Making my low budget feature film, Earshot, was groundbreaking and exciting. And it was also a huge learning experience. It was the first time a feature film would hit the big screen with only one actor on screen for the entire duration.
Making the choice to shoot a low budget feature on film (not video), I knew I needed an actor who could give an engaging performance for long, choreographed shots, without needing multiple takes. Vincent Cheatham, a seasoned stage actor, was perfect. Being a good friend, he was also flexible enough to do the job for the little money I could afford to pay.
Making A Low Budget Feature
My goal was to make money self-distributing to small theaters. My production plan was strong and well-executed. I had a great team who loved the concept and believed in me. Within a few months of planning and ten shooting days, my film was in the can.
Then my post-production money fell through…
My film was at the lab. I hadn’t seen all the footage. And I had no way to get it out. My biggest mistake in making this low budget feature was my budget. I had budgeted the MONEY IN THE BANK on production and MONEY I THOUGHT I HAD COMING, on post production, marketing, and distribution.
The “thought” money did not materialize, so I spent six months raising just enough to get my film out of the lab. The money I raised wasn’t enough to pay the post production special effects person I had hired to do critical CGI. So I was forced to learn how to do it myself.
Between my day job and that learning curve, it took me two years to finish the rough cut.
The big challenge I faced in making a low budget feature, was that my film was becoming dated. For example, the main character used a flip phone and online instant messaging. In real life, smart phones and Facebook was becoming the norm.
Despite these challenges, Earshot was well-received in a few festivals and three independently-owned theaters. It made part of its money back and earned a distribution deal with a distributor. I received no upfront money on the deal, because I didn’t cast recognizable actors.
I went with the deal anyway. Because I had already spent only 50k and made some of it back, I thought the exposure the distributor would provide would be worth it. I later learned the distributor actually depended on me to continue marketing and promoting the way I had been. They didn’t tell me that.
Without my “thought” money, my self-marketing and distribution had slowed down. The distributor picked-up a bigger film, with more stars and momentum. So my low budget feature became an afterthought.
At that point, I still felt good about having accomplished what a very low percentage of independent filmmakers achieve. I finished an independent feature film for less than $50,000 and got a distribution deal. But at the end of the day, I learned some hard lessons.
Five Lessons I Learned Making The Film
Here are five things I would change if I had a do-over:
1) When making a low budget feature, make sure to allocate sufficient funds up front for post-production and marketing. Money you think you have coming later is not real and should not be added to the budget until it becomes money in the bank. Allocate sufficient funds for marketing, including an estimated amount for festival entry fees.
2) History is for the books, but entertainment is for the screen. Keep the spirit of innovation when telling stories. Continue the effort to make a mark in history, but give the audience a better balance between artistry and entertainment.
3) When relying on others to bring make-or-break elements to the production, like special effects, key music, or stylistic editing, set design, or cinematography, do the due diligence to make sure they are well taken care of, and have a really good backup plan.
4) When making a low budget feature, don’t assume that there’s not enough money in the budget for a named actors or other marketable assets. If there is at least something to offer in exchange, ask anyway, because you never know. The answer just might be yes, and that yes might increase the movie’s marketability.
For example, aside from the one on-screen character in Earshot, there were sixteen voice over characters to fill the “earshot” environment. The small budget may have afforded two or three actors with recognizable names to do voice over parts. Very little of their time would have been required, and for the small compensation along with an exciting story concept, someone with a fan base may have done it.
5) When making a low budget feature, flaws are NOT negative. Make perfect the parts that can be flawless, and those that don’t turn out that way, remember this… Movies are like people. Sometimes it’s the imperfections that make uniquely what they are.
Despite the challenge of making a low budget feature, I was proud of what I accomplished with Earshot, but I learned that pride, passion, and a great concept only get a filmmaker so far.
Keith Hampton has built his career by writing, producing, directing, and editing independent films and music videos; teaching filmmaking in high school and middle school in Miami and Atlanta; conducting screenwriting workshop series at colleges and universities; and writing the film portion of the first film and entertainment curriculum for the largest county in the United States, Miami-Dade County. He has written 12 screenplays, including five features and seven shorts.