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Tips for Producing Low-Budget Films: Part 1
Whether you're a Youtube sensation with a retro super 8 or a Sundance bound film grad, learning how to cut film production costs will allow you to create the best film for the least amount of money.
In an era of $100 million dollar "average" films and quarter billion dollar blockbusters, how is a fledgling filmmaker supposed to make it in the film industry? After working on several independent, industrial, and thesis films, I have learned a thing or two about low-budget and micro-budget filmmaking.
The Importance of Low-Budget Filmmaking
There are two reasons why low-budget filmmaking is an important art to produce and to master: It gives you an industry foot in the door and it makes you a better filmmaker.
A Foot in the Door
Hollywood is actually a pretty small town with hundreds of thousands of artists hoping that the red carpet capital of the world will feel like an episode of Cheers—where everybody know your name. When you're on the outside looking in, it feels huge and you feel lost, but spend a little time in Tinseltown and you can hardly walk down the street without seeing someone you know.
They say that everyone on the planet is seven times removed from each other, but in the film world I believe that shrinks down to twice removed. Let me explain, name a filmmaker and I can guarantee you that I know someone who knows them. All you have to do is find the missing link, and you have access to the whole empire.
Your way in, if not traditionally hired on by a big studio, is to force your way in by doing what you do best. You have to prove that you can be a good steward of a $5,000 budget before any studio executive hands you a seven digit check for your mass market debut.
How do you force your way in with independent films?
The beauty of independent filmmaking is that there is no gatekeeper. Anyone with a working knowledge of film production can become a producer, find a script, pursue financing or self-finance, and greenlight their film. The only partial gatekeeper is in distribution—and there is no better time to be alive in terms of ease of distribution and options available.
What you need is exposure and this is done through entering contests, festivals, Netflix, itunes, Amazon, and independent distribution. When your film is a winner or a hit at key film festivals: Sundance, Cannes, New York, Boston, Palm Springs—your film is seen as viable and not produced by an amateur. Mingling at these events also gives you a chance to network.
Low-Budget Filmmaking Makes You a Better Filmmaker
What I like about low-budget filmmaking—and why I'll continue to do it, even after increasing mainstream success—is because it makes me a more creative filmmaker. Nothing is easy or handed to you on a silver platter—you have to think outside the box and get creative with your resources. You have to stick your neck out a little wider, asking for help in unlikely places, and asking for tons of favors.
The Trailer for "Unfamiliar Grounds," a Short Film I Wrote That is Nominated for A MMTB Best Picture Award. Currently showing in Bay Area Film Festivals and Pac
12 Angry Men
Tell a Character Driven Story
Maybe you can't afford Steven Spielberg's cinematographer or the Nolan brothers' next blockbuster script, but what you can control is the story. If you tell a great story, you can often squeak by with a thin budget, and still come out with a quality film.
As a low-budget filmmaker, you will soon discover that everything you do costs money—and lots of it. Location permits, costumes, lighting kits, and feeding your starving actors all drain your production account. By telling a character driven story, you can distract the audience from wanting scene changes.
Here are some films that keep production costs tight by telling a character driven story with very few location changes:
12 Angry Men
The entire film takes place in one room, with 12 men debating a court case. It is a riveting film that keeps the audience engaged with snappy dialogue and a unique character ensemble.
Keifer Sutherland gives an acting performance of a lifetime in this 63 minute quasi-short film. He plays a hitman who tells a priest about his murderous extracurricular activities. The tension builds as the morality of killing is confessed. 90% of the film is shot in a stained glass Catholic church, and the rest in short flashbacks. If you want to learn the art of intense dialogue, this film is not to be missed.
I'm always looking for a low-budget script with an interesting character to play.— Walter Koenig