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Guide

How to make a low-budget film

A guide to saving money and time—and reducing stress—when making a low-budget film, written by Jane Applegate with illustrations by Sean Suchara
Prelude

After six months of derailed production and shuttered sets, filmmakers are happily preparing to get back to work. But, big studio shoots and scrappy indie projects must deal with new Covid-19 safety rules and requirements before the shoot.

That means filmmakers need to add new items to the budget—having a certified health and safety person on set to take temperatures and need to pay for virus testing. You’ll also need to buy on set supplies like masks and gloves and rent additional tents, tables and chairs for social distancing. Most important, you’ll need to buy enhanced production insurance that covers Covid-related illness.

Raising the money to bring your story from script to screen challenges every independent filmmaker in normal times. Today, it probably requires more money, but there is no reason to not pursue your creative dreams. There has never been a better time to be developing your project.

There is rarely one path to raising money, although crowd-funding is a great option to promote your film while attracting financial support. No matter how you choose to finance your film, the best first step is to figure out ways to spend less money producing creative content.

All the practical tips and strategies outlined in this piece are based on my 15 years of independent filmmaking experience. Before becoming a producer, I interviewed and profiled thousands of small business owners around the world for my syndicated small business column, radio, and TV show. It turns out successful entrepreneurs—just like successful filmmakers—work hard to stretch every dollar.

Now, there are many definitions of a low-budget film. You can make a no-budget film on your smartphone for virtually nothing, or spend a million dollars if you have an A-list cast. For our purposes, let’s keep the definition of a low budget film under $150,000, which is considered a pretty average spend for a “low-budget film” in today’s industry.

The biggest budget film I’ve produced, To Keep the Light, is a period piece shot in a 1870’s-era lighthouse located on Mistake Island, a tiny island off the coast of Jonesport, Maine. The budget for that multiple-award winning film was about $500,000, all contributed by friends and family.

I know, hundreds of thousands of dollars seems like a lot of money. But, you can definitely make a narrative film for as little as $5,000 or less—if you don’t pay anyone, and you rely heavily on friends and calling in favors to shoot, edit, and compose the music. If you’re serious about making your film on a shoestring budget, read on. My specialty is producing low-budget films, and in this piece, I’ll share practical tips and strategies on how to save money and time, and reduce stress in the process.

— Jane Applegate, Producer

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Guide

Telling your story using innovative, cost-effective production strategies

The wild thing about independent filmmaking is that having a lot of money does not guarantee that you will produce a great film. We all know of reputable producers and studios who have spent hundreds of millions of dollars making really bad films. At the same time, today’s digital cameras, LED lights, DIY special effects software, and affordable sound editing tools have lowered the budgetary bar for thousands of filmmakers. Sean Baker’s memorable and award-winning film Tangerine, for example, which was shot on an iPhone. The budget for the film, produced by the Duplass Brothers, was $100,000 and it grossed $828,000 at the box office.

In order to save money down the line, it’s important to start by adjusting your script to fit a realistic budget. I know that screenwriters are very attached to their scripts. Every word is precious and it’s not easy to “kill your darlings.” But, having a script that translates into a realistic budget is the first step toward actually being able to shoot your film, rather than only dreaming about shooting it.

Now, I’m not suggesting slashing your script to ribbons. I’m just saying, think about a simpler way to tell your story. For example, ask yourself questions like:

  • Can I tell the story with fewer characters? Fewer cast members immediately reduces your budget.

  • Can you eliminate the need for expensive visual effects by shooting as much as you can on location?

  • Can your writer revise or combine scenes to reduce the number of locations?

Renting locations, and dressing and building sets is expensive. Moving the company from one location to another also requires time and money for gasoline, parking, and shooting permits. Shooting without permits is what’s called “running and gunning,” and it’s a very bad way to shoot a film. In a bigger city, you may be chased around the city by the police, especially if you are blocking sidewalks or asking pedestrians to avoid walking into your scene.

Professional producers know they need to apply for a permit as soon as they lock in locations. A basic shooting permit issued by the New York Mayor’s Office of Film and Entertainment costs $300. For that fee, you’ll be able to print out signs letting neighbors know when and where you are shooting, secure parking spaces for production vehicles, and ask police to help control traffic if they are available. If you need the ability to tow cars, you’ll need to pay the city steep towing fees.

