The micro-budget feature filmmaker isn’t new to film, but they are sort of an enigma. Initially I think they started out of necessity when the filmmaker could not get funding to make the films they wanted to make in Hollywood. Think about it like this: There is a system in place that is backed by wealthy financiers with the access to fund hundreds of millions of dollars into a single project. It has an educational system with a doctrine that supports its way of producing projects. It’s a business. It has unions. It has supervisors, managers, executives and presidents. It has gatekeepers.
The film equipment itself is extremely expensive. The 1982 Sci-Fi hit Blade Runner was shot with a Panavision Panaflex Gold w/ Panavision C-series and Super Speed Lenses. Since the company does not sell its camera, it only rents them. In 2015 you could rent it for $4000 per day for one camera. Not lenses. Not the cost of (actual) film. Not the crew. Not caterers. Not locations. Not insurance. Not transportation. Not lights. Just the camera. What happens if you need two cameras? So, on a 14-day shoot this becomes a $56,000 price tag and if you add a few days for pick-ups, the tag goes up from there. However, you are not a film studio so they most likely wouldn’t rent to you anyway, and if they did, you would need insurance to cover the replacement cost.
Necessity is the mother of all invention and with that adage comes the film evolution (DSLR and Mirrorless). Cameras get smaller and more affordable. Costly film is replaced with digital storage. The cost of admission just got cheaper, and the internet explosion contributed to the exponential rise and every Tom, Dick and Harry can make a movie.
Cream always rises to the top and filmmakers aren’t any different. The point I am trying to make is making movies is expensive and up until now anyone who lived outside of the Hollywood bubble did not stand a chance until today. There are a few filmmakers worth a mention who are above the fray.
What do these filmmakers have in common?
- Kevin Smith – Clerks 27k
- Barry Jenkins – Medicine for Melancholy 15k
- Robert Rodriguez – El Mariachi 7k
- Edward Burns – Newlyweds 9k & Brothers McMullen 23.8k
- Oren Peli – Paranormal Activity 15k
- Morgan Spurlock – Super Size Me 60k
- Ava DuVernay – I Will Follow 50k
Each of these filmmakers:
- Are household names
- Established themselves in the film industry
- Created films under or at 60k
- Got their start as micro-budget filmmakers to a lesser degree
Kevin Smith produced his film Clerks for $27,000 in 1994 which went on gross over 3 million domestically. Barry Jenkins’ 2008 film Medicine for Melancholy was produced for $15,000. He would later direct Moonlight and If Beale Street Could Talk, earning Academy nods across the board for both features.
We all heard the story of Robert Rodriquez and his breakout film El Mariachi, which he produced, directed and wrote for 7k in 1992. The film would go on to win Sundance and would gross 2 million. Ed Burns filmed Brother McMullen in 1995 for $24,000 and it went on to gross 10 million domestically. After having a solid career as an actor and director he returned to his roots and shot The Newlyweds for 9k. Oren Peli produced Paranormal Activity for $15,000 and grossed nearly 108 million US and 85 million internationally.
Even documentary films can get in the mix. Morgan Spurlock’s groundbreaking 2008 documentary Supersize Me was produced for $60,000. It grossed over 11 million. Ava DuVernay’s I Will Follow was filmed for $50,000 and nominated for several awards, winning best screenplay in 2011 from the African American Film Critics Association.
I have always been fascinated by these film minimalists creating works of art in the shadows of big studios. It’s a testament to what can be done when necessity directly fosters the creative process. I do think these examples are the exception and not the rule. The chances of you making a $10,000 film and grossing 100 million is next to impossible. It’s like winning the ‘lottery’ as Alex Ferrari of Indie Film Hustle podcast calls it. It can happen – it probably won’t, but there is always the possibility, right? For any wannabe, micro-budget filmmaking is the key to honing your skills and getting your film in the can.
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