Making great movies isn’t a walk in the park.
For small filmmakers, it’s about more than just budget concerns–Kickstarter has, in some ways, solved that problem–so what else affects the production of a movie? From casting to building a team, the small details are what reap big rewards down the road, So keep this checklist in mind next time you’re planning a project, and you’ll be more successful!
1. Make your ambition work for you, not against you.
When it comes to low-budget movies, they don’t have the money, they don’t have the A-listers, and, most of all, they don’t have the equipment — so how can they compete?
Aesthetics that require a Steadicam or setting up a track for a dolly shot can take a lot of time out of your tight schedule. Save the 10-minute sweeping vistas for Joe Wright and pick a style of filming that complements your final goal and is also doable on your budget and with the team you have. There are great indie films and shorts available on YouTube and Vimeo like “Writer’s Block” and “A Film About Walking in Slow Motion” to learn from. Watch some festival-winning films or shorts at your budget level to get an idea of ways to work on a shoestring.
2. Casting makes a difference.
There are plenty of great films out there that have no-name actors in them; in fact, almost all big actors started in small films. What does this mean for a low-budget film? You can get by without big names. What you can’t afford is to have not-great talent.
Put in the time early to locate and audition promising talent. Getting a casting director can actually be one of the more affordable options, because having a well-cast movie does wonders for production value. Don’t be afraid to alter script or story elements to take advantage of the unique talents of your cast. And always give the edge to an actor who is hungry. If you’ve assembled a cast of actors dying to be discovered, you’ve got a great recipe for success.
3. A good script will win you the big points.
Those blockbusters that make a ton of money in the summer (I’m talking to you, Thor) are not about the script; they’re about the special effects and the big stars. For a movie that doesn’t have those two, it can seem a little daunting–until it’s not.
A great script (and great, unknown screenwriting talent) can put a film on the next level and make a viewer forget the shortcomings that a small-budget film can have thanks to an enthralling story.
4. Always shoot a safety take.
“One more for safety” can be a joke on movie sets, but in many instances that extra take can save a film when the video hits the cutting room. After long days of shooting (and low-budget independent films always have long days of shooting), everything is going to start looking good. But the cost is always more to go back to a location and fly the actors back months later. Better to spend a few more minutes while you have everything assembled. Play it safe!
Pro-tip: Also shoot during the day whenever possible. Great lighting can get expensive at night, and shooting in empty locations in the after hours can as well. So shoot in the day, and shoot when places are open for regular business. Sure, you might get crazy ladies in the background of your shots at the grocery store, but at least it’s authentic.
5. Make sure your team is in it for the long haul.
Small films can have the money curse; no matter how much heart is poured into them, everything can come to halt at the last drop of a penny. Prepare your team from the beginning for potential setbacks because every film has them. Inexperienced crews are less likely to expect setbacks and the ones who are most likely to encounter them. Make sure to psyche them up, and also be sure to have “rain cover” — a plan B for when a location falls through or an actor comes down with food poisoning.
If you’re concerned with how your filmmaking crew will pay the bills while you’re working on your project—and you’re aware that paying the rent is a big deal for everyone—you can build in adjustment room in your shoot schedule to compensate, and it won’t totally derail your timeline.
Movies are more than just a way to express an idea; they express how we see the world. Keep these tips close to heart, and remember that in the end, good movies can get good financial backing and go from nothing to something in a split second. Just look at Napoleon Dynamite.
Cassie Phillips is a culture junkie and entertainment nerd, working behind the scenes on film sets and covering them for local internet and news outlets. She hopes these tips on what indie filmmakers should consider before starting their next project will help more small films get financed, get made, and get famous.