Back to IndieWire

How to Make Your First Feature Film for $5,000

How to Make Your First Feature Film for $5,000

Back in the early ’90s, making a movie for $5,000 was the stuff of legend. Nowadays, that number is practical. My first feature, “The Great Intervention,” was shot and edited for just that. Here’s how I did it.


1. From the moment you start writing the script, be realistic.

I won’t get in to how to come up with your story idea (I did that here), but when you write the actual script keep your scenes and location simple. Really simple. As in, scenes with no more than three or four people that take place in a location that you can access for free. Do not think you can pay for a location. You can’t afford it.

2. Rent – don’t buy – your camera.
Technology is changing rapidly. In fact, The Singularity is coming. But until that time, don’t spend your budget money on a fancy camera in the hopes of selling it afterward. By the time you’re done, the camera will be worth half as much. (That said, there are some incredible SLR cameras that shoot HD and retail for $500-$600 that might be worth owning.) But you can also rent a camera package. Or find a cameraperson with equipment on Craigslist. Hell, maybe you should just shoot your first film on an iPhone .

3. Pay your (small) crew.
At your level, interns are unreliable. Friends can be enlisted of course, but you should have your cameraperson on the payroll. AND the sound guy; these positions are crucial. At least $100 a day; more, if they bring their own equipment. Try to avoid getting into fancy lighting packages. It’s incredible what these new cameras can do with so little light.

4. Have the actors supply most wardrobe and props.  
Actors have a TON of clothes. Many of them love the opportunity to get into their character. And in any case, a wardrobe master is beyond your budget. Have them bring a bunch of outfits and select from that.

5. Sign on to the SAG Ultra Low Budget Agreement.
This allows you to use professional actors for $100 a day – a bargain that will make sure your film is actually good.

6. Get production insurance.

This is tied in to item 5 and will be a small chunk of your budget. (You can’t hire SAG actors without the proper insurance coverage.) However, this also has the potential to give you access to locations; people feel better when they see that they won’t he held liable.

7. Don’t write music into your film unless you have explicit permission or own it.
The Rolling Stones are not going to allow you to use “Gimme Shelter,” period. Find local bands to do your music and/or a music student to do your score. Since I am a musician, I used my own music for my movie. If you have those skills, great – use them. If not, there are plenty of hungry musicians who will lend you their song, and many composers who will work for free or cheap to compose your movie. Look around at your local schools and music clubs.

8. Edit the film yourself.
Some of you are saying, “But I’ve always heard it’s better if someone else cuts your movie!” Nonsense. First of all, you don’t have the budget to hire a professional editor. Second, editing software is cheaper and easier to use than ever. This is your first film! LEARN. Be sure to get feedback from others – and perhaps you may be able to find someone to give it a so-called “final tweak” inexpensively, but try and follow the script and assemble most of the film yourself.

9. Keep the hours short, the shooting days few and the food delicious.
By keeping locations and cast size realistic, you can do this. Plan for no more than 10 days. Try to keep your days to eight hours – 10 maximum. Be professional and keep things running on time. And reward everyone with nice hot meals and yummy snacks. It’s amazing what M&Ms can do for morale.

Stephen Moramarco is an actor, director, writer and musician. He recently finished his first film, The Great Intervention, which will premiere in Los Angeles at the Downtown Independent Sept. 26. He is also the leader of Los Angeles’ only surviving Soul/Punk/Swing band, The Abe Lincoln Story.

This Article is related to: Uncategorized


Comments

jake Olsen

This is the best article I’ve ever read about this, and I’ve read dozens.

Dennis Daryl Shamblin

Need help getting funding. My novel Surviving Bigfoot and the Dixie Mafia
needs to be adapted to a killer screenplay. This will cost about 25k. For an
additional 175k I can make a great movie.

Aisha

This is great information. Thanks

rg miller

I been making films since 1979, everything he listed is correct, you got to be willing to just do it, and stop thinking about “doing everything hollywood style” I have made over 50 films, and for me it’s not about being in the spotlight, the world has never known about my films and maybe never will, but do I care? NOPE!! I love what I do! I just finish 3 films this year, secret Apollo, The FILM, The Ancient Mummy, and I am working on a script Title: Sycbo; The THULE WARS a blood and sword film, the way I buget and finanace & make money, for my films is not the “hollywood way” I don’t follow them…I do it my own way…R.G.

The Film, R.G. productions’s live action,photo,puppets http://studios.amazon.com/movies/8991?ref=twitter via @Amazon_Studios

http://youtu.be/Y7dcpC5_2vU

http://youtu.be/-BvAuaaLewo

Jerry Lentz

Dang! Today was like xmas on indieWIRE with two treats like Nayan Padrai’s, “Why We Call It DIRECT DISTRIBUTION Instead Of DIY” and this sweet stocking stuffer from Stephen Moramarco… Last few months I find myself printing out more and more articles from IW to put in my “binder of filmmaking knowledge.” I saved money on the binder with “back to school” sales, but I should’ve bought more. My binder is almost full! Well done, indieWIRE People!

