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Last week while being interviewed on a podcast, I was asked: What’s the one piece of advice that you would give to a filmmaker making their first micro-budget feature?
The easy answer would be the one that everyone gives – Write something small, keep your locations limited, don’t focus on more than 3 main characters, build your story around your resources, etc.
There’s nothing wrong with that advice, but we’ve all heard it a thousand times before. So I wanted to share a slightly different perspective, and my answer essentially boiled down to the following:
Do something with your film that could never be done if you were fully funded.
When I first started to dabble in indie filmmaking, the metric of success was production value. Back then, there were no low budget RED cameras or 4K DSLRs (or iPhones for that matter) that could help you capture stunning production value without a lot of money.
Likewise, there were no YouTube channels teaching you how to light properly, or online blogs/forums teaching you how to capture great sound.
If you wanted Hollywood level production value, it meant shooting on film, spending a ton of money, and relying on industry pros to handle the technical production of your movie.
Eventually though, the technology started to evolve. Cameras started shooting in 24p. HD became a thing, and then 4K. Before we knew it, your phone or mirrorless camera from Best Buy could produce quality better than some $100K+ digital film cameras from years past.
This was obviously a huge turning point for independent filmmaking, but it also changed the name of the game.
For a brief period of time, whoever pushed the technology furthest won. If you could squeeze the most data out of your camera and replicate the “Hollywood” look while shooting on consumer gear, you were lauded by the industry.
It became less about substance, and more about what you could pull off technically.
Successful films in this period may have had issues with story or acting or narrative flow, but that didn’t matter – they looked like Hollywood movies and they were made for peanuts, and that alone helped them generate buzz and ultimately reach audiences.
But that moment in film history is now over, thanks to the explosion of advancements in technology and education that have completely democratized filmmaking.
Today, it’s easier than ever to make your film look like a “real movie” even without any real money.
For the most part, this is a great thing… The downside though, is that pulling it off is no longer special. Everyone can do it now, and it no longer helps you break through the way it once did. High production value is now the baseline.
Yet so many filmmakers seem to still make the false assumption that production value rules all. They spend so much time chasing the right cameras, lenses, lighting, and other gear to marginally improve production value, while often neglecting other aspects of the process.
Don’t get me wrong – I’m all about leveraging new technology to produce films with incredible production value an a budget. I’ve built an entire blog on teaching people do to just that.
But visual quality on a budget is no longer the novelty it once was. It might get you a few pats on the back from fellow filmmakers, but it’s not going to lead to breakthrough success in the industry – not on its own at least.
What will get you noticed however, is your unique vision and execution, should you produce something unexpected that no one has seen before.
That’s the angle that works for micro-budget films today, and perhaps the only angle that really counts.
Big budget films used to be able to do something that we couldn’t do – deliver a visual spectacle to the audience. Now that we’ve got that in the bag, we have to ask: What can small budget films do that big budget films can’t?
The answer is simple – They can explore ideas and themes that the studios are afraid of.
They can shed light on new topics, issues, characters, conflicts, that are too controversial for legacy production companies who always need to play everything safe.
In other words, they can take massive creative risks.
As micro-budget filmmakers, we can break every rule in the book if we want to, and venture out into uncharted waters. Big budget studio films literally can’t do this, no matter how much money they have. It’s the one thing that we can do that they can’t, and it gives us a massive competitive edge.
If we don’t leverage this opportunity to our benefit, we are completely missing the point.
It’s not about trying to make a blockbuster movie with no money, and somehow tricking people into thinking you had a higher budget than you did. That’s a gimmick, it’s been done, and no one seems to be impressed by that any more.
Instead, it’s about taking creative risks and crafting stories that aren’t derivate, but rather are wholly unique and break new ground in some way, shape or form.
The studios have proven to us that they are no longer capable of doing this.
Maybe it’s time for micro-budget indies to really leave a mark.