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Making Films on the Cheap & Appreciating Them: Possible or Taboo? (Filmmaker & Audience Survey)

Making Films on the Cheap & Appreciating Them: Possible or Taboo? (Filmmaker & Audience Survey)

I’ve been engaged in an email exchange with a reader who’s also a filmmaker currently in pre-production on a no-budget/lo-budget feature film he plans to shoot in the late summer. Our exchange prompted the question in the title of this post.

First, after getting his permission to do so, here’s a snip of a longer email he sent me this morning, which I thought was at the heart of the matter: “… A problem here is that there are a lot of filmmakers who do have these ideas about films not capable of being made for less than certain amounts, like 6 figures. There are those who’ve bought into a system of how a film should be made and for how much that’s dominant right now, and who won’t even consider the possibility that you really can make a film for very little money. You just have to be savvy with your scripting. I’m working on a feature right now and when I tell some people how much I’m going to make it for, they turn their noses up, and don’t want to be any part of it, because in their heads, if it’s not a 6 or 7 figure budget, then it must not be good or worth their time. There’s this mindset that a lot of us have which we need to shake.”

The budget for this filmmaker’s feature film is around $35,000. 

In the past, I’ve brought up for discussion the idea that making a film doesn’t necessarily have to be a super-expensive endeavor, ultimately hoping to encourage those starry-eyed filmmakers (certainly not all) to rethink their allegiance to Hollywood’s conspicuous spending model.

Partly inspired by the above filmmaker’s comments, I’d like to conduct a filmmaker and audience survey: my question to all you filmmakers and audiences reading this is really to respond to what “John” said above. For filmmakers, how cheaply do you think you could make a feature-length film? Of course, it goes without saying that it’ll be a feature film you’re proud of, is technically and creatively sound, made by a skilled team – enough that you’ll enthusiastically submit it to film festivals, and also to distributors, for acquisition consideration; or that you’d even self-distribute. Take a look at all the feature-length scripts you’ve written (or all the ideas you have yet to put on paper) on your hard drive, that you’re hoping you can make into films some day, only if you are able to raise the necessary funds. Now, looking at all of them, how much cash would you need to get any one of them produced? What is the least amount of money you think you’d require to get this hypothetical film made? Is there a figure in your head that you believe is (or should be) an absolute minimum when it comes to feature film budgets, regardless of all other factors? 

And for the audience, does a film’s budget (if you know it) affect how you react to it, before you even see it? Do you find yourself dismissing films when you discover how cheaply they were made for, assuming that, because of how low their budgets are, they must not be very good?

Yes, I know it’s not such a black and white matter, and really, you could make a film for as little or as much as you want. And with connections, relationships with above- or below-the-line talent, resources and smarts, you could reduce the costs of, or even eliminate several line items.

And obviously it depends on the script as well.

I can think of several films made for less than $100,000 that went on to do well, relative to budget. Barry Jenkins’ “Medicine for Melancholy” is just one of many examples.

But indulge me here folks… is “John” correct in saying that there is a mindset amongst filmmakers who’ve, as he states, bought into a system influenced by Hollywood’s spending habits, and have come to believe that making a good film means spending lots and lots of money, and the idea of making a film on the cheap is taboo, no matter what? And also, are audiences and even financiers (whether individual wealthy people, or Kickstarter contributors) scuffing at films with no/lo-budgets?

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Leon Raymond Mitchell

You can make a film for super low budgets but everything will suffer and I mean everything. $100,000 to $200,000 is as low as you might want to go cause at those amounts you have access to Union Talent and permits and crew talent and then they will believe in your vision or journey to ride with you. Better talent means better eye balls better distributor and before all that it starts with the Script!

Joe Smith

At first I bought into the notion that I simply could not make anything worth watching below mid to high six figures. Fast forward, I’d be happy with a few hundred to buy lunch for the cast. The reality is, regardless of how good your script is and that’s after you’ve gone back and taken out all the car chase scenes or anything that requires someone who has knowledge about it to help, you still have to find someone interested enough to finance it. Unless of course you’re fortunate enough to crowd-fund it. Bottom line, the bottom line gets lower and lower and no matter how many things you want to blow up in your film like Michael Bay, you can’t even afford a couple of smoke bombs. Damn you Michael Bay.

Dean Marshall

Budgets are very important, but so is the power of persuasion.


Shane Carruth, did Primer and Upstream Color, right here in DFW for the same or less budgets. Both considered classics and Sundance darlings.. Available on Netflix now…. Stop tripping, start creating ….


