By Tom Wilton:
Something interesting is happening at the moment - artists are moving onto the second wave of the digital revolution.
When recording studios morphed onto laptops and movie cameras shrunk down to our phones, a lot changed. Granted, there was much lost in the mix - most notably the legacy of learning how the big, industrial equipment worked - but there was just as much value gained. Simply put, anybody - with enough skill and determination of course - could make an album in their bedroom, or shoot a film at the end of their street. A lot of hay was made of it being the democratisation of the arts.
Of course, we're used to it now. And that movement has occurred in lots of other analog industries, from industrial manufacturing being rethought as bespoke 3D printing, or indie games developers putting their wares onto people's iPhones - the maker movement is bigger and healthier than ever.
Now, as I sift through the next phase of the reinvention, especially in the world of indie film, I just wanted to take a pause for a moment. I think I need to address some of the pushbacks I've seen recently against filmmakers who are deemed to want to have it all.
Lately, I've seen a few sub-ten grand films get a kicking from people claiming that there's no way they could have been shot for what the filmmakers claim. Of course, as a rule, I don't usually give a shit about these sort of things. I've used Reddit. The world is full of jerks, naysayers and attention seekers, and so is the internet. But then, I've also come to realize that there's a lot of people who don't make their own films because they really do believe that they simply can't afford to.
Sure, some end up bitter and in the comments section of a blog or on Reddit, firing shots at those that seemingly overcame the impossible. Others of course, just invest years and years of their lives and dreams and hours of conversation with patient friends, talking about this killer script they'd make if they could just raise the money.
So I thought to myself, why the fuck are there so many myths and so much mis-information around this stuff? Why do some people think that making a film on sub-$10,000 budgets is impossible?
And then I thought maybe I should just try and debunk some of it. So here goes:
1. You need to pay union rates or you're a dick.
Fuck it, let's start with the most controversial point here - the one that every no-budget filmmaker will come up against when discussing the money.
The thinking goes that, making a film is a job. True. That within that job, you have to pay everyone a living wage. True again. That you have to pay everyone union rates. Ah - no, that's not true.
Sure, you use union, you pay union rates, and abide by any other conditions they stipulate. Cool.
But if you choose to go non-union - as many projects do (both with sizeable budgets and not), you get to pay what the talent (and I mean crew and cast here), will work for. Of course, the point of the unions is to protect workers from exploitation - something that any sane filmmaker would always advocate.
However - here's the other side of it.
What if you don't have any money? What if you're literally just asking people to film with you. To join your project, no money at all?
Of course, it gets different if there is some money on the film and you're just choosing to be a dick and exploit people - but you'll get called out, and your film will suck, and people will walk away. At least, I hope they would. Or if it comes to it, there's the internet for them to talk about the shitty experience after the fact. You, of course, can't afford for this to happen, and so for a filmmaker, ethics and reputation go hand in hand.
But what if this is a small passion project, and the actors are friends, just as involved and committed as you are? What if they're working crazy hours on the shoot, over-nighters and long weekends? Is this okay to not pay them?
Let's pause, reframe the question - what if this was a Silicon Valley start-up, bootstrapping it's way through, looking to sell the product to an investor down the line? What's different here?
I'm making no proclamations of course - these questions have to be answered on each individual project by each individual involved. After all, what if there is no compensation down the line?
Of course, to go back to the start-up analogy again, you might be getting pizza delivered to the garage where you're hacking out the idea every day, and that might be the sum of your 'living wage'. But this isn't about right now, it's about the backend - about the shares you've got in the business, and sure, they're worth zero right now, but there's a chance - no matter how slim - that they could be worth something life changing down the line. In fact, you're there because you love it, you believe in it and you want to be associated to something that fires your passion. Now change the game to film. This is what happens most often on micro-budget films. This is why most (if not all) are there.
So whether it's them getting paid $100 a day or pizza, nobody's getting rich doing it on the shoot - and of course, that's not the point. If you want to make money in film, become a producer and make $30 million movies and upwards. Otherwise, do it for something else.
Look, to reiterate, to focus on the day-wage and not the (oftentimes bigger) backend deals that the cast and crew should be signing up for is to miss the point. Yes, nobody's paying rent on micro-budget films, but that's why they're not for the fainthearted. Sure, there are always going to be bad apples - people who fuck other artists over for a few hundred dollars that they should have paid them - but that's the business throughout - not only on the micro-budget scale.
The key thing is, everyone signing up makes a choice for themselves on what they will work for and why they will do it. If they're smart, they'll book a healthy number of points on the backend, and the filmmakers will be honest and transparent because they cannot afford the bad rep that comes from being an asshole.
I know this is a utopian idea, but it's more often the truth of no-budget films from my experience.
2. Equipment is expensive.
Horseshit. I've seen this one slung around so much it's unreal. No - it's not. Sure, if you can afford to pay the going rate to rent C-stands and lenses, pay it. Because what that does is keeps the rental houses going and means that they can help some broke filmmaker walking in the store, their stomach doing flips because they worried that they can't afford to even rent a camera body.
But if you are that filmmaker, and you need a favor, ask. The rental houses are used to it, and even if they can't help you there and then, they'll most likely tell you when the best time to rent is (oftentimes weekends and holidays). Sure, it might mean you have to move your dates around, but it means you get to actually make the damn film rather than carry the excuse of a lack of money as a reason not to do it.
Money fixes problems. But so does thinking about them differently.
3. You need lots of crew.
Again, one thing I've seen people ask over and over is 'But how much did you pay your DP, your ADs, your wardrobe and make-up?' Short answer? Zero. That's because I didn't have any.
Look - a film is something happening in front of a camera. Yes, you can't cheap on certain things - sound being the most obvious of course - but you don't need an AD and a PA on every movie. You don't even need make-up and wardrobe. Sure, if you can afford it, great. But if you can't, don't bring in people that you can't really afford, and leave yourself open to claims of exploitation - it's not worth it. I mean, yes, you might want to bring someone in as an intern in these roles, but don't up-sell, over-sell or mis-sell what you're actually doing. If there's no money available, tell people. Let them decide the terms of coming aboard. Being a fraud means you'll get found out, and actually, having too many crew doesn't make things run smoother - quite the opposite in fact.
Instead, focus on what you need, on who you want to be there, and then work with it. I've worked the camera on more than a few of my own films, sound too. Sure, it's exhausting, but so what? You're making your movie. Yes, you do want to be clear to 'direct', but actually, from my own experience, that phrase is pretty subjective anyways. Oftentimes, it's better to be deep in the mix, listening to the words your actors are saying or watching their expressions through the viewfinder. After all, you'll most likely be the editor, so it's good to know what you're working with before you go into it.
4. Locations equals permits, permits equals money.
This is a big one, and much of this is about where you film and with what equipment. However, shooting guerilla doesn't always mean shooting illegally. Although sometimes, undoubtedly, it does. But don't assume that you always need an expensive permit to shoot someplace. Yes, permits can be costly (especially if they require you to have certain insurances in place as well), but not always. And again, you don't always need them.
I live in NYC, and I've shot here a lot, both for my own micro-budget films and the corporate projects I do. At the time of writing, you don't need a permit to shoot with a camera on a street. Even one on a tripod. You don't need a permit for your sound person to stand next to you, or your actors to walk and talk. You do need a permit if your closing down a street (in which case you'll need a cop and a police car on hand), and you do need permits if you're shooting in parks - always in fact.
Every city is different of course, but they all have film offices, and it's really easy to go onto their websites to check what you do or don't need to clear before you go and film. Again, there are no blanket rules per se, and they do change from time to time or for certain public events, so always check for the dates you're filming.
Restaurants, bars and stores - always check with the owner. Some cities still require you to have a permit also, so again, check. Don't be a jerk and try and guerrilla shoot it - just explain what you're doing, how long you'll be and how many people it'll be. Some say no, but in my experience, most say yes. If it's a bar, buy drinks and a diner, food. And always tip (sounds obvious, but when the budget is slim, it's easy to slip out with your heavy equipment and act forgetful). Budget for it, and be nice and you'll do just fine.
5. You need a distributor after the fact.
This is the one that irks me the most. No, you don't. As I've been saying, and many others like me (including the guys behind Layover), if you shoot on such a small amount, with limited financial commitments after the fact because your cast and crew were tiny, then you've less mouths to feed. Therefore, you don't need to chase a billion dollar return.
Instead, you can afford to handle your own marketing, sales and even distribution, as you don't need to make as much money to break even.
Look, as I started out saying, filmmakers are going through the next wave of a redefined film business. Part of that is owning the chain - making and distributing your own work. One of the drivers of that is obviously creative control - your poster choices, your film's original title (both of which often get changed by a distributor), but the other side is financial. Unless you've sold your movie to a distributor (or tried to at least), it's hard to know what the reality is. But here's two things I've experienced myself, and heard of from others as well; first - the movie doesn't have stars. Films are sold on celebrity. This is too small. And the second part of a distribution deal - should you score one - is that you don't get paid. And I mean, like you don't get paid. Ever.
People talk a lot of ill-informed bullshit about micro-budget projects and actors and crew not getting paid, and that's fine. Because it definitely happens. But those people need to also bring the filmmakers into the conversation, who don't get paid for the work they did from the distributors they sold their films to. This happens all the time as well.
So the other option is to distribute your own film, directly to the people you know and are your fans, and then take that money and distribute it properly to the actors and crew involved in the film. That's the new ideal.
I get it - this whole business depends on people being honest and forthright all the way through - and sure as there'll be more sequels made than people are asking for, people will get fucked in this business. But if filmmakers can eliminate some of those dishonest people from the food chain, then those who work on film shoots - large and small - will get a better deal.
It's a gamble, but it's also a reason why much of the fuss and fervor about the validity of micro-budget films is gas bagging nonsense versus the reality of just getting a film made and seen.
So forget the myths and make a movie.
*Photo attribution: Chelsea Marie Hicks - CC 2.0 - https://www.flickr.com/photos/seafaringwoman/7150925297/