Congratulations, your script is complete! Coming up with a story and writing the screenplay is the hardest part of the process for filmmakers at every skill level. With a script in-hand, you have the blueprint for every other step of the production process. Casting, selecting crew, finding props and locations; the script is your guide to everything.
There is, however, one important factor your screenplay should never dictate: your production costs. There are plenty of examples of ragtag film crews producing action-packed genre scripts on a microbudget. Similarly, I’ve seen far too many producers spend thousands of dollars on a short film I could shoot for $500.
When budgeting for low-budget films, my advice is always the same.
Invest In People, Not Equipment
Finding the right cast is one of the most important steps you’ll take making your short film, and I don’t recommend cheaping out. If you care about the story you’re trying to tell, you won’t settle for casting your family or friends. Luckily for us independent filmmakers, casting great actors doesn’t always mean spending big budgets!
Most cities have Facebook groups full of talented amateur and professional actors that are open to working on budget films. Reach out to these groups, find a skilled actor that’s right for your film, then work out the financial details after they’ve expressed interest in your project. Results may vary, but I’ve often found that many local actors don’t require more payment than your respect, craft services, and a credit at the end of the film.
On multiple micro-budget productions, I’ve worked with my local SAG-AFTRA office to cast a union actor for less than the union rates. If a SAG-AFTRA actor is interested in working on your project, I recommend asking your local office about micro-budget film contracts.
That Means Your Crew, Too
Building a successful crew is one of the hardest things for budget filmmakers to learn. The instinct is to do one of two things: make your entire short film by yourself, or spend $400 per day on a cinematographer and ask your best friends to move lights.
There’s nothing fundamentally wrong with either of these methods. Amazing films can and will be produced by film crews of all shapes and sizes. But as a first-time filmmaker looking to produce a short film on a budget, there are a handful of choices you can make that will save you time, money, and stress when you need it the most.
Films are an audiovisual medium, but too often we hyperfocus on cinematography. Poor audio is the authenticity killer for any low-budget film project, and it’s the first thing that will stand out to your audience. Finding an audio specialist who is comfortable with the equipment, understands how to solve problems, and is willing to help the editor sweeten the film is worth every penny you can spend.
Finding Balance In Your Budget
That principle really goes for everyone on your crew. The best indie film sets strike a beautiful balance between serviceable equipment and creative forethought. No matter how much your cinematographer claims they need an ALEXA Mini and a set of Cooke primes, they wouldn’t be much of a cinematographer if they couldn’t shoot well without it.
The truly important thing is to gather a group of passionate individuals who understand what they’re doing with the equipment you can afford, can collaborate well, and can stay on schedule. This is why I sing the praises of the assistant director, an often-underutilized crew member who is guaranteed to save you the most money on your film production.
Time is money, especially when you’re feeding your cast and crew a hot meal every day. By taking scheduling and logistics concerns off your shoulders, you are given more time to focus on the execution of your film. Cinematographers, audio mixers, and assistant directors should all be of equal value to a serious filmmaker.
How To Raise Money For Independent Films
Up to this point, I’ve focused on ways to spend your investment intelligently to get the most out of your indie film budget. I believe that’s a very important topic to discuss because—as I’m sure you know—raising funds online can be a very difficult thing to do.
There is a colossal oversaturation of film projects on every major fundraising site, all vying for the same generosity of internet strangers. How can you possibly stand out?
Whether you’re raising money for your short film on GoFundMe, your Facebook timeline, or any other crowdfunding site, the most important thing is to give your audience an idea of your vision. Test footage or on-set photography can go a long way in enticing someone to click that “Donate Now” button. Even hand-drawn storyboards or images from other movies can help a great deal in reaching your film financing goals.
If you’ve already agreed to work with a stellar cinematographer or gaffer, ask to share some photos of their previous work. People interested in your crowdfunding campaign want to see your movie right now, even if they just have to fill in the blanks with their imagination!
Social Fundraising For Film Production
Your fundraising efforts will be more successful if they are tailored to the fundraising platform or social media site you’re using. While speaking to a more cinema-savvy audience on Twitter or Instagram, I recommend using language that conveys your passion for the project, the reasons you’re excited about this script, and the ways you think it will stand out.
On Facebook, however, it’s much better to talk about the people behind the project and to get their friends and family involved. I’ve had more success fundraising for short films on Facebook than any other platform, and most of those donations came from people who know nothing about the filmmaking process. Instead of going into technical details about the film, sharing your enthusiasm for the project and the people who are in it welcomes a much warmer response.
Overall, be enthusiastic! Make sure your potential investors get a sense of how fun this movie will be to produce, edit, and screen once the film is funded. Consider a donor appreciation gift if someone contributes a certain amount of money to your film fundraiser. A $5 donation feels a lot nicer if you get something tangible in return, like an invitation to an early screening.
Don’t Forget The Festivals
A common mistake a lot of independent film producers make is spending every dollar on production and post-production. Of course making the film as good as it can possibly be is important. But, what is the point of making it if nobody will watch it? You just spent a tremendous amount of time and resources making a piece of art, and it’s crucial that the right audience gets to see it.
For the uninitiated, FilmFreeway is a platform that every filmmaker needs to be familiar with. Nearly every film festival in the world uses the platform, meaning your film is just one judging cycle away from screening just about anywhere. Many of the submission fees are surprisingly affordable, and there are festivals for almost any niche genre. You can apply for Sundance, Toronto, or a festival for films about tomatoes—it’s all there!
Once you’ve streamlined your production, raised the money, shot your project, and sent it out to festivals, you’re well integrated into the life of a filmmaker. After you’ve done it a few times, you’ll get the hang of it and—with a lot of luck and perseverance—make a name for yourself. Best of luck to you and your project!
Truman Wheeler is a writer and independent filmmaker with years of experience managing, producing, and directing films on a limited budget. His projects have screened at dozens of festivals across the United States, earning him awards for both screenwriting and directing. When he’s not working in production, Truman often shares his voice in common industry channels, including CreativeCow.net and a number of contributions to Studio Network Solutions.