10 Tips for Successfully Producing a Micro-Budget Feature

10 Tips for Successfully Producing a Micro-Budget Feature

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).

READ MORE: 15 Tips on Making Your First Micro-Budget Feature

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.

READ MORE: “Cheap Thrills” Director E.L. Katz’s 12 Tips for First-Time Directors

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

This Article is related to: Filmmaker Toolkit and tagged , , ,


Comments

Tonya Traylor

Thank you for sharing this.
Lots of great points and advice.

Lisa

the word microbudget apparently means big fat budget these days. This is pure fantasy.

sam

we want make movie and need solition for stdueo satep next step sam

Richard Moss

Actually, the points made are very good and the three films from Jennifer Westin, certainly have the quality and finesse we all desire.

The thing I noted from reading this warning list is that it almost made it all seem too easy. But I disagree with the stylistic comments, the film will be as good as its combined talents allow it to be, whatever the genre, whtever the setting, and a single location story does not mean a low budget look no matter what. The single location story can be as tense and dramatic as anything else; 12 Angry Men, for instance.

sudhir

OUR BUDGET RS.25555 ONLY DO YOU HELP TO ME
THANKS

annu possible

Thats tips r grts.but i want to produce own budget..movie….i’m vry found of making movie….plz help me.

jimmy

Jennifer did a great job on this piece. Remember the piece was to inform the reader how a Low budget film is made and sold. Not made the cheapest way so it looks like crap and you cant sell it. As for a reader who said sell on line,Good Luck!

Kbland

Great article. And a lot of valid points. Especially regarding budgeting for a festival release. That’s the mistake we made on our first feature film BLEEDING ROSE. Although it got wonderful reviews, and picked up for distribution, it had no awareness. We thought the distributor would handle all the marketing and stuff, but when it comes to no-budget films, that’s just not the case. For our next project we will definitely budget for a festival run. Please feel free to check out our first feature at kallafilms.

tamara

Really great article, im from Georgia and we always have similar shoting plans,because in our country nobody want to spend money in a film industry. but sometimes we have more simply situation, i have some experience when i told location owners i havent money but i want and need this location for free they told me ok. i think our main professional skill is flexibility.

Tony Abulu

Jennifer’s points a on point. She may not be speaking to a neophyte film Producer, but for the slightly more experienced one capable of raising at least $200,000. Now for the up and coming filmmaker capable of raising $20,000, here’s what you do: (1) Make a list of the props, actors, locations that you can get for free! (2) Rent a 5D Sony Camera and plan to shoot for 7-10 days max. (3) Find someone who can cook basic food (Rice Chicken etc) for the 7 day shoot duration, (4) Write a script based on the above. (This how you know if you are genius screenwriter/ story teller (5) Find a great DP and beg them to tell you when they can be free to spare 1 week to shoot your film? Beg him that all you hae is $1,000(6) Do same for a good Editor. (7) Make sure to write a story that 1,000 people in your environment will go bunkers for, best bet, Comedy. (8) Once you take off in your community, they will in turn spread the word to another 5,000 people, that’s all you need to start a blossoming carrier in filmmaking. Enjoy!

In The Woods

I think that these tips were pretty useful. Disappointed in the obnoxious comments.

INdieweire

@Virginia – you do both, and tours aren’t an "old way"

@Matt – if you don’t have access to at least a 3k camera, what are you going to do to feed people? Nothing looks good under 1k unless it fits the style.

@Fred – I did this, everyone does this – what is your complaint? Figure out how you will attract an interesting cast/crew. If you can’t do that somehow, maybe your film idea is bad? Or maybe you are a defeatist?

This list is sound, having just shot a 30k film with known actors.

mike

I’m sorry, but this should not be an example. Yes, one of the example, but if we are really talking about micro to no budget, Shane Carruth already proved it with his Upstream Color and the way he distributed it. His strategy, work ethic, distribution technique should be studied and be used as an example, not this, which is as one of the commentator’s pointed, OUTDATED and not cheap the way it’s suggesting marketing. Nowadays there’s no excuse to not market and release your film on your own, with countless social media platforms available and with a little thought put into your marketing, can raise awareness for your film and also, various VOD platforms available to release your film your own way. This article I’m afraid is not a good example. "Musgo" by Gami Orbegoso is another example. It’s not a great film, but it’s amazing what a 700 dollar camera managed to look like. You don’t need a 3000 cam if your film looks that good and professional.

Ryan

Lots of hate in the comments here. Great article and great points. We got name actors for our first micro and it definitely made the difference in sales.

Its all possible, bit there’s no way you can do it whining about how you can’t. Meet people, find partners and make the thing. 20k or 200k, make your movie and get it put there.

As for paranormal, Blair witch etc. All rules have exceptions but the number of shitty looming indies that are produced and then seen by nobody each year is astronomical. Taking the contrarian point by mentioning some that used low production value to further the story as a counter point doesn’t devalue the benefit of good production values.

JSE

"… 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."

Really? Many of them are ancient history by now, but how do you account for the biggest successes of the indie medium if production values are so important? Why was "Blair Witch", "Once" or "Paranormal Activity" far more successful than Sundance-type relationship stuff or poverty porn with high production values? Even when material like Slacker, Clerks and Brothers McMullan emerged, there were plenty of well-produced 35mm films in the indie world which went nowhere.

And if audiences see production values which suggest Hollywood rather than garage-filmmaking, aren't they going to bring expectations to these movies which they can't fulfill?

What distinguishes indie film from Hollywood is in part production values. Reduce that difference too much, and you may be in trouble.

MTO

In addition to point#6, I would add the value of a professional, seasoned colorist to make your film look "big". If your rely on having someone color that's merely "just okay" at coloring, not superior, I guarantee you will not see all the production value that was put into your digital file by your DP & Crew.

Sara

What about stuff like e&o insurance? I heard minimum can be up $10,000. Isn't this a requirement for distributors?

fred

Your list is unrealistic, especially, PARTICULARLY point #5. Your piece would have had a *tad* more legitimacy if you'd at least SUGGESTED how in the heck anyone born and raised and living in Omaha, Nebraska is supposed to get any type of name actor in their FIRST TIME FEATURE WITH A 20,000 BUDGET.

6 out of 10 of your points apply to people in NYC or LA. Try again, please.

Matt

Some of us don't have 3,000 for a camera. How about an article that covers less expensive alternatives and how to get the best quality? And by less expensive I mean under 1,000.

Virginia

This is so outdated. Why would you waste money sending people on a book like tour when you can make triple the sales via online marketing than you could ever making doing a tour? Indie filmmakers really need to stop trying to do things the "old way" in this regard. It's funny, filmmakers abandon motion picture film which is one of the biggest contributors to the beauty of a film for "what's new" (i.e. money pit equipment) but still try to market and sell their films in an old archaic way.

Armak

Great article. New Orleans needs producers like you. The training has to come from somewhere; articles like this help but lack the efficacy of leading by example. It's a bit of a catch-22 for a nascent film community, really.

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