For as long as I’ve been working in the independent film world, I’ve heard many tales of the “no-budget” feature film. The concept is practically an urban legend at this point.
But is there really such thing as a true no-budget feature film that actually holds up to the standards of mainstream and broadcast distribution?
The Transition to Digital
In the late 90’s when the transition from shooting on film stock to shooting digitally fast-tracked, filmmaking suddenly became a very accessible endeavor for virtually anyone who wanted to take a stab at it.
I remember taking my first production course at USC School of Cinema-Television in the late 90’s and being excited to shoot and cut film, only to be given a fifteen hundred-dollar Sony PD-150 and being told to go out and shoot short films. It was the dawn of the new era of micro-budget filmmaking.
Cameras got smaller, post production became a DIY process that you could do in your garage or studio apartment, and budgets shrunk to virtually non-existent – if the filmmakers could get away with it.
Prior to the accessibility of digital and HD camera and post technology, a film was considered low budget if it was under a million dollars.
Today, it’s commonplace for people to shoot and deliver an entire feature film for practically nothing.
But the key word is practically.
Even if you have the wherewithal as a filmmaker to finagle all of your talent, gear, locations, crew and post based on favors, there are still some hard costs involved in production.
Things like food, insurance, hard drives and fuel will never be free, nor is it really possible to produce a live-action film without these things – although I wouldn’t put it past some people to try.
Where the legend of the no-budget feature film truly falls apart is when it comes to distribution.
There Are Unavoidable Costs
Assuming a filmmaker is able to produce a no-budget film worthy of mainstream distribution, there is a laundry list of costs involved in the delivery process, and that’s assuming everything is technically flawless and broadcast quality from its presentation format.
Even once the film passes a QC process, a clearance process, a legal process and a technical delivery process, all of which will incur considerable cost, there is significant cost incurred by the distributor and aggregator to prep, release and market a title across the digital landscape.
Distributors – and sales agents – always have recoupable costs associated with soliciting, placing and releasing your film.
On a studio level, low and micro-budget films often get expensive upgrades and makeovers before they are released.
The Famous Case Study
When I was in film school Swingers was a commonly discussed micro-budget case study.
The fact that the film had been produced for $300,000 – on film! – in its day was considered nothing short of miraculous. The line producer of the film even wrote a book, which broke down the financials and logistics of the production to show how it was accomplished.
By the time Miramax released the film, however, with its big budget soundtrack and studio marketing campaign, Swingers was hardly a $300,000 film.
Today most indie filmmakers would kill to have a $300k budget. To many that would be a comfortable or even “big” budget.
Many filmmakers are working on micro or even no budget. As a result of the overwhelming volume of micro and no-budget features that have flooded the market, it’s become tougher and tougher to produce something that stands out, even if the story and production value are of superior quality.
But Should You Still Make It?
There is also the question that arises often: If I don’t have the right budget to make a movie, should I still make it?
Back in the days before digital production, that was not a common question.
It was expensive to produce films and only the capable producers and filmmakers could pull it off. Now the arena is open to anyone with a half-baked idea and a smart phone.
So, the real answer to whether or not the no-budget feature truly exists is two-fold.
Yes, technically a no-budget feature can be produced. It just likely will never see the light of day beyond YouTube and other amateur DIY distribution outlets.
Every film requires a budget to qualify as distributable or broadcast quality. But the examples of micro-budget films that have found success in distribution are plentiful.
The bottom line is that successful filmmaking is all about knowing the rules so you can break them effectively.
Producing with no budget, however, isn’t breaking the rules, rather, it’s disregarding them entirely.
In the exhausting effort of chasing financing for your film your motivation can quickly turn to desperation, which more often than not leads to the attempt at the no-budget film.
Understanding that certain costs are not only necessary, but essential in allowing your production to contend in the very competitive marketplace is what ultimately separates the career filmmakers from the hobbyists.
To get insight on what components of your film are key to getting funding and ultimately Distribution, check out my free training, The Ultimate Film Financing Plan.