Friday 14 May 2010

Zero-Budget Filmmaking: An Immense Opportunity.

When people ask me what I do, I usually say that I am a writer-director. A completely marginalized fact is that I am also an experienced producer. For everything that I have written and directed, I have also produced. I just never realized it. And as I set out to work on a new project-- I am feeling an immense amount of excitement at the prospect of not only doing something, but doing it for no money.

Is Zero-Budget filmmaking really zero-budget filmmaking? For me, to call a short film 'zero-budget' - is a film under, say, $400. And a zero-budget feature film would be something around $10,000. The idea being the short film is something that ANYONE could do merely by way of avoiding their cigarettes for a month, or cutting down on nights out, or by dumping their girlfriend. And the feature film version; I think if anyone is really passionate about making a feature film, they can find a way to save, borrow or steal a few thousand. I was just watching 'In Search Of A Midnight Kiss' - a wonderful film with a shooting budget of $2000 and a final budget of somewhere around $12,000. It's films like that which can really help inspire.

The great thing about zero-budget filmmaking is how cheap everything is. Locations: Free. Camera Equipment: Free. Actors: Free. Everything: Free. When you move from zero-budget to low-budget things get more expensive. The problem is that when you have a bit of money, you have to negotiate and barter. But when you shoot on a zero-budget the price you pay for things is anything not higher than zero.

I want to film in your shop.

Pay me $500.

No. I'll pay you $0.


It's that simple. You do what you can, when you can, however you can to make it happen. You turn up on the day and you do what is possible. And usually a lot more is possible because of the freedom of having no money.

On The Set Of Avatar: Rumored To Not Be Zero-Budget.

When you have no money, you usually have no crew, and no big lights; which means you can change setups/locations, etc in an instant. Nothing is ever set in stone. As soon as you have a little bit of money and things are paid for, things tend to get a lot more static. There are little people running around saying "I just spent two hours wiring that!" or "There's no way I can move the crane in time..!".

Locations on a zero-budget are free. One of three things happen. One, you ask for a location and someone says yes. Two, you film without permission. Three, they tell you no and you still film with no permission. Most zero-budget filmmakers will have great tales of stealing the shot -- the act of getting in and doing the scene unnoticed. And when you do get noticed, you send someone over to discuss permission, whilst the rest of you keep getting the shot.

In the last few months I have gotten to know a filmmaker who does very exciting work, he's very talented-- but he says these big sweeping statements to me about how "You couldn't do that for less than $20,000" - and it's absolutely crazy to me. "We were lucky, we got that location for $3,000" he'd say.

Having said that-- I have been wonderfully privileged with the films I have made; to be supported by such incredible people. What I've lacked in money I have made up for with the generosity, talent, and hard work of people who've gone beyond the call of duty to make the films come together. On a short film last year; we finished shooting at 4am each night and the 1st AD would drive the actors home. She didn't get home until 7am. She did this for free, she never even let me give her travel expenses. Similar stories come to mind from my very early films - when old-school friends/work friends would take time out to pick things up, make food, steal a dog for a scene, and my best friend who risked getting sacked so that we could use his work's car park for a night shoot. So many examples of people just being outrageously selfless, enabling me to succeed. People are great-- and somehow, weirdly, you see this more in people when you're doing a film for nothing than when money gets involved.

My point is - if you are stuck at home mumbling to yourself about a lack of money, or a lack of people or a lack of a location--- then it's really time to get up and get out the door. The power to make a film lies with you. The opportunities are endless.

Care to share?


  1. This is really so interesting. I am producing slideshows for my blog at the moment, who knows I just might venture into movies!

  2. You've highlighted a bizarre but entirely true phenomenon and one which I've just experiened and suffered by - even small amounts of money can 'corrupt' the process of getting a film made.

    I think it rests on the fallacy in the back of everyone's mind that movies are always expensive/financed in the millions. This then unleashes a greedy, self-interest, where people start presuming that everyone but them is making money out of what's happening. Before you know it this smokescreen takes people's efforts away from the real purpose - trying to make a good film.

    Another factor is that at the low budget end of the spectrum you have a lot of frustrated film makers and crew who (often understandably) over-estimate their worth - ie how much they should be paid. (They're trying to build a sustainable living).

    It's not until your budget gets up to about a million USD that people can MAYBE chill out a bit on this paranoia that they're being 'exploited'. Of course, even then, some green-eyed pain in the arse can kick start this kind of 'avalanche' all over again.

    Nice column; keep it comin'.

  3. Jonathan Williams16 May 2010 at 07:57

    "Diary of a Bad Lad" 90mins UK black-comedy.
    Made on less than £5,000 the film has secured a theatrical release, DVD release in all major High St and online retailers 28 June, and interest so far from 19 countries.
    But it wasn't all plain sailing. We've made the lessons we learned along the way here:

  4. I'm guessing this is all done on weekends or vacation days from the job that pays your rent and food bills?