Stephen Moramarco

I will admit my film The Great Intervention is somewhat unique. I wrote it in to the script that the filmmakers are supposed to be inept, so I didn’t need/want to do color correcting, and I used non-filmmaking friends to handle the camera to add to that feel. Also, I am a musician, and since the film is essentially a riff on my own life, I was able to use my own music for almost all of the film.

On top of that, I was an editor of wedding video highlights for a few years, editing an almost non-stop stream of weddings. It taught me to work fast, and really find the perfect moments – believe me, wedding videos have to be *perfect.*

But just because I physically edited the movie myself doesn’t mean I didn’t take any input to the final product. As I worked on cuts I got fantastic notes from people whose opinion I trust, which really helped out. As a matter of fact, I just re-edited the beginning of the film, thanks to some recent comments.

Mario Troncoso

This is very nice but I agree that you are not a good editor yourself, you need to find someone that it. If you are paying cast and crew, why not paying for local freelance editor? Post-production technology is cheap and user friendly but it is also overrated. It’s the editor’s eye, not the tool that matters.

Thanks for inspiring article and good luck with your film.

Frank Casanova

Having made two features for under $10K…all the above is correct. Even more so, Matt is totally on point about sound. It could be said that the soundtrack is even MORE important than the pictures. It’s what sells the pictures, but few filmmakers pay much attention to this…or understand it. And then there is the part about what you do with the movie after you’ve made it. But that’s for another day.

Matt Terry

Having made a feature film for $3,000 (“Daylight Saving Time”) and produced two more feature films both made for approximately $300 a piece (and one “Senior Prom” had its World Premiere at the 2010 Seattle International Film Festival) – I’ll toss in my two cents. I agree with #1 whole heartedly. As for #2 (renting a camera) – I purchased my equipment ($1,700 of the $3,000 budget). I used an Canon HV20 for my feature and for the subsequent two films. It’s a great camera you can buy used on Ebay for less than $500. #3 I had very little crew and they worked for food. I’ll roll #4, #5 and #6 into one. I cast the film using professional and non-professional actors. Since my shoot covered more than a dozen speaking roles and no one was the “star” – I didn’t feel I had to pay people – and they knew this UP FRONT. Don’t say you’re going to pay and then…don’t. Local actor databases will allow you to post production notices so you can be up front in the beginning. As for insurance…this was something I considered but, due to lack of budget…did not purchase. Probably should have. #7 – YES, DO NOT USE COPYRIGHT MUSIC. I ran into this problem when I chose to shoot karaoke scenes using songs. Lucky for me my son is a musician (and also a fantastic editor) and he wrote and performed all the music. On one of the films I produced, we found some great songs in the public domain and put those in the film and they worked perfectly. #8 – as I said, my son is an editor and he helped me with the more complicated scenes. I agree with the comment above that it took some time for me to find some distance (good honest comments from trusted friends/film-makers does help) but I feel compelled to do most of the editing myself. #9 Whole-heartedly agree. The longest shoot day for my film was 8 hours and I did that…once. Most shots took approximately 4 to 6 hours. Being organized and communicating well is where this comes in handy. Lastly, I would add a #10. INVEST IN GOOD SOUND EQUIPMENT (or rent it). As much as buying a camera was great for me, sound has been pain in my neck on all three shoots. People will forgive a quick shot that is out-of-focus, they will not forgive sound that makes their ears bleed. I would say that 90% of our post production on the three films has been sound related. I haven’t updated the site recently – but here’s the website for my film: http://www.dstmovie.com

Zak Forsman

I think it’s still worth your time to find an editor to collaborate with. A director with a vision is great. A director cutting his or her own movie with “tunnel vision” is not. Often a director has memories and intentions attached to footage that is simply not there for the viewer. You need someone to pass the mantle of objectivity to.

PETE

There’s no way you make a $5,000 movie if you pay $100 each day to each department head. The shooting would have to take place in a single day, two day maximum.

John Burton

Has the author of this piece actually put his advice into practice? If you pay your actors $100 a day, then assuming your cast includes no more than three people and by some miracle you pull a ten-day shoot without requiring pickups or ADR, you’re already talking about $3,000–not counting taxes, a security deposit payable to SAG, or the 17% required to contribution to the SAG pension and healthcare fund. How exactly will you rent a camera with the remaining pennies? Much less hire a sound guy and a DP, get insured, and have any kind of post production process?

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *