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Valentines Day 2005 was a key date in the history of the movie business. It was the day that Chad Hurley, Steve Chen and Jawed Karim registered the name youtube.com. See their registration on who.is.com. The movie business, and especially film distribution, has not been the same since.

The last ten years has seen a host of additional changes.

Digital technology has made it possible for films to be shot and edited (even with dazzling special effects) for minuscule budgets. Entire feature length films can be made for the cost of the catering budget in a traditionally funded and produced industry movie.

The Blair Witch Project and Paranormal Activity demonstrated how the internet could be used to market a film using viral marketing techniques, techniques that were in their infancy in 1999. Orin Pelli’s Paranormal Activity also used a viral campaign, this time financed by Paramount, to turn a small ”no Budget” movie into a runaway box office success.

What are the opportunities in this new world of movies?

Firstly, independent fimmakers can make films much more cost effectively than the majors. Secondly, because the budgets are relatively modest, independent filmmakers can afford to make a movie that fails (unlike the majors). And finally, in this brave new movie world, everyone wants in – the studios want in, the websites want in, traditional TV want in, the gamers and app builders want in, the big banks, the big brands and hedge funds want in. Everyone wants in. The studios and distributors, websites and television broadcasters all have the hardware to play movies. What they lack is the software – the movies. And if you are able to make compelling content, you will make money.

Let me show you ten ways to make compelling content for next to nothing.

1. The Story Is Everything

Nothing glues you to the screen more than a good story. If the story is there, does one really care about the budget of the film?

Stories and screenplays have four main elements:

Firstly, your story must have characters with a specific goal. A specific goal is one that can be measured, so at a point in time we can see whether or not the character achieves or fails to achieve the goal. For example, if your character’s goal is to move out of London – this is a weak goal. We all want to leave London. It’s dirty, expensive and increasingly dangerous. But if the goal of your character is to leave London by noon tomorrow, or else… then we have a goal that is easily measured.

Secondly, your story has a setting. The setting can be usual or unusual.

Thirdly, there are the Actions of the main characters and finally what they say, or Dialogue.

The trick of a good storyteller is to weave these four elements together so the seams do not show. When a writer achieves this, we say they have mastered the craft of storytelling. But not necessarily the art of storytelling.

Lo To No Budget Filmmaking2. Location Location Location

There are two expensive components to a film shoot. Image capture (camera) and the locations.

Moving a cast and crew from location to location is time consuming, and expensive, regardless of your budget.

If you can reduce the amount of location moves, or eliminate them altogether, then you are a huge step closer to reducing your budget.

Locations in this scenario suddenly have a huge impact on the script. To learn how, we need only to look at some of the most interesting films of the last few decades: Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs, Kevin Smith’s Clerks, Spike Lee’s She’s Gotta Have It , Orin Pelli’s Paranormal Activity and George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead. These films have one thing in common: limited locations. In fact, they would each make excellent stage plays. The trick, it seems, is to take a bunch of actors to a limited location and chop them up. When you do this, you will essentially be filming a stage play. But a stage play filmed as a stage play is boring. Turn your limited location script (which is essentially a stage play) into a movie successfully, and you will have, what the moguls in Hollywood call, Talent.

3. Image Capture

Choosing the camera that suits your script and your budget is simpler than ever before. Most likely you will be shooting on a digital camera. Two elements of any camera you should look out for are: compression and lenses. Remember that all digital cameras generate the same signal. What influences the image quality are the lenses you film through and the numbers of pixels per frame (compression).

Since the shooting of the Sundance sensation, Tangerine, shooting on cell phones is becoming commonplace. We've been championing cell phones as cameras since the early days of 2004 when we created the 15 Second Shorts competion with our partner Nokia.

The ultimate no budget camera trick is use a little known fact of British law: security camera footage can be recovered if you have been the victim of a crime. The UK is covered in security cameras, some private and some publically owned. By law, if you suffer a crime, the police will request a copy of the tape from the camera owner.

Recce the CCTV cameras in your neighbourhood, write a screenplay, re-enact a series of ’crimes’ and presto – you will have your movie shot – for absolutely nothing.

4. Sound

It isn’t the look of skin on skin that turns you on in a sex scene. It’s the sound of skin on skin. Professional filmmakers spend much of their time considering and creating the sounds that go with their pictures.

It is a fact too that our brains are wired in such a way that when we need to strain to hear what the actors are saying, the picture goes dim. Good clean sound with interesting effects added in is the quickest way to make your images, even those shot on your mother’s humble video camera, look great.

5. The Bucks Are In The Music

The fact of film revenue and distribution is that the main revenue streams are from the sound tracks for your film. This is because the musicians unions are much stronger than the actors, writers and film unions. After you film leaves the cinema (if it was lucky enough to get there in the first place) the main revenue streams a movie generates is for the mechanical copyright royalties for the sound track.

Filmmakers are usually the last to understand how music royalties are decided, registered and administered. Explaining music copyright law is something that falls outside this short article.

Briefly, filmmakers can get cheap or free scores by composing and performing it themselves. Remember that there are three music copyrignt streams: composers, lyracists and performers. Or, by getting an unsigned band to perform, or to acquire the movie rights to an existing band by contacting them through their agent, or estate if deceased. Research the track you are interested in through http://www.ppluk.com/

6. Get Organised

Nothing is more disheartening than showing up to help out on a mate’s shoot only to spend an hour looking for a screwdriver. Disorganisation is totally unforgiveable and easily preventable by advance planning. Make sure you know where everything is, and make sure everthing and everybody shows up at the right place at the right time. If this is not within your organizational ability, partner with someone who is.

