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Making Great Films On The Cheap. Possible, Or Taboo? (Filmmaker & Audience Survey)

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by Tambay A. Obenson
April 26, 2013 12:32 PM
14 Comments
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I've been engaged in an email exchange with a reader who's also a filmmaker currently in pre-production on a no-budget/lo-budget feature film he plans to shoot in the late summer. Our exchange prompted the question in the title of this post.

First, after getting his permission to do so, here's a snip of a longer email he sent me this morning, which I thought was at the heart of the matter: 

... A problem here is that there are a lot of filmmakers who do have these ideas about films not capable of being made for less than certain amounts, like 6 figures. There are those who’ve bought into a system of how a film should be made and for how much that’s dominant right now, and who won’t even consider the possibility that you really can make a film for very little money. You just have to be savvy with your scripting. I’m working on a feature right now and when I tell some people how much I’m going to make it for, they scuff, and don’t want to be any part of it, because in their heads, if it’s not a 6 or 7 figure budget, then it must not be good or worth their time. There’s this mindset that a lot of us have which we need to shake.

The budget for this filmmaker's feature film is around $15,000. 

In the past, I’ve brought up for discussion the idea that making a film doesn’t necessarily have to be a super-expensive endeavor, ultimately hoping to encourage those starry-eyed filmmakers (certainly not all) to rethink their allegiance to Hollywood’s conspicuous spending model.

Partly inspired by the above filmmaker's comments, I’d like to conduct a filmmaker and audience survey: my question to all you filmmakers and audiences reading this is really to respond to what "John" said above. For filmmakers, how cheaply do you think you could make a feature-length film? Of course, it goes without saying that it’ll be a feature film you’re proud of, is technically and creatively sound, made by a skilled team – enough that you’ll enthusiastically submit it to film festivals, and also to distributors, for acquisition consideration; or that you’d even self-distribute. Take a look at all the feature-length scripts you’ve written (or all the ideas you have yet to put on paper) on your hard drive, that you’re hoping you can make into films some day, only if you are able to raise the necessary funds. Now, looking at all of them, how much cash would you need to get any one of them produced? What is the least amount of money you think you’d require to get this hypothetical film made? Is there a figure in your head that you believe is (or should be) an absolute minimum when it comes to feature film budgets, regardless of all other factors? 

And for the audience, does a film's budget (if you know it) affect how you react to it, before you even see it? Do you find yourself dimissing films when you discover how cheaply they were made for, assuming that, because of how cheaply they were made, they must not be very good?

Yes, I know it's not such a black and white matter, and really, you could make a film for as little or as much as you want. And with a good producer, with connections, relationships, resources and smarts, you could eliminate several line items.

And obviously it depends on the script as well.

I can think of several films made for less than $100,000 that went on to do well, relative to budget.

But indulge me here folks… is "John" correct in saying that there is a mindset amongst filmmakers who've, as he states, bought into a system influenced by Hollywood's spending habits, and have come to believe that making a good film means spending lots and lots of money, and the idea of making a film on the cheap is taboo, no matter what? And also, are audiences and even financiers (whether individual wealthy people, or Kickstarter contributors) scuffing at films with no/lo-budgets?


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14 Comments

  • Raquel | May 6, 2013 3:54 AMReply

    I plan sometime this year to shoot a no budget feature. Its diffcult getting actors to understand that you have to make a feature film that makes money to for the doors of Hollywood to open. However filmmaker not only have to focus on raising the money to finance the production they must finance the distribution as well.

  • Adrian | April 30, 2013 2:02 AMReply

    Shoot as a mockumentary
    Simple talkies
    Nights and weekends gets you started.
    Niche yo self fool.
    Bqefilm.com

  • Burp | April 29, 2013 8:10 PMReply

    you can certainly do a great film on a limited budget. However you must assess before you make the film if you are packaging it correctly to make money or you just want to tell a story and allow fate and your I believe in this project attitude to win people over.

