Filming on a budget: What you can afford to scrimp on

Published on in Advice / Tips & Tricks

A version of this article appears on Audio Network.

Budgeting is an art of equilibrium; you make decisions and concessions and you minimize damage. When you’re making a low-budget movie, some of these decisions can be very hard.

Yet you must never lose focus on what matters most: the quality of the work you wish your audience to see. Here’s our guide to cutting budgets in a smart way.

Cast

Pro: If you went to film school or come from theater, chances are that you are friends with some actors who would be open to working with you for a very low fee. You can agree on an expenses-based payment or include your thespians in the list of producers who benefit from profit shares. A good idea, in this case, is to write roles specifically for people you know.

Con: Most actors who live in big cities and are not theater or TV regulars are constantly in some kind of financial uncertainty, and adding to those uncertainties would lower the general morale of your crew. On top of that, if you want a star to join and raise your film’s prestige, you will also be required to pay for it. Unless, of course, a star falls in love with your project and they are happy to go near pro bono for you.

Camera and equipment

Pro: If you still have your film school contacts or come from other crew departments such as editing or lighting, you will likely be able to use up some favors when it comes to borrowing or renting equipment.

Con: State-of-the-art cameras and VFX tools, not to mention sound studios, come at a price and unless you can incorporate a DIY style into your project’s image, it is often one of those things you just can’t cut back on.

Location

Pro: Shooting inside a real house for example, as opposed to building a set, can be very good news for your budget, and the same stands for some less popular public spaces (no, we don’t mean Trafalgar Square). Even leading Hollywood practitioners cheat when it comes to location scouting, and are happy to go for whatever is cheaper and available. Check out how Spielberg took to shooting Munich in Budapest, whether a scene was supposed to be taking place in Paris, Munich or Rome.

Con: Of course, if you insist on using historical or iconic locations, you will likely have to pay their due price. If you want the Colosseum in the background, you will either have to build it, animate it or rent it. A good idea again is to write while keeping your budget limits in mind.

Kevin Smith's Clerks, made for under $30k

Marketing

Pro: Going grassroots and relying on social media can build a strong following for your movie, although it can sometimes end up being far from enough. Also, if you are picked up by a distributor early on, marketing will not be your problem.

Con: However good your movie is, if people don’t know about it, they won’t watch it. So this might be an area where it is a good idea to splash some cash and hope that ticket sales will make it worth your while.

Your own salary

Whether you’re an indie director or a well-known name enamored with a niche project, it is quite okay to decline being paid for your work — consider this the ultimate sacrifice at the altar of art.

If you can afford to do so without causing serious problems in terms of rent, student loan or family responsibilities, it is, in fact, a noble act and looks good for PR too. 

Five superb movies made on a budget

  1. The Blair Witch Project (1999) – Forget those special effects: a great idea, a script full of twists and some harrowing visuals are enough to scare the bejesus out of your audience! The Blair Witch Project cost only  $60,000 to make.
  2. Following (1998) – Christopher Nolan's legendary first feature had a budget of only $6,000. A perfect example to prove how the right concept can always get you started.
  3. Pi (1998) – Another big start, Pi was Darren Aronofsky's first, exploring the question of how much of your sanity would you give up to be a genius. Its budget was as low as $68,000. 
  4. Clerks (1994) – One of our favorite 'no-budget' movies, Kevin Smith's boisterous Clerks redefined the indie genre and set the counterculture mood for the following decade. Funny, dirty, cheap – it was made on a ($27,575 ) budget.
  5. Strings (2012) – A recent British indie darling, the young Rob Savage's BIFA winning, uber-romantic Strings was made on a shoestring indeed, costing a mere ‎£3,000 to make. 

So, what's your excuse?

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