How to attract a great crew on a tight budget

Everyday, independent filmmakers compete against bigger companies for experienced crew members. Hollywood studios and deep-pocketed streamers have no problem paying full rates for crew. But don’t despair. This is why having a great script is essential, especially if you can only afford to pay people what is considered “passion-project” rates. It also helps if your location is easy to get to, and your shoot is short.

Highly-skilled crew members, especially gaffers (lighting directors) and key grips (the people who set up the equipment), easily demand top dollar for their services. But, if they have worked with you before, like the script, and know that you don’t act crazy on set, they may be open to working for a reduced rate. Why is this? Crew members making buckets of money on big shows or feature films often like to work on something more creative between gigs. They can afford to give you a break because their regular jobs pay well.

You can also sweeten the deal by offering experienced crew members comfortable and private housing, extra money for travel days, home-made meals, and a pleasant working environment. A talented location sound woman I like to hire often, says she works on my projects for a deeply discounted rate because she likes working on short, creative projects between her higher-paying, stressful reality TV shoots.

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Finding the best cast for the least money

A great way to find fresh, affordable talent is to hire an up-and-coming casting director to cast your film with up-and-coming actors. A casting director is a skilled professional with access to agents and managers who represent talent–from newbies to A-listers like Bradley Cooper and Nicole Kidman. Word-of-mouth is the best way to find a casting director. Ask every producer and director you know if they can recommend a casting director who’s hungry to cast a great project. Someone working as an assistant in a big agency or wishing to get away from a domineering boss, may be up for striking a freelance deal with you. The basic rate to cast four to six actors in a low-budget film is about $3,500. Remember, everything is negotiable if the casting director likes your script and director.

Finding the perfect talent is tough. Having limited money to offer actors makes it even tougher. But, similar to booking an experienced crew, a producer with a great script and a respected director, appeals to both veteran and less experienced actors. My friend, Cathy Curtin, has played big and small roles in films I’ve produced because she likes the material, and can fit the shorter film shoots in between her bigger roles on shows like Stranger Things and Insecure.

Unless you are using all non-union talent, remember that members of the Screen Actors Guild (SAG) must be paid the union minimum—which just bumped up to $200 a day for low-budget films. Payroll taxes and fringes, the money you pay towards their health insurance and retirement plans, is now hovering about 44% on top of the day rate. It seems high, but when you look at the numbers, you’ll realize actors are often the lowest paid members of your creative team. Note: SAG actors can only work an eight hour day before you need to pay them overtime. Even non-union sets honor this schedule, which still gives the crew two hours to set up and two hours to break down the equipment during a 12-hour day.

No matter how small your budget may be, please hire a casting director. Sliding a script under a famous actor’s door, handing it to their nanny on the playground or leaving it on their stoop is a very bad idea. Another acceptable option: ask your entertainment attorney to submit your script to the actor’s agent or manager.

The difference between agents and managers

Most working actors have both a manager and an agent. To be clear, agents are all about negotiating deals and collecting money: they are licensed by the state to invoice clients and round up checks. Actors sign contracts with their agents or the agency. Once payment is received, they deduct their commission (usually 10%), and send the balance along to their clients.

Most actors also have a manager. Managers are responsible for reviewing all sorts of offers—from TV or digital commercials to personal appearances and speaking engagements. Their job is to help their client figure out which project fits best into the actor’s big career picture. A good manager advises their clients on what projects to accept and which to reject before involving the agent. Of course, the talent has the final say. Managers, who usually operate on a handshake, earn between 15 and 20 percent of the payment. They also review other lucrative projects such as modeling jobs, product endorsements, personal appearances, and social media campaigns. Once the job is approved, the manager hands off the details and paperwork to the agent. (If you do the math, you’ll see the actor is paying between 25 and 30 percent of every check to their representatives).

How to save money on travel

Once you’ve booked your cast and crew, it’s time to figure out how to get them to the location. Many people are reluctant to get back to work, so don’t be surprised if you lose cast and crew. Producers I know have shared tales of actors refusing to fly across country or even accept a role before a vaccine is available.

