Sunday, May 23, 2010

The Making of an Ultra-Low Budget Film

Currently, I am producing a documentary for Starz. It's going very well and we have the resources to pay for everything we need to make the film. Sure there are still crazy busy periods and moments of begging but nothing compares to the making of an ultra-low budget film.

Ultra-Low Budget films challenge you to the core. You must consider every aspect of creating a film and figure out how to make it happen with little to no money. Bartering becomes your modus operandi and you hear yourself saying "in-kind" and "deferred" and "we are a tiny film" and "we don't have a budget for that" over and over.

On Ultra-Low Budget films you need to back into your budget. This means you start with the amount of money you have or think you can feasibly get and then you back into the budget based on that figure.

For example, if you think you can get $50k to make your film, you put $50k as your Total Budget amount and you go backwards from there and examine every category in your development, pre-production, production, and post production phases and see how you can spread that $50k over each phase. Sounds easy, right? Think again.

It often takes $50k just to pay for crew -- at a very deep discount. And that's a very typical producer fee on an indie film as well. Getting the picture? There are many pieces of the pie needing a slice of that teeny-tiny figure so when you decide to make an Ultra-Low Budget film, you need to wrap your ahead around the idea that you have no money with which to make the film. You should enter every negotiation with the idea that you are starting with zero as your budget for that line item.

But we all know you can't make a film with no money. That's why Ultra-Low Budget films require a great deal of creativity and courage and personal attention. You can't just throw money at a problem. Instead you need to think of unique ways to tackle a problem and seek out solutions from your colleagues and those you have never met before.

We are in post on an Ultra-Low Budget film and we are in pre-production on another one. Why do I keep making these no-budget films? That's easy. I feel they are stories that deserve being told. And I believe in the creative team behind them. I believe the story has an audience and will be a success.

And they provide me with great war stories and incredible experiences:

1) Traveling across the United States in a caravan of an RV, NY Taxi cab and SUV
2) Hiking up the mountains of Montana with a 35mm camera on our backs
3) Shooting in the ocean at sunrise. Did I say, "in" the ocean? Yes, I did.
4) Shooting in a working hospital using real nurses as our actors
5) Being accepted to and attending a top-notch film festival with the cast and crew. Fun times!
6) Shooting a graduation scene at a real graduation and having attendees believe our actor dressed as a professor is a real professor -- just makes you laugh.
7) Getting that perfect location by knocking on the door and finding a kind business or homeowner who welcomes you with open arms. A satisfying moment.
8) An opportunity to work with people who have always dreamt of being part of filmmaking. You can't beat that positive energy.
9) Working with private equity investors who take pride in your work and support you for years. It's humbling and makes you want to be the best you can be.
10) Building content of which you own the copyright. Content is King!
11) Helping to launch new creative talent to the world. That's pretty powerful stuff. Being part of a successful team is incredibly joyful. They become part of your family.

And lastly: Freedom. Freedom to express. Freedom to create. Freedom to choose. Freedom to make a great film.

One thing I do know is that Ultra-Low Budget films breed happiness and an overwhelming sense of accomplishment. I have never met a disgruntled crew on a ULB. The creative team is inspired and grateful and passionate. And the investors are excited and interested and helpful. Everyone is making the film because they believe in it. And who doesn't want to be part of such happiness and passion and belief?


Anonymous said...

Freedom comes at a price and, in this case, at an ultra-low-budget price.

I wholeheartedly agree with many of your points and as a filmmaker, I especially agree with your point regarding the value of freedom!

Joe Avella said...

Well, the fiscal definition of a low budget film varies artist to artist! 50K would be an insane fortune to me!

The negotiation element for low budget film making can't be emphasized enough. A lot of the actors in my films get bit parts because they hooked me up with a sweet location or crucial prop. I borrow equipment from friends with the understanding I'll help them out with their shoots for free. Food? You'd be surprised what bagel places will give you for free if you tell them your a student film maker. (I'm not, but they don't know that).

Also, when you have a group of passionate, inspired, grateful actors and crew, that magic translates to the screen to give your film a certain glimmer you could never fake.