Raising financing for an indie film can be incredibly hard in today’s market given the fact that there is so much competition out there. There are literally thousands of independent films seeking financing every single month and nfortunately not always the best films are the ones that get financed. I’ve seen some very low quality films get made because of clever kickstarter campaigns and some great ideas never see the light of day because they weren’t able to effectively create and follow a fundraising plan. For these reasons and others, the idea of shooting a film on a credit card budget has become appealing to some filmmakers. While there are some big risks associated with doing this (particularly you are personally on the hook if your movie doesn’t sell), there are also some huge benefits. The biggest being that you don’t need to wait to go out and shoot. If you have an idea that is workable on a small budget and a credit card or two, you have the power to go out and make your film – even if it’s a risky move. And you certainly wouldn’t be the first person to do it. The most famous credit card film of all time is probably Kevin Smith’s ‘Clerks’, which was done for $27K on a number of Smith’s own credit cards. That budget is pretty remarkable when you consider they were shooting film at that time. Today getting the same result would be possible on half of that budget (or probably less) because of the availability of equipment and resources at low costs.
So if you’re itching to go out and make a self-financed feature and willing to take a gamble on yourself, read on. Below I’ll outline ten tips for shooting on a credit card budget, and keep in mind that many of these concepts apply to any micro budget film regardless of how the financing was raised. These tips are not only here to help you get the most out of your small budget, but also to help mitigate your risk.
#1 – Write A Story With Minimal Characters and Locations
Unless you’ve already written a script with a no-budget approach in mind, you’ll want to write (or re-write) a script from the ground up to match the constraints of your budget. The first mistake many filmmakers make when dealing with smaller budgets is writing an ambitious script without the financing to back it up. And I’m not just talking about explosions and chase scenes. I’m talking about simple things like location and characters, which you absolutely need to keep to a minimum when dealing with such a low budget. Even if your actors are working for free and your locations are being donated, it will still cost you more money to have more people/locations. You’ll be feeding more bodies, spending more time/gas traveling to different locations, taking longer to schedule the shoot, and generally not working as efficiently as possible. If you write a script that is meant to be shot on a low budget and that keeps your cast and locations to a minimum, you’ll be in a good place.
#2 – Use Locations You Have Access To
Locations are the number one line item that I’ve overspent on in the past and for no good reason, as some of the best locations I’ve ever used didn’t cost anything. You might be surprised to find out how many locations you can legitimately get for free. Some cities/towns don’t charge money for location permits, so if your film is mostly shot outdoors then you should look into this. For interiors, think about writing your script around locations you already have access to. If you have a friend with a really cool looking bathroom for your bathroom scene, then use it. Just be careful not to only use locations out of convenience. If that bathroom doesn’t look good on camera, you’re probably better off writing the scene in a way that takes place in another location that you do have access to and that does look good. Locations can make your film look like it had a lot of production value if you choose the right ones, so be sure to keep that in mind and even write your script around good locations that you already have to make things easier on yourself. If all else fails, shoot guerrilla style!
#3 – Keep The Budget Under $10K
I personally feel that $10K should be the limit if you’re taking on the budget yourself. If you follow the steps on this list, there’s no reason why you shouldn’t be able to shoot your film for under $10K. And if you need more than that, you can always raise the funds another way, whether it be through private investment, crowd funding, or otherwise, but don’t take on more than this yourself. The bottom line is you don’t want to get stuck with a massive tab at the end of the shoot and no way to make your money back. A film shot on a $10K budget is probably going to have the same production value as one shot for $30K, so why spend the extra money? It’s just going to be that much harder to recoup your costs. You’re better off finding creative ways of keeping your budget down.
#4 – Develop Marketing Strategy Very Early On
Before you even write your film, one of the first things you need to do is develop a marketing strategy. Figure out how you’re going to make your money back. Is it through online/self-distribution? VOD? Selling to foreign markets? There are hundreds of ways to make money from your film, but if you don’t plan out how to do it early on then you won’t make any. Typically genre films are easier to sell, so you might consider writing a horror/thriller/sci-fi, but you don’t necessarily need to. You also want to develop a fan base early on, so make sure to start gaining a social media presence from the get go. This will help you in so many ways, and will prove invaluable as you’re trying to get the word out on your film from a grass roots level.
#5 – Save Money For Post/Marketing
All filmmakers at one point make the mistake of putting too much money into production and not leaving enough over for post-production and marketing. Even if you’re like me and you edit your own films, you still need a post budget. You need music, color, sound design, and possibly effects work, and even if you call in some favors you’ll still need some budget to cover this. And remember that audio is 50% of your film, so if you skimp out on post audio, it will really show. Having that extra budget saved for marketing is just as important. Festival submissions alone are really expensive – it’s not uncommon to spend $1000 submitting to 10 – 12 festivals, plus the cost of your DVD’s, mail outs, travel, etc. The point is your costs don’t end once production is finished, and the costs that come afterwards can often be more rigid, so make sure you budget accordingly.
