The year is 2016, and there’s never been a better time to be a microbudget filmmaker. Why, you ask? Consider the following.
Rural New Zealand, the early 1980s: A young man decides to make a goofy sci-fi horror comedy in his hometown using a hand-me-down 16mm Bolex, no sound recording equipment, a jury-rigged steadicam, and an untrained cast and crew of buddies, locals, coworkers, and family. Prop weapons are handmade from odds and ends. Extensive special effects makeup and prosthetics are manufactured in his mother’s oven. They shoot the film on weekends over a period of four years with a self-financed budget of around $25,000. Near the end of the production, the New Zealand Film Commission was impressed enough with the material to subsidize its completion with a $235,000 grant. The film, entitled Bad Taste was released in 1987 and became a cult hit. The director, Peter Jackson, needs no further introduction.
Imagine if Peter Jackson had access to modern day technology when he was decided to make his little movie. High-end camera and sound equipment is cheaper than it’s ever been. Film stock and laboratory costs are a thing of the past. Post-production facilities are now laptop sized. Social media and streaming sites offer effectively free marketing and distribution opportunities. The world is smaller, the gear is easy to secure, and people are watching more movies now than they ever have before. It is not uncommon to log into Netflix and see a movie with a million dollar budget on display right next to the latest three hundred million dollar Hollywood tentpole and have much better reviews. Odds are you’ve spent forty dollars on a ticket and concessions at a movie theatre to watch a movie that was made for less than the cost of an average family home.
Technology and changing tastes have made microbudget films (for our purposes, films produced for less than $500,000) easier to make, easier to market, and more lucrative to invest in. This isn’t to suggest that it’s now a walk in the park to be a filmmaker – movies will always require blood, sweat, and tears – but it’s certainly easier to do a lot with a little money. To that end, here are four lessons any aspiring filmmaker can heed from four successful (either critically or financially, and sometimes both) microbudget films.
THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT (1999)
Premise: The movie that launched a thousand found footage films, The Blair Witch Project premiered to great hype in 1999 following one of the first viral marketing campaigns. Presented as the recovered video tapes of three student filmmakers who disappeared making a documentary in the wilds of Maryland, the film finds its characters lost in the woods and beset by confusion, fear, and supernatural malevolence.
Production Budget: ~$60,000
Lesson: Naturalism is your friend. The Blair Witch Project features no sets, no special effects, no dollies, no cranes, no jibs, no steadicams, limited sound recording, and very little artificial lighting. Virtually the entire film takes place in the heart of the woods, with each location barely distinguishable from the last. Shot with a skeleton crew, the directors had very little physical interaction with the actors, choosing to communicate with them intermittently through two-way radios. The production modelled itself on the real life shooting capacity that three students lost in the woods would have, and the effect is staggering. Sometimes the actors are genuinely lost, hungry, and frightened, creating the atmosphere of intense realism that made the film such a massive success. It grossed close to $250,000,000 worldwide.
Premise: First time writer-director-actor Shane Carruth’s Primer tells the story of two engineers who accidentally invent a time machine, and then decide to use it to make themselves a little money. The consequences are mind-boggling.
Production Budget: $4,000
Lesson: High concept can trump low budget. There have been plenty of time travel movies before, but none of them approach the idea with the way Primer does. There’s no flashy visual effects or state-of-the-art laboratories. The time machine is invented in a garage, and resembles a refrigerator box covered in wires and metal plates. What sets Primer apart, even as the consequences of the duo’s temporal meddling become increasingly confusing and bizarre, is that it all feels firmly grounded in reality. It’s proof that thought provoking, hard science fiction can be about the everyday world – no flying cars or laser guns required.
Premise: In this debut feature from James Ward Byrkit, a group of friends meet for a nice dinner party. Things are going alright until they notice a comet passing overhead in the night sky. The power goes out, phones stop working, and then things start getting really strange.
Production Budget: $50,000
Lesson: Who needs star power? While not amateurs by any stretch, the cast of Coherence is composed almost entirely of actors that the average cinemagoer would be hard pressed to recognize. Shot mostly in one location and structured around heavily improvised dinner table conversations, the lack of recognizable faces and genuine chemistry that the cast exhibit (most of them are friends in real life) makes them feel like real, relatable people in a way that is hard to achieve with a well-known actor on screen – and a lot less expensive. It also makes the Twilight Zone-level weirdness that the passing comet unleashes upon them that much more unsettling
Premise: Sean S. Baker’s Tangerine made a big splash at the 2015 Sundance festival. It’s a slice of life street comedy about the trials and tribulations of a couple of working girls in West Hollywood.
Production Budget: $100,000
Lesson: Your camera crew is in your pocket. Tangerine was shot using three iPhones, a small lens adapter, and an app that allowed the cinematographer to manually calibrate the iPhone camera. It’s a beautiful looking movie, and the smartphone photography brings out a real sense of vérité vitality to its seedy Hollywood setting. The lack of investment in equipment allowed the filmmakers to invest their money in securing prominent locations and hiring extras, adding a grander sense of space and life that is often lacking in low budget filmmaking.