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Micro Budget Movement and the Digital Revolution

Micro Budget Movement and the Digital Revolution

Articles - Directing

Beginning a Moviemaking Movement

The ultra-low budget feature movement started in
1992 when three filmmakers made outstanding features on minuscule
budgets. Nick Gomez’s Laws of Gravity ($38,000), Robert Rodriguez’s
El Mariachi ($7,225), and Gregg Araki’s The Living End ($22,769)
each did well at film festivals and with critics, were acquired
for theatrical distribution, and established their writer-directors
as exciting up-and-comers.

I wrote a series of articles (for Filmmaker magazine)
on these films, which included budgets and detailed production
histories. A year later I wrote a second series, which included
Kevin Smith’s Clerks, Rose Troche’s Go Fish, Lodge Kerrigan’s
Clean, Shaven, and several other micro-budget wonders. These articles
stimulated many other filmmakers to shoot micro-budget features
and, before I knew it, the ultra-low budget feature trend had turned
into a movement.

After speaking about micro-budget filmmaking at panels
across the country, I started to think about what I could do to
support the movement that my articles had helped catalyze. Since
most ultra-low budget filmmakers run out of money during post-production,
I decided to try to establish a revolving finishing fund.

I asked the advice of fellow IFP/West board member
Steve Bannon, the head of Bannon and Company (now called Societe
Generale Bannon Company), a Beverly Hills investment bank that
works with major studios and independent film companies. Following
lunch, I described a number of ideas to Steve, who did his valiant
best to stay awake. When I eventually mentioned a finishing funds
for ultra-low budget features, he snapped to attention and said “That’s
a great idea. We’ll help you make it happen.” And they did.
Steve Bannon and Beth Polish helped me write a business plan, approached
possible investors, and guided me through the process. Through
many frustrating and some decidedly odd encounters, we persevered.

I was spared further financing highs and lows after
executives at the Independent Film Channel heard about my proposal
and contacted me. They were setting up IFC Films to do feature
financing in the $500,000 to $3 million range and wanted to get
involved with exceptional new filmmakers. A finishing fund for
ultra-low budget films seemed a great way to do this, and they
decided to fully finance it. Next Wave Films hit the ground running
last March.

Many of the most talented American independent filmmakers
began by making ultra-low budget features. During the 1970s and ’80s,
very low budget films launched the careers of David Lynch (Eraserhead),
Charles Burnett (Killer of Sheep), John Sayles (Return of the Secaucus
7), Wayne Wang (Chan Is Missing), Jim Jarmusch (Stranger Than Paradise),
Spike Lee (She’s Gotta Have It), and Gus Van Sant (Male Noche).
Because they were made on such tiny budgets, these films were regarded
as exceptions, not models that other filmmakers could follow. In
the mid-’80s the availability of money from home video companies
enabled a number of filmmakers to raise $3 million for first features.
But this money soon dried up, and by the early ’90s it was
harder and harder to find money for first features. Made for $27,000,
Rick Linklater’s Slacker was a precursor to the ultra-low
budget wave.

When three micro-budget features (El Mariachi, The
Living End, and Laws of Gravity) broke through in one year, filmmakers
finally took note. With the successes of Clerks, Go Fish, and The
Brothers McMullen, the ultra-low budget movement achieved critical
mass and established a new model for filmmakers. Since then, micro-budget
feature production has exploded. I estimate that a thousand completely
independent features were made last year in the U.S. Without financing
from companies, these movies were funded primarily by filmmakers
and their families and friends. I believe that at least 80% of
these films were made for under $200,000.

Ultra-low budget filmmaking is starting to spread
around the world. In countries such as Australia, New Zealand,
England, and Canada, filmmakers have traditionally written scripts
and then sought government support. If they failed to receive it,
they went off and wrote new scripts and then applied again. Recently,
frustration with traditional government sources of financing (which
have declined significantly in countries such as Canada), and the
success of a number of ultra-low budget features have stimulated
many filmmakers to take a new path. In Canada, Lynne Stopkewich
got her first feature, Kissed, in the can without government support.
In Australia, Love and Other Catastrophes was also shot without
government support. The producer had been waiting for years for
government financing for a higher budget film. After encountering
a friend in a video store who suggested he make a film like Clerks,
he and the writer-director, Emma-Kate Croghan, decided to take
the guerilla approach. They got Love and Other Catastrophes in
the can for about $38,000. Although Kissed and Love and Other Catastrophes
both eventually received substantial government support during
post-production, they have inspired many other Canadian and Australian
filmmakers to take their fate into their own hands. Last November
when I went to Australia, ultra-low budget projects were coming
out of the woodwork. Since then, the pace of micro-budget production
has accelerated.

Looking for a Few Good Films

Next Wave Films is focused on helping filmmakers
launch their careers. We’re looking for films from first and second-time
directors with exceptional talent – the kind that jumps off the
screen. We’re seeking films which we believe have a theatrical
audience.

Next Wave Films provides vital resources to filmmakers
working at the ultra-low budget level, which we define as under
$200,000. Most of the films we receive are shot for less than $60,000.
We can provide up to $100,000 in additional funding. The other
support that we furnish to filmmakers is at least as important
as our finishing funds. We provide a range of support during post-production,
including assistance organizing blow-ups and transfers, unsnarling
music rights, and negotiating lab and sound deals. We also help
filmmakers implement festival and press strategies, secure domestic
and foreign distribution, and find financing for subsequent features.

While we are only able to provide finishing funds
to a maximum of four films a year, we do provide other support
to many other micro-budget filmmakers. We give feedback and advice
to many of those who submit films to Next Wave. We will soon be
launching our website, which will be a unique source of information
about ultra-low budget production.