#6 – Work With A Skeleton Crew
This will be a no-brainer for any of you that have already shot with a skeleton crew as the benefits are tremendous. Firstly you’ll save money by having less people to pay every day, as once again even if they are volunteering, you’ll still save money by paying for less food/gas for everyone which can add up very quickly. You’ll also be a lot lighter on your feet so you should be able to work much more quickly and improvise when needed, allowing you to get shots you wouldn’t have otherwise been able to get when working with a larger crew. Just be careful that your crew isn’t too small, as you do need enough hands on set to keep things moving. I think a 5 – 7 person crew is the sweet spot, and if you have 5 – 7 people that are really great at what they do, you’ll be in a great position. On some b-roll days you can go down to 2 – 3 and on specialty days 10 – 12 if needed, but try to keep crew to a minimum whenever possible.
#7 – Hire Non-Union Actors
Many of the best actors out there are part of unions like SAG, but that doesn’t mean that there aren’t extremely talented non-union actors out there too. Going through a union will increase your budget immensely as there are union fees, higher rates for your actors, and time restrictions on how long you can shoot. On such a low budget, you definitely want to avoid any unexpected costs including overtime fees, and going non-union will certainly help your cause. Don’t get discouraged by this though, as you can find really good talent if you just look for it. From my experience, some of the best actors I’ve worked with were non-union – although I had to look a lot harder to find them. As long as you’re willing to put in the time to audition as many people as needed (it may be several hundred or even thousand), you’ll get the right people. At the end of the day no one will care if your actors are SAG members or not if they’re good, so just get the right people.
#8 – Get Your Gear For Free
You may already have a 5D kicking around the house, or know a friend that has one. Don’t feel that you need the latest and greatest camera to make your movie shine. Plenty of great films have been shot on DSLR’s or other consumer level cameras and have looked great. It all comes down to the talent of the DP, and a good DP can make a mediocre camera look fantastic. The same goes with other gear – lighting, rigs, grip gear, etc. You don’t need to spend a lot of money on this. If you’re shooting mainly exteriors, you may be able to get away with mainly shooting in natural light and just using bounce boards/negative fill. And for interiors use some practicals and cheap solutions like china balls which look beautiful on camera. You really don’t need to spend a lot on gear to make it look good, just get inexpensive tools that suit your needs and be creative with it.
#9 – Plan Your Meals
For one reason or another, I’ve found that spending money on lunch had often been my most problematic budget item. Almost always the food expense ends up being higher than you think it will be and it can really be a silent killer of your budget as it’s something a lot of filmmakers don’t think about. That said, as long as you plan things out you’ll be okay. Know in advance if anyone on set has allergies or food preferences, otherwise you’ll be scrambling to buy 10 different meals at lunch time and your cost will go way up. Pizza is fine for a couple of your shooting days, but your crew should be fed well so don’t do this every day. If it comes down to it, make something the night before – pasta, salad, etc. and bring out some boxed/bagged stuff for the craft table. Always know what everyone on set is eating for lunch and exactly how much you need, otherwise you may end up spending way too much money on food. It wouldn’t be unrealistic to spend $2k – $3k on food alone for 10 people (cast and crew), and that’s 20%-30% of your budget, so be careful!
#10 – Spend Extra Time In Prep and Post
One of the keys to getting away with working with a micro-budget, is putting extra value into the things that don’t cost you money – namely prep and certain aspects of post-production. If you spend an extra month writing your script, that doesn’t cost you anything. It just makes your story stronger and your dialogue better. Similarly if you spend extra time in prep looking for your locations, cast, and other elements it will show on the screen, and none of this needs to cost you anything. The same goes for post-production. While some of your costs can’t be stretched out (your editor, sound designer, etc.), that doesn’t mean you can’t take extra time on it yourself. Taking time away from your project can be tremendously valuable, so don’t be afraid to take a week or two away from it if you need to and then come back with notes. It doesn’t cost you anything to take a bit longer in prep and post, and the benefits to your film will be huge.
Shooting a film on a credit card can be scary, after all it’s your own money on the line. While there is a big risk involved in going down this path, it can also be a good thing for you as a filmmaker, creatively speaking. Some of the parameters that initially feel constricting (for example having to write fewer characters/locations into your script), will actually be liberating in the long run. It’s a good thing to have limitations when you’re working creatively and as long as you embrace all of these limitations then they can become strengths for your film. They will challenge you to think outside of the box and come up with solutions and ideas that you would have never had if you weren’t following the same guidelines.
Most importantly though enjoy the process and it will show on the screen. Be sure to hire actors and crew that are as passionate about the project as you are, and always maintain a positive outlook as things can get difficult at points.
If you haven’t yet started your next script, be sure to check out my article on Writing Better Characters Into Your Screenplay.
Here’s a trailer for one of my own credit card films. A project I shot late last year and am re-cutting currently: