22 February 2007

Random thoughts on no-budget filmmaking

Yesterday, while scouting a location with the producer of the short film I've been working on lately, we got to talking about the amount of money required to get a feature film made that has some amount of production value. Shooting on weekends and not paying everyone, he seemed to think you could get most films done for under $10k (assuming you aren't blowing things up, of course), with most of that $$ going toward feeding people and equipment rental.

Me, I think the number is probably a bit higher if you want actors who aren't your college roommate, but still I see little reason you couldn't make a lot of films for under $30-40k, less depending on what your film is about. (i.e. hand-held with minimal lighting is cheaper than something more composed, if for no other reason than the time required to set the shots up)

Still, that's not a lot money.

But what surprised me was that no one in the city seems to have a pretty solid idea of how to reliably raise that sort of money, other than out of the filmmaker's pocket.

Is it that hard to find 10 people with $3k to invest?

I can't imagine it is, but part of the problem seems to be that so few films have a reasonable expectation of ever making a dime of that money back. Sure, you can play some festivals and sell some DVDs, but you've got to end up with a really good film to get any sort of theatre release.

Or do you?

Over at this blog, Sujewa Ekanayake has been chronciling (sp?) the process of self-distributing his film Date Number One, which may or may not be good (I have no idea. I haven't seen it), but the fact remains that he's self-distributing it, and apparently to some success.

Probably at least enough success to recoup at least a portion of the investment.

It strikes me that we're about to see a lot more of this in the next 2-3 years, as the stigma of self-distribution fades (hey, even David Lynch is doing it) and HD becomes cheaper, meaning that the projected no-budget picture gets better, and internet makes self-promotion through YouTube and MySpace all that more viable. I've long thought that we're on the cusp of another French New Wave, only in the ultra-indie realm, and this could be a key component of that movement. If through self-distribution and other creative means those $30k films can start making even as little as, say, $60k, then that may open the door just enough.

Part of it, I think, is in how you "sell" your self-distribution. If you go with the whole "boo hoo, Hollywood doesn't love me" thing, that won't work. But, if you approach it as a "fuck Hollywood. this is how I'm distributing my film, even if they do want to buy it", that'll go a lot farther in people's eyes. It's all about perception.

Me, I'm using this short film I'm doing as a little bit of practice as far as promotion for when I do make that feature I've been working on forever. One perception thing I'm doing is promoting the short by using my name as the draw, even if my name isn't a draw. My theory is that if you use the filmmaker's name (not just the "from the director of..." line, but "a [name] film") as if it's a name that's strong enough for audience recognition, then people will do one of 2 things: assume they should know who this director is, or make an effort to find out who it is. Because, why would they use a name no one recognizes? Call it 3rd level promotion.


johanna said...

Perhaps you should host a film-a-thon sometime, even get YouTube to promote it if there were enough participants and general interest. Not just films, but critiques and discussions, et al. Get a couple of the local indie theatres involved, and the papers. And of course the musicians and any other artists involved.

In the meantime, lookie.

lucas said...

what would a film-a-thon consist of exactly?

johanna said...

I was thinking of something similar to a blogathon in that a lot of different sites would be involved and providing content. In order to keep participants involved, the range of submissions options would be open--a short film script or even just a treatment; a short film or a short clip of a DIY feature (or even raw footage); storyboarding and ideas on cinematography that had worked for people or not, just off the top of my head--but the idea would be to get people in disparate places together to discuss their filming obstacles and methods and possibly even workshop. You could break it down into categories, I suppose: writing, storyboarding, concepting, music, cinematography, direction and editing.

It might be a stretch in the current blogosphere but there may come a day when something like that doesn't seem so far-fetched and unlikely. If you have a bunch of people willing to put some of their work on YouTube for critiqe and possibly even group analysis, it could be a good tool and an interesting way of getting people involved in the filmmaking process and looking at it from the other side. I was thinking of your hopes re: more compassionate criticism and how that might be served also, since it would be open to everyone--even those who could only (or were only willing to) submit critiques. Something like that would likely have a participatory quality to it that might appeal more universally. What critic wouldn't like to be able to change a bad film?

johanna said...

It was just a thought.

I've never even considered sending a film to Hollywood as an option for the future. Registering a script with the Writer's Guild, absolutely (and you should if you haven't already, Lucas, for as long as you've had your script as a .pdf) but that's not a rights issue, it's just documentation.

Piper said...


I like your thoughts on this becoming a new wave over the next two to three years.

