“The ideal low-budget movie is set in the present, with few sets, lots of interiors, only a couple speaking actors (none of them known), no major optional effects, no horses to feed. It’s no wonder so many beginning movie-makers set a bunch of not-yet-in-the-Guild teenagers loose in an old house and have some guy in a hockey mask go around and skewer them.”
–John Sayles, Thinking in Pictures
Doing research for a book proposal, I came across these stats:
• Amazon search-keywords: Hollywood Screenwriting: Yields 20 pages, 754 books.
• Amazon search-keywords: Low Budget Filmmaking: Yields 41 pages, 549 books.
There are 754 books available today to help screenwriters in their quest to “make it” in Hollywood. Also, 549 “how-to-go-low-budget” books show the A-to-Z method of making movies for no money. But… what about the space between these?
• Amazon search-keywords: Micro-Budget Screenwriting: Yields 1 book.
Mega-audience for screenwriting books. Mega-audience for “how-to” low-budget filmmaking books. But where’s the book targeted specifically for screenwriters who want to write and make low-budget movies? A book for the 50,000+ screenwriters who registered scripts with the Writer’s Guild last year, who are desperate to find alternate strategies for making their films? Or who, through advances in digital camera technologies and software, no longer have to wait for Hollywood’s approval? Where’s the book for writers who are moving not toward Hollywood, but away from it?
You’d think there would be more coverage here. There isn’t… for a reason. When you go online and search micro-budget screenwriting, soooooo much of the advice covers the same 5 or 10 bullet points. Hell, I’ve contributed a list like that myself.
How do we write a movie for the absolute lowest price possible without compromising the vision of the film?
Let’s expand out on some of those bullet-points with today’s Top 10 list… cue music, Paul…. how to write a micro-budget screenplay:
- MICRO-BUDGET= WHAT YOU CAN PULL FROM YOUR POCKET
There’s no definition for what micro-budget is. Elusive. The thousand bucks I pull out of my pocket might equal the hundred thousand bucks an angel financier pulls from theirs. If I’m reaching for a definition, micro-budget is whatever funding you can pull from your pocket, or the pockets of your family, or the pockets of every friend you ever had when you mail the personal email begging for cash during your 30-day Kickstarter campaign. Micro-budget is money you directly control, without strings. The “unlimited-budget-write-your-dream-first-draft” has no place here. You raised, or can raise, $25,000–you sure as shit better write the movie with that figure in mind.
- CONCEPT= GENRE + SIMPLICITY + VISION
Pre-dating Robert Rodriquez for the grand-daddy of Micro, for me, is Roger Corman. Look at his IMDB page: 408 Producer credits! Do you know of anyone who has more? His 56 Directing credits date back to 1955. And while Attack Of The Crab Monsters or Teenage Cave Man might not make AFI’s Top 100 movies of all-time, very few men can claim to have a “School” created from their aesthetic. Corman mentored and gave a start to many young film directors such as Ron Howard, Martin Scorsese and Peter Bogdanovich.[He helped launch the careers of actors Peter Fonda and Jack Nicholson.
His low-budget B-movies made sure the stories reached the largest number of people by telling it in a recognizable genre. Certain genres always work for Micro– horror, comedy, thriller, drama. Corman went one-step further, adding campy comedy to his horror, or thriller aspects to a drama. These were “mash-ups” of genre done with simplicity and for a price. After you make a hundred of these you would not only know how to bring these in for a price, but for what appeals to a younger audience. Remember, Corman’s “Piranha” was called the “Best film ever made about the Viet Nam War” by Variety. ” The man had the ability to infuse genre pieces with a vision specific enough to father the “Corman School”, predating digital D.I.Y. by 40+ years.
On genres, it’s probably safe to say you should stay away from period-pieces or post-Apocalyptic action. Anyone who’s seen Primer knows Sci-Fi can be done cheap. Robert Rodriguez made El Mariachi for the infamous $7,000 bucks so Action is also on the list. Look at Fede Alvarez, who wrote and directed the remake of Evil Dead. How did a young filmmaker from Uruguay get that gig? He made a short film (Panic Attack!) that looked like it was made for a million dollars… for $300! Based on that short film he got noticed and representation in Hollywood. That is how you play the game! Show the Hollywood gatekeepers you can make a high-quality commercial product dirt cheap.
- WRITE WHAT YOU HAVE= THE ROBERT RODRIGUEZ SCHOOL
Dude literally wrote the book on the subject. Predating the digital era, his advice of using what you have is more relevant today than ever. Locations, props, wardrobe– the goal is to pay for nothing. While unlikely you can get away with that goal for some expenses should try to never pay for a location. Take the resources you can bring and make an accounting. Dad owns a bowling alley? Set the movie in a bowling alley. Mom runs the local Salvation Army store? Guess the wardrobe and props will be coming from the Salvation Army. Friend owes you a favor who has a truck that can be shot or used for crew transport? Make the call! Beg, borrow, and steal. And this is only to start… time to flush the ego.
- CENTRAL LOCATION= FEWER COMPANY MOVES
For our micro-budget film Chat the director Boris Wexler managed to nail down the Board of Trade offices he worked at to be our cybersex chat offices. Amusing juxtaposition, thinking of what was happening in those conference rooms from Monday through Friday, and then what nastiness we were up to from Friday night until Monday 4 a.m. when we finally stopped shooting our marathon weekends. This location was worth at least $10,000 dollars (if we would have had to rent a similar space) and added tremendous production value. We shot here 10 of the 18 production and a pick up day.
You as writer need to understand the basics of film production. Sure, you can read twenty books on the subject, but wouldn’t it be better to get down on a film set or two? To understand that every new location you write= a crew move= $$$. The producer has to pay the crew to pack equipment into company trucks and vans, drive to the new location, and unpack. You want to limit the necessity of company moves.
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