Thursday, May 13, 2010

Why Microbudget Filmmaking Sucks

Crafty on a makeshift table--a trash bin. (Photo: Anton Delfino's Craft Disservice)

Microbudget filmmaking is all the rage right now--it's the new paradigm b/c it MUST be. The old system is bloated and fiscally irresponsible.

This is what everyone's saying these days. But many of those doing the talking have never even made a microbudget feature. While it's true that we all need to squeeze down our budgets now, I rarely hear the pundits and panelists talk about why microbudget sucks.  

As someone who's made 3 microbudget features and a bunch of microbudget shorts, and will (must) continue to do so in the foreseeable future, I'd like to tell you why microbudget sucks:

1. The wages can't pay your rent. This relegates filmmaking to a "hobby"--but one that necessitates your 24/7 engagement. Paradox!

2. Tough to get experienced crew, so you have to hire and train newbies. Training takes time. A lot of it. As if my job weren't hard enough.

3. Hard to do more elaborate stuff like period pieces, night exteriors, car scenes, fantastical elements, guns, blood, dolly, steadicam, aerial, underwater, etc.

4. Hard to get A-list talent, which in turn, makes microbudget films harder to sell.

5. Craft service is often lacking (see above). Thankfully, this isn't true on my shoots (though I did have to nix the Red Bulls on Day 3 of CHILDREN OF INVENTION to preserve some dough for music).

6. You have to wear a lot of hats.  This can be a "good" thing if you get bored easily, but it can also be exhausting. Also, there can be confusion as to who's responsible for which task.

7. The economically disadvantaged rarely apply to work on microbudgets. They can't afford to! This limits crew diversity and keeps the film industry insular and homogeneous.

And to counterbalance the above, here's why microbudget is good (from a producer's perspective):

1. It's financially sound and investors recoup faster.  This is the reason cited by all the pundits, and they're right.

2. Creativity stems from poverty, or: necessity is the mother of invention!

3. You really learn how to cut the fat. Every single shot must have a purpose and be worth our time and money.

4. The fact that it's hard to do effects means that you make pure cinema.  You focus on the writing and acting because you can't hide behind effects.

5. The "circus" is contained--there's often not a ton of crew and equipment to distract the actors and director, and the leaner and meaner company can move more efficiently.

6. You get to wear lots of hats. Yes, per above, this could be a "bad" thing, but not if you like variety.  

7. Most of the cast/crew are doing it for the love of art, learning, and community...because they sure ain't doin' it for the dough!


  1. This post sort of feels like the daily cycle of frustration/payoff we microbudget filmmakers have. It's so much harder to do things on a microbudget feature but it's so much better than not being able to make a feature at all.

    Here's to someday being able to make macrobudget films!

  2. What else can one say...right on all accounts good and bad. But we love it so we do it.

  3. Mynette, This is a tremendous post and really speaks to the problems facing low-budget filmmakers.

    I wrote a post over on my blog recently about shorts; I strongly believe that the renaissance of film in the future will be a renewed appreciation/support of the short film. Short films are more web friendly (which is rapidly becoming THE primary social outlet for our lives), and they effectively cut out the problems that feature-makers who are ill-equipped/ill-prepared/ill-funded must endure to have a go in a larger scale. Lots of downscaling is occurring lately out of progressive ways of working (and in light of a stressed economy)...we're seeing tiny 4-7 people crews, small and cheap DSLR cameras that can create an image comparable to 35mm, to the influx of web publishing networks that primarily are geared towards shorts (vimeo, youtube, hulu). I think it's foolish for people to go so hook, line, and sinker over mythical tales about maxed out credit cards turned Sundance award winner, or selling ones body to science to pay for their feature...that model is already passe. However, these days its very exciting and cause for optimism. It's the wild west all over again-- we're rapidly reaching another golden age of cinema, in my opinion.

    I'm rambling! Great post, again.