William Goldman wrote a wonderful book called "which lie did I tell?" In it he talks about how he had to buy back The Princess Bride from a studio who had originally greenlit it and then that greenlighter got fired and it is evidently customary for all the greenlit movies to be shelved once that greenlighter has been fired. After all, it would not bode well if those greenlit films were successful. This is so depressing to hear because it means that Hollywood has no interest in selling good ideas or good movies. It has more to do with egos.

Goldman bought back his script for several million dollars and obviously was able to make it. He says that it was the best money he had ever spent.

I'm with you. Fuck Hollywood. It doesn't make sense to go bootlicking in LA LA land when it is run by a bunch of ego-maniacs that don't give two shits about making a good movie.

Piper said...

Oh, and good luck on your film. I'll be looking for it here or on youtube

lucas said...

that film-a-thon idea sounds rather insanely ambitious, but valuable. i'm pretty sure it's beyond my scope and abilities

re: the script. i had matt pull it down a month or so ago, partly because it's in the process of being overhauled into something more focused and, i think, much better. but i am going to get it registered when i get to a later draft than the 2nd draft that's currently on my computer.

thanks, piper,

i'm sure i'll be pimping it here as much as possible, so if you keep reading it'll be impossible to miss

Moviezzz said...

"I see little reason you couldn't make a lot of films for under $30-40k"

Excellent point. I've been thinking a lot about this lately.

Not too long ago, I was sent a DVD for review at my site by an independent filmmaker. I watched it, liked it, then listened to the commentary, and was shocked that the budget was around $300. It was shot on DV, and the only cost was the tapes. They had made a couple films this way.

The problem with a lot of filmmakers, they only think of Sundance as the end result. They figure they will get a film in the fest, it will get a distribution deal, and then it will make them famous. That is rarely the case. Even if they do get in the fest.

But for small filmmakers, making them for low budgets, releasing them via direct to DVD, they can improve their craft, have something to show investors, and make a name for themselves.

Even Andrew Bujalski, who had a hit with MUTUAL APPRECIATION last year, was going to DIY route. I bought a DVD of that film from his website before he had a distribution deal.

But then you have Steven Soderbergh. His BUBBLE had the look of a no-budget film, shot on DV, no name cast, existing locations, yet somehow the budget was over a million dollars (probably all going to his salary for slumming). Hollywood congratulated him for that, but I think it made most true independent filmmakers sick.

johanna said...

...but I think it made most true independent filmmakers sick.

possibly, but I doubt it. It takes money to make a film look the way you want it to--not necessarily a mil or so, but money. The fact is that that's still a pretty small budget and that if you're referring to people who make movies on a budget of say less than a year's median salary, then you're probably talking about people who for the most part understand that these larger-budget indie films give people jobs, whether they're good or not.

Some of the best indie filmmakers today got their start as a misc. crew-member on the set of some all-but-forgotten film and many times, that filmmaker got better, too. Also, you're dealing with a faction of people who in their quest for independence probably don't pay attention to such things...either way, probably the only people getting sick are the whiners and perhaps a few in need of some good friends with workable ideas.

I noticed a recurring theme at the ind. spirit awards that backs up a lot of what Lucas and this Sujewa fellow are laying down, which is the theme of self-reliance (there's even a link on his sidebar to a "self-reliant filmmaking" log that looked kind of interesting). It seemed to me that the clear message being sent out at the awards show echoed a lot of what I've been reading--that independent filmmaking is totally possible, but that it takes a certain amount of an ability to work on your own as well as an ability to lay that independence aside and heave to when it's time to play ball, lest you lose sight of your goal.

johanna said...


there's a lot to be said for seeing what's possible and what's not and focusing only on what is.

lucas said...

"independent filmmaking is totally possible, but that it takes a certain amount of an ability to work on your own as well as an ability to lay that independence aside and heave to when it's time to play ball, lest you lose sight of your goal."

i like to think of it as a correlary (sp?) to the Linklater/Soderberg model, that every so often you have to work on stuff that's bigger than just you, in order to make other stuff possible.

but, to really survive, you have to be able to shoot a film with a crew of one and make it work no matter what...no excuses, no nothing.

i'd like to see the zero-budget films have more of an opportunity to flourish apart from the "OMG, I hope we get picked up by Focus" mentality because the more viable that tiny little corner of the market is, the greater our chances of finding one of our next great filmmakers. Plus, you look at a film like Detour (1945), made in like 6 days by a studio. It's a better film because it's so cheap. There's a lot of interesting things a creative soul is forced to do when they don't have any money to throw at a problem, stuff they never would have considered otherwise

johanna said...

stuff...like a film-a-thon?
...ok, just teasing.

I guess I'm not as aware of the "OMG, I hope we get picked up by Focus" mentality as you, but it sounds like a rut to me.