If you are shooting in a big city, with a local crew, you can ask them to get themselves to and from the set every day. The safest and most cost-effective way to transport your team is to rent 15 passenger vans and figure out how to reduce capacity. If your team feels okay about using public transportation, offer to buy them transit system cards.

If you are working past midnight, especially in a location where public transportation isn’t readily available, be prepared to use your van or book shared rides to get people home safely. These are called “safety rides” and are very important after a long day on set.

If you are traveling people far from home, call the group sales department of airlines to see if you can negotiate discounted tickets. Delta Airlines is very film friendly and offers deals on seats as well as equipment.

Packing strangers into a crowded van for a long ride to a far-off location is no longer an option in these times. But, if you decide to drive, I recommend renting 15-passenger vans because they are spacious and easy to drive. Hire a reliable, calm production assistant to be your full-time driver. You also need to hire a good driver for your box trucks or production vans. Make sure you have EZ passes or give the drivers money for tolls and a credit card for gasoline.

Finding the best accommodations on a budget

Finding safe and comfortable accommodations for the cast and crew is essential to running a pleasant and productive set. Making a film is exhausting, especially if it requires several weeks or months of shooting. Scrimp on other things, but do not scrimp on housing.

No matter where you are shooting, you can usually find a hotel or motel willing to make a deal for a block of rooms-especially if you are staying more than a week. Look for smaller, family-owned motels who are meeting new health and safety guidelines. Bigger chain hotels are hungry for business likely to cut you a break. Definitely check out VRBO and Airbnb to find the best deals on housing.

Be prepared to increase your housing budget because demand is high since so many people are leaving crowded cities. Sending a message directly to the host is a good way to negotiate a better deal, especially if you are booking a house for several weeks and can lock in your shooting days. The security and cleaning deposits can be steep, so try to negotiate a break on these fees.

It may be tough to get crew members to share hotel rooms or bedrooms in a house, but see what you can negotiate. If you are booking union talent, cast members need private accommodations. Assign a production assistant to deal with any concerns and be vigilant about maintaining a cleaning schedule. We always hire a local cleaning person to do a deep cleaning at least once a week. You can’t expect exhausted crewmembers to clean their rooms or shared space.

To shoot Erica Fae’s To Keep the Light over five weeks in Jonesport, Maine, we rented two small houses in addition to leasing an oceanfront inn that had fallen on hard times and closed down. On a location scout months before the shoot, we met with a local real estate broker who convinced the owner to let us rent the inn at a discount rate for six weeks during prep and for our film shoot. It was perfect. It had a small but functional upstairs kitchen and a small kitchen with power downstairs. We had crew meals on a big screened-in porch, and set up our production office in the upstairs parlor.

Another great money-saving option is to borrow props and costumes from local theater groups and school drama departments. The Jonesport Historical Society not only lent us original items from the 1800’s, but let us shoot a pivotal scene in their museum. We also worked with the Machiasport Historical Society to transform the Gates house museum into the interior of the lighthouse keeper’s house.

Posting requests on local bulletin boards, community email lists, and social media is a great way to collect what you need. Always look in local thrift shops, like the Salvation Army and Goodwill.

For contemporary clothing, wardrobe designers often purchase clothing and then return it. This is a complicated and risky process, although many big discount stores like Target and Wal-Mart are pretty good about taking back clothing as long as it’s clean, the price tags are attached and you present original receipts.

On super low-budget shoots, you can ask cast members to “shop in their closet.” Union actors have the right to be paid a small fee for wearing their own clothes on set, but is often a good solution on a low-budget production set in contemporary times.

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Money-saving tips for the care and feeding of the cast and crew

There is a show business saying that “a crew runs on its stomach.” It’s so true. Working on a low-budget film is extremely hard work. The hours are long—usually 12 hours a day, even if you are dealing with a union cast. (The cast works eight hours, but the crew can work extra hours to set up and break down the equipment.)

New Covid-19 rules require you to provide individual meals to be eaten in a safe, socially-distanced manner. This means you’ll probably have to assign one or two production assistants to take orders, buy and organize the meals and deliver them to each person.

