Micro-budget filmmaking is not for the faint of heart. You end up wearing multiple hats, taking on debt, asking friends to work for free, and toiling away on a project — likely for years — without seeing much (or any) monetary return on your investment. Not to mention it’s highly unlikely you’ll attach a star of any kind at this level, so getting press or festival attention for even a great film can be challenging.
It makes sense to raise a higher budget. You can attract the talent, get better camera and sound equipment, take care of your crew, and market the film at a higher level. It gives you a fighting chance.
Furthermore, with the advance of technology, more and more of these micro-budget features are being produced every year, and the argument has been made that the market is saturated. It’s not 1994 anymore, and the likelihood of having a Clerks experience at Sundance is far from realistic.
And yet many micro-budget filmmakers persist, and some find real value or career advancements through making their films.
Why? And how?
Choosing to make a micro-budget in the face of all these challenges requires nerve and a bit of foolhardiness, but it can also be a strategic move to further your career, especially if you know your goals from the get-go.
Let’s take a look at some reasons for why making a micro-budget could kick-start your filmmaking career as well as some tips to get started should you be up to the task.
Why make a micro-budget feature?
Making a film is the best way to learn how to be a filmmaker.
You can take classes and make shorts and daydream about what kind of feature director you’ll be, but the only way you’ll really know what it’s like to shoot a feature is to get in the ring. Get involved with all aspects of your film from lighting to sound to casting to editing to PR, and you’ve got a film school. Is it easy? No, but neither is school — and you’ll have a feature when you’re done.
More importantly, making a feature is the only way to know the stamina a full-length film requires. Until you’ve done it, you won’t know the decision fatigue that sets in as weeks go by or what it’s like to pump up a tired crew looking at you for direction again or what it’s like to repeatedly defend your vision. Making a feature requires you to step into being a bigger person, and a micro-budget could be an avenue to become that person faster.
Your feature film is your calling card.
Within your financial limitations you actually have a ton of creative freedom, so take this opportunity to begin establishing a voice and to tell the world where you want to go next.
If you want to direct, take some risks, broadcast your style, and demonstrate how well you work with actors. If you’re a DP, show off your skills. If you’re a writer, your dialogue will shine in a micro-budget.
There are so many people in this industry who talk enthusiastically about their dream projects but never make them. So, even coming up with a finished product is a good sign for future collaborators. With a micro-budget, you’re taking command and making your movie a reality. Will it be perfect? Of course not. But rising above the shortcomings of a lower budget and going for it is admirable and attractive.
Your film can act as a lightning rod for others who have a similar drive. As Amy Poehler said, “I want to be around people that do things. I don’t want to be around people anymore that judge or talk about what people do. I want to be around people that dream and support and do things.” Making a micro-budget feature puts you into direct conversation with others who are taking risks too.
Slow and steady builds a career.
Ultimately, as an indie filmmaker, you’re building a reputation and a career over time, and making a micro-budget could be a way to get started sooner rather than later. Hone your skills on your early, lower-risk projects, and each time you’ll improve, the budget will grow, and you’ll build your audience.
Sean Baker, who recently broke into more notoriety with The Florida Project and Tangerine, shot his first feature in 1996. “It was this desire to eventually get recognized,” he says about his persistence. “I just equate it to some kind of blind faith where I knew that at some point I would either amass enough of a collection of work where somebody would eventually recognize it, or I would have one that eventually hits.”
In a time where we don’t need the gatekeepers or huge amounts of money to make our films, we have a hand in our destiny. Not everyone is willing to put in the effort or time, but the talented filmmakers who do will find a place for their work if they keep going.
Some tips for getting started
Write for your resources.
Simplicity is your friend, and that starts at the script level. Write for what you have. Keep the cast and locations minimal. Where can you shoot for free or at low cost? What do you have or who do you know who might add interest to your story? When you look around your world, you may have access to more production value than you think.
Micro-budgets favor performance and story over technical aspects, so let authenticity work for you. Ask yourself what you have to offer this story. Is this film based on an experience you had? Bring your heart to the film so it rings true. Are you showing a community that the world hasn’t seen much on film? Do your research and present it in your own way. Are your friends great improvisers? Guide the group wisely and you could have a killer new indie comedy.
Magic in a micro-budget comes from a sense of honesty or surprise. At the very least, it does not come from mimicking larger scale movies. If you focus on story and writing around what you know and have access to – and if you’re willing to get creative – you could come up with something truly unique.
For a tiny shoot, keep it simple and streamlined.
Focus on practicality and efficiency. This isn’t the time for a heavy, high-maintenance camera. If people aren’t being paid much, then don’t plan out a lot of elaborate shots that take up valuable time and keep your generous actors and crew waiting around. Know what you need and show up to set with a plan in place so you can knock out the scene and keep moving.
Every film needs extensive pre-production, but it’s especially true for a micro-budget. Make your lighting simple (think: China ball) and plan for quick set-up and take down. And everyone says it because it’s true: if your sound is bad, nothing else matters. Again, solve as much of this before the shoot as possible and plan for things to go wrong.
Finally, this shouldn’t need to be said, but take care of your people. Bare minimum, have plenty of food and coffee to keep everyone going. If you foresee a burnout happening to your tiny crew after some hard days, don’t be afraid to schedule a momentary rest. Driving folks to the ground is no way to get your movie done. Make it fun, take care of your people, and your movie will reflect that.
Get creative with fundraising.
Outside of spending your own money, you’ll need to learn how to ask for it. Raising money is challenging, but we’re not talking millions. We’re talking thousands of dollars for a micro-budget if even that.
Crowdfunding (Seed & Spark, Kickstarter, Patreon, etc.) rewards the industrious, inventive, and friendly filmmaker. Creating content to share your vision and your work behind-the-scenes brings in an audience as well as financial support. And don’t forget that this is work. You’ll need to tap dance a little for your money by sharing your passion and making your campaign fun and informative — repeatedly.
Consider also working with smaller investments in a lower range than typical indie films, say $1,000. Involve these investors in exclusive behind-the-scenes content in a private part of your website or through email and invite them to parties with the cast and crew.
If you can, throw in your own money to jump-start your project and shoot sample footage as proof of concept. Show you’re serious, and others will start taking you seriously as well. Like it or not, raising money is an important stage of any film, so choose to make the most of it and you’ll be rewarded with the means to make your movie. And, like all aspects of filmmaking, you’ll get better the more you do it.
Making a micro-budget feature is not for everyone. It’s a long road paved with hard work and can be a lonely burden to carry from beginning to end, but if you’re savvy about your goals, there are diamonds to be found if you know what you’re looking for along the way.