  • jeftcg | April 29, 2013 4:52 PMReply

    "And obviously it depends on the script as well..."

    An understatement if I've ever read one.

    Everyone (anyone) can make a movie. But there are very few good storytellers.

  • Crosby Tatum | April 29, 2013 4:32 PMReply

    YES. YES. YES. It is possible, and It can be done. And I am living proof of that. Just recently, I just finished m first feature film, "Surprise, Surprise!!!" and we're about to release it in 30 days here in Boston, MA. But it can be done WITH the right story, right players, and like Tambay said, right crew and people, with other considerations as well. On our film set, we had at 5-6 different crew members who have had experiences working on the History Channel, ABC, CBS, local media stations, and the like, and also utilized the resources the city had to offer. Not to mention, I owned a lot of equipment and had access to others as well to make due with what we had.

    In my situation, I had a named actress attached to my screenplay. But we went another route because we knew we couldn't raise the money up for her seeing that A.) I'm a newbie, B.) It's my first feature, C.) I don't have a major audience base, D.) Investors won't invest in you if you don't have a proven record, and E.) The landscape for Distribution has changed dramatically where advances are not where they are years ago.

    With all of those things, we basically shot this film for as little as possible, made it happen, I Produced, Directed, Acted (Lead), Edited, Composed, and boom, here we are. You gotta be passionate and put the time in to make sure your film goes off without a hitch, so to speak. Not easy, but once you get to the promise land, Daddy, it feels pretty damn good.

  • CareyCarey | April 27, 2013 10:18 AMReply

    "for the audience, does a film's budget (if you know it) affect how you react to it, before you even see it? Do you find yourself dismissing films when you discover how cheaply they were made for, assuming that, because of how cheaply they were made, they must not be very good?"

    I believe that's my place in this line. I may not "dismiss" a film if I discovered its low budget, however, I am a creature of habit who learns from my experiences, so I don't think I'd go out of my way to see it. I am suggesting that I have not been moved by a "low" budget film. But of course this is all subjective, so I'll simply speak from my "queued up" position... what I need in my film watching experience.

    When I sit down to watch a feature film, the first thing that grabs my attention is not the story (since I haven't seen it, I don't know if it's a well written story), nor does it have anything to do with technical equipment ( I don't know what equipment was used nor do I care). The first thing I notice is the acting. But wait, as many have implied, it takes a "community" (for lack of a better word) to build a "good" film. Yes, I guess I am referring to across the board skilled and talented individuals. And although we'd all like to believe we're great writers and directors and sometimes actors, from what I've seen, those skills are not born in one individual. But let me go back to the actor.

    In my opinion, acting is the art of telling a convincing lie. The actor has to convince me that they are who they're portraying and that their actions are spontaneous (not scripted). That's a daunting task because for the most part a lie is seldom rehearsed. So the best liars/actors (think of the best poker players) have hone their skills over time (with practice and practice and mo' practice). And the best are paid the best. But again, since film-making is a "community" endeavor, in walks the writer and the director.

    If I can use a couple of sport's analogies, the best basketball players do not always translate to being the best coaches. Nor are the best baseball coaches able to throw 100 mph fastballs. So goes the dilemma of the writer and the director. It's been my observation that writers are not necessarily the best directors (or actors) and visa-versa. And again, the best are paid the best, to do what they do - the best. I have not seen a low-budget feature film (as outlined in this post) that I would recommend to others.

    In short, if any of the above variables suffer, the film will suffer, and "money" will be lurking in the shadows.

    "Making Great Films On The Cheap. Possible, Or Taboo?"

    Answer: Subjectivity?-Purpose?-Goal?

  • carl seaton | April 27, 2013 1:26 AMReply

    Yes it can be done, my first feature One Week was shot on 35mm and everyone told us that we could not do it. We ignored them and did it anyway. The film got a theatrical release and is currently airing on Bounce TV. Today with technology were it is, films can definetly be made cheaper. The focus is now on the craft, folks can't just point the camera and shoot. Preparation is key in any film, but it is mandatory in low budget filmmaking. Time is the best resource because it allows you to save money, cut corners, and utilize resources that you already possess. As filmmakers of color, there is actually an advantage now because you have some phenomenal actors and filmmakers that are also fed up with the system and just want to create solid work. Fill your crew with crafstmen that will ensure your film is technically sound because that is usally the biggest detractor when it comes time for distribution. Also, distribution deals are not what they used to be so that means the filmmaker has to do a bit more work. They also have to build their audience and sell directly to them. This also can be done thru social media and various low cost ways. JTC is right, the grind is much longer and sacrifice is common place which is why you have to ask yourself, what is it that you really want to achieve. Lastly, the one thing no micro budget film can afford is ego.

  • JTC | April 27, 2013 12:24 AMReply

    There is no question that it can be done because, of course, it has been done. I think the better question is how possible would it be for a black filmmaker to accomplish this task. I like the idea of having the director also being the d.p., the editor, and the writer, though it is not a necessity. However, in my experience, a significant portion of black folks who are interested in being in the film world are lured by thoughts of money and fame. Not that there is anything wrong with that notion, but the art is what will truly get you noticed. "Sweat Equity" has to be a concept that we take very seriously. Consider the film ANOTHER EARTH, done on the cheap, small crew limited resources, an excellent film in my opinion.

    I know a few black writer/directors who have dedicated their lives to the study of story and cinematic vision, but have found it hard to bring a team together because their resources were so limited (15,000 and down.) I mean, isn't this a major part of the reason while there still a startlingly low amount of quality black films relative to the amount of black writers and directors? I think that we need a wake up call, not all of us perhaps but many of us. I know that there are a number of talented people among us who understand that to make powerful films we need powerful storytellers and that powerful films is one of the few paths to success. But I have met too many dp's, editors, and actors who think that they should be making more money earlier in the game than is probably realistic.

    The grind is longer and harsher than I think many of us would like it to be, but it is what it is. Sacrifice, sacrifice, sacrifice. What are we willing to sacrifice? What should be willing to sacrifice? How many years are we willing to work our craft? I have met a number of people who get a degree in film or acting and although they would likely be reluctant to admit it, they have a sense of entitlement, that they should be making paper because they went to school. But from my perspective the grind doesn't even start until you are done educating yourself (whether through school or self-taught) I'm just sayin'.

  • urbanauteur | April 27, 2013 12:02 PM

    AMEN!

  • Clayton | April 26, 2013 11:09 PMReply

    Yes, it can be done. I did it with Pro-Black Sheep (facebook.com/problacksheep). It didn't have any effects and I broke a lot of rules, but it was done for about 18K and that's after being ripped off by these phony post-sound people for $3500. Then we had to take it to the brilliant post sound people of C5 (Scorsese and Spike Lee's main post-sound guys) who basically saved the sound for about the same price, all coming out to 18K in the end. And I shot it on SD (Panasonic 24P) back in 2007, not with the beautiful Red Cams and the Alexas they have out today. It got into almost all the black film festivals and it won an award at one of them in Berlin, Germany. Now it can be bought on Amazon.com.

    However, it did help that I was the DP and editor. It also helped that I was the writer, producer, editor, and DP on a few previous short films, an award winning drama series where each episode averaged 27 min, which was like a short film each, and I was hired as a DP for other people's productions.

    Just make sure it's money from family and friends, not investors. Because for me, it was a get the first feature done effort, show people what I can do for a little bit of money, not to make money back in any way. That just wasn't my intention.

    My advice? Your goal should decide whether you do it for ultra-cheap or wait until you can raise more money. If it's money you don't have to make back in any way, and you're good, then go for it. What will be will be. If you want to make a profit, using low-concept material, I would raise more money and get a name actor in the film, even if it's just in a supporting role.

    @ClayBroomes

    Pro-Black Sheep's trailer (youtu.be/HV5zhwGr0z8)

  • urbanauteur | April 26, 2013 4:25 PMReply

    The Match Factory Girl was made on a bet for $10,000, on 35mm short ends(raw film stock) by finnish auteur-Aki Kaurismaki way back in 1990, also Jim Jarmusch 1st feature Permanent Vacation for the same amount,on 35mm, fast forward to now...Paranormal Activity $13,000 HD, Blair Witch project $23,000 Hi-8/16mm to name a few...its just Re Imagining the essence of the STORY itself and applying pressure points, other than that, it can be done.

  • cinexa | April 26, 2013 4:25 PMReply

    If you plan your shots and writwe to available locations, its not hard. the technology has come down in price. Roger Corman made a fortune like this. If you already have the camera and editing software, 15K is indeed doable. We, as a country have been conditioned to think expensive=better. In reality most of the things we buy are marketed to us as expensive=better, but the material, labor and real costs are very cheap. Only a fool would spend more than needed, but this explains why so many are broke and in debt. back to the subject, I know for a fact that people not only look at quality when it comes to films, but also story. If your story is interesting and the "Sound" is professional, the picture is easy to get right with todays tools. you can make a horrible looking movie on an expensive camera, it happens everyday. You can also blow through 100k or 1000k( a million for you slow folks) and still have a horrible product, that also happens everyday. Go make your movie. I know I am. " If you wait on the right time, you will die with your dreams".

  • Daryl | April 26, 2013 2:09 PMReply

    I agree with the filmmaker, you can make films on the cheap. He is right in his assertion that independent filmmakers and actors are chasing hollywood success that's why they don't believe they can do it on a lesser budget. It's no more excuses on getting your films made. Technology has solved this. It use to cost so much to get film stock and process film stock that making a film was out of most filmmakers grasp or actors weren't able to get any work to build a filmography because it was so few films being made because it cost so much to make films, you got good movies shot on cell phones now. The problem now is too many actors, filmmaker, and crew still believe you have to spend a lot of money or they have to be in a project that cost a lot of money for it to have value. Hollywood has successfully conditioned filmmakers, actors, film crew, and the audience to believe in the more money you spend or make, it's the better the film is, because they know once the filmmakers, actors, film crew stop believing in that, the power they yeild is gone and the power is in the hands of the artists to tell their stories like it should be. Independent filmmakers, actors, and film crew have got to start coming together and doing projects because we love them not because I can make some money, you acting like low budget Wall St types. Money has nothing to do with acting, directing, and story now, you not shooting on film no more, you can do unlimited takes, the cameras are small you can take them places before that you couldn't do and most importantly you don't have to bankrupt yourself to make a film. The studio model is built on the whole Wall St model if it doesn't make dollars, then it doesn't make sense, in essence they don't care about story, acting, cinematography, production design, storyboards, sound, or music score, all they want to know how much money it made. or it's going to make. To them films are products off the assembly line that they sell to the masses. The studios want people to believe they got to spend a whole lot of money to compete with them because they know if it's just about money you don't have a chance, but they know if it's just about talent they don't have a chance. Stop following hollywood business model of making a film and success and follow the business model that works for your film. Also the people talking about post production , you can edit your movie on a home computer now. It's also good fx and sound software to go with that. Stop making excuses on why you can't do it and go out and make it happen.

  • Kia | April 26, 2013 1:00 PMReply

    If the variables (script w/few locations, talented actors, skilled DP, can do your own initial editing) are in place then, yes, you can start to make a good film for $15G, but ultimately, you'll end up spending more or double that in post. This is what I've learned from being one of the producers on a low budget feature film that started out with a budget close to $15G. So my question to "John": Does that budget include post?

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