Who’s ready to make a movie? Who has everything they need but financing? Funding is often the number one obstacle that filmmakers face, but we are here to help you keep costs low. If you have a clear vision and simple story, you don’t need all that much cash, after all.
There’s a lot to say about low-budget filmmaking, and we’ve already tackled some of it here and here. Below, you’ll find five more ideas for maximizing your movie-making dollars as an independent filmmaker.
1. Small cast
The fewer people you hire, the less money you will need for things that really don’t contribute to production value. A small cast inherently reduces budget for food, transportation, contingencies, and all the hidden costs of taking care of talent over multiple days away from home.
Go through your script and ask yourself if you really need each minor character, and when possible, cut or combine them. This is especially true for characters who only have a line or two of dialogue, as you have to pay substantially more for speaking roles than you do for background talent.
A small cast will also allow for more flexibility when searching for your lead. Supporting roles can be found through the local acting pool and people you know, but your star should have some charisma and marketability — which often comes with a higher price tag. Be careful not to overpay for a star though. Name recognition and social media followers are important, but being Instagram-famous doesn’t automatically translate to the ability to sell an independent film.
2. Leverage relationships
You probably don’t have to pay full price for everything. If you can leverage existing relationships you (or your cast and crew) have to negotiate lower prices on anything from food to gear rental, try it. Human connections with vendors and location owners can give you a chance to request a discount or barter. Offering a non-monetary substitute to make up the difference, such as a special thanks in the credits or some subtle product placement, shows that you appreciate the sacrifice you’re asking them to make.
And who knows? Your childhood friend might have an empty apartment that won’t be rented for another few months, which you could use as your production office. Your former coworker might simply be excited by the prospect of having a film crew in their house, and let you use the location for free. It never hurts to ask. Any given discount might not make much difference, but these are the kind of contributions that can add up.
3. Hometown pride
Los Angeles might be the home of the film industry, but it’s certainly not cheap to shoot here. Film crews are crowding the streets of LA, and locations that might be completely free elsewhere cost thousands of dollars in and around Hollywood. Don’t overlook the value of shooting in your hometown — a good number of your relationships for cast, crew, and cut-price services may already exist there. Parking, housing, production offices, and local crew are also likely to be cheaper.
Of course, that is not to say you won’t be spending extra money transporting and housing your out-of-town talent and department heads. You will, but with all the personal connections, lower cost of living, and possibly better tax incentives, it will still be more cost-effective than footing the bill for an LA shoot (and the headache that can accompany them).
If you grew up in a reasonably modern place where a film production coming to town would make headlines, you can save a lot of money and even raise PR visibility for your film. Every fish gets more attention in a small pond.
4. What about grants?
Speaking of hometowns, if your home state or country of origin has a local film commission, reach out. They may offer tax incentives and/or grants to attract productions to shoot, hire cast and crew, and purchase services locally. That said, applying for a grant is typically grueling work, so read the requirements carefully: if your film meets only one or two of the criteria, it’s probably best to look elsewhere.
Thankfully, many grants are not dependent on location. Rust Creek, for example, received the Women In Film Finishing Grant, which is awarded to films that are made by, for, or about women. Filmmaker Edd Benda made his documentary The Kids Table with support from the ACBLEF, a non-profit dedicated to the preservation of the game bridge. Pretty much every industry is looking to raise their profile through visual media, and if you think yours can raise awareness for desert wildlife or encourage travel to Rhode Island, then by all means make a case for it!
Support and sponsorship comes in all forms; even if an organization you desire to partner with doesn’t offer a grant specifically for film production, you may have a great idea to swap services that could result in mutual benefit.
5. Spend where spending is warranted
We understand that you are making a film for cheap. That doesn’t mean it should look cheap — especially if you intend to bring it to the market. Savvy filmmakers choose where those extra dollars will best serve the film, then stand by that choice with production decisions to support it.
Production value is about spending money where your film really demands it, and then cutting back on less important areas. The 2014 Tom Hardy relationship drama Locke centers on one long drive that involves a series of intense phone calls. Since the main selling points of the movie are the trip and the character intrigue, the production poured most of its $4 million budget into an all-star cast and a process trailer.
On the other hand, your particular priorities may not depend on high production value. If you’re set on a freeform, cinéma vérité style, you’ll want to prioritize what’s happening behind the camera: Glen Schultz spent ¼ of his $10,000 budget on food for the crew. Now that’s a happy set!
We hope this ignites your imagination around the making of your next film, whether it’s your first feature or your seventh. Every film is a minor miracle of logistics and creative mystique. Why should something as humdrum as money stand in the way?
Excellent advice. And food is SO important! I hired a new caterer for my last shoot, and she was so sweet and pitched me the most incredible meals. I wanted to give her a shot. I was ill and only eating simple food that I brought with me, so I had no idea until the 3rd day that the food was “terrible.” I was so upset to hear that because I wanted every single member of my crew to feel appreciated. So I apologized and ordered a lot of pizza. It’s funny because I always hear people say, “no pizza!” but that’s what helped me keep their morale up long enough to finish our last scene.