Let’s cut to the chase: You want to have a career in the movies. You want to be a successful producer, director, screenwriter or all of the above. To do that, you will start at the bottom, by making a no-budget feature film. Spike Lee (She’s Gotta Have It) did. Kevin Smith (Clerks) did. Robert Rodriquez (El Mariachi) did. Ed Burns (The Brothers McMullen) did. And, in my humble opinion, so will you.
Now, let’s define “the bottom” and “no-budget.” As I always teach in my 2-Day Film School™, “If you want $200 million from a studio, first make a profitable $20 million feature. If you want $20 million from a distributor, first make a profitable $2 million feature. If you want $2 million from the Weinsteins or Lionsgate, first make a profitable $200,000 (a.k.a. low-budget) feature. If you want $200,000 from a private investor, first make a $20,000 (a.k.a. no-budget) feature.” You get the point.
“The bottom,” to me, is a feature film made on a budget of $10,000 to $40,000, which is categorized as “no-budget.” When you make a feature film for this type of money you are under the radar. You’ve demonstrated your storytelling ability with raw talent, have probably received a couple of first-timer awards at local film festivals, learned Filmmaking A-Z from the School of Hard Knocks and, from the screenings, hopefully attracted a private investor (Tip: have your second script in hand) for your next feature film, a $200,000, three-week, SAG shoot. (AUTHOR’S NOTE: If you can’t finance $10,000 to $40,000, then stop dreaming moviemaking. Get a day job at a $35 per hour massage parlor, a $10 per hour night job at Starbucks and a $7 per hour job at McDonald’s during the weekends. Share an apartment and save.)
Now, let’s assume you have $10,000 to $40,000 and are planning to launch your career with a no-budget feature film. Here are the top 10, universal no-budget moviemaking secrets.
PAGE COUNT • Whether you have taken a screenwriting class or read a book by Robert McKee, Syd Field, John Truby, Michael Hauge, etc. they all say the same thing: A studio feature script is 110 to 140 pages; an independent feature script is 90 to 120 pages.
Okay, let’s use some common sense: You’re an independent moviemaker. Your screenplay is 90 to 120 pages. Now, more common sense: Ninety pages are easier to shoot than 120 pages. Duh. Thirty less pages of problems. Ergo, your first project is a 90-page screenplay. Yes, it can be 91 pages or 94 pages, but K.I.S.S. (Keep It Simple Stupid). Have it formatted properly, with a superb, character-driven story that is 90 pages with no stunts, no special effects and no period costumes.
STORY & SCHEDULE • The key to producing with little to no money is minimizing logistics. Thus, you must stay in one location for the entire production for a one-week shoot. Seven to nine shooting days with a 90-page script creates a shooting schedule of 10 to 13 pages per day. Hollywood VPs jokingly say, “Never done it before? Take eight kids to a house and chop ‘em up.” Chuckle, chuckle. Now (reality check) how many times have you seen that movie? And how many careers has it launched? Bottom line: You don’t have to make a slasher movie, but stay in one location and, in essence, shoot a stage play. She’s Gotta Have It was an apartment building; Clerks was a convenience store; Paranormal Activity was a house. Got it?
DIRECTING & SHOTS • Normally, the shot selection for a medium- to large-budget shoot begins with a dolly-in close-up, goes to ultra-close-ups, then medium shots, then a crane-dolly master while your second unit secures cutaways, reactions and establishing shots. That shot order won’t work for a no-budget movie. With only one week and a shooting schedule of 10 to 13 pages per day, you have approximately 40 to 60 minutes to get a page in the can. Thus, start with a master shot that eats up 25 to 30 minutes and, if you have 15 to 30 minutes left over, get a couple of close-ups and an establishing shot. Stranger Than Paradise launched Jim Jarmusch’s career and was shot with only masters—no mediums or close-ups.
GUILDS & UNIONS • This is America. You can hire whomever you want, whenever you want and the only rules that apply are minimum wage and worker’s comp. But there are three major Hollywood guilds—Writers Guild (WGA), Directors Guild (DGA) and Screen Actors Guild (SAG)—and, when you have little to no money, you probably won’t sign with any of them. Yes, I know that every guild has a low-budget agreement and SAG even has a No-Budget Agreement (correct name “Ultra-Low-Budget Agreement”) for anything under $200,000. However, even SAG’s $100 per day rate may be out of your range. Remember, this is America. You can try to hire whomever you want. Whether they will work with you is the only thing with which you need to concern yourself.
DEFERRALS & POINTS • Above-the-line (talent) deal with deferrals; below-the-line (crew) deal with points. Deferrals, sometimes called deferments, arise when you tell a writer “I’ll pay you $20,000; $2,000 in cash and the other $18,000 deferred;” a director “I’ll pay you $5,000 per week; $1,000 in cash, the rest deferred;” or an actor “I’ll pay you $10,000; $100 per day during the shoot and the rest deferred.” Deferrals are debt obligations. Thus, be careful how many you offer and how you phrase them and be absolutely clear if and when these deferrals will be paid (after the shoot, upon securing a distributor, from net profits, etc.).
“Points” is a slang phrase for a percentage ownership. You own 100 percent of your project, but maybe you pay a cinematographer minimum wage and give him or her five percent or five points; a production designer might get two percent or two points; a sound editor one percent or one point; a dolly grip 0.25 percent or a quarter-point, Again, you are not Zero Mostel in The Producers; you only have 100 percent—or 100 points—total, so be careful with how many points you promise.
Deferrals and points are two ways for you to hire people, with minimal money, and have them feel that they’re emotionally partnering with you on this project.
