Probably one of the most daunting things any independent filmmaker has to deal with is finding funding for projects. This is why many new filmmakers opt to make what I would call micro budget features (films with production budgets in the tens of thousands). I've done several short films to date, and all of those have been projects that my fellow producer Andrew Gilbert and I have funded ourselves. I would definitely classify them as micro budget shorts. But you can do that with short films. Most often the main expenses are some rented gear, a location or two, and food. Everything else is either borrowed, donated, or deferred. In our case, we've done a lot of deferred deals with cast and crew looking to gain more experience in filmmaking. In those cases, the act of being involved in the project tends to be payment enough with the added bonus that should the film manage to turn a profit, there could be some payment down the road.
But what about feature films? Can you do this with features?
It is definitely possible. Any indie filmmaker can list off films like The Blair Witch Project, Clerks, El Mariachi, Primer, and others. The last such film to supposedly pull off being produced on a micro budget fit maybe for a short film is Monsters. It is also probably the freshest take on the ultra-low budget movie as the film's writer and director, Gareth Edwards, skillfully crafted a story that played to the strengths of such a limited budget and circumvented many (though not all) of its weaknesses. But actually getting a straight answer on what the budget really was on such films can be hard. For Monsters, I heard while attending the American Film Market (AFM) in November that the film was reportedly produced for $10,000. NJ.com says $15,000. IMDb lists the estimated budget at $800.000. Clearly, there's some discrepancies here. It could be that much work was done on deferred payments, meaning that the film's actual budget is closer to to $800,000 when everyone actually gets the money they're owed for the work they did, while money actually spent during preproduction, shooting, and cutting the film might be much closer to the $15,000 mark. So what's the actual budget of the film?
There's a temptation for the indie filmmaker to say, "Well, clearly it's the ten or fifteen thousand spend while shooting and editing." I'm right there with you. I want to believe this is true too. After all, it's the money spent, right? But it is not that simple. Investors may not agree with this perspective. Even your cast and crew might not see it like this. It all depends how contracts were arranged for deferred payment for the cast and crew that agreed to work on the film for little or no money up front in hopes of getting money later. Do they get their money once the film is sold to a distributor? Do they have to wait for the film to turn a net profit once a distributor releases the film? Whose definition of net profit will they go by?
The investor wants to make as much money off of this investment as possible. Your crew and cast that worked for deferred payment are hoping to get a good payout from this (possibly a better payout than had they been paid up-front). Lets say you make a movie that costs $15,000 to make. But you sign deferred payment contracts with the cast and crew that states that once the film is sold to a distributor, they will get paid. And lets say that once all those people are paid, that will actually make the budget of the film $800,000. But you are proudly bragging about your $15,000 feature film, which distributors pick up on and decide that they can offer you $400,000 and it will look to you like a huge win. But, in reality, you're actually significantly in the red! You cannot pay in full on all the deferred payments you are under contractual obligation to pay. And your investor is empty handed, having actually lost all $15,000 of his or her original investment.
Now, not all contracts for deferred payment are structured this way. In fact, most investors will insist that there be clear language in the contracts that makes it certain that the investor will first recover his or her investment before any deferred payments are made. But even in the above scenario, your cast and crew would not get the money they hoped to get if the movie had been sold for $1 Million. I'm just trying to make a point here. Clearly this micro-budget business is in fact a little more complicated than at first glance.
The tricky business with these low-budget-sweethearts is that often times hyperbole drives the marketing. So while it's quite possible that a film like Monsters was in fact made for an initial cost of $10,000 to $15,000, there's also a very good chance that film actually cost significantly more than this to be made, but clever marketing likes to play that number as lower to drive curiosity and tap into the ever-present American fixation on the "underdog story." So, in a sense, the film itself becomes an underdog we want to cheer for and see succeed.
Now, I don't mean to say that there aren't indie feature films made for micro budgets like this. Such movies are made. In fact, judging from the many e-mails about micro-budget features looking for cast and crew I get each week from various networks I'm associated with as an indie filmmaker, there are a lot of micro budget features being made. It's just that hardly any of them go on to enjoy the kind of success that the above mentioned movies have enjoyed. It's a tough gig for sure. There's probably a better chance of the producers of such a film winning the lottery than actually getting such a film to be a run-away hit. But at the same time, not all producers of such films are looking to make a runaway hit. They just want a good solid feature film under their belt they can take to festivals and maybe get a DVD deal and enough niche attention that will help pave the way for the next, bigger budget feature. I'm definitely on board with that ... if the script is any good.
Those looking for the runaway hit, while their passion and dreams are admirable, are most likely in for heartbreak. Chances aren't good. In fact, they've never been worse. Since Primer, the film festival environment has been in flux. These past years of financial turmoil and the increasing use of the label "indie" by the studios as a genre (not as a business term indicating the film was funded independently of major studios) have brought some serious changes to the film festival landscape.
What does this mean for indie filmmakers like us? Want to get some attention at Sundance Film Festival these days? You better have some highly marketable house-hold names in your cast, or be a highly marketable house-hold name filmmaker yourself. I suspect, though I may be wrong, that the days of a feature film with no stars that was made for a few thousand dollars getting huge recognition from a festival like Sundance have come and gone (and likely to not be coming back too soon, sadly). What's more, I've heard it again and again: Distributors are no longer attending festivals. Distribution deals are not being made at festivals all that often any more. Why? Distributors are flooded with inquires as is. They do not need to go looking for more, most of the time.
Now, I don't mean to be all doom and gloom here. I'm merely making some observations. The truth is, there are also many new means of distributing movies these days. For our short films "Always Reaching" and "Cold October," we've definitely tapped into such new distribution means as Indie Media Entertainment and IndieFlix. Both films can be inexpensively rented as VOD in very good quality and "Cold October" is currently available on DVD through IndieFlix. That's just two examples!
New developments in the distribution of independently produced films continues each year. With more opportunities for filmmakers to make a low budget feature and find independent distribution through the Internet, the viability of making a micro budget feature and having it actually be seen by people and possibly even make back its money and maybe even turn a profit is within reach of more filmmakers than ever. Will we hit the big time doing this? Probably not. But can we possibly show our storytelling skills and build solid footing for the next step to a bigger budget feature? I sure think so!
The other question I feel I must ask, and I do not know the answer to this at this time, is this: In light of all this change in the film festival world, new distribution opportunities, and the fact distributors by and large don not seem to be going to festivals ... are festivals still relevant to new indie filmmakers seeking to get that first or second feature film out there? Or are all those submission fees wasted money? What do you think?