A few days ago I shared this thought on Twitter about micro-budget filmmaking:
Making a small film > Talking about making a big film
This sparked some interesting discussion, so I wanted to unpack the concept in more depth here today.
Two Schools Of Thought
When it comes to creative productivity, filmmakers seem to fall into one of two categories:
- I will bootstrap a movie as soon as possible, no matter how I do it
- I will wait for a big investment before I make my movie
There are valid arguments in favor of each approach.
On the one hand, why wait to make a movie when you have every tool and resource you need at your fingertips right now? You can make a micro-budget feature and actually create something meaningful that can reach audiences far and wide. The only one that has to say “yes” is you, so why not just get started?
On the other hand, filmmaking is a long game. It’s not just about the immediate satisfaction of creating something right now, but the long term body of work that you build. Is it better to take your time and create fewer, but perhaps larger projects?
You could make a case for both arguments on paper, but when you look at the implications of each approach, the writing is on the wall.
Waiting = Losing
Let me start with a caveat: There are obviously tons of incredible films that took years (or even decades) to get off the ground. Some projects need a long development period, and it’s ultimately worth it in the end. There is no denying that.
But if you are an emerging filmmaker today, dreams of big-budget projects in the future should never de-rail you from creating something smaller today.
Especially considering the micro-budget projects you can create right now are precisely what will lead you to the bigger budget realm.
If you have tunnel vision and are only willing to work on a project with X amount of funding, you may never make a movie. Virtually every filmmaker I knew at 20 years old who said they were going to wait for money until they make their debut feature is still waiting at 35. They’ll probably still be waiting at 50.
Meanwhile, countless others are quietly working away, making their films, honing their craft, building relationships, and paving the way for sustainable careers.
Money Flows To Those Who Create
Why would an investor or a studio head green-light a movie helmed by someone who has never made a notable film? They wouldn’t, and they don’t.
The bigger the budget of any given project, the more the gatekeepers must vet their creative team to all but ensure the project is a success… Even if that’s an impossible target.
Only by going small (sometimes extremely small) can you take the steps to build a body of work that is worthy of financing.
Micro-budget features allow you to experiment and fail. To find your voice and build a network of collaborators. Only once you’ve done this repeatedly will some financiers see you as a viable investment.
Why Filmmakers Are Scared Of Micro-Budgets
Despite the unprecedented ability filmmakers now have to make their own features, so few are actually doing it.
And it’s almost always due to the fear of failure.
Filmmakers have spent the majority of their lives reading about debut feature films from Steven Spielberg or Quentin Tarantino. They’ve fallen in love with the idea of a breakout first film that sets them up in the Hollywood system for good.
But these are the exceptions, not the rule. And if you’re basing any of your career plan on what happened to one filmmaker in 1975 or 1992, you are definitely not focusing on blazing your own path.
The vast majority of working filmmakers today did not debut with a smash hit.
They made a bunch of shorts or indie films, and eventually found their stride. Something took off and paved the way for larger projects, at which point they were deemed an “overnight success”.
Money Can’t Buy You a Good Film
Whether conscious of it or not, many filmmakers falsely believe that money will buy them a good film. But no amount of money can.
Money can only buy you production value and name talent, which in fairness is a lot. Those elements will of course boost your visibility and audience reach, but that doesn’t mean your movie will be any good.
If it were possible to simply budget your way to a great film, studios wouldn’t pour hundreds of millions of dollars into movies that ultimately flop both creatively and financially.
Yet filmmakers still fool themselves into waiting another 6 months or a year to see if that investor will call them back. Then they can make their movie the right way, and everyone will see how brilliant they are.
What Really Happens When You Make a Movie
No matter your budget, making a feature film is a humbling experience. Rarely does a film of any scope end up exactly how it was intended to.
Most filmmakers fall short (at least in their own eyes) in executing the entirety of their creative vision. Maybe the dialogue read better on the page than it sounded in the actors mouths. Or maybe the coverage didn’t work and the editing feels clunky.
Even if you do everything right, there is always room for error. And only by trying (and failing) can you learn what works and what doesn’t, and ultimately refine your own process moving forward.
I’ve never understood the desire to make a multi-million dollar film when you haven’t had experience making a no-budget or a micro-budget film. Without investors on the line, you can at least experiment without consequence.
This is always better than being on the hook for a bunch of money you will never pay back, which may well discourage you from creating anything again in the future.
If You Love To Make Art, You Will Make Art
The bottom line is this:
If you are an artist, you will make art.
The scope and the budget are completely irrelevant to you, as is profit – It doesn’t matter if your movie makes a million dollars, or none at all.
What you are seeking is not the outcome, or some external validation. Instead, it’s the joy and creative fulfillment that comes from expressing your own creativity. It sounds cliché, but it’s true.
If you are creating art for any reason other than to create art, you are usually doing it wrong.
Some filmmakers seem to understand this instinctively. They don’t sit around and wait to make movies, they just start. Sometimes they knock it out of the park on the first try, but more often it takes a few attempts before they get it right.
Despite any temporary setbacks, they keep creating because the experience of making the film is the most important part to them. If it were about money or ego, they would have quit long ago.
The Best Of Both Worlds
The great thing about filmmaking today is you don’t have to choose between these two paths. You can explore both simultaneously. In fact you should.
Developing a big budget movie that needs major financing takes a lot of time. Years or even decades. But it’s not full time work. It’s an email here and there. A meeting. Some revisions to the treatment or deck.
You can do all of this easily while you are actively making a micro-budget film. One that you can start making today, with the resources you already have at your disposal.
While some would find it trivial to go shoot a movie on their iPhone when they have a bigger project “in the works”, in reality the bigger film is completely dependent on the smaller one.
It is the truly independent, micro-budget, guerilla, scrappy movie that will give you the directorial chops and the body of work to actually have a chance of making your big budget epic one day.
The irony though, is after making a small movie you may never want to do it any differently.
What are your thoughts? Is micro-budget filmmaking for you? Leave a comment below!