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 of making low budget films. 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!
It’s all about the 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. (See what I mean? Fun!) And 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 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 crew mates you’ve worked with in 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 like you 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 cost 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.