In recent years, we’ve seen a number of directors and producers put together successful films on a relatively low budget such as The Blair Witch Project, (1999) , Clerks (1994) and Open Water (2003) – just to name a few. But on a limited budget, it can be extremely difficult for these filmmakers to be successful in their endeavors. They must carefully follow a certain set of guidelines for a film to reach its maximum potential.
With that in mind, there are a few simple and basic guidelines to keep in mind when attempting to put together a successful film on a limited budget.
An important ingredient to any successful film is a good, quality script – which is the most critical aspect to the success of a low budget film. As evidenced through the success of Writer/Director Kevin Smith’s film Clerks, a quality script can carry a black and white film that was shot on a $27,575 budget to an enormous amount of success. The film eventually grossed over $3 million in theaters, with millions more by way of VHS and DVD sales. Due of the cult following of the film, an animated series, a comic book, and a sequel were spawned using the exact same characters Smith created for the film.
The key to writing a good low budget script is creativity and originality. With no budget for special effects, elaborate sets and desirable filming locations, a script must carry the film from start to finish. It’s the creative element that will keep the audience guessing and interested in the development of the story.
In most cases, successful low budget films are directed by individuals who are willing to take risks, are innovative, and know what it takes to put together a quality film. Examples of this are again, Kevin Smith, who wrote, directed, produced and acted in Clerks, Jared Hess, who wrote and directed Napoleon Dynamite (2004) (http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0374900/) and Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sanchez, who co-wrote and co-directed The Blair Witch project. All of these writers/directors put together an original script and played a vital role in managing and directing the creative elements that made their films so successful.
When funds are limited, having an imaginative, creative production team is absolutely imperative to ensuring the success for your low budget film. Because a film’s budget may be too small to employ a full production staff, the common roles of filmmaking are often carried out by the director or managing producer, which is sometimes the same person. In most cases, directors must get the most out of what they have to work with.
Refer back to the film Clerks – which is a prime example of resourceful production, writer/director/producer Kevin Smith filmed almost the entirety of his film in the convenient store where he worked. He was only allowed to film at night while the store was closed (from 10:30 p.m. to 5:30 a.m.), and since it is difficult to stimulate day scenes while it is still dark outside, Smith worked into the film that someone jammed gum in the padlocks of the steel shutters, keeping them closed hiding the night sky from the audience.
Another fine example is found in The Blair Witch Project, where directors Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sanchez used unconventional methods to keep the film looking like as much like a documentary as possible. These methods included the use of local mythology to capture reaction from real locals in the town where filming was done, and where the supposedly “real” events took place. They also cut down on production costs by filming in Seneca Creek State Park. The directors also allowed the “actors” to operate the camera, as they would in an authentic documentary. By doing this, the directors cut down on filming costs and made the movie feel much more like a real documentary rather than a well-staged film production – which was their main objective.
I also like how Chris Kentis, writer/director of Open Water, used cheap digital video to shoot his film. I sense that this wasn’t necessarily done to save money, but instead to make the film seem more like raw footage of actual events unfolding rather than watching a film. The result is extremely effective, as it adds an element of terror to the film that may not have been as effective otherwise.
It’s also not uncommon for low budget films to conduct post-production and editing at the home of the producer, as it’s often a way of cutting costs by not having to use a full scale studio or production office.
While it’s true that casting a well-known actor can bring a film some publicity and even a little creditability, history has shown that the most successful films are the ones that cast relatively unknown actors. That’s largely because an audience is unable to associate the actors with any other works, therefore making it much easier – and less expensive – for the director to deliver a clear depiction of the unfolding events in the story.
A good example of this can be found in The Blair Witch Project, where directors Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sanchez made a point of casting actors who had little to no acting experience. The idea was to create a sense of realism, as the film was portrayed as a documentary. The film, Open Water as well as many other films have followed a similar format to find success.
The not-so-secret way for a low budget film to find success is through marketing, and once more The Blair Witch Project is a perfect example of that. Production costs were rumored to be as low as $25,000, and an additional estimate of $500,000 to $750,000 was added to create a sound mix and re-shoot a few scenes after Artisan Entertainment bought the licensing rights to the film.
Though Artisan put a lot of money towards marketing the film, its success was a direct result of the innovative way producers carried out the task. Buzz about the film was largely generated on the Internet, a website that was created a year before the film was even released. Once the media began to pick up on the cyber buzz, it began picking up steam on the radio and television. And because the film was pegged as a documentary about three young adults who are eventually killed in the film, the production staff kept the young actors from making any public appearances prior to the films release to make it appear as authentic as possible. The end result was a film that grossed over $248 million worldwide and has the highest ratio of office sales to production cost in American film making history.
So there you have it, five simple steps towards making a successful film on a small budget. Of course, filmmaking is never an exact science, and it often takes the creative expertise of many individuals for a film to reach its maximum potential. But as filmmakers continue to find new and inventive ways to get the most out of their production budget, we can expect to see more and more quality films that have been shot and produced with only a small amount of financing.
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Andrew is a Raindance intern and contributor to the raindance newsletter. He’s studying Journalism at Syracuse University and enjoys writing, film and writing about film.
He hopes to one day be an "big shot" journalist.
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