  4. Without modern technology, it would be even more tough to produce a movie. Getting a feature under your belt puts you in the club. Part of the rite of passage is unlocking the secret code to getting your first feature filmed, seen and sold.

    If it were easy, then everyone would be doing it. But there is no sense making the filmmaking process more difficult than is has to be. Get a camera, create a story that allows you to express creativity through the leverage of limited resources.

    And while you're doing that, learn how to market and sell your movie online - This is the future. And the future is totally now!

    Jason Brubaker
    Filmmaking Stuff

  5. So are we back to square one? It's definitely a time to reassess. Working mostly as a 1st AD & 2nd AD for that last few years has been a tremendous challenge. I made more money when I was doing PA work than in my later years. Rates keep dropping and production companies are demanding many hats. Last feature I worked on I was 1st AD, UPM, Location Manager and Production Coordinator. With a budget of $75,000.00 and SAG signatory.

    Of course I did it for the experience and credit but nonetheless I can't remember that last time I had at $1,000.00 in the bank.

    It got to the point where I was just doing a passionate hobby, not a working career, one where I can make a decent living.

    So, I reevaluated my career and starting to focus more on producing. With the introduction of social media fundraisers and promotion, there still seems to be a huge gap. Self distribution seems optimistic but would out a serious marketing budget it could get lost in limbo.

    No one should be hindered to express themselves with cinema, regardless of medium. But lets be realistic. There is a difference between self expression and self expression while still being an entrepreneur.

    Would love to see this topic on a forum.

    Mr. Sifuentes

  6. Hi all, there's more discussion over at the Facebook re-post of this entry.

  7. Everything in this post is all too true. I am currently riding this microbudget wave and often feel it could take me under. I was "hired" late this past winter to direct a super microbudget feature. Since of course no money has changed hands it feels much more like I was recruited to execute a seemingly impossible task. I work with my husband and the benefit to us is it's someone else's money financing the whole thing and if all goes according to plan we'll have a directing credit. The down side is with three of our own scripts just sitting on our computer, we're going to have to be really creative to make something out of the story we've been given. It's a mash up of 3 or 4 popular/cult movies and tv shows. Supposedly we were brought on not only because we've made our own microbudget feature but because the producer liked our writing. Still, whenever we make suggestions we feel would benefit the story we're promptly given a long lesson on screenwriting and what an audience really wants to see.

    We put together a very tight budget and were told right away to cut it in half. We've found all the locations, but have had some difficulty securing them because the producer wants them for free. We've brought on a great DP and UPM plus we're getting two cameras for next to nothing. There will be blood and stunts in the movie but next to nothing to spend on them. I know the producer is going to try get away with not paying the cast and most of the crew. They need to be doing it for the experience, which we've got to take the time to give them. It's really hard for me to ask people to work for nothing even though I'm doing it myself right now. My husband and I started as PA's. I was a coordinator and he was an AD before we went on our own. My first coordinating job I at least got paid $75 a day.

    My husband always says we've got to work smarter not harder but really we're not afraid of the hard work. We just need for it to pay off one of these days.

    We're supposed to shoot late summer and are still at the beginning of this whole crazy undertaking. I think I'm going to draw the line at serving crafty on a garbage bin. Now that's truly scary.

    Tess Smalley

  8. I agree with much of what is said above.

    Check out my

    The Fantasy World of 'No-Budget' Films (and other non-sense)

  9. I just wrapped up directing/ad-ing/editing/etc an ultra low budget film this spring. Was the worst experience of my life. The worst part is that I could have easily raised the meager budget/equipment myself and bypassed the producer altogether. Then I could have made something I wanted to. And of course, now that it's 100% finished and done picking up some awards from festivals, producer is just sitting with the can under his ass without making any moves toward distribution. I know I'll never make a dime off of it, but I sure as fuck would like to at least get another gig. Too many fucking "filmmakers" around now.