$0 Budget Filmmaking - A Checklist
Almost every filmmaker working in Hollywood today was forced to master the craft of no-budget guerilla filmmaking when they were first starting out.
Christopher Nolan made three short films before making Following for a mere $6,000. Robert Rodriguez had a lifetime of practice as a DIY filmmaker before making El Mariachi for $7,000; Quentin Tarantino was going to shoot Reservoir Dogs himself with the money he made from selling the True Romance script to Tony Scott. Before that, he made a low-budget DIY indie feature called My Best Friend’s Birthday. Even someone as established as Steven Spielberg made three low-budget shorts before making his first feature, Firelight, for a mere $400.
Anyone and everyone who is doing something in this industry started as a low-budget, DIY filmmaker – and the skills they developed over that period of time are ingrained in the way they make their movies today. It’s the ultimate prerequisite to being successful in this business, and it’s something that you need to embrace. If that's a challenge you'd like to undertake then the following checklist is for you:
(1) Write a great screenplay – Sit down and write a script you can afford to film tomorrow. If your goal is to write, direct, and produce your own films, then there’s no point in writing something you can’t afford to do or something that could require a hefty fundraising effort. This, obviously, depends on your skill-set, experience, and your ultimate ambition. If you are a VFX master, then you could and should definitely make a VFX-heavy film, but if you don’t know a thing about VFX, then what’s the point of writing a movie that depends on it to tell the story? Writing a movie that you can afford to make tomorrow will make your life a whole lot easier today and will increase the likelihood of your movie actually being made once the script is complete (even if you only have $300 in the bank).
(2) Script breakdown – List all the props, locations, actors, etc. in your script. I use Celtx, but you can use a simple Excel sheet as well; whatever works for you.
(3) Free location – Most no/low-budget films are shot outside or in the filmmaker’s apartment, or in a location to which they have free access.
(4) Free props – If you have access to a free prop that could make your movie look more expensive than it actually is, then you must figure out a way to use it in the script. That could be a car, a computer, a fancy sword, a rocket launcher, whatever you can get your hands on for $0.
(5) Free crew – You should do what you can to make sure that you have more than one person behind the camera. If you have friends or know people who need the experience, you can bring them on board as first AC, sound mixer, makeup, etc. Don’t be afraid to ask for favors; it’s a skill that’ll save you a lot of money down the road. If you don’t know anyone, you can advertise on Craigslist or on some other social media group. There are plenty of students looking for work, and while I’m sure your ad will get some hate mail (“how dare you advertise an unpaid position?”), you’ll be surprised at how many people will actually respond to these ads positively. These people want experience, and as long as you’re willing to give them a good work environment, they’ll appreciate you.
(6) Food – Take the time to make some sandwiches or cook some food for people before the shoot. Don’t ask people to work for you for more than four hours without food, even if you’re shooting in the park.
(7) Free camera – These days, any person who owns a smartphone has access to an HD camera. And if you have no choice but to shoot on the iPhone, it’s better than to not shoot it at all. There are several apps you can use as well to give you more control over your image, such as Filmic Pro (an app that allows you to rack focus, control aperture, save high-res MOV files, shoot in high-quality 4K mode, and more). If you have $50 to spare, rent yourself a DSLR camera and a 35mm lens. You can rent these online at sites like KitSplit and ShareGrid.
(8) Free permits – If you’re filming in some big cities, and you are not blocking the sidewalk or using heavy gear, you can get an optional permit for $0. All you need to do is call the Mayor’s Office and ask for a Permit or an Optional Permit. If you live in New York City, you can visit their website, fill out the form online, and fax it. While Free Permits are not required by law in New York, they are going to give you a sense of legitimacy, and if anyone comes by and asks you to move – you will have the support of the city behind you. A permit can take anywhere from a day to a few days to get, depending on how busy the city is – so you want to make the request at least a week in advance.
(9) Use natural lighting – If you’re working on a non-existent budget, you’re going to have to utilize a lot of natural light (the sun, lamps, and practical lights). You can light a scene with a street lamp, or any $10 flood light when shooting indoors. Making a short film for $0 serves as a great cinematography learning opportunity for anyone who aspires to be a filmmaker. There are countless videos on YouTube that will teach you how to light a scene with standard lights that can be found in any home. Get a silk or a collapsible diffuser to soften sunlight when shooting outdoors; you can find a decent portable diffuser for $13 on Amazon.
(10) Make it FUN! – Keeping a fun work environment for everyone can be a challenge when you have to manage 85 people on a set, but when you’re dealing with a minimal cast and crew of under 10 people, the task becomes much, much easier. Keep a positive attitude, play music, crack a smile, and make a conscious effort to ensure that the people who are giving you their time and effort are having fun! This will guarantee a positive experience and a better made end-product at the end of the day.
(11) Create an IMDB Page - It’s free; all you need to do is visit contribute.imdb.com/updates?update=title – and make sure that you have a website set up and that you have that announcement on social media because they’ll ask for it. List the actors, the director, producer, editor, and set an arbitrary release date; you can change it later.
(12) Distributing Your $0 Short Film - There are not too many outlets where you can profit from short films these days, and with your first $0 budget short film, that’s most likely not the reason you made it. The basic channels out there are YouTube, Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, and Vimeo. But there are other channels you can utilize to market and promote your short film (if you have no money for festivals, that is). Some of them include Short of the Week; Film Shortage; Fandor; Filmdoo; FilmHub; Viddsee; NoBudge; Whatashort; to name a few. You can also put it up on Amazon and either sell it there or offer it for free on Amazon Prime by going to videocentral.amazon.com.
(13) Getting Reviews - Yes, your $0 short film can be reviewed online by professional film critics; some of them will charge a fee while others will do it for free. The list includes Screencritix; The Independent Critic; Indie Shorts Mag; FilmSnobbery; UK Film Review; Film Quarterly; etc. If you happened to have made a horror film, then you’re in luck. There are hundreds of websites and blogs dedicated to reviewing, featuring, and talking about short horror films online, and they are just begging for good content. I dig into the specifics of getting reviews in the chapter on Distribution in my book, Lessons From the Set.
(14) Consider Film Festivals - Yeah, most of them are not free, but they give you one thing that is invaluable – and that is the power of networking and getting your work seen. Film festivals are the place to be for any filmmaker; it’s where you get to socialize with amateurs, professionals, industry people, agents, distributors, and like-minded people who are on the same path as you are. Film festivals will give you a great deal of exposure for a fairly low investment. For $100, you can get your film submitted to several festivals or to a single big film festival. Be strategic, be smart, and be early – the earlier you submit to a festival, the less money it’s going to cost. There are also first-time film festivals and film expos that have no entry fee. You can find these by going to websites like FilmFreeway and searching for festival submissions under $10. Now, keep in mind that if you choose to submit the film to festivals, then you’re going to have to keep your short film secret for a while. If you release it publicly, not a lot of festivals are going to accept it, so be mindful of that. Most film festivals are looking to screen films that are not available for viewing online. Also, you need to plan your festivals in accordance with your desired release date, meaning that if your film is ready to be submitted to festivals in March, and you’ve decided to release it online in October, only submit to film festivals that are running between March and October, otherwise they might overlap with your film’s release, and that could get in the way of the festival’s premiere requirement. Make sure to read the festival rules before submitting.
(15) Love Movies, Make Movies! - Last but not least. If you truly LOVE film, and if you decide to become obsessed with making them, you will! Take courses, watch YouTube videos, read blogs, books, and consume as much content as you can. Then make the plunge and make a film.