The single biggest challenge that independent filmmakers face when embarking on a feature film project is raising funds. While there were certain eras – like the early 90’s – where it was a little easier to get an indie film financed, generally speaking fundraising has been the achilles heal for most filmmakers.
Even today as modern camera and production technology allows filmmakers to shoot on lower budget than ever before, raising capital hasn’t gotten any easier. In fact it’s gotten harder. A production that used to need a $1MM budget, might be able to shoot for $100K instead. But where is that $100K going to come from? Many investors aren’t interested in putting money into a $100K film, as larger budget productions often come with more star power and therefore more potential return on investment. Not to mention, ultra low budget films can be perceived as a riskier investment, even if that’s not actually the case.
So while films have gotten cheaper than ever to make, fundraising has gotten more difficult. This leaves many filmmakers with finished scripts but no finished products, as they’ve simply been unable to come up with enough money to make their movie.
But there is another way, and it’s a more viable option than ever – micro budget filmmaking.
When I refer to micro-budget, I’m talking about films that are either made with no money, or well under $50K. I would consider a $5000 feature a micro budget feature, just as I would consider a $40,000 feature to be one. There’s no exact amount that constitutes what “micro budget” is, but I’ve always defined it as whatever budget the filmmaker can pull together without outside resources.
It’s worth mentioning up front that I am certainly not going to make a blanket statement that micro budget filmmaking is right for everyone. It’s not an easy path to take, and the majority of feature films would benefit greatly from private equity investment, grants, studio support, pre-sales, or some other type of financial backing. But in some cases, less money is actually better from both a creative and logistical standpoint. It all depends on the needs of the project and your goals as a filmmaker.
Here are just some of the reasons why micro budget filmmaking can be so powerful:
Less Cooks In The Kitchen
Filmmaking by nature is a collaborative medium, which can be a blessing and a curse at the same time. Collaborating with the right people can unleash your creative potential, but when there are too many cooks in the kitchen, your film runs the risk of getting watered down to the point that it no longer has a central voice.
Let’s say you take $250,000 investment from 5 different investors. You now have 5 additional voices that may want to give you notes on your script, your casting choices, production, editorial choices, release strategy, and so on. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing if all 5 investors are on the same page and are all equally savvy when it comes to independent filmmaking. But what if you have 5 of investors that have no experience in the film industry? They hold the money (and therefore the power), and you will have no choice but to make creative compromises along the way that will inevitably have an affect on your final product.
There is a certain purity that comes along with micro budget filmmaking. It’s something that you can’t experience on any other level of production, even on ultra low budget films. This may or may not be a deal breaker for you, but if you are trying to make the type of film that pushes boundaries, experiments, takes risks, or breaks new ground in any way, you may be better off keeping your creative team as small as you can. Part of this means saying no to outside money.
Thinking Outside The Box
It’s been said many times that limitations are the ultimate keys to creativity. Whether you’re writing, shooting, editing, or working on any other part of the creative process – if you’re boxed into to a set of rules or limitations, your creative freedom will be unleashed.
This may seem counter intuitive as we all like to believe we are “thinking outside the box” at all times. But when there is no box to think outside of, your mind and ideas can wander endlessly and you will never come up with the most unique or original creative solutions. Having very little (or no money) is the ultimate limitation that can truly set your creative mind on fire.
If you have an unlimited budget, you could come up with a story idea that has every element you could ever imagine in it. Car chases, explosions, a huge cast, locations all over the world, etc. This might seem liberating, but it’s actually a terrible burden to carry. When there is no limit to what you can do, you will never be forced to challenge yourself to think of the most innovative and unique solutions. Rather than just writing in a car chase (which could be a cliché), you might be forced to write a completely different sequence that is far more original and interesting, all because you had no money.
This is why so many blockbuster films are awful to watch. Anything that can be thought of essentially can be achieved, but the filmmakers aren’t often forced to break away from cliché and try something new. Micro budget films on the other hand, force you to be more creative and less conventional – whether you like it or not.
Your Production Value May Be Higher
Ironically, many micro budget films can have higher production value than ultra-low and low budget films. This is usually because micro budget films are well aware of their limitations and use them to their benefit. With that said, there are plenty of poorly made micro budget features and plenty of excellent low budget films… But having no money doesn’t need to mean you have less production value. In fact, the opposite may be true.
Filmmakers that are dealing with modest budgets (let’s say $250K or so), will sometimes spend their money very inefficiently. This is especially the case with first time filmmakers that are used to working with practically no money at all. When $250K comes along, it feels like the sky is the limit, but in reality it’s very far from it. In film terms, $250K is still extremely low, and more often than not money will get spent on things that will never be seen on the screen: Unnecessary equipment, extra shoot days (that may not be warranted), trailers, more visual effects, etc.
Now I’m not saying you shouldn’t spend your budget on these things if you have the money to spend, but I’m simply pointing out the fact that in film, money is all relative. All that matters is what is on the screen, and if your $20,000 is stretched to look like a million dollar film, while a $250K film looks like it was shot for $250K, then which film has more inherent value?
The filmmaker with $250K might write in more “high production value” scenes, that are just barely achievable with their budget. This will mean elements like visual effects will likely look cheaper and actually take away from the film’s production value, instead of adding to it. On the other hand, the micro budget filmmaker would likely just write in a different scene in the first place that avoids the visual effects component. In the latter case, this will avoid having the film include cheap looking effects just because it was technically possible to achieve within the scope of the film.
You Own Everything
One of the great benefits of micro budget filmmaking is that you as the filmmaker own your final product outright. Assuming you’ve taken no outside investment and funded it with your own money, credit cards, bartering, or any other method you could think of – you are the sole owner of your product. This means when it’s time to sell your film, whatever money you make will go to you, the filmmaker, and you can use that money to make your next film. And if you lose any money, you don’t have investors chasing after you with pitch forks. You’ll learn your lesson, see what you could improve upon next time, and make sure you don’t make those same mistakes next time around.
Down the road, there will be a time and a place to take outside investments, and your number one business goal as a filmmaker at that point will be to pay your investors back. It’s just good business and it will lead to more investment in the future. But if you’re making a micro budget film with your own money, whatever investment you make (or lose) is on you, which can be liberating in many respects.
It goes without saying that certain stories need a lot of money and investment to be made properly, but if you’re reading this article, chances are you’re not making that kind of movie. At the end of the day, you need to find the right business strategy for your film, even if it means going at it alone and embracing the benefits of a micro budget production.