I like Detour a lot, but it had a decent budget, according to Answer.com of about $117,000. I'm assuming that's in 1945 dollars, not 2007. I guess it stands out because studios spent so much more money on films in those days?

Maybe that's really where it's at, though--people just perceive that they need money to make a film because of precedence. As for the rest, I agree with you, but I'm not sure what you have in mind when you say you'd like to see zero-budget films flourish. How so?

lucas said...

of course, by "zero budget" i mean something under, say, $50k.

right now, in order to make any money on a zero budget film, you have to be more lucky than good (although, you do still have to be good), which makes it harder to raise the money in the first place.

but, if the zero budget film became almost like a genre, if people embraced could embrace the limitations, it would do wonders for film at all levels. just think of all the talented people we'd discover--directors, dp's, actors, etc.

you see it a little in these YouTube things that get picked up, but that doesn't work nearly as well for, say, dramas than it does for comedies and short series and anything under 5 minutes.

johanna said...

i haven't been paying much attention to the YouTube thing other than your stuff and this neat thing a prof showed me called "Communist Manifestoon" (look it up if you're in a Marxian kind of mood) even though I have an account. I really like the idea of a zero budget film (I would embrace...)

It seems a likely idea because if people were forced into being creative through limited funds then the genre would be less likely to be tainted with poor content and gain a reputation like, say, public access tv. But already YouTube has a teetering reputation--not as bad as MySpace but possibly going in that direction.

What do you think?

lucas said...

i think overcoming that reputation is the hardest part, by far.

films like Primer help some, but i think it would be very interesting to get some name directors and make them work on a shoestring, just to see what they could come up with.

of course, that will never happen.

but that would do a lot to change public perception, which is easily the most important step at this point in time. (that, and figuring out how to increase the quality level overall, but Hollywood has that same problem...)

johanna said...

You're probably accurate about the shoestring budget thing, but if you consider that Soderberg made sex, likes, and videotape for about $1.2 mil in '89 and that he's made Bubble for about the same now, it's not completely inconceivable that a trend might emerge.

We probably shouldn't keep our fingers crossed, but it's entirely possible that filmmakers of a certain disposition might start saying, "Hey, remember when we shot a film for only this much..?"

I've really been looking more to the documentary lately, even while I'm working on my short fiction stuff. It's a different thing because grant writing, while not the easiest thing, ain't the hardest thing either and there are more readily available and researchable alternatives to going broke making a film, especially if it's about something important.

I only wish I could afford to hire a cinematographer.

johanna said...

...because, no matter how important it is to be able to operate as a one person crew, when you're trying to be a journalist and a cinematographer at once, it can really be hard to get good results. And the last thing you want to do is waste interviewees' time or use it to anything less than the best possible end...

One of these days, I'll find my partner.

lucas said...

i've found as much as it seems like documentaries should be more easily manageable as a one-man crew, they really aren't.

even the ones i've done have had a lot of help in organization and various other things, and i've almost always had someone else asking the questions (well, actually about 50/50, but you have to have a subject who's willing to give you time)

johanna said...

yeah, i did one interview with this guy in Butte where I put the cam on my tripod and jost rolled from one angle while I sat in a chair, and I hated every second of it...and since he was a photographer, I could tell he wasn't too thrilled, either. but he was cool.

i've been thinking a lot about left and right brain in my writing--how sometimes, I'll just keep writing even though I'm not necessarily inspired and that it seems that the more I drive with the left hemisphere, the more the right shows up and wants to get in on the action...

but that's just too much in a doc--you've already got the same problem with the cam as you do with writing--you gotta use both hemispheres at once, and you gotta do the same with the interviews to keep them both logical and interesting (and to keep the subject relaxed and talking freely)

so somewhere, some aspect will always suffer.

to get back to the diy stuff a moment, though, I remember reading in some mag (MovieMaking?) back in I think 2001, just before I started taking classes at Filmmakers, and it ladled out the steps to getting your film produced--starting with the registered script, getting bonded or bondable actors and even a basic distribution scheme in mind, all before you took your script to a potential producer, indie or not...

Were you thinking of taking on the whole process when you wrote this? Because finding 10 people or so to invest pocket money in a film is one thing, but finding a producer with contacts who's willing to at least match you in the process is something else.

johanna said...

I wasn't able to find that article in MoveMaker's archives, but if you run a search on their site, you'll come across some interesting ads.

Zzizzl films that might be worth a closer look.

The Sujewa said...