Craft services, the snacks and beverages that need to be available throughout the shoot, now need to be pre-ordered, packaged and delivered. But, at some point, the traditional craft services table and tent will return since it serves as the heart of the set.

Feeding your cast and crew fresh, healthy meals and snacks boosts morale. Every shoot day should start with what’s called a “courtesy breakfast.” You aren’t obligated to provide breakfast, but if people show up on set and there is nothing to eat and no fresh, hot coffee, you are in big trouble. At the very least, you should serve things like tea and coffee, juices, hearty oatmeal, and some type of protein like hard-boiled eggs or cups of yogurt with granola. Fresh fruit and pastries are also welcome if you can afford them.

While you are collecting trash from breakfast (which always seems to fall to the producer), remember that exactly six hours from the call time (which is when the clock starts on a shoot day), you’ll need to be ready to feed the cast and crew another hot meal. If you run into overtime, you’ll have to provide what’s called a ‘second meal.’ This is the only meal where you can serve pizza and not incur the wrath of the crew.

One of your most critical hires is the person who runs your craft services and catering team. Find someone who is cheerful, reliable, patient, strong, nimble and has strong people skills. When I transitioned from being an executive producer on big-budget cable documentaries, to producing independent films, I started out at the very bottom of the crew—working as a production assistant running errands and handing out $10 bills for what is called a “walk-away” lunch. If you are shooting near a bunch of affordable restaurants, this is an option After proving that I could be trusted to pass out and keep track of meal money, I was promoted to running the craft services department. Maybe it was a demotion? It was certainly super stressful.

On my first big film shoot, the inexperienced line producers were buying snacks in bodegas in New York City. By the second week, we were already running out of money due to paying exorbitant prices for stale, crappy snacks. When I took over the job, my “mom” skills kicked in. I asked around the set to find someone with a Costco card. I grabbed keys to a production van and a good-spirited production assistant. Before the call time one day, we headed to Costco. We filled the van with paper goods, first aid supplies, office supplies, beverages and boxes of sweet and savory snacks. I always set aside a few dollars each day to buy ice cream or Popsicles since we were shooting during a heat wave in New York City. A sweet surprise about four hours after lunch is a great morale booster.

Try to order food from the restaurants closest to your location. It’s best to pick up the food, rather than depend on delivery, since you must serve meals on a schedule.

Back to craft services. Before taking on the job or hiring someone, be aware that there is a real strategy to running craft services on a film set. It’s similar to running a 7-Eleven, where you must offer a variety of appealing snacks that are not messy, drippy, or gloppy. Grab-and-go is the mantra on a set, no matter how big or small your budget may be. You can save money by making your own trail mix—purchase raisins, nuts (if you can serve them—see my health and safety survey below) and chocolate chips in bulk and fill small paper cups with the yummy mixture. Chunks of watermelon, pineapple, and other berries and summer fruits are also a hit. Carrot and celery sticks, served with hummus or spinach dip, are also easy to prepare and always popular.

Savvy producers also set up their office at or near the craft services table. Why? Because everyone will stop by that table at some point during the day, whether it’s to grab a bottle of cold water, a Band-Aid, or an apple. Craft services is where you’ll find the first aid kit, emergency supplies, clean bags of ice stored in coolers, along with a variety of cold beverages. One of the few recycling things I allow on my sets is to repurpose the morning coffee into the early afternoon iced coffee. How much money you save depends on planning far in advance to shop in bulk at a discount store. Even the smallest budget productions must have a passenger or cargo van assigned to the production department. The back end of this van can provide safe, cool storage for the snacks and supplies you’ll need access to every day.

If you are shooting in winter, provide hand and foot warmers for the crew. The best tip for shooting during a heat wave came from a veteran grip (the person who carries sandbags, light stands and very heavy things around all day.) He suggested I buy a dozen bottles of Sea Breeze aftershave lotion and a few dozen cotton bandanas. I ordered the bandanas online. When they arrived, I wrote everyone’s name on a bandana with a Sharpie. Then, I drenched the cloth in a bucket filled with a bag of clean ice. Wrapping a wet bandana around your neck or forehead provides instant cooling. You can keep dipping the bandanas in the mix since it has antiseptic properties. But, please do wash the bandanas every few days.