CREDITS & CREW • Hollywood is a marketing industry, not a moviemaking industry. Everyone wants name recognition. Once obtained, their salary and profit participations grow tenfold. There are two sets of credits on a movie: The opening title credits, in the beginning, when 100 percent of the audience is viewing, and the rear title crawl credits, in the end, when only 10 percent of the audience is watching. Everyone wants an opening title credit. Thus, feel comfortable that you’re getting a professional cast and crew and, if they have not yet had an opening title credit, you can offer it for close to minimal salaries.
A big-budget studio shoot has 60 to 80 crewmembers; a medium-budget shoot has 30 to 40; a low-budget shoot has 15 to 25; and a no-budget (one-week) shoot has seven to 10 crewmembers. A director, director of photography, production manager, production designer, gaffer, soundman, two grips and two production assistants. Paying everyone $200 to $1,000 for the week plus, if needed, deferrals and points is more than enough if you’re offering an opening title credit.
CAMERA FORMATS • With little to no money, you are not shooting on film (neither 35mm nor 16mm) or renting cameras from Arriflex or Panavision. You are shooting with an electronic camera and renting DV/HD/HDV cameras with manufacturer names of Canon, Sony, JVC, Panasonic, RED, etc. These cameras cost $4,000 to $6,000 to buy (except for the RED which, barebones, is $17,000 but operable with viewfinder, matte box, etc. is closer to $35,000). Thus, when renting for one week, do not pay more than $500 per week (unless renting the more expensive RED, then I advise a rental rate of $1,800 to $2,000 for one-week). (AUTHOR’S NOTE: Yes, I know that Panavision and Arriflex have excellent electronic 4K cameras to rent—Panavision’s model is the Genesis. Arriflex’s model is the D-21. However, their rental rates are $4,000 to $8,000 per week, so are out of your budget range.)
LIGHT & SOUND • Stop obsessing on lighting and how beautiful your film will look. Be realistic. You have no money. All you really care about is: Is it in focus? Is it in frame? Can the audience hear the actors? Remember, every recent successful medium-budget independent film like Juno, Sideways, Little Miss Sunshine, Lost in Translation and The Wrestler has not had a single article written about the quality of lighting. Stop obsessing on lighting. You have a one-week shoot and a 10- to 13-pages-per-day schedule. Getting a scene setup, rehearsed and shot within 20 to 25 minutes only allows 15 to 17 minutes to position your key, back and fill lights. Do the best you can but don’t obsess. The key to getting good lighting in no-budget moviemaking is ensuring that you get excellent sound.
Huh? Clear sound makes your film look better. Thus, I beg you to hire a qualified soundman/woman ($1,500 to $2,000 per week), with excellent microphones, to capture excellent sound which will divinely manifest itself into giving your film a better look. Sound is the key to excellent lighting—especially with no money.
CREDIT CARDS • I’m not big on this, for I despise the way credit card companies charge 25 to 30 percent (they’re the 21st-century mafia with “vig”) with teaser three to five percent intro rates, and then push you into bankruptcy. But I’d be remiss, as the great film instructor, to not explain “Credit Card Moviemaking.” The practical phrase is “Weekend Shooting.” Possibly you don’t have even enough money for a one-week shoot, but you have a Visa or Mastercard. You call in favors, buy a bunch of burgers and fries and schedule three weekend shoots over four months. Then take your credit card (I hate writing this), rent a camera, get a soundman, some lights, buy tape stock, have a local restaurant cater and, Friday through Sunday, shoot 25 to 30 of your 90- to 100-page script.
On Monday, after working 48 to 72 hours straight, you buy cheap champagne, say goodbye to everyone, return the camera, get some sleep, go back to your day job and pay off your credit card bill.
Do it again next month, over another weekend, and capture another 25 to 30 pages. Ed Burns did it on The Brothers McMullen. Robert Townsend did it on The Hollywood Shuffle. But credit card rates were five to six percent then.
MARKETING • You must market, but to whom? There are six movie studios (Paramount, Warner Bros., Disney, etc.); six to seven mini-major distributors (Lionsgate, Miramax, The Weinstein Company, etc.); 10 to 12 independent distributors (Sony Pictures Classics, Overture, Summit, etc.); and 15 to 20 distributors who specialize in the foreign sale, VOD and DVD markets. They are busy making and marketing their own feature films. However, they know that “you,” the independent moviemaker, are making 90-minute features with your own—very limited—money. They’re all looking for you. Why are you hiding?
Even on no-budget budgets, market to the above 37 to 45 distributors that your film is available. But create a mystique. You do this with social media before and at film festivals. First, get into a festival (Sundance, Toronto, Tribeca, etc.) to which these 37 to 45 distributors send their “buyers” (a.k.a. acquisition execs). Two months prior, commence your social media marketing campaign with one- to three-minute viral videos on Facebook, MySpace, Vimeo, Metacafe, etc. Work Twitter—tweet, tweet, tweet—and get a Featured Channel on YouTube with several two- to four-minute videos, garner 10,000 to 100,000 views and the acquisition execs will come to your festival screening. Voila. This is The Blair Witch Project or Paranormal Activity.
There they are, the 10 basic points that almost every no-budget moviemaker uses. Now, permit me to wrap up with “I’m tired of being the greatest film instructor in America, with the most amount of successes from my 2-Day Film School course and being asked time and time by press, ‘If you’re so smart, why don’t you do it yourself?’” So, I’m going to put my money where my mouth is and make a no-budget feature film, utilizing the above 10 principles and have it gross $100 million. News at 11:00. The title is Boobs, the story of four boys in search of the perfect American bosom, and it will be in 3-D. New title is Boobs 3D and I bet the crew pays me to work on it. Look for it at your local theater, March 2011.
Dov S-S Simens—“America’s most sought after film instructor,” creator of the 2-Day and DVD Film School programs and author of From Reel To Deal—is about to produce Boobs 3D. Simens can be reached at