Low Budget Is Not Necessarily a PlusComplications Ensue
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Thursday, February 11, 2010

I was chatting with a smart young woman who had a terrific idea for a feature. She was going on about how it could be made for very little money.

There's a tendency to think that if you can make a movie for little enough money, it is more likely to get made. This is not entirely true.

For one thing, when you make a low budget movie, everyone gets paid less. The producer is more likely to have to defer his salary. There is no production bonus for the writer.

A low budget movie is less likely to get a decent marketing budget, because the studio hasn't invested as much in its success.

That means it's less worth it to you to write a low budget feature, and it's less worth it for the producer to spend two years of his life making your movie happen.

In some ways, it is just as hard to get a low budget movie made as a decently budgeted movie. You still have to find bankable cast, and a financing company, and a distribution deal. But at the lower budget levels, it is just not as worthwhile for other people to get involved in your movie, because they won't see as much return.

Sure, it's possible for a low budget movie to make a whack of money, and if so, it will go into profit a little faster. But the movie business doesn't run on profit. It runs on salaries. You get your salary whether the movie tanks or not. People buy houses and cars with their profits; they put their kids through school on their salaries.

While it's always nice for a movie to be doable at a lower budget, don't focus too much on that. Really, you want to make sure that your movie can be made at an appropriate budget for what it is. If it's an action movie, you want it made at a decent budget or the action will suck. A romantic comedy needs a good cast. A horror movie can be made for very little money (see BLAIR WITCH) and low production values. But most other genres don't do their best at the lowest budget levels. Science Fiction, obviously, needs a certain minimum or it's going to be styrofoam rocks and spaceship walls that shake when you bump into them.

Don't write carelessly. But also don't be overfocused on your budget. Focus on making the movie you're telling as commercial as possible. You would much rather be the writer of a $25 million movie than a $2.5 million movie.



Another problem is that you often don't know what is going to be expensive.

Sci-Fi in the realm of District 9 can be made on a pretty tight budget, especially if you are or have visual effects friends.

Be a pity to hamper an amazing story because you wrote something "cheap" when it was very doable to begin with.

Just another --


-- comment.

By Blogger James, at 3:09 AM  

Whenever I see indie filmmakers talking about how little money they had, I always think they're doing nothing for audience expectations... those "I made lunch for the crew" stories are best saved for reminiscences further down the line. Fellow-filmmakers may empathise, but no one else ever got excited to see a movie by hearing that it had a low budget.

By Blogger Stephen Gallagher, at 5:07 AM  

I don't know. If you've got the skills and means (and the friends) to turn a script into a movie, then it's absolutely in your interest to come up with a clever idea that costs $10 to shoot. Horror movies like Blair Witch and Paranormal Activity work on a miniscule budget, of course, but you can also do surprisingly good science fiction (Primer, Cube) and of course a billion indie dramas (My Dinner With Andre and Mikey And Nicky didn't cost $10 to shoot, but they should have). And as for action -- I never believed Robert Rodriguez's $7,000 budget (El Mariachi), but the fact remains that the man shot a pretty tight action film with his own money.

(And unlike Stephen, I actually think the super-low-budget is a terrific marketing gag. It appeals to people's -- erroneous -- sense that anyone could pick up a camera and make a movie. If you don't have stars or expensive sets, part of the way you make up for that is by creating a myth around your creative process. Which is why you should always claim your budget was $11 and a packet of circus peanuts.)

By Blogger Seth, at 3:50 AM  

OK, so where do you draw the line? I mean, what is the $$ threshold between a decently budgeted production vs. a low budget production where these unattractive effects can impair the film?

By Blogger Todd NYC, at 9:18 PM  

What about the fact that this is still largely a numbers game? Let's say for the sake of argument that for every movie that gets made for $25 million, there are a hundred movies that get made for $2.5 million. Wouldn't that imply that your odds of selling a script that can be made for the lesser amount are 100 times greater than the alternative?

By Blogger Jon Molly, at 9:06 PM  

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