The health and safety survey

Before you start drafting a shopping list, ask your cast and crew if they have any food or environmental allergies by using a short, but critically important health and safety survey (example below). If one person has a peanut allergy, you will have to run a peanut-free set. I also ask people to share their favorite snacks and beverages. Why spend money on cases of Diet Coke if no one drinks it?

Here’s an example of a short health and safety survey I send out with everyone’s “deal memo” (the agreement that must be signed by everyone you hire, which spells out all the details of the shoot, the rate you are paying, any fees for supplies or equipment, housing, etc; ever, ever start shooting without signed deal memos and W9 IRS tax forms!)

Ask Everyone:

  1. Do you have any food or environmental allergies? If so, what?

  2. Are you allergic to bees or any other insects? If so, do you have an Epi-Pen?

  3. Do you take any medications that the producer should know about? Insulin? Asthma Inhalers?

  4. Do you have any other health conditions the producer should know about?

  5. What is your favorite hot beverage? Coffee, tea? What do you like in your hot beverages? Cream? Soy or oat milk, etc?

  6. What is your favorite sweet snack? Savory snack?

  7. What is your favorite kind of food? American? Mexican? Chinese? Thai? Italian?

  8. What can production provide that will make you smile every day?

How to raise money from friends, fans, and family

We’ve covered how to save money on a shoot with a wonderful cast and crew, but without the cash, you won’t be shooting anything. No one likes to ask people for money, but it takes a village to produce a film or creative project. Crowdfunding is a proven method for raising money, but be aware that the majority of contributions will come from people who know you and your team. That’s why it’s essential to build a robust social network before you start a campaign on Kickstarter.

Consider aligning with organizations and individuals who have an interest in the subject or theme of your film.

If you’re considering a crowdfunding campaign, there are several great blogs and tutorials on the Kickstarter site. Here’s the link.

Before launching:

  1. Determine how to reduce your production budget by relying on all my tips shared above.

  2. Share detailed information about specifically what you need the money for. “We’re going to use your contribution for location scouting and casting,” for example.

  3. Set a reasonable goal that you are confident you can meet because Kickstarter has an all -or- nothing model. That means if you don’t reach your goal, you collect nothing. It’s best to reach your goal and then set a ‘stretch’ goal to raise more money.

  4. Use personal videos featuring the team, especially the director and writer, to tell your potential contributors how important their contributions are to your project.

  5. Make sure you have a few deep-pocketed friends, donors, or family members ready to close the gap to meet your goal.

  6. Post photos and short bios of key crew members to encourage their friends and family to support your project. Encourage everyone involved to promote your campaign.

  7. Plan which photos, stats, and information you will post as project updates every day for the duration of your campaign. Look into scheduling social media messages on Hootsuite.

  8. Build a team of people to help you work on the campaign every day, or at least three times a week.

  9. Post photos of your team busy at their laptops or on their phones, spreading the word about your campaign.

  10. Devise rewards that don’t cost too much time and money to produce and ship. Experiential rewards (such as visiting the set or attending a film festival screening of the film) are very popular and cost little to execute.

Raising money from private investors

People who support independent films are true patrons of the arts. They are well-aware that they have little or no chance of ever recouping their investment. If the film sells to a distributor or streamer and they are a major investor, you will have already established how much money they will get back after all film-related expenses are paid. The investment documents carefully spell out how much and when equity investors can ‘recoup’ their money.

So, how do you find these investors?

The best source of potential private equity investors are your attorney and accountant. These entertainment industry advisors often serve a stable of successful producers who may be open to adding your project to their slate. Dentists and doctors are also potential investors. They are often rich enough to support a small film project as long as they feel they are part of your team. What I call the ‘stardust factor’ goes a long way to woo equity investors. The thought of meeting actors and walking down a red carpet at a festival–even a small one–is intoxicating. (A group of Louisville women who invested in a film I helped produce there, traveled to Los Angeles together to attend the LA premiere).

The director was introduced to the women by a local producer who provided office space and introductions, but no cash. However, the producer introduced Harris Doran, the director to the women who financed most of his film, Beauty Mark.

