No-Budget Filmmaking: Rise of The Backyard Indie

Like it or lump it, there are a lot of backyard indies being made each year. Thanks to inexpensive production technology, no-budget filmmaking is not only possible, but has become the norm for many first time feature filmmakers, web series producers, YouTube artists and short filmmakers.

These days any filmmaker with passion and a story can make a movie. And unlike years past, backyard indie filmmakers are not prohibited by cash or creativity.

Yet despite the no-budget filmmaking movement, many of my high profile “professional” friends in Los Angeles, have made a conscious effort to ignore the rise of backyard indies. Why?

Because no-budget filmmaking isn’t real! (At least, that’s what some of the old school pros would tell you.) When it comes to no-budget filmmaking, some common questions asked by these Hollywood hot-shots are:

  1. Who signed the SAG agreements?
  2. Who contacted the Unions?
  3. Who notified the MPAA?
  4. Where is your theatrical distribution deal?
  5. Who do you think you are?

Good questions. Why don’t you go back in time and ask Roger Corman!

But the thing is, if you create a good movie – Your audience doesn’t care if the movie was an official union indie or a backyard indie made for pocket change.

no budget filmmaking

Photo © Jacek Krol / Dollar Photo Club

No Budget Filmmaking: Rise of The Backyard Indie

The demise of traditional DVD distribution coupled with the growing market domination of iTunes, Amazon and Netflix had leveled the playing field. The big difference between a $10,000 backyard indie and a $2,000,000 dollar indie isn’t the budget – The difference revolves around the film that gets the most eyeballs (and sales).

Think about it. Hitting breakeven on a 2M feature is going to require a lot of sales.

As a rough example, to recoup 2M dollars, the filmmaker will need to to sell (roughly) 200,000 video on demand downloads at $10 a pop. These first sales will cover the 40% cost allocated to VOD providers (the real winners here), after which, the filmmaker will still need to sell an additional 200,000 downloads to repay the investors.

400,000 VOD downloads x $10 = $4,000,000 minus $2,000,000 in VOD fees = the initial $2,000,000

Meanwhile, through no-budget filmmaking, a backyard indie only has to sell 2000 VOD downloads to recover the initial 10K costs.

While nobody wants to make movies for pocket change, many filmmakers still believe we can somehow continually produce unprofitable (movie) products and expect the money and the subsequent jobs to keep rolling in.

And unlike years past, filmmakers can no longer approach investors with the cliche pitch: “Filmmaking is a risky investment – if we are lucky, we might win Sundance and get a deal.”

Now, with transparent distribution options available to all filmmakers, that line of give-me-money reasoning is reckless, no longer applicable, and in my opinion, unethical. And for these reasons, no-budget filmmaking makes a lot of sense.

Aside from the initial challenge of sales and marketing, the ripple effect reveals an even greater conundrum:

How will you raise enough money to pay your cast and crew AND still pay back your investors?

I mean, what’s the new sweet spot?

How can we once again make independent filmmaking profitable?

“I CAN’T AFFORD TO PAY MY CAST AND CREW. WHAT DO I DO?”

Here is the modern moviemaking model on how to save the movie industry.

(And you thought this was going to be your typical no-budget filmmaking article.)

To survive in this ever changing world of indie filmmaking, we have to change our strategy.

Instead of focusing on making that one big awesome indie, we now need to focus on building a genre specific movie library and spend all of our downtime building a ginormously targeted email list.

Step 1: Find your top-ten closest filmmaking collaborators. Form a company.

Step 2: Write a business plan, but instead of putting all of your focus on making one movie, concentrate on making 3-5 feature films.

Step 3: Make sure that you include a sales and marketing plan for each movie. To do this, take your proposed budget for all movies and work backwards. Start asking yourself, “How many units do we need to sell to recoup our investment?”

Step 4: In this model, instead of paying freelance day rates, you’ll have to hire long term employees and provide each with a salary and back end points (sort of like stock options) on each title.

Step 5: When the title wins, you all win. Over the years, your titles will add up. And the real compensation will come back in the form of residual movie income.

While this is not a fully refined model, it’s a start.

In my opinion, creating a sustainable business model is better than ignoring no-budget filmmaking and pretending backyard indies are not real movies.

We are experiencing a time of change.

This is the indie movie distribution equivalent of the automobile replacing the horse drawn wagon.