The reason why even indies feel the need to spend 100,000 on a feature (or even 10,000 which is still an astronomically large sum) is because audiences demand certain production values because they don’t see anything other than Hollywood cinema and TV. If you start cutting your teeth on good American indies outside of genres and stop caring if there’s an occasional out of focus shot or bad sound bit (or ffs, even appreciating them) maybe we can stop getting stupid movies that cost 60K and only have med. c/u shot reverse shots and start getting normal people all over the world making films to represent their unique experiences outside of the traditional narrative moviemaking methods and structures. Proof-positive is a filmmaker like Jon Jost, who produces a feature a year and makes them all for under $1000. See Speaking Directly and if you have a heart and a brain you’ll understand why cinema not only doesn’t have to cost seven-figures, but that it fucking shouldn’t unless it’s gonna have Raid 2 levels of mayhem.


Hold on Colin Bemis, the proofs in the pudding. Nobody said a film can’t be shot for peanuts. And excuse me, no harm intended, but "Strawberry Flavored Plastic" smells like the title of a porn flick. Hey, don’t get me wrong, some people love porn but how are you going to show us what you’re working with (the finished product) so we can be the judge of cheap? Good? Shue-fly?

Colin Bemis

I’m two days away from wrapping my first feature film, titled "Strawberry Flavored Plastic," that I shot for literally less than half of what the filmmaker mentioned above. It’s totally doable. It’s about writing a script within the confines of ability, utilizing every talented person you’ve ever met, calling in every favor, and caring about those working for you. The minuscule budget that we’ve made this film for included 30 locations, 50 extras, 40 speaking roles, and two round trip tickets from L.A. to N.Y. This was done by being crafty, maximizing a 19 day shooting schedule, and getting everyone involved in the legs of the journey and the power of the film. So kudos; you don’t need endless money. You need know-how and you need to care.

Walter H Gavin

You know what they say…"garbage in garbage out." At every level talent/people costs. And film is a collaborative medium. If it’s a narrative film one is going to need actors, a location(s), equipment and crew. So the filmmaker can’t do everything him or herself. The audience is conditioned to expect a certain look and quality if they go into a theater or turn on their TV. People are being conditioned to accept lesser than quality product that comes to them via computers or mobile devices which mask certain technical imperfections. The bottom-line…is it an interesting, compelling story well-told? The packaging is as important as the content. If the package that the content is in falls apart or fails to meet the expectations of the audience then the content will be ignored. There is no substitution for talent and creativity, and a big part of that talent and creativity happens at the level of the script and then securing the necessary financing to bring that vision to life.


***EDIT "can’t comment on budgets…"


I haven’t studied the producing side of filmmaking that well, so I can’t provide on budgets with authority. I will say that the lower the budget, the more creative you have to be. If your project has major buzz/heat, positive word-of-mouth than the low budget could in turn be a major sexy marketing feature (e.g. Blair Witch Project).


Christopher Nolan’s first film, Following had a budget of approximately $50,000. Barry Jenkins Medicine for Melancholy was about the same. Darren Aronofsky’s first film, Pi, had a $60,000 budget. All three are fine films. Talent counts more than budget. A good movie is a good movie.


Speaking strictly for myself, in my history of watching films, generally, in most cases, a film’s "low budgets" spoke so loudly, I could not enjoy nor appreciate the film. That said, I am reminded of another S&A post on a related subject… "What Are You Willing To Forgive When It Comes To No-Budget/Lo-Budget Films?". At that post the reader IGBO said something on the order of "what does budget got to do with it?" Here, check it out–> "The reason why films are not compelling rarely hinges on the technical execution, but rather the story, dialog and the performances, which are less impacted by a film’s budget." Hmmmmmm? Okay, that’s a valid argument. Then, a filmmaker voiced his view… "I’ve made some short films, as well as a feature film (roughly 8 years ago) which I’ve already talked about on this blog. It’s not great, but it’s not horrible either. It is what it is. I never had any delusions that the film would get me into some coveted Hollywood club – after all, I made it for under $5,000!" – Tambay Obenson. Hey, who knew Tambay was/is a filmmaker? I thought he only sold dreams and advertisement. **smirk** Anyway, going back to where I stand on this issue as a part of the audience, well, listen. Cheap? low budget? taboo? **shrugging shoulders?** It’s all in the eyes of the beholder, imo. I am suggesting that I look at every single film, whether studio or indie, low budget or no-udget, through the same lens. Hell, how do I do it any differently? How do I tell my natural senses to turn off? Lets say I am watching a film and the sound quality is terrible, which jacks my movie watching experience. Do I tell my ears to "disregard that horrible sound b/c the director’s money was funny"? Huh- can I do that? Can I tell my eyes and ears to disregard that man who’s stumbling over his lines and sweating like a nervous greased pig, all because the budget didn’t allow for extended rehearsal time or a more seasoned actor. A filmmaker can do as he or she pleases, however, I haven’t seen a "low budget" film in which I would recommend. If you jack with any part of my film watching experience (b/c of budget issues), it’s likely another love TKO.

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