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!
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Thanks for breaking it down like you did. A lot of people write off the microbudget method as “artsy” part time hobby filmmakers, but you put into words why it is a logical decision both financially as well as creatively.
Glad to hear it!
Hi Noam, Thanks for the interesting blog post. If you are starting out making micro-budget films using an iphone or android phone would you use the phones auto settings or adjust them to their manual settings. Are their apps that optimise your film when using a camera phone? Or are these things not too important when you are just starting out? Thanks
If possible, I would always recommend using Filmic Pro. That app will take your footage to the next level. Otherwise though, even the native iPhone/Android camera apps are pretty great. But I would avoid auto exposure and white balance which can be difficult to work around in post.
That’s a great post. I’m actually doing it, and the short documentary movie I’m auto-producing is now on the way for a TV documentary, the topic is interesting and it might be sold for a big gig. Little project bring the big ! 😀
Also, It was self destructing for me to wait, write and hope the producer will accept my job. Because the fear you explain, I was always able to re-write or just say : nahh it will never be good enough. Going on a shooting by myself, it didn’t made any money loss, it just bring myself the power to say : ohh it’s good content.
As an artist, make art, not prod’s doc !
So glad you enjoyed this, Florent! Great points, and appreciate you sharing your story.
More people should write about this. Thanks a lot for reminding why is it that we TRULY chose this path. Absolutely inspiring.
So glad it resonated with you!
Fascinating topic – something I have thought about a great deal. There’s certainly no one answer; I’m certainly guilty of waiting around when it comes to personal projects but when it comes to paid commercial work – I get myself into gear and make a film. No regrets there – but for personal work you have to be slightly more in tune with your soul and it’s here where I think many of us get stuck. It can be hard to detangle oneself from what it is we wish to say; that in itself is a very introspective process of stillness that embraces memory, trauma, emotion and (hopefully) wisdom.
It can take time I guess… but I feel that we all know inside when we’re ready to make that jump.
Thanks so much for your feedback, Naveed. Glad you enjoyed the piece.
In my opinion, filmmakers starting out today should do short films and use those to leverage funding from any source they can. Could be crowdfunding, equity crowdfunding, grants, friends, family, sponsorship… There is just so much professional quality content made these days that there simply isn’t a market for very micro-budget films UNLESS they are so zany that they go viral.
One example of “what works” is Jim Cummings. He made a feature film for 12k way back in 2010 and according to him it was awful and nobody saw it. Then years later he did the Thunder Road short film for 6k and used that to get the feature version financed (50k from his own salaries from commercials he booked via the film, 50k from his friend, 37k from Kickstarter, the rest from private investors) to the tune of 200k. If he had made another micro-budget feature with that 6k, I don’t think anybody would have heard of him.
You don’t need millions to make a successful feature film but you need SOME amount of money to have a shot.
I don’t think its that simple, look at filmmakers like Sean Baker, David Lowery, Safdie Brothers etc. who started off the small micro budget indie films.
In fact, I would argue that the “short to feature” pipeline is the exception rather than the rule, its very few filmmakers who get their break that way. Also, Cummings made lots of shorts, he didn’t make just one short after the feature while also working on other stuff, And if I may be at a liberty to say, Jim Cummings is still a nobody, at least compared to the names I have mentioned. Even Chazelle made a no budget feature before making Whiplash.
Yes, Sai – I agree that the more tried and true path (if there is such a thing) is to make a feature. It’s not the only way, but it can be the best for many.
This is a viable path, but in the example you mentioned Jim also won Sundance with his film. This type of exposure is rare for short films, so I typically don’t recommend following strategy that relies on festival performance, since that is out of your control. Although you can and should leverage festival success when it happens!