You can choose to ignore this movement, and you can probably succeed for a few more years. But there will come a day when all entertainment will be on-demand and cheap to produce and cheap to consume.

The question is, will you ignore the no-budget filmmaking movement and continue to play your distribution lottery ticket in hopes of winning the dream deal, or will you  join the movement and help us filmmakers figure out a way to make indie movies profitable?

If you liked this article, you’d probably benefit from these professional filmmaking tools.

Would You Cast Actors Based On Twitter?

Yesterday I met with a pretty well known Indie producer. We were talking about audience engagement and how filmmakers are now responsible for sourcing an audience. I’m a sucker for useful, actionable tips. So I asked him how he engages his audience.

Actors Hired Based On Their Twitter Followers

To give you an idea of budget range, this guy produces movies around two-million dollars. And one way he builds buzz is by hiring a socially active team, especially when it comes to casting actors. Here is an overview of how he casts his movies:

  1. Hold an audition for the actors.
  2. For each role, narrow down to two equally talented actors.
  3. Choose the actor who has greater Twitter followers. (Facebook fans and email lists count too.)

He then sets it up so cast and crew continually promote the project from prep through post and into distribution. This ongoing engagement provides rabid fans with value – they get frequent, awesome updates. And from a producing perspective, this shared social engagement helps to inexpensively spread word of mouth. What do you think? Would you cast actors based on Twitter followers?

Expect The Best Outcome For Your Movie

If you do not expect the best outcome for your movie, you should quit filmmaking. But even with all the optimism in the world, crappy stuff happens. I suggest you create a Plan A, Plan B and Plan C.

As an indie filmmaker, a lot of factors can negatively impact your shooting schedule. Rainstorms, unavailable cast and crew, traffic and the occasional meltdown of your crazy girlfriend (it happens.) These events present obstacles in making your day. When this happens, you will usually go crazy for a few minutes.

Expect The Best Outcome For Your Movie

Surrounding yourself with a great team will help you avoid much of the heartache associated with indie filmmaking. Still, it is best to always plan for inevitable setback. To do this, visualize each day well in advance. Then ask yourself: “What’s the worst thing that can happen?”

Once you figure out the most nightmarish filmmaking scenarios, make sure those things do not happen.

When scheduling your movie, it is best to always have a Plan A, a Plan B and a Plan C. The name of the game is to always push your production forward. If one plan goes haywire, what will you do to make progress? The most important question to answer is this: If something goes haywire, what scenes can you complete as an alternate to your current plan?

If you like this stuff, you’ll love the professional filmmaking tools found here.

How To Create a Final Movie Budget

One of the most essential steps in the filmmaking process is to create a final movie budget. Your movie budget will outline the size of your movie and dictate how each dollar will be spent. From this information, you can finalize your business plan, raise money, hire cast and crew, make a movie – and hopefully have enough money left over for marketing, sales and distribution.

Many motion picture professionals make a living just breaking down, scheduling and budgeting movies. So this is a pretty complicated and creative area. As a first time feature filmmaker, it would be great to partner with a seasoned Production Manager or Line Producer who could guide you through the process.

But if your budget will not permit this, you will have to put on another hat and complete your final movie budget!

Revisit Your Movie Schedule

During your scheduling process, you highlighted the various elements necessary to produce your movie such as actors, props, wardrobe, stunts, transportation, insurance and craft services, et al.

Your next step is to select these elements, import the list into your budget and assign a price to each element. Once you have each element budgeted, you will add up the costs and this will give you a total for your movie.

Create A Final Movie Budget

Once you know how much money you need, compare these figures with your initial movie budget. If you find you do not have enough money to make your movie, you have three choices.

You can either get more money. You can modify your script and schedule. Or you could go through each line item in your budget and figure out where to cut costs. Each choice will have creative consequences.

Later you will utilize this information to write your movie business plan. Your plan will serve as a marketing document that outlines to prospective investors how you plan to spend their money and hopefully recoup it.

Make Filmmaking Your Business

Before you make your movie, you have to seriously decide if you can stay excited about your story for the long haul.

While the timeline is different for all filmmakers, it may take you months or years to:

  1. Raise the financing.
  2. Package your movie with cast and crew.
  3. Get your movie seen and selling.

If you aren’t willing to commit at least a half-decade to getting your movie made, seen and sold – then filmmaking may be the wrong business for you.

If you like these tips, check out my filmmaking tools.