7. Your Friends Cannot Act

It is always tempting to get a few friends together to make a movie and use them as actors as well. This usually leads to peril because your friends are not trained actors. They may have spent hours and hours with a video camera in front of the bathroom mirror, but they will not know how to act in front of a camera on a set. When your friends think they are acting well on set, you will probably be so shocked at their hammy performances that you will be unable to direct them without running the risk of destroying your personal relationship.

Far better to advertise for actor/collaborators at local theatre and acting schools, hold rigourous auditions until you find a stellar cast of talented unknowns than use your friends.

If you have a suitable script and some money, you can approach a casting agent who will then pimp your script and your project out to established actors who might be willing to do it for nothing if they like the script, their role, and have been offered a suitable cut of the profits.

8. Build A Following

In the good old days (pre-Valentines Day 2005) filmmakers would submit their films to a series of film festivals and tour with their film building the hype for their film until they received sufficient distribution offers to finance their next project. By making and touring film after film, a filmmaker was able to build up a loyal fan base which would guarantee them and their producers a predictable revenue stream.

The explosion of social media has changed the landscape and created two types of filmmakers: those who loathe and abhor social media, and those who embrace it.

Contemporary filmmakers can use social media to create a following of people eager to sample and appreciate their latest work. Astute filmmakers employ two producers: one who deals with the traditional production work flow, and one who deals with social media.

A first step for any filmmaker is to register the domain name for their production company and film title, as well as Facebook and Twitter profiles. Often these are sold on to eventual distributors, as was the case with Paranormal Activity.

One way to build a following is to attend industry events, like the Raindance Film Festival, or our monthly drinks, Boozin' N' Schmoozin'.

A great way to build your list is to comment on relevant articles, like this one. You can comment below.

9. Are You a Filmmaker, a Content Provider or a Communicator?

Whatever your goals are, remember that you need to decide what it is you are doing.

Filmmakers make films and hope to cruise the festival route until they are discovered and become festival darlings.

Content providers are professional filmmakers who deliver movies whether dramatic, corporate or documentary at a price per minute.

Communicators are filmmakers and content providers who have something to say using the power of moving images with excellent sound, well crafted stories and good sound tracks. Communicators will also consider a host of different mediums including short two and three minute episodes for mobiles (mobisodes) or internet (webisodes). Gaming and phone apps also provide interesting storytelling  possibilities with a host of different strategies for monetizing current content being debated around the world.

10. There’s No Such Thing As Luck

I believe that luck is earned through a combination of hard work and karma. If you maintain your integrity and your passion, success will surely visit you.

It's A Wrap

Nothing is as powerful as a good movie. And by using the medium of cinema you are able to influence and change lives. It is people like you that can make a difference and make this world a better place.

Elliot Grove
Elliot Grove founded Raindance as a thought experiment: Can you make a film with no money, no training and no experience, he asked? When people like his first intern Edgar Wright started making movies he started the Raindance Film Festival to celebrate their work in 1993, the British Independent Film Awards in 1998. Elliot has produced over 150 short films, and 5 feature films. He has written eight scripts, one of which is currently in pre-production. His first feature film, TABLE 5 (1997) was shot on 35mm and completed for a total of £278.38. He teaches writers and producers in the UK, Europe, Japan and America. In 2006 he produced the multiple-award winning The Living and the Dead.
In 2013 he relaunched the production arm: Raw Talent with the cult film director Ate de Jong. Their first venture was the psychological thriller Deadly Virtues: Love.Honour.Obey. finished late 2013.

watch an interview with elliot at the Independent filmmaker's Ball

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dy_70CiLlEA

Here you can watch the 2015 BIFA's from the red carpet to all the awards. Elliot's interview is at 1:27:00

He has written three books which have become industry standards: RAINDANCE WRITERS LAB 2nd Edition (Focal Press 2008), Raindance Producers' Lab: Lo-To-No Budget Filmmaking (Focal Press 2013) and 130 PROJECTS TO GET YOU INTO FILMMAKING (Barrons 2009). He was awarded a PhD in 2009 for services to film education. His first novel THE BANDIT QUEEN is scheduled for publication next year.

Elliot teaches several courses at Raindance including Lo To No Budget Filmmaking and Writer's Foundation Certificate.

Read articles by Elliot Grove.

41 thoughts on “10 Zero Budget Filmmaking Tips

  1. Regarding #7, while there is definitely some truth there, when limited on choices of actors, I've found it helpful to write a script to the strengths (and weaknesses) of the specific actors you already know. Know someone that's wooden and awkward in front of a camera? Write him a role that's wooden and awkward!

  2. "…and the numbers of pixels per frame (compression)"

    Uh, no. You're thinking of resolution (standard definition, 720 HD, 1080 HD, 2k, 4k, etc.). Compression is how much information is "thrown away" by the various file formats in order to reduce file sizes.

    (There's also bit depth and data rate, but those are topics best left to a future correction.)

  3. Well written overview from my personal experience I know it to be true of distribution. I look forward to future articles.

  4. Congradulations Mr. Grove for being so successful, now why don't you stop worrying about sponsor feedback and answer the damn question. What are the best film camers/ camcorders for Indies to use. Oh yeah, the wooden camera is ready stupid. Answer a question that is relevant and not simply empty ego boasting.

  5. I read this to find out what cameras are economically available and advice for new filmmakers and he suggested committing "fake crimes" and asking the police for the footage? What a joke. Reporting false crimes IS a crime. The rest of the article was ehh. Please update this with serious information.

  6. It is really useful… We get good idea on making films with low budget. Real estate prices can be seen on …
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