Hey Lucas,

Nice post. This info that I am about to share is probably not new to you, but for other readers, here it is:

It is definitely possible to make well reviewed "no" budget movies that indie theater programmers & paying audience members dig. I have done it (less than $10K for my Date Number One), Joe Swanberg has done it a couple of times (with Kissing On The Mouth & LOL, both under $5K each I am pretty sure), and Aaron Katz has done it (Dance Party, USA, about $1500 - $3K, off the top of my head). That's just 3 people that I know about. I am sure there are dozens, if not hundreds, who have done a similar thing.

Also, it is possible to make real money through self-distribution. Two examples:
Lance Weiler/The Last Broadcast - over 4 million dollars in revenue since 1998.
Gene Cajayon (sp?)/The Debut - over 1 million dollars of revenue from a 20 month theatrical self-distribution tour.

Also Angry Filmmaker Kelley Baker tours all year long with his films. I believe that is his FT job these days.

More on all that at my blog:

- Sujewa

The Sujewa said...

& re: the quality of Date Number One. here is what some people whose opinion i respect have said about the movie (of course you'll be able to see it for youself this month Lucas):

"The film is about as charming as they come...presents a world in which cultures don't clash, they mesh. It's refreshing to see characters who all appear to have a natural optimism, as opposed to the typical indie-film predilection for bitterness and cruelty. " - Michael Tully, Rotterdam & SXSW film festivals selected filmmaker & indieWIRE blogger

"I found the characters and the premise sexy, sexy, sexy."
- Jerry Brewington, Hollywood Is Talking blog, on Story 2 of Date Number One

"...witty...often inventive...and, even better, airy: characters are given time and space to spell out their views...views that never bear the artificial markings of a Hollywood screenwriter's compulsion to reduce them to sound-bites."
- David Hudson, Editor, GreenCine Daily blog

"FIVE really entertaining, fully realized romantic interludes...a shamefully rare achievement" - Tom Kipp, Seattle audience member, former film reviewer for Seattle alternative weekly The Stranger

"Heartfelt...poignant...I loved it!"
- Jon Moritsugu, award winning filmmaker

"Date Number One is quite funny...twentysomethings and occasional thirtysomethings looking for romance recall Richard Linklater's philosopher slackers and Jim Jarmusch's minimalist attention to conversation...also a subtle, thoughtful film...might be understood as the anti-Crash depiction of life in the city...depicts a comfortably multi-ethnic community...I'd happily recommend it."
- Chuck Tryon, media professor & blogger, The Chutry Experiment blog

- & Thanks for letting me promote the film here Lucas.

- Sujewa

icanbeafrogifyouwantmetobeafrog said...

I think you might be interested in this guy..


Makes films (usually around 45 minutes) with no-budget; literally, $0. Borrowed cameras (utilizing, he says, a jazz dv151.. which is a $20 DV camera), borrowed friends/girlfriends's laptops, and uses nothing but freeware programs like VirtualDub and Windows Movie Maker to edit his films. He also uses mspaint and sound recorder. They are all quite brilliant. They are grainy and pixelated at times, but that just adds to the surreal qualities. He wears his no-budget roots with pride, even naming a series of films THE NO TRILOGY. brilliant stuff, some of the shots he gets are mindblowing and all of his stuff is interesting and inspiring at the least.

Anamitra Roy said...

Hello, it's good to read you Mr. Mcnelly...I'm a student of film studies master degree in Jadavpur University, Kolkata, India and will be visiting your blog regularly for
contents of my thesis paper on no-budget film making. Actually, I'm preparing a dissertation on no-budget. I guess, you have no objections on this purpose. Except you, I'm acquainted with the names like Michael.W.Dean, Mark.E.Greene and Ian Mccormick as individual no-budget or community film makers. Can you provide me with some more informations? Can you enlighten me about the Kino movement? I'm looking forward to apply for M.Phil and even for Ph.D on no-budget film making.In this current project my tentative chapter division is:

1. No-budget Filmmaking in Film History
2. Emergence of DV Technology and Changes Occured Due to the Shift
3. The 3rd World Scenario

Total 12000 words and your suggestions are always welcome...

Except these, I'm a Kolkata based no-budget film maker. Me and my friends have made 5 short films and released those on DVDs (self-distribution of course)within 15000 INR i.e $323.55 (US)[as no-budget as that] and already we've got back 50% of our investments. We run a blog too. http://littlefisheatbigfish.blogspot.com/
If you pay a visit sometime that will be our pleasure.....

thank you Best Regards

Ben Green Films said...

Great blog! It gives me some inspiration to see someone else in the trenches

Mike said...

Check out Oblivion. It's a web series about punks, mods and rockers. Mike Cuenca LITERALLY gets it made with ZERO budget. Absolutely no money. Pretty damn impressive.