5 steps to making a £30k short film (on a £4k budget)
5 steps to making a £30k short film (on a £4k budget)
— a Guest Post by Elizabeth Mizon–
We’ve all been there – big ideas and creative desires, hindered only by the big hole in our pockets and bank statements. But filmmakers at all levels tend to have a way of making work…well, work. At least, they need to find ways of making work work, otherwise, they’ll never make work.
For example, Birthday Party, the project I’m currently producing and directing is a short horror-comedy that almost didn’t happen. According to the script, we need to create a cold-war era bunker full of 1960’s military equipment (that we’re not sure even exists); make 7 healthy and attractive actors – who we’re paying – look like they’re dying of radiation sickness; and convince an audience that, post-apocalypse, potatoes might begin to talk.
As a part-research, part-procrastination task at the beginning of development, I costed our film in full. It was around £30,000 ($38,650). We had zero pounds.
At time of writing, our shoot is a week away, and our Kickstarter campaign just started. Here’s some insight into how we got this far, and how we plan to bring you our story about a woman trying to cure her post-apocalyptic world by being cheerful.
Time is people is money
The politics of payment for creative work is a huge and ongoing issue, and the majority of any budget rightly goes toward paying people for their time. When people agree to work for free, you’ll each be asking yourselves: is this worth it? Producers will be deciding if the crew they hire can do what they are asking, but for the unpaid crew, there is a huge ask – what are producers and their low budget offering if not a hefty fee, and what does this specific film give them?
Birthday Party is being produced within Screenology, a new practice-led film school in Bristol, UK. Many of the crew come from the student body there, and so in place of fees, they will experience working in a context where they can get guidance and mentoring in a professional scenario, at a time when they are focused on learning about set etiquette and production process. They are also talented and well-practiced students from a heavily production-focused course, and so there is a mutual benefit and exchange of value. Once they graduate and need to support themselves as freelancers, that changes.
Our actors and freelance crew need to be paid to earn their living. Equally, some roles require people with years of significant experience in order to fulfil the needs of the job – for example our propmaster Tone Hitchcock is currently crafting giant mutating potatoes for us.
If you do decide to work with unpaid friends, students, or others ‘just for the love of it’ – transparency, reliability, adaptability, and a dynamic in which all parties benefit is crucial. Future paid crew roles, an exchange of work or help with their current project, mentoring or training – these are all options for low/no budget filmmakers. Consider it carefully.
Film offices vs. The Public
A film office is a government (or in some way official) industry-representative office, and most major cities have them. They can be brilliant at helping you find locations and resources. However, in many instances, owners of locations pay the film offices to promote them for hire and therefore they almost always require fees. Your local film office could well deliver the perfect location, but be prepared to budget for it. The public becomes a huge resource in finding locations on a microbudget.
While first searching for Birthday Party’s bunker-esque spaces, I posted a stupid Facebook status about drowning my location-seeking woes with ice-cream. It produced more than ten suggestions from non-filmmaking friends, just people who lived near me. Several of these were really great options, and we ended up securing three more locations to scout that night.
If you’re new to an area, consider speaking to business owners, or even people on the street who have lived in the area for a long time. Arts organisations, event planners, photographers, and artists of all kinds can be incredibly resourceful here.
Make rules AND be flexible
There are plenty of excellent rules in filmmaking – and, I’m sure, in your country’s legal system – that you should absolutely follow without question. Do not film in derelict cave systems without caving experts. Do not film fires in small spaces or without extinguishers to hand. Do not film on train tracks without getting permissions.
This ‘rule’ is more of a personal guideline that will be different for each and every one of us. For example, the Birthday Party script was quickly shortlisted for three big short film funds and had a huge amount of interest from potential cast and crew. Confident, we went ahead and began casting professional actors, scouting locations, and crewing up.
Bad luck saw us win none of those funds, and we then had a choice: abandon the project we’d already invested in – and the paid work already promised to the freelancers on our team – or find the best way to adapt and go ahead.
Be willing to be flexible, take your time, set harsh deadlines only when those deadlines are useful. Be prepared to change and adapt things in order to get the job done. Breaking rules doesn’t mean being unethical – it means knowing your own values, sticking to what needs sticking to, and accepting that some other things will need to be let go.
Plan ahead, way ahead
We had, of course, planned ahead for the eventuality that we wouldn’t get funded, and already had a basic crowdfunding plan in place. Other options would have been to reschedule (but risk losing cast and crew), pay for it ourselves (and risk a huge amount of stress, and potential hardship) – to be honest, this one could still happen.
Work within your parameters. We don’t know any rich philanthropists or producers, so early on we reached out to Kickstarter’s film team who gave us advice and feedback on our draft Kickstarter page. We drew on previous crowdfunding experience – not only our own but others’ too, set up a promotional schedule and reward assets (such as behind-the-scenes videos and images) and started building an audience on Facebook and Instagram in preparation. We reached out to Mentorless, which resulted in the idea to write an article about the experience of micro-budget filmmaking, which would help to promote the project…
Crowdfunding is a skill-set and a time-intensive project of its own. It can also be greatly scaled – do you simply need £250 for those essential props? Plan to have 25 personal contacts you can approach who might be able to afford to give you £10 each. Do you need to budget into tens of thousands? If so, how might you reach tens of thousands-worth of backers?
We came up with a hugely reduced budget of £4,000, which allowed us to pay for key props and locations, and keep our promise of fees to actors and freelancers who we knew were key to making the project the professional piece we envisioned.
Decide how to systematise!
Once you’ve gotten over the pain of that awful jargon word, this is potentially the thing that will most reduce stress and unease. It’s important for any project, whether dripping in cash or not, to be focused – and this means having strong and dedicated leadership, well-fitting roles, and systems in place. This doesn’t mean that leaders should be dictators – rather that it needs to somehow be made clear who is taking responsibility for ensuring decisions are made, and action follows.
Everyone will find a way that works for them; personally, I’d swear by to-do lists that are a) shared, and b) filled with small, individual, focused tasks. For my personal production work, I use Todoist, though the Birthday Party team have been using a shared app called Active Collab which we have found invaluable to making sure we all get our tasks done around our other work.
Whether it’s a weekly Dropbox or daily meetings, make sure that you develop a working process that sits well amongst your project team, sustains momentum and maintains great communication.
Ultimately, there are countless lessons I’ve learned, and a whole load more thoughts I could write about just from this project alone. The production team and I will be happy to give more if you want to contact us via social media – we have also included mentoring and items from the production such as working scripts in our crowdfunding rewards, of course!
So I’ll leave any microbudget filmmakers still reading (and not already off forward-planning for their next film) with this last tip: be diligent, kind to yourself, and don’t be afraid. If you’re nervous about starting, make three films full of conventions that are used ‘wrong’, or make three films in three days, or three films full of cliches. You won’t be focusing on your expectations, yet you’ll still learn a bunch of valuable things, and rhythms of creative work that will be useful to you. You might even have fun.
Practice failing, practice pissing people off by making that fourth phone call to nudge them, practice dealing with that and understanding that you just need to do what needs doing to get it done. And then begin your next ambitious, wildly expensive film with whatever resources you have. Good luck!
About the Author, Elizabeth Mizon
Elizabeth is an award-winning filmmaker and media activist based in Bristol. Her latest short Borders won Best Experimental Film at the WVN Film Festival in California and was nominated for Best Writing and Best Editing at Underwire in London.
More About Birthday Party
check the archives for a taste of it.