Prolific indie producer Jennifer Westin has three low-budget features being released in 2014, including "The Big Ask," "Mutual Friends" and "Dead Within." Below, in a guest post for Indiewire, Westin provides advice for aspiring and first-time producers working on a micro-budget feature.
10 Tips for Successfully Producing a Micro-Budget Feature
1. Make sure the script is written as a micro-budget feature.
That the script must be excellent is a given. You can’t make a good movie from a mediocre script. But if you’re intending to shoot a micro-budget movie, you also need a script that works with — rather than fights — your budgetary constraints. Of course that means avoid car chases, tons of VFX and period pieces. Moreover, think about where your film fits in the marketplace. Don’t make a $200K version of a studio romantic comedy – you won’t have the star power or marketing budget to compete with "Valentine’s Day." "Mutual Friends," for example, is an ensemble romantic comedy, but the tone fits squarely in the indie genre – it’s honest, awkwardly real and specific where four-quadrant movies must be broad.
2. Have a "home base" location during production.
When you’re filming, much time is lost to loading in and wrapping out. When you need to shoot 5, 6, 7, or even 8 (yikes!) pages a day, you will rue the time your crew spends lugging c-stands up a four story walk-up. Write one primary location into the script. Somewhere you can shoot (for free) for perhaps half of your shoot days. The shoot days spent here will be walk-aways. You can pre-light. If you’re lucky, you can even use this spot during prep as your production office/rehearsal space/wardrobe and art staging.
3. Open it up.
I’m going to contradict what I just said, but even with a home base, you can’t have the whole movie take place at just one location or it will look micro-budget and feel visually stagnant. I definitely advocate for a home base location, but you’ve also got to get out and about as much as possible. On "The Big Ask," we were lucky because, filming in the desert, the backyard of our home base was an endless expanse of open terrain, including ravines and mountains. And being in a rural area, we were able to gain access to tremendous locations including bars, hotels and, of course, Joshua Tree National Park (which offers the strangest moonscape any filmmaker could hope for). On "Mutual Friends," we shot in NYC. While securing interior locations was tricky, for exteriors, the city was our oyster. We did walk and talks through Riverside Park, shot scenes (with minimal dialogue) in the hustle and bustle of Chinatown on Canal St. (Note: I completely broke this rule on "Dead Within," but the entire premise of the movie relies on one location: apocalypse outside, our characters, trapped inside).
4. Shoot while locations are open.
It costs money to compensate a diner for shutting down during the breakfast shift so you can get your shot. Shoot while they’re open and they may not charge you a thing. Of course, you don’t have the same control as you do when you ‘own’ a location, and of course, this tip doesn’t work for every scene, but I’ve been shocked by how many times I’ve gotten away with this. On "Mutual Friends," in particular, we shot at a bakery, yoga studio, cafe, Asian goods emporium, and other locations, all while the businesses were operating normally. We got permission from the owners ahead of time to avoid problems, found a quiet spot on the day-of, and played out the scene with the actors lav’ed (with a mic on their person).
5. Cast matters. A lot.
There are certainly examples of tiny indie movies with no-name talent that came out of nowhere and catapulted to great success. Those movies are the exception. If you premiere at Cannes, you don’t necessarily need name actors to obtain distribution. But "premiere at Cannes" is not a great distribution strategy.
In the process of selling my four films, every single sales agent or distributor I spoke to asked one question first: "who’s in it?" When your marketing budget is close to $0, you need to rely on publicity, which is free (cost of the publicist aside). What generates publicity? Recognizable actors. Aim high. Get a good casting director. As with a $50 million budget, your cast is your insurance policy for your investors’ money.
6. There’s no excuse for bad production values.
In today’s world of $3,000 pro-sumer cameras which produce images that look shockingly good, there’s no excuse for a movie that looks like crap. People always come out of my work-in-progress screenings bowled over by how good/big/real the movie looks. If you’re going to go through the tremendous effort of making a feature, it had better look and feel like a "real" movie. That’s the minimum barrier to entry to be taken seriously professionally, and without that your movie simply will not be commercially viable. You don’t have to shoot on an Alexa (not once has a sales agent/distributor asked me what camera we used) but the finished product does need to look professional.
7. Make sure your cast and crew have worked at your budget level before.
When I first met fabulous DP Aaron Kovalchik, who shot "The Big Ask," we talked about the challenges of shooting the night exteriors in the middle of the desert. Aaron said, "Maybe we could rig a china ball onto a fishing pole." I fell in love. You need your team to consist of professionals who bring creativity, flexibility, and problem-solving skills. It may seem exciting to get a DP with high budget credits, but if they’ve never had to work without cushy toys or an IATSE crew, they (and you) will be in for a world of hurt. The same is true across all departments.
Bonus Tip: It’s easier to get your movie to look good than sound good but bad sound is the tell-tale of low budget films. Your resources are precious, but spend some of them on getting good sound – in production and post.
8. Figure out how your core filmmaking team will pay their bills while you make the movie.
Micro-budget filmmaking is not financially sustainable, but it does take quite a lot of time – often several years to take a feature from development through release You have to know going into the process how you’re going to pay your rent, and still have time to edit/do the festival circuit/market your film. "The Big Ask" co-director Rebecca Fishman, for example, plays Christine McVie in a Fleetwood Mac cover band (yes, awesome). Talk with members of your team so you can try to schedule your busy ‘money-work’ periods for different times, and pass the baton of the film back and forth.
9. Know what you can figure out on your own, and when you need to pay for an expert.
Micro-budgets are DIY by default – you can’t always (or even often) pay for others to do things so you Do It Yourself. I’m not a lawyer, but I do a lot of the legal work on my movies myself. I’ve developed a good folder of templates I can adapt to almost any situation. That said, when it came time to sell "The Big Ask," Tribeca Film had an in-house business affairs team as well as outside counsel. I needed to hire a lawyer.
10. Budget through release.
I cannot stress how important this is. It’s great to have a festival copy, but if you don’t have money to apply to festivals, it’s not going to do you much good. Likewise, if you get into a big festival, but don’t have money to transport you and your cast there and maybe even hire a publicist, you’ll be missing a major opportunity to attract publicity and thus buyers. And finally, even if you’ve got your distributor and they do a great job placing your film with iTunes and all the cable VOD providers, perhaps a few theaters (win!), but having a little kitty reserved for marketing can go a long way. Often the distributor doesn’t have the resources to do the grassroots marketing the filmmaking team can. With a little cash, you can send your director and lead actor on a book tour-type series of promotional screenings, or hire a social media guru to help manage your Twitter/Instagram/Tumblr feeds, or throw a couple hundred bucks into Facebook ads, all of which can translate into higher visibility and grosses for your film.
Bonus tip: Work with people you like. You’re not making money producing micro-budgets, so you’d better be having a great time.
Producer Jennifer Westin has three low-budget features coming out in 2014. The Big Ask is now out on iTunes and VOD and hits select theaters May 30th. Mutual Friends will be released July 1 and Dead Within comes out in September.
READ MORE: 10 More Things I Learned from My Failed Kickstarter Campaign