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How to Create a Million-Dollar Movie on a Thousand-Dollar Budget

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To succeed as a digital mogul, you need to have both technical know-how and the knack for some good, old-fashioned creative accounting. Gerald Everett Jones provides some money-saving tips to aspiring filmmakers everywhere.
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Does digital video spell free lunch for filmmakers? As with every other deal in Hollywood, there's a catch or two. To succeed as a digital mogul, you need to have both technical know-how and the knack for some good, old-fashioned creative accounting.

Shoot Now, Pay Later

To start, the writer, the producer, and the director/cinematographer all get written agreements called deferrals—promises to pay later if money ever comes. If you're making a documentary, you can follow the "reality TV" business model, which avoids using formal scripts, traditional direction, or professional actors.

Do It In DV

Next, forget about actually putting anything on film. Shoot DV, which is the new 16mm in terms of quality. HD will blow your budget, and HDV is promising, but not quite here. Going all-digital will literally save you millions. Although most theaters don't yet have digital projectors, don't worry—film festivals accept submissions on digital media. If you get lucky—and the odds are roughly 10,000 to one you won't—then you can argue with your new best friend, the distributor, about who picks up the tab for the film transfer.

Forget Spendy Actors, Employ Serious Cut Backs

Okay, you've saved the easy money, now it's time to grind like a sleazy B-movie producer of yesteryear.

Don't pay your actors. They get deferrals, too. And, don't pay your crew. Stars and experienced craftspeople generally won't defer their wages so you'll most likely have to work with talented amateurs—who may work slower, and perhaps less safely. (Be careful: Deferring wages for union actors or crew may still require you to pay workers comp and benefit contributions during shooting.)

Don't shoot in a major city. Shooting permits can cost you tens of thousands, and the cops will nail you if you don't get the permits.

Here's a really tough one: Don't feed anybody. You can afford a few bags of Cheetos, not much more. (Of course, I have no idea how you'll get anyone to show up on day two.)

The Bare Minimum

Seriously, to shoot cheap, cut back on everything. You only need:

  1. A few actors and a small crew (but feed them)

  2. One location

  3. Not much equipment (available light is a whole other subject

  4. As few shooting days as possible.

Don't skimp on sound: Rent a boom microphone and get someone who knows how to use it. Some form of liability insurance is a good idea too, but you'll need to seek professional advice on that one.

Shooting Range

An ultra-low-budget production might shoot for two to four nearly endless days over a long weekend. (It's been done.) More ambitious shoots, however, can follow one of two schedules:

  1. Two seven-day weeks with no days off (14 shooting days)


  2. Three six-day weeks with one weekend day off each week (18 shooting days). In general, adding days will multiply your expenses proportionally.

    Just as a reality check, the Screen Actors Guild defines an Experimental Movie—which permits deferrals even for name actors—as costing under $75,000. Eventually, after all the deferrals are paid, you could well have spent a good chunk of that million you tried to save.

That's the catch.


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