I’ve produced four micro-budget feature films. Despite the limited resources, there are a few things that I believe keep people coming back to our sets. Micro-budget is creative power – the power to assert your filmmaking values and collaborative hallmarks. Micro-budget does not mean lack of professionalism or an excuse to be illegitimate in terms of your obligations to laws or industry standards. It can be a lot more work with a lot less help, but it can also be (in my opinion) very rewarding work in ways that are perhaps more meaningful than money. Aim to make your set stand out as a good place to work no matter the resources and you will watch your opportunities to keep making films grow.
Working with integrity starts now, at the lowest budget you have. Define your set principles and stick to them. “This is not that show,” is a common refrain when people express expectations that a micro-budget cannot meet. Define what the show is early so everyone knows what to expect and what the mutual benefits are.
RESPECT FOR THE ACTORS. Actors need a space to work that is not frantic and respects the authority of the director. Follow set protocol even when it’s a group of friends working together. The director talks to the actors. And the set is a sacred, calm place to work.
SAFETY. If you make a commitment to safety and make it loud and clear from day one, you will attract better AD’s and crew. If your AD believes you mean it when you say you will not go over 12 hours and that you will back them up when they call the day at 12, you are ahead of the game. After 12 hours there are diminishing returns on productive shooting. Don’t push your luck. If your crew believes you will shut things down on time, every time, no matter how much in the moment it seems like the shot is worth it, people will work harder for you and respect you more. They are also much more likely to be alive the next day. Many micro-budget sets believe 12 hour days or budget items like stunt coordinators or studio teachers or blocking off a street to traffic are luxuries. False. You may need to up your scheduling skills or write films without children. These are not the places you cut corners.
FOOD. Feed your people. Decent food. On time. This might mean clocking A LOT of hours in pre-production to find restaurants to donate (in person works a lot better than a cold call). This might mean spending a lot of your budget on food. People won’t expect a grand spread, but fresh salad and good fuel go a long way to making people feel appreciated and ready to work the rest of the afternoon. Don’t let cheap sandwiches and pizza tempt you because you haven’t spent the extra time to figure out a better option. Pizza is lazy producing and it will put your crew to sleep.
TEACH. Bringing young people onto your sets with less experience may also seem like it will slow everything down when you do not have the time to spare. You’re right, it will. But it will also make your seasoned professionals rise up to meet the challenge. Being around optimistic students or new filmmakers looking for experience reminds everyone why they started making films. Teaching reminds us of how to do things safely and creatively and builds community. Teaching eliminates ego. No one wants to set a bad example. When young filmmakers feel valued and get to do work on a feature that they don’t yet have the resources to do on bigger projects or their own, they invest in it as well and are marketing grassroots allies. They become ambassadors for your film – and for you. And hopefully, they move forward with integrity on their own productions because you have modeled it.
BE PROFESSIONAL. Micro-budget is not an excuse for winging it or poor preparation. Simplify until you can tell the story you want to tell on time, on budget, and with confidence. Expect the same out of the people you hire. Don’t be afraid to fire people who don’t hold these values.
GRATITUDE. What you cannot provide in resources and extra labor you make up for in being solid in reciprocity. In six months when your gaffer needs help finding a location on an indie they are now trying to direct – you pick up the phone. When your 1st AC is trying to get their short into a festival you’ve shown at – you pick up the phone. When your volunteer grips invite you to a screening of something they’ve worked on – you go. You also notice when someone is having a rough time of it on set and you ask what you can do to make it better. You say thank you. You say thank you with your passion for the work, your calm and professional demeanor, and with your continued reciprocal support. You build relationships based on integrity and appreciation and your momentum as a filmmaker will also build.