict budgeting and sticking to the budget, using minimal cast and crew and equipment and an engaging storyline that doesn’t have all the bells and whistles that explosions or CGI could provide.
More often than not, horror flicks or thrillers can easily fit into the category of micro-budget films. Stephen Follows has a great article breaking down the types of films that do well on with a small budget. Who here has seen or at least heard of a film called “Paranormal Activity”? I don’t like horrors/thrillers and yet, even I have knowledge of this film. The budget for “Paranormal Activity”, directed by Oren Peli, was just $15,000 USD and they were able to make themselves a household name and gross $193.4 million.
In 1993 Robert Rodriguez’s directorial debut, El Mariachi, was made on a $7000 budget. It was made in Mexico for the Mexican film market, but Columbia Pictures executives ended up liking it and eventually bought the rights to distribute it in the American film markets. This $7,000 film ended up grossing $2 million.
In 1994 Kevin Smith produced (and acted as “Silent Bob”) the comedy “Clerks” about two young men running a convenience store with a budget of $27,000. Clerks went on to gross 3.2 million in the box office.
Money doesn’t make the project, creative problem solving and a “can do” attitude, make the film.
Low budget films that did remarkably well
The general consensus is that a feature made with less than a $2 million budget is considered a low budget movie. However, with the average cost of a film running between $70-$90 million, that number may be somewhat flexible. Take a look at some low budget films that were a commercial success.
Mad Max, with Mel Gibson, had a production budget of $350,000 and grossed over $100 million worldwide.
Evil Dead, created by Sam Raimi, had a production budget of $350,000 and grossed $29.4 million worldwide.
Napoleon Dynamite, distributed by Fox Searchlight, had a production budget of $400,000 and grossed nearly $45 million one year after it was released.
Blair Witch Project had a production budget of $60,000 and grossed about $250 million worldwide.
Super Size Me, created by Morgan Spurlock was produced on a budget of $65,000 and grossed $20.6 million at the box office.
Night of the Living Dead had a production budget of $114,000 and grossed $30 million worldwide.
Friday the 13th had a production budget of $700,000 and grossed $529 million.
Rocky, an original screenplay written by Sylvester Stallone, had a production budget of $1 million and grossed $225 million worldwide and went on to win the Oscar for best picture.
Blue Valentine had a production budget of $1 million and grossed $16.6 million.
Lost in Translation with Bill Murray had a production budget of $4 million and grossed $118.7 million and was nominated for 4 Academy Awards.
Get Out, created by Jordan Peele, had a $4.5 million dollar budget, grossed $255.5 million worldwide, and won Best Original Screenplay at the Oscars and was nominated for Best Picture.
My Big Fat Greek Wedding had a $5 million budget for production and grossed $368.7 million worldwide.
Critically acclaimed for the cast’s performances, Little Miss Sunshine had a production budget of 8 million dollars and grossed over $100 million worldwide.
Pulp Fiction had a production budget of $8.5 million and grossed nearly $108 million.
Star Wars: A New Hope, created by George Lucas has a production budget of 11 million dollars and grossed $775.5 million.
Some of these films could arguably be considered “the best of all time” and they were created with low budgets. Additionally, a large number of well-known writers, producers, composers (like John Carpenter), and directors got their start by low-budget filmmaking and are still making them to this day.
Tips for writing a low budget script
Your script determines your budget and everything you write in has a cost. Some of the most overlooked costs in scripts are numerous actors, background actors, locations, and animals (animals require a handler, adding to your crew cost). Obviously, explosions, major action sequences, VFX (you can’t do yourself) and celebrity cast members can destroy your budget as well. But don’t let that deter you from telling a great story! In fact, restrictions can help you tell a better story. It seems like an oxymoron, but, no! Restrictions force you to think creatively, to push the boundaries of your imagination. You can’t solve your problem with the run of the mill, overdone solutions. You can’t bring in a helicopter for your hero’s extraction, but you can create an inspiring and emotional story. Focus on character development, your audience will connect with a character they can relate to because you will appeal to their emotions.
Remember, every location you have in your script has rental costs, causes company moves, takes time and money, and generally slows down production. The fewer locations, the more money you can put into designing that location, making it unique and beautiful.
To help you stick to a low-budget mindset, here are some good guidelines to go by 1-3 main characters, 1-3 locations, 5-15 background actors, no guns, no explosions, and no animals.
Stick to the plan
Learn and live by this phrase, “Prior proper planning prevents poor performance.” If you fail to plan (and stick to the plan), you plan to fail. It’s as simple as that. Filmmaking requires organization. So plan EVERYTHING. Know every shot, what lens you are using, where the light is going to be, who will be on set, how long will they be in set, what are you going to feed everyone (not pizza!), what props you need...EVERYTHING. Use tools like Topsheet for quickly organizing your crew and ShotPro to communicate your shots. Leave nothing to figure out in post. Post-production kills low budget films. We recommend outlining your editing timeline with storyboards or Previs before shooting so you can drop your favorite shots in the timeline, creating a first draft edit as you shoot.
Bonus tips: find locations that come set dressed and strategize good, low-cost food (seriously, not pizza!). Try rice bowls, tacos, and omelets. A well-fed crew is a happy crew and a happy crew does good work. Hangry is a real thing. Avoid it.
Use what you have
Hire people you know. These can be friends, family, or crewmates you’ve worked within the past. You know their expectations, they know yours and communication is easier because you know each other. Personal connection makes a better product and a happier set. I like the way Caleb describes it:
From my experience, the smaller the crew the better, not only because of the cost, but due to the amount of organization, communication, and emotion each extra person adds to an already complicated process. Pick people you know and trust, who won’t throw a fit because you don’t have Red Bull.
You don’t need multiple cameras. They almost never save time or money, unless it’s a big action shot. Again, this is a great opportunity to exercise your creativity, getting the coverage you need in a few shots at most.
Track cash flow
You made a workable budget! Congratulations! Now track it as your career depends on it… because it kind of does. One million or a few hundred thousand dollars is a lot of money, but it will run out much faster than you think. Overtime and unexpected costs will drain that wad of cash faster than you can say, “We can fix it in post!”. And asking your investor for more money is a crawl of shame that could discredit you for years. Luckily, we have created an app for things such as that. Topsheet is a payroll and production management app that can help save costs on your set. Yes, we are plugging our own app, but it’s because we know it will save time, money, and headaches. The guys have spent so much time and effort creating a database that will help you track spending, so you can stay on target and create a successful film.
If you’re anything like any of the people I know who work in film, you got into this industry because you are passionate about film. You fell in love with it. You’re creative and maybe even a little bit weird. That’s awesome. Don’t lose that fire. Don’t let a few restrictions keep you from making the amazing film that you have been dreaming about for years. There is always a way. Find it. Be an innovator. Be that creative genius you know you are deep down. You are smart enough. You are creative enough. You are skilled enough. Now, hop to it.