The Happy Hustler: A lesson in creative budgeting
by Sam Mestman

Cinematographer on the roof by Blessing Yen.

If the rules don’t make sense, a hustler (and every independent moviemaker must be a hustler) knows to disregard the rulebook. The film industry stacks the odds against you, especially if you’re working outside of the system. So if you want to get your film made and then distributed with modest resources, you’re going to have to figure out a way to beat the house at its own game. With that in mind, here are some simple guidelines that will help you beg, borrow, and steal your way to success—or at least help you avoid failure before you’ve started.

1. If you aren’t paying people, the food better be good. 
One heartening truth about entry-level moviemaking is your cast and crew care less about money, and more about getting treated well. If the food on your set sucks and you aren’t paying, get ready for a mutiny. However, if you can avoid the financially-driven impulse to order Dominos/McDonalds for every meal, you treat people with decency and respect, and you create an environment where they can practice their craft creatively, you’ll be amazed how quickly everyone forgets about their slave’s wage. Good food might cost a little more up front, but acting respectful is free—and both will pay major dividends in the long run.

2. Minimize (or eliminate) money spent on permits and insurance, and use as few locations as possible. 
Keeping costs down starts with your script. If you know you don’t have any money, make a list of all the places you can shoot that you won’t have to pay to use, and tailor your script to them. If you really need a location that will cost money, take a small crew out to the location you need to steal, and do it incognito. If you’ve got a DSLR (any of Canon’s D-series cameras, for instance), pretend it’s a still photo shoot when the cops come. This might not work in LA, but you’d be surprised what you can get away with if you act like you know what you’re doing. And if you can’t steal a location, so long as you aren’t in LA or New York (but even sometimes there), approach the owners of an establishment you want to incorporate into your film. From my experience, most people will actually be excited to help. And if you’re borrowing a restaurant or bar, you can always offer to hold your wrap party there.

3. Small crews work harder and better. 
You don’t need very many people on set. Seriously, you don’t. When you get above seven or so, you’ll need someone just to manage your crew, and you can’t afford that. Accordingly, you’re way better off paying a small crew of essential people a little money than roping in a ton of people you don’t pay. A smaller crew means you’re more nimble, in large part because you can gather everyone in a small room and actually communicate with them. This intimacy leads to building a more engaged and ardent team, which will translate into fewer budget-crippling screw-ups. If you think you need 15 people on set, I challenge you to work with 10, and pay the important ones for their time (or barter!).

4. Hire people with their own gear.
If you’re cash-strapped, figuring out a way to reduce rental fees is just common sense. Instead of getting an insurance policy and wasting time with check-in/check out at a rental house, just take half the money you would have spent there and hire someone who has the gear you need. It’s easier to find these people than you think, and you’ll be getting a crewmember plus gear for half the money.

5. Wrangle your DP’s equipment list.
You’ve hired a DP named Dave. He’s fresh out of film school and excited to get his hands dirty on set. Ask him to make a list of all the gear he needs for the shoot. Without fail, Dave and his analogues will furnish an absolutely ridiculous list, replete with 6K lights and 200 feet of dolly track. When you have the list, though, make Dave get a quote for the package himself. When you see the quote, allow fear to take control of your body. But then, very politely, go through the list point by point, really challenging Dave on the necessity of each line item. Make him differentiate between “ideal” and “critical” equipment. Not only will you learn something from this equipment rundown, but if you do this together, you’ll find that the DP himself will cross things off the list, eliminating the non-essential items and coming up with creative solutions for the expensive-but-invaluable ones. If your DP really argues with you over a certain piece of equipment, let him win. But if he’s completely inflexible, don’t work with him. There are a bunch of Daves out there who can work wonders with very little.

6. Be a better barterer.
There’s nothing wrong with bartering to get things done. In fact, often times trade can be more effective than cash—especially when the cash you’re offering ain’t much. Here are a few tips on how to maximize your returns:
a. Identify or learn a skill that few people have. For instance, I’m a professional colorist by trade. I can’t tell you how much good will and favors I’ve earned color-correcting other people’s work for free (not to mention the paid referrals my free work has generated). The reason? Not many people know how to color correct video, and fewer are any good at it. In all likelihood, though, you aren’t a colorist. But maybe you’re a graphic designer or a make-up artist. You could offer to do someone’s movie poster, or donate a weekend of hair and makeup in exchange for assistance on your set. But your skill needn’t be specifically movie-related. Maybe you’re a carpenter or a mechanic. Replace someone’s head gasket or build someone a table in kind for their work on your movie. The possibilities are literally endless.
b. Own gear no one else has or wants to pay for. If you invest in film equipment instead of, say, a new car (an honest-to-god decision every filmmaker should consider carefully), you’re building real equity in the micro-budget film world. Whether you’re taking out a loan for a Red Epic or an Arri Alexa, or saving up more reasonable sums for a 5D Mark III, a few extra EF prime lenses, or a stash of lighting gear, you can subsidize your own income by renting equipment out; or, better yet, you could become an indie hero by loaning your gear to friends and colleagues. If you don’t have the thousands of dollars to put toward big ticket items, but you have, say, a little extra space, put $100 into a good cloth greenscreen and lend out your living room, office, or spare bedroom as a greenscreen studio.
c. Become a network for referring work to other people. Nothing will endear you more to people than putting money in their pockets. If you’re less of a craftsman and more of a networker, use your contacts to help people who you might need help from in the future. If you’ve read Malcolm Gladwell’s Tipping Point, you might be familiar with Lois Weisberg. She was the ultimate connector in Chicago, floating amongst myriad social groups, collecting friends and connecting them to people in other circles. If you’re the Lois Weisberg of your group, make introductions. Your beneficiaries will always remember where their fruitful new relationship started. If you aren’t Lois Weisberg yet, go out and volunteer on some sets. You’ll get the double benefit of doing someone a favor while simultaneously making new professional acquaintances. There’s a good chance you’ll learn something about making movies, too.
d. Collect lots of favors that you never cash in. This might seem counter-intuitive on the surface, as barter is supposed to be an exchange of services. However, if everything you ever do for your comrades goes on a scoreboard, and you’re always holding the tally over their heads, people will just start resenting you. Some of the best gigs I’ve ever gotten came from helping people who couldn’t help me—at the time. But as their careers advanced, a lot of the people I gave my time to freely came back months and even years later with paid work. My point here is, donating your time builds good Karma. Help out whenever you can, don’t keep score, and you’ll reap the benefits.
e. Don’t let people take advantage of you. With all this talk about building good will through volunteering, you still always have to remember that some people will take advantage of your kindness. From my experience, though, you’ll know on a gut level when you’re dealing with a snake (if you can’t differentiate between genuine and disingenuous people, then you need to do more bartering). When you do encounter someone who you’re pretty sure is trying to screw you, figure out the best way to bow out graciously before getting in too deep. The best way to back out honorably, even if you’re negotiating with a dishonorable chap, is to say you’re too busy for the project (which is usually true), and pass the gig on to someone who really needs the experience/work. Sometimes a lousy job for you will be a great learning experience for someone else. But it’s your duty to warn the person you’ve referred about why you yourself turned the job down. If you aren’t honest, you could burn two bridges.

If you take these lessons to heart, there’s a good chance you’ll make your dream project run cheaper and more efficiently. Work hard, help out, be creative, and perhaps most of all, make mistakes! If you learn from your screw-ups, you’ll just keep getting better at what you do. Happy hustling!

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