Welcome to Directing on a Dime, where indie moviemaker Andy Young provides tips and insight for moviemakers whose budget is more The Blair Witch Project than Avatar. Have questions for Andy about low-budget (or no-budget) moviemaking? Ask away at .
A few weeks ago, Phil Hawkins wrote a great article about how he was able to shoot his feature-length film Being Sold in 48 hours. It’s an impressive feat to pool together the necessary resources to make a film in a few weeks, months or even years, let alone a single weekend. And though there are several reasons why they chose to shoot their film this way, Hawkins admits himself that “…we needed an angle, a story to help sell the film… a two-day shoot may have been a gimmick, but it was also powerful sales tool.”
I am no stranger to the power of gimmicks in moviemaking. Making The Legend of Action Man on a budget of $200 was actually more of a means to an end than a conscious choice. Believe me, if I’d had money to burn I would have used it in a heartbeat. But I didn’t, and I imagine that most of the people who read my blog don’t either. However, feature-length films aren’t made for less than the cost of an iPhone every day, and if that was going to convince someone to check out Action Man—a film by a first-time director with no stars, controversial humor and a shoestring budget—then I might as well exploit that, right?
Let’s face it: In this day and age it’s hard to get your close friends to watch a two-minute YouTube clip, let alone convince thousands of people you’ve never even met to spend five dollars to watch a 90-minute film. You need a hook, something that’s going to get people in the seats (keeping them there is another story, but I’m getting to that).
Shooting a movie in two days is a big deal, and anyone who has shot so much as a short film knows it. I’d be interested enough to watch a movie shot in 48 hours just to see how they managed to pull it together so quickly. The same goes for a movie like Colin, which was shot on a budget of only £45. Or the feature-length zombie film Pathogen, which was directed by a 12-year-old girl (I highly recommend Zombie Girl: The Movie, a documentary on Austin-based director Emily Hagins, who is now 18 years old). Regardless of the quality of the final product, you have to agree that the marketing and advertising for all of these films (and my own) focused heavily on the gimmick, rather than the movie itself.
And this is where most of the negative feedback comes from. A gimmick doesn’t really give enough of a reason to watch a movie. It can be a great hook, but chances are I’m not going to care about the characters more just because the movie was made for peanuts. It’s definitely a way to catch someone’s attention, but I’m still a firm believer that a good story and solid performances are what make a movie, and I can certainly understand the fear that a gimmick could hinder a moviemaker’s ability to deliver. My intentions were never to make Action Man as “that $200 movie.” My co-writer and I knew that, regardless of what we had in our budget, our primary goal was to tell a story and make people laugh. We felt that if we did it right, people would look past the things we couldn’t afford (even though Action Man’s budget ended up being one of its primary selling points).
But, in defense of independent moviemakers, even the Hollywood big boys are no strangers to gimmicks. As 3-D has become more popular in the past couple of years, many could argue that releasing a film in 3-D or IMAX has become more of a marketing ploy than an aesthetic choice. Producers certainly can’t complain about the extra couple of dollars that come with a 3-D ticket, and they seem to believe that people will go to a movie for the sole reason that “A robot will pop out of the screen!” or “Your seat is gonna buzz!” What’s more, they expect you not to just go online and watch the movie for free. They’re not selling you a movie, they’re selling you an experience that can’t fully be simulated from the comfort of your own home. Yet.
The important thing to remember before using a gimmick for your film is this: People will always be attracted to compelling characters, and your story always comes first. You can exploit the aesthetics that makes your film unique all you want, but in the end a gimmick is only a gimmick. And if you’re going to give people a reason to go out and pay to see your film, you had better give them a reason to stay in the seat.
Andy Young is a director, editor, writer and composer living in Austin, Texas. At the age of twenty, he has produced over 100 short films and one feature film, The Legend of Action Man, which he shot on a budget of only $200. Andy continues to make low-budget shorts with his sketch comedy group Dingoman Productions.