Personal meetings are the best way to pitch your project. If the potential investor responds favorably to your request to meet, find a quiet, elegant venue. Quiet hotel lobbies or the coffee shop or bar in an exclusive hotel are great places to meet. Be prepared to pay for whatever you guest orders.

Never meet in a Starbucks or low-end diner. Bring along a top sheet-a one page summary of your budget that shows what you need to produce your film. Separate production from post-production. Include an estimate of what you need to travel to festivals and hire a publicist. (They usually charge a monthly retainer of $3,500 to $5,000.) The investor agreements spell out exactly how much money everyone will get back after all film-related expenses are paid. These must be drafted by an attorney.

Once they’ve cut a check, show your appreciation by including them in the creative process. At the highest level, perhaps for $50,000 or more, you can offer them a coveted “executive producer” credit. If you watch independent films, you’ll often see several executive producers. There is no set amount they need to contribute, but in general, executive producers are people who have contributed a sizable amount of money to your film. Having that EP credit is an honor, so be open to offering several investors, especially if you are producing a feature film.

Raising money from crowdfunding backers

Once you have courted and landed some private equity investors, you can focus on wooing backers to support your project via personal appeals or crowdfunding. The secret to a successful campaign is to personally email everyone you know and alert them to the details of your campaign. Ask them how much money they can promise to contribute. You must have a robust circle of friends and supporters to meet your financial goal.

One of the most cost-effective ways to honor your backers is to share “insider” information about the project with them during the campaign. This information might include posting a few storyboards or mood boards created by the director and cinematographer. You can set up a Google doc to upload information and send backers the link. You might also share sketches and notes from the production designer and wardrobe designer. And, maybe excerpts from the shooting script.

When possible, post-Covid, invite your investors and highest-level supporters to visit the set on a day when they can observe the action without getting in the way. You could also arrange to Zoom or Face Time with investors from the set. Offering supporters exciting behind-the-scenes access is a great way to show your appreciation.

When the film is ready for rough-cut screenings, invite your biggest backers to participate virtually or in person, if possible to give notes. Taking their comments seriously is important, although be clear that they can’t overrule your director, especially if you are contractually bound to produce a “director’s cut.” The director’s cut is the version that the director has the right to produce, although the producer has the final say on which version is released.

When possible, invite your backers and investors to attend a film premiere or local screening. It’s a perfect way to offer a sincere “thank you.” If the film sells to a distributor or streamer, and they are an equity investor, you will have already established how much money they will get back after all film-related expenses are paid. The investment documents carefully spell out how much and when equity investors can “recoup” their money.

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How to generate publicity and generate festival buzz without spending a lot of money

While most festivals now are virtual or hybrid with some in-person events, we look forward to be attending them in person soon. If you are lucky enough to get your film into a film festival, it’s important to have a strategy for shining a light on it. Big and small festivals are chaotic and thrilling, but it’s tough to attract any attention. My film festival contacts say that attending the festival where your film is screening is essential, so start saving money now. It’s so important for you (assuming you are the producer or the director) to be there to attend parties, press conferences, and screenings in order to get people interested in buying the film you’ve made.

If possible, hire a film publicist to promote the film to the press before, during, and after the festival. Be prepared to pay between $3,000 and $5,000 a month for three months.

If you are lucky to have booked any high-profile talent, do everything you can to have them attend the festival with you. Long before the screening, coordinate press interviews with their publicists. Walking down the red carpet and having your photo taken by the entertainment press is a fantastic way to generate buzz for your film.

How to encourage friends, fans and family to support your project

Showing your friends, fans and family that you have thought through every aspect of your production budget will encourage them to bust out their credit cards. Presenting a compelling case for why they should support your film sets your project apart from the competition.

There are hundreds of film projects seeking money, so your job is to convince me that yours is the one to back.

About the Author

Jane Applegate

Producer, author, consultant, educator

Jane Applegate teaches the business of film class at the Feirstein Graduate School of Cinema at Brooklyn College. She is a producer, a show business career and production consultant with her company Showbizing, and the author of Hair on Fire: An Insider’s Guide to Producing for the Big and Small Screen.