Budgeting Films in 2020

Many successful directors share common stories regarding an early independent filmmaking career. In fact, no independent filmmaker truly has a career making films until they gain success. This means if an aspiring artist is trying to “make it” in the current economic and sociopolitical climate they must first overcome obstacles that are unique today. History is invaluable, and reviewing the struggles and triumphs of other indie filmmakers of past generations can help new indie filmmakers plot a course.

In a prior article I talked about earlier works of some directors like Christopher Nolan. Age 50 now, when Nolan was 29 he directed “Following” with a tight budget and techniques designed to make audiences feel that the budget was much greater. Simple things like open with a shot in a studio, on a dolly, with an older actor and studio quality sound. All expensive, than cuts to hand-held, college actors, terrible street sound. But it all works. Other things like using a rubber hammer instead of a gun as a weapon to intimidate with, shooting in black and white, and filming actors near windows. Lots of tricks to shoots cheap, quick, and professional. Two years later Nolan went onto film “Memento”.

Other directors like Robert Rodriguez have harrowing tales of producing their first films. Filming “El Mariachi” Rodriguez raised money by testing medicines for drug companies (and maybe even things like getting skin removed from grafts). Basically some crazy medical stuff to raise enough money for a film that might or might not have been successful.

So many directors have to figure out how to stretch the budget. Martin Scorsese had just as much of a difficult time putting together the money for his first film “Mean Streets”. Kevin Smith’s first film “Clerks” was also shot in black and white for the same reasons Christopher Nolan chose. That coupled with the one filming location for “Clerks” allowed Smith to, again, stretch the budget.

In modern day though what happens when indie filmmakers have even less budget, less time, and more competition? How are you or I supposed to be successful? Let’s talk about every aspect I just mentioned in detail bellow.

When we talk about budget for a film what we are really saying is what can you afford and still remain independent. Budget is no longer your concern if you become part of a industry collective. What I mean by that are things like “pay-to-play” and “catch-22”. Hollywood is probably the best example of pay-to-play. It’s like going to a casino, no you’re no James Bond, you’re just you preying to get lucky. Spend money, meet people, wear the suits, join the clubs, and maybe- just maybe after you spend all that money you can earn more money. Than, maybe- just maybe, after you earn money you can enjoy your craft as an artist. That’s the catch-22. This crazy loop of aiming for success that just is never really sure about itself.

Starkly we are saying earn money to earn money, and forget about passion to pursue passion. I don’t know about you, but I want to cut out the middleman. Instead of trying to pay to win, I’ll pay directly to my passion. Maybe I loose, maybe I win. But, and this applies to you as well, when you gamble on yourself you regret less. Ergo, the simple rule is don’t worry about any budgeting regarding “fitting in”, when you’re indie go all-in.

What about time? Some of our generation hears stories from parents, WWI, WWII, and Vietnam vet era folks who always had more time. I’m one of those odd guys, a writer, constantly sitting down with anyone who’ll tell me their stories. Talked with veterans of the last three wars I just names (and then some). Most talked about owning houses by or around 30, raising families, vacations, and the list goes on. My take-away was that a generation ago people not only had more money, but money buys you time, and consequently time helps you organize money.

There was a time, time ago, when a hard working man (or woman) could “over work” him or herself to raise enough money that they could save money and not work for months (maybe even years you work hard enough). Take a Disney or lots of other enterprising people plucked from history who did something similar. Worked hard, saved money, built with their own investments.

What happens when over working is close or completely normalized for some? What do we do when having time to think, plan, and organize is rare and special and most people can’t afford it??? I budget sleep, entertainment, socializing. Enough years of that gave me momentum to build something real and tangible. Sure you get lucky with little things along the way, and you can make the most of every opportunity because now you’ve had time to think.

Not all your actors and crew need to be dedicating as much time as you are. If you are making an animated film you can inherit the lion share of production, find a common animation style, bring on a large crew with several small task, take on all the tasks yourself, but the bottom line is that time does not have to be a factor in animation. When it comes to live-action the same can be true. Film actor A in the am, actor B by noon, actor C in the pm, skeleton crew, shoot quickly skipping rehearsals and safety shots. You can even shoot some actors on green screen and edit them into shots. Don’t be afraid of the term “by any means necessary”. You either finish a film or you think about finishing a film. In the end the one leading the project invests the most time. You must sacrifice! I’m sorry.

Finally we need to address Competition as it relates to modern Indie Filmmaking. I’ll start with a personal crowdfunding story (leaving out the particular website). More than a decade ago I successfully campaigned and raised money for my first independent film. I was thrilled and used the success to build momentum into London and New York film festivals. If I had campaigned for the same indie film today there would be no success mirrored. I can know this with reasonable accuracy because of a similar crowdfunding campaign I launched. Without getting into specifics the campaign had 1000% more invested in it, more social reach, and even hit the top ten slot on the site in question. Directly ahead of my project was an Amazon original series that was being funded on the same site.

That’s the tragedy. When big productions, and even medium size ones, push to gain access into traditionally indie developer lanes. When I talk about medium size productions I’m talking about celebrities with a passion project that they can’t get produced under normal circumstances or small business owners that are looking to invest creatively. Nothing bad about these folks, but options that they used to seek in private investors and pooling of resources have become competitive with larger investors not traditionally interested in those markets. The bottom line is everyone is more competitive from the top down; think trickle down economics meets pyramid scheming.

Being truly independent and competitive means you can’t compete. In fact giving up is actually a fantastic idea. Sounds morose, but there’s a silver lining. Everyone of course has heard of sayings where you move to a smaller pond to be the big fish. That’s some fortune cookie philosophy that helps you succeed over your opponents. Yeah-yeah, in this case none of us can move to a smaller pond… maybe a sludge puddle or something EWWWW!!! With no options left we have to build new ones.

Let me describe a scenario for you. Person A has 100 years exp, gold, celebrities, and market reach. They offer Project A for $10. Person B has 10 years exp, nickle, celibacy, and needs to go to the market. They offer Project B for $10 as well. Project A sells, Project B does not sell. Day 2, Project A2 is offered for $5 while Project B2 is offered for Free. Project A2 sells, Project B2 has no success. Then let’s say Project A3@$2, B3@Free. Both succeed. Essentially what I’m describing is an investment into failure itself, than you invest in disappointment. Maybe you succeed enough to gain a profit or break even but the project has to exceed prior expectations you set with your audience. Expectations are also raised on you if larger productions lower their value for their product. We can see this happening even today when people can watch various free streaming services with advertisement revenue. The only way to compete with that is provide a product that equals the entertainment value of the average available free movie produced by large production companies, AND do so without advertising revenue.

Everything I described is merely “very tough” but at no point impossible. If you are passionate enough you can push forward with your art. Just remember, life is a journey. Enjoy the journey.

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