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Programs Wed 6.19.2024

What Microbudget Means and How to Do It Right

Most filmmakers only really get going when the pain of not making a movie finally boils over to the point where it exceeds the pain of making a movie. And once this pivotal point-of-no-return is reached, the accumulated velocity of ambition will not allow petty inconveniences to impede the ultimate realization of its goal. Not even a punishing lack of start-up capital–or even, it turns out, a torrential Southern California downpour choking the streets of LA to a frigid standstill.

So despite being rescheduled from February 6 due to an aggressive late-winter rainfall, Fi’s Filmmaker Tuesday session, The Evolution of Microbudget Filmmaking, finally happened last week on March 19, featuring a panel of four acclaimed indie producers and directors (not to mention Fi Fellows!) who have all managed to make big waves with their work despite microscopic production budgets. They were: Iram Parveen Bilal (Wakhri, I’ll Meet You There), Ron Najor (Short Term 12, I Am Not a Hipster), Gia Rigoli (Plastico, Anchorage) and Avril Speaks (African America, Jinn).

The panel was moderated by filmmaker Felix Werner, founder of new online creative hub HieronyVision–who sponsored the evening’s event. Turns out there’s a lot to say about the current state of microbudget moviemaking. So here we go!

First things first. What exactly counts as a “microbudget” film anyway? While the threshold for the John Cassavetes Award at the Film Independent Spirit Awards is $1 million, the panelists proposed even smaller numbers. Rigoli and Najor agreed that $250,000 and under could safely be considered microbudget. Then again, some films go absurdly low, like producer Rigoli’s own $20,000 feature Anchorage. But Najor cautions: “When you go sub-100 [$100,000] you’re pulling so many favors from family and friends, and sometimes you can only pull those favors once.” So consider if this project is the one worth leveraging those favors.

Determine your goals. Part of deciding whether the juice is worth the squeeze will depend on your ultimate objective. “You really have to figure out before you’re even making the film what you’re making the film for,” stressed Speaks. The primary success metric for her 2019 drama Hosea, she said, was social impact. This meant self-distribution with a four-walled theatrical release, which allowed the filmmakers to capture audience data for future communications. Other possible goals may include awards attention, or use of the film as a calling card to snag future filmmaking gigs–though the panel noted  that this is more likely for a film’s director than it is its producer. But whatever you do, don’t count on a Skinamarink-sized breakout success. Those are the exception, not the rule.

Business brawn. Werner asked the panelists what they felt were the most critical aspects of business to fully grasp, as microbudget filmmakers. “The technicalities of raising funds,” says Bilal. “You need to know the right kind of money to chase after. Money comes with strings.” In debating the pros and cons of film school (Debt = bad! Developing your point of view = good!) the panel at least agreed that film schools–of all types–are failing to adequately educate young creators in the financial and business specifics of filmmaking. Grown-up stuff like forming an LLC or filing tax info.

Early inspiration. Though indie film gained mainstream prominence in the late 1980s its origins–and thus, that of microbudget cinema–go way back. Werner asked which filmmakers from yesteryear the panelists found instructive in their own independent work. Rigoli and Speaks both mentioned the “LA Rebellion” movement of Black filmmakers that began in the 1970s, which includes artists such as Charles Burnett (Killer of Sheep, To Sleep with Anger) and Julie Dash (Daughters of the Dust). Najor, meanwhile, cited the French New Wave. “They were critics making the movies they wanted to see.” And of course, John Casssavetes.

Festival friction. “Be strategic about film festivals,” cautioned Speaks, who sang the praises of regional and niche-audience film events. Najor observed that many foreign film festivals are  nationally subsidized, and may be more able to provide travel and accommodations than American festivals. “Ask, ‘Can you fly me out? Can you put me up?’” he advised. Another thing to ask for? Festival waivers. The cost of applying to many different festivals can rapidly add up! It also helps to understand the differences in premiere status and which ones are valued by target festivals. Bilal, for one, was very enthusiastic about the festival ecosystem, noting the fun of seeing filmmakers evolve year-to-year at the same festivals, going from shorts to features. “It’s so