How NOT To Make a Microbudget Film

Last week’s post about why movies are so expensive got some interesting responses. The Burger King (probably a burger king, not the burger king) wrote–

Most of this is very true, but you are wrong in implying that independent filmmakers can’t make movies unless they have $98,000.

  1. Dead Hooker in a Trunk, $2500, sold to IFC Films
  2. El Mariachi, $7000, sold to Paramount Pictures
  3. Following, $6000, sold to Momentum Pictures

Those are just three dream scenario examples excluding all of the digital age directors who spent several years making no-budget films until they progressed to $98,000+ movies (Gareth Evans, Andrew Bujalski, Ti West, Adam Wingard, Mike Flanagan, many others).

If you want to make movies, go make movies. Not excuses.

J Steinmetz had this to say:

The price of payroll for skilled and talented folks is just that; professional people actually save the production money, by not wasting it and knowing how to spend it.

One may rent a room for a person to walk around in a white smock.

That does NOT make a physician. The patient is paying for the doctor’s knowledge and skill. An unskilled person may actually unintentionally kill the person.

There are films and TV programs made by unskilled people.
They are not watched, since they do not communicate, so they do not make any money.

And finally, regular commenter Marigrace said:

Oop! I hope TAPA didn’t just out themselves with that sly Indiegogo plug.

I’ll respond to the last comment first. Other Halves is a film that Crew Call producer Chris Henry sound designed. He asked me to plug their Indiegogo campaign, because they’re looking for finishing funds, and some of those funds are for Chris’s salary. He produced 26 episodes of Crew Call for free, so I figure I owe it to him to at least try to get him paid by someone.

And, to be honest, the trailer is pretty cool:

Chris’s experience on that movie is what inspired the previous post, in fact. The amount of money the producers are looking for struck me as laughably small, until Chris told me the total budget. It’s not quite as small as some of the budgets BK cited, but definitely less than a hundred grand.

But Chris also confirmed Steinmetz’s comment. The lack of experience in the crew caused slow downs on set more than once. Many of them were unpaid interns from Berkeley, in fact. (The movie was shot in San Francisco.)

I don’t know how well or how poorly things went on the sets of Following, El Mariachi,1 or Dead Hooker in a Trunk, but I can guarantee you that few, if any, people got paid on those shoots.

There is a trade off for both parties when it comes to free crew. For the crew, hopefully it means you’re gaining experience, or that ever elusive first credit. If you keep your eyes open and mouth shut,2 you’ll learn a lot.3

But are you learning the right things? Every set is different, but there are still good ways and bad ways to shoot a movie. A sleazy producer looking to exploit wide-eyed, wet-behind-the-ears film students so he can make a quick buck selling a shitty movie on the VOD market is probably not somebody whose habits you should pick up.

Which brings me to the trade off on the other side. It’s very difficult to make your first movie, whether as a producer or director. Nobody believes you can do it until you’ve already done it. It’s the worst kind of catch 22.

When you’re asking people to work for cheap or free, it should be because you believe so strongly in the project (the cast, the script, the director), you’ll do anything to make the movie. One simple measuring stick– is the producer getting paid? If so, then everyone should get paid.

If the producer is taking home half the budget (under the guise of his “production services company”), but the grips and ACs are working for $100/day, something is really wrong.

As a PA, these things are hard to know. My best advice is, after your first day, look everyone up on IMDb. See what their experiences are. If the DP has a bunch of camera assistant credits, that probably means she’s taking a pay cut in exchange for a promotion. That’s a good sign, because she’s read the script, knows the producers, and believes this film will be good for her career.

If, on the other hand, key people have no credits, or credits in entirely different departments, you might be working on a glorified student film.

Footnotes    (↩ returns to text)

  1. El Mariachi may be the least fair of these comparisons. I don’t know what the exchange rate was at the time, but seven thousands US dollars probably went a much longer way in Mexico in 1992 than it does in Los Angeles today.
  2. Except to ask questions. Even then, though, don’t ask too many questions.
  3. This is doubly true if you live outside of a major film market, like New York or Los Angeles. There probably aren’t a lot of films shot in the Berkeley area, so even a small budget film like Other Halves provides a unique opportunity for film students there.
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5 Responses

  1. I was on a plane once, and the people in front of me were talking about movies and how the most important part of the film experience was the sound and music. As someone who loves movies, but has no idea what it takes to make one, this intrigued me. I will have to look a little more into that, and see how that works.

  2. Wow. This is a subject close to my heart.

    Those examples of films – especially the old El Mariachi example, are the biggest shell-game ever.

    El Mariachi had hundreds of thousands of dollars put into it in post.

    I’ve been a producer in film since the 90s. I used to get the El Mariachi and Clerks thing all the time. Then, it was Blair Witch. People would hold those up and say, “see, you can do this!”

    People who believed that would raise every dime from friends and family and go out and shoot something. You know what happened in 98% of those instances? They lost everything and the movies either made no money or, more recently, were bought for pennies on the dollar by Netflix, Amazon, or some small distributor.

    Kevin Smith has made it clear that Clerks would not have seen the light of day today. Christine Vachon and Ted Hope have made it clear that the low-budget indie classics they did in the 90s would not make their money back today.

    I post-supervised a beautiful looking movie that was shot for $300K. They got tons of interest in Cannes, and the first question distributors would ask is “Is it important to make your money back?” Because they were offering anywhere near the $300K.

    Yes, the first movie shot on an iphone is out there now. I’m sure there will be some sci-fi thriller that makes millions that is shot on an Samsung Gallaxy and gets cut in some desktop app that gets bought for millions. The same as someone who buys a lottery ticket tomorrow will likely win. The odds are about the same.

    NOT saying don’t go out and make your movie If you want to shoot on your friend’s T-1, keep your costs down, few locations, direct and shoot it. Have your friends work on it with you. Use the money you were going to spend on a vacation. THAT is a good investment in your career and your art.

    Just don’t follow a model that depends on selling it to a major distributor. Don’t raise money and make your dream on the backs of others.

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