How to make a quality feature film for only $10,000
The world has changed. Twenty-five years ago I wrote, produced and directed a 23 minute short film for CBC television in Canada. The film cost me $46,000. These were the days of film stock, one inch magnetic tape masters and Nagra sound recorders. After struggling as a television commercial director in the mid 1990’s, I left the film business to pursue other business opportunities, but I always knew that I would return to the film business and attempt to make a feature film. Last year, I found a way to do it. For only $10,000 I wrote, produced and directed “Red Trail 90.” Here is how you can produce and direct a high quality feature film for $10,000.
It’s all about the locations
Robert Rodriguez figured this out when he made El Mariachi in 1992. You must design and write your entire script around the locations that are available to you for free, not write the script and then find the locations. This is key as free locations require no location permits, insurance or police support. I owned a home in downtown Toronto and a cabin on a lake north of Toronto. I knew that I could shoot at both locations for no cost. I also knew that I could shoot at the Marina on the lake because I was friends with the owners, and I could shoot in the deep woods which was government owned “crown land”. So, simply reverse the traditional way of making a film: Find your free locations first, and then write your script.
How do you find your crew?
Keep the crew to an absolute minimum. With today’s portable digital equipment, you can shoot a feature with only four crew members: A Director, a Director of Photography, a Location Sound Recordist, and a Production Assistant. As a producer of a micro-budget feature for $10,000, you will have to do everything else. You will do all of the script writing, planning and pre-production. During the shoot, you will do the make-up, props, wardrobe, production management, and be the first assistant director. I was fortunate to have a very good friend who was an excellent DP. He was willing to lend the use of his Canon 5D Mark II DSLR. I could not afford to pay my DP for his time or equipment, so I offered him a back-end percentage of future sales, with the promise that I would work day and night to promote the film and get it distributed. He hired a Production Assistant that he always works with for a very fair day rate. I found my Location Sound Recordist on Craigslist and agreed to pay him a very fair day rate that he requested. He also had a relationship with a sound equipment house where I was able to rent all of the sound equipment at a reduced rate.
Pricey Camera? Kill that fantasy…
The latest tech in digital camera equipment is the Red 4K. Many filmmakers refuse to shoot anything unless it is on a 4K camera. Why? It may be the “cool thing”, but there is no need to. Today’s pro-consumer HD DSLR’s have a quality image resolution that will pass the QC (Quality Control) requirements of all feature film distributors. 1920 X 1080p is still the HD standard. Why kill your budget with expensive camera gear that is simply not necessary?
Shooting in the Dark
A minimal shooting crew will only be effective if you shoot with no lighting whatsoever. No. Lights. Not. One. This is a key factor. Not only does shooting with no lights allow you to schedule a very tight shooting schedule because you save so much time, it also saves you lots of money. Shooting without lights works most effectively if you are shooting a film that has a documentary, hand-held cinema-verite style. Red Trail 90 is a story that lended itself to this style of shooting. I wanted the film to appear spontaneous and “as it happens” like The Blair Witch Project or Open Water. There was only one scene that required one practical light and a few candles. You would be amazed at the low light resolution that new DSLR cameras can handle. So, shoot without lights and you can shoot fast and effectively in a style that can actually enhance your story. Keep it simple.
Breaking records. How to shoot a feature in only 6 days
So, now you have a minimal crew of two, no lighting to worry about, and a shooting style that is foot-loose and fancy-free. These are the key requirements to be able to schedule a feature in only 6 shooting days. Obviously, a short shooting schedule will save you lots of money for crew day rates and equipment, so it is imperative that you find a way to have as little shoot days as possible. In order to properly schedule a short shoot, you must have a feel for exactly what you will be able to shoot in one day and be realistic about it. I was fortunate to have some previous experience as an assistant director so I had a fundamental understanding and “feel” of how many scenes I could shoot in one day. But I cannot emphasize enough that you must be very creative with how you schedule your scenes based on your locations.
You will not be able to complete the shoot in only 6 days unless you act like a General. You must be in charge of the crew every millisecond. You must politely but firmly push them to move faster. Every second of the day. Again, this is why a cinema-verite shooting style is required. This style lends itself to quick set-ups and quick takes. At all moments you must know exactly what you need to shoot next and how you need to shoot it. On a large budget feature there is zero luxury of time. On a micro-budget feature time is in warp drive – every millisecond counts.
Finally, to keep your shoot to only 6 days, you must not storyboard your scenes. Storyboarding takes away your instincts and reduces your flexibility. On a tight shooting schedule you must be flexible at all times. You will be adjusting or dropping shots constantly in order to make your days. You do not want to be “locked down” in your mind with “strict” storyboard images. Flexibility is the key and this means a rough shot list, but no storyboards. Keep it simple and flexible. Again, this is why a hand-held, cinema-verite shooting style really benefits a short shooting schedule.
Food of the Gods
You must constantly push your crew to move faster and the only way that you can compensate for this endless harassment is to keep them happy. No matter how hard they work during the day, two things will always keep your crew happy. You must feed them very well, and you must give them no less than one hour for their meal break. Crews do not mind working long hours for lower pay if you grant them one hour for a delicious meal break. I spent $2,500 on catered meals for my crew on Red Trail 90. This was 1/4 of my entire production budget! That is how important food is for your crew.
Post Production? Find a one-person-show
One of the keys to keeping your overall budget on your feature to $10,000 is to find a “one-person-show”. I found an excellent up-and-coming post production person who did all of the post on his own Apple computer with the Final Cut Pro 7 editing software: rough picture edit, final picture edit, sound edit, sound effects and design, foley, sound mix, and credits. These people do exist and if they like you, your script and your footage, they will go on the journey with you at an overall cost that is within your budget. I found my post production person on Craigslist for $5,000 in total. You cannot afford to go to different people and different post houses to post your film. You must find a one-person-show to keep the film within your micro-budget.
We are seeing the true democratization of filmmaking. I went from making a short film for $46,000 25 years ago to a feature length film for only $10,000 today. New and inexpensive digital equipment and crew talent is much easier to find today than what was possible a generation ago. Better yet, with the explosive growth of online streaming and VOD, new distribution channels have opened up for the independent filmmaker in the last few years. Websites such as IndiePix, IndieReign and Reelhouse (where I am selling Red Trail 90), have all allowed the low budget filmmaker to reach a global audience without having to rely upon the traditional mainstream distributors. For independent filmmakers, new technology has truly made the impossible, possible. So, what are you waiting for? Get out there and shoot your feature film!