THE SKINNY ON INDIE BUDGETS
When someone says their film is low budget it can mean a wide range. Studio folks would consider $10M low budget. Film Production companies would consider $2M low budget. In my world $2M would be a generous and $10M would be a gift from God. I've produced three completely independent, truly low budget feature films - one solely as producer (ELENA UNDONE - $185K) and two which I also directed, (METH HEAD - $280K, CRAZY BITCHES - $220K). The production value on all three has been remarkable consider the restraints a small budget puts on a film, but to get there, an immense amount of sacrifices had to be made along the way. Sacrifices that with just a little bit more money would have made the films that much better.
Budget covers things like production and crew wages, SAG actor costs, location fees, permits, production design and props, wardrobe, hair and makeup, trailers and equipment trucks, camera, lighting and grip equipment, catering, craft service and a contingency for things going wrong. (because they always do.) It also covers post production - score, music, editing, sound, visual effects, color. It should also cover distribution deliverable costs, marketing and publicity, which I will address later. Notice I say should.
The easiest solution to the problem is to find material with limited cast, only one or two confined locations (that hopefully are donated by your friends and family,) and a very simple story. These things help to make short shooting schedules easier to accomplish, they control the money needed for the visual elements of a film and they allow you to work with a smaller crew.
Here's my problem. I can't seem to get jazzed about telling a story with 4 characters and a house. I'd be better off if I did. But every time I get an idea for a film the scope just gets bigger.
Crazier Bitches, my newest adventure is going to cost $550,000. Why?
Well, let's start with the SAG bill, because that is the biggest single chunk of money.With Crazy Bitches we were working under a special SAG contract because we were under $200K in production costs. This film doesn't qualify and that makes my SAG costs triple. There are 31 characters in the film. 10 are ensemble leads. 10 are strong supporting. And 12 are Day Players. The total projected cost will be around $100,000. Additionally, SAG requires that you put money, equal to the amount budgeted into a bond, which is held until the actors are fully paid. So you have to come up with the bond, plus what you pay your actors. You don't see the bond back until 6 weeks or more after the film is shot. If you are lucky, that is money you budgeted for marketing so you won't need it right away, but it probably isn't (again, I'll get to marketing in a minute.) More probably that is the money you need to do your post on the film. In my case, I can edit so it doesn't slow me down too badly. If you are relying on having to hire an editor it is a serious drag on the process. And it's still a chunk of money you have to have upfront before one frame of film has been shot.
So what happens when you have a cast that large? Every department increases. You need additional hair and makeup people, more wardrobe, more trailers, more food, more, more more! And everything takes longer - longer to get through hair and makeup, more time to block, set shots and shoot coverage and all of that means you need more days to shoot. And remember I mentioned those sacrifices? The shorter the shooting schedule the more sacrifices you have to make. So CRAZIER BITCHES is going to be an 18 day shoot instead of CRAZY BITCHES' 15 day shoot, which means actors, crew and production team are being paid for 3 more days of work, you are buying more food for extra 3 days, equipment and truck rentals are 3 days longer, etc.
So now we have an increase in SAG budget, an increase in wages, an increase in hair, makeup, wardrobe, equipment, trailers etc. You can add to that more locations, more time spent doing a company move between locations (less time for shooting), and higher locations and permitting fees.
Alright you get the idea.
I get the film in the can. I am hoping upon hope I get that SAG bond back ASAP. But I have the ability to start editing, and I'm free so there's no cost there! And soon I'll get the bond back and can pay for my post work to be done.
I've always had a good relationship with SAG. Maybe because I'm a SAG actor. But getting my bond back has been relatively painless on all my projects. Which has allowed me to get through post on a timely basis. In the hopes that that stays the same, on CRAZIER, I've raised the post budget so no fees are deferred, I can pay for songs and I can have my visual effects guy do even Crazier shit. I may even be able to afford foley for footsteps. (you have no idea how painstaking and difficult it is to lay the sound of a heel hitting the floor, under a very actively moving high heeled lady.) And finally there I will sit with a finished film. So now what?
And here's where I get back to deliverables, marketing and press. On METH HEAD we had expected to get into a significant festival (despite all the awards, for whatever reason it didn't happen). We expected because of our cast and the intensity of the film we'd get a distributor easily and an MG that would start paying back investors (Turned out there was a correlation between how intense a film is and the size of the stars. Our cast was too small to sell a film that was that disturbing, apparently). We were preparing to have to face self-distribution with no money in our pockets when we got a hail mary from Random Media. But here's the catch. The MG didn't completely cover the deliverable costs, and they weren't going to spend any money on the P&A. If we wanted people to know about the film we'd need to spend more money to do it ourselves. And we were tapped out. We were beyond tapped out, we were in debt. On top of that the film was releasing in June 2014, one week before CRAZY BITCHES premiered at Frameline. We simply didn't have the bandwidth to do it ourselves. So METH HEAD went into the world with a whisper. Almost like it never happened. All the pain of sacrifice, the favors I begged, the blood, sweat and tears that my team of filmmakers and I expended amounted to very little, because if you make a film and no one knows and therefore very few people see it does it matter to have made it at all?
I have great satisfaction in a job well done and I can say it mattered to a few people. We have been told of addicts who checked into rehab after seeing METH HEAD. And we know we have helped families of addicts to feel like they aren't alone. All of those things are acknowledged with gratitude. But when I think about how many more lives we could have impacted if we had understood the changing marketplace and the reality that smaller distributors are simply not taking the responsibility for promoting and marketing films anymore, it breaks my heart.
With Crazy Bitches I was lucky enough to get the support of donors and raise a little bit of money for marketing and it helped. I won't get into how it also hurt, since most of the people we reached through that marketing chose to pirate the film rather than pay for it. That's another story for another day. On the upside, the film was pirated so many times it was clear we had fans. And now I know how to protect the film and minimize the piracy hit for the next one. Now I also know the success of a film is directly in relationship to the amount of marketing dollars one has. There is a reason the studios spend 3 times the budget on their big films just to market them. And therefore I have budgeted a reasonable amount of money to make sure people know CRAZIER exists.
All of those things conspire to make this budget double CRAZY. It intimidates me because it will be that much harder to raise and I want to be shooting NOW!. But the script is awesome, my actors are excited and I am and shall forever be an optimist. With everyone's help I'll get there, I'll make a great movie and it will have been worth it for everyone involved. I might not know exactly how I am going to accomplish it, but I've never let that stop me before. I certainly won't let it stop me now.