The Common Features of These Uncommon Features

There are certain key things that many ultra-low
budget films have in common. I recommend that filmmakers start
out with a no-nonsense resource assessment. (see sidebar “By
Any Means Necessary” – ed.) Writing a script which requires
$4 million of other people’s money to produce is dependent
filmmaking. You could try for years to raise the money and end
up with no financing and no film. Ultra-low budget production may
be the most independent form of feature filmmaking. It allows directors
greater creative control than they may ever have again as their
budgets, investors, and stars get bigger.

The second thing that links most successful ultra-low
budget films is the serious commitment of a core group. The filmmaker
and two or three other truly dedicated people decide they are going
to do whatever it takes to make their movie.

While most of these films are financed close to home,
some filmmakers can get pretty creative and/or desperate. One example
is Mr. Vincent, a feature shown at Sundance 1997. The filmmakers
needed $20,000 for production. They had only raised $10,000 with
a week to go. Having exhausted every other possibility they could
think of, they went to Atlantic City and put it all on black. They
got lucky and won enough money to get their film in the can.

Another key element of successful micro-budget features
is a strong, unique script. Next Wave Films is not looking for
films that we have seen before. Instead of a high concept like
the impending destruction of the earth by renegade meteors, we
are looking for films that grow out of a filmmaker’s personal
experience and passions. Films like Clerks, Go Fish, and The Brothers
McMullen have a remarkable authenticity. Although they present
worlds that many viewers have not previously been exposed to, they
still ring true.

Ultra-low budget filmmakers must place a high priority
on acting. They don’t have the luxury of money to pay established
actors, they must take advantage of the luxury of time for careful
casting and extensive rehearsal.

The most important production value is good sound.
When I saw a 35mm print of Clerks for the first time, my friend
Amy Taubin, a critic for the Village Voice, turned to me and said “I
think this is the first independent film I can hear better than
I can see.”

Ultra-low budget filmmakers need to be creative each
step of the way. Before, during, and after production, they must
take advantage of every opportunity. These filmmakers must combine
optimism with opportunism.

Whatever you do, resist high concepts. When a filmmaker
called to pitch his ultra-low budget sure-thing, a cross between
Pulp Fiction and sex, lies, and videotape, I managed to resist
saying, “I think you’ve called the wrong number because I
know that film couldn’t be good.”

With budgets as Low as $1,000, Movement’s Next
Wave is Digital

Now let’s talk about the digital revolution that
has just begun. (see sidebar “The Digital Revolution” –
ed.) Last year the typical budget of films received by Next Wave
Films was in the $40,000-60,000 range. This January we started
getting movies made on budgets of $1,000-1,500. More remarkable
than the budgets was the fact that these were well-made movies.

These features were made with powerful new tools
that have just become available. Filmmakers on the cutting edge
are shooting with digital video cameras, recording sound with DAT
recorders, and using the latest software to edit, create special
effects, and mix on home computers. Each of these elements are
key links in a new digital production process that enables filmmakers
to make films in a radically different way.

The arrival of affordable digital video cameras has
created unprecedented ultra-low budget production possibilities.
For the first time, many independents will be able to own a camera
that captures high-quality issues/30/images and uses low-cost stock that
doesn’t require expensive processing.

Not only have video cameras improved significantly,
but so has the quality of transfers from video to film. These developments
enable directors to shoot on video, do post-production digitally,
and then transfer their movies to 35mm film for theatrical distribution.

There has also been a breakthrough in the quality
of video projection. The number of film festivals able to show
films on video will increase in the next few years. Using new digital
video projectors, it is now possible to screen movies for discerning
festival audiences who won’t know if they are seeing film or video.
It may soon be possible to have a feature (that was shot and finished
on video) presented on video at major festivals. If critics and
audiences are enthusiastic, then the movie may find theatrical
distribution, along with the $35,000 needed to transfer it to 35mm
film. If theatrical distributors aren’t interested, there may be
several other distribution options, including home video, cable,
broadcast, and satellite television.

The implications of these digital breakthroughs are
very significant. For the first time you can make a feature for
$1,500 that has the possibility of wide distribution. As one writer-director
said to me a few weeks ago “You mean I don’t have to be a
financier, I can just be a filmmaker?”

At this budget level, someone can afford to make
a first feature, decide it isn’t good enough to show as a debut
film, and then make another. Digital video will enable directors
to make features more frequently, allowing them to practice their
craft, take new risks, and keep improving. Instead of making a
feature on film every three years as is typical today, filmmakers
may be able to make a movie a year.

Scott Saunders won the Someone To Watch Award (given
by the IFP/West and SWATCH) this year. His first feature, The Lost
Words, was shot on Hi-8 for a budget of $9,169 and transferred
to 16mm for another $11,000. Scott’s second feature, The Headhunter’s
Sister, was shot on BetaSP (analog video), completed for $30,000
and then transferred to 35mm for an an additional $30,000. Although
it would have been unaffordable if he had been using film, video
provided the luxury of a 30:1 shooting ratio, enabling his actors
to improvise during production. In the two years since his very
impressive transfer from video to 35mm was completed, there has
been further progress in transfer technology.

Digital video was a surprising success at this year’s
Cannes Film Festival. The Idiots, the new film by Lars Von Trier
(director of Breaking The Waves), was shown in the main competition.
Few people who saw it had any idea that it had been shot on a Sony
VX1000 mini-DV camera, and later transferred to 35mm film. Festen
(Celebration), made by Von Trier compatriot Thomas Vinterberg,
was also shown in the main competition. Shot on a one-chip video
camera the size of a paperback book, it was also transferred to
35mm and shared the Jury Prize.

The digital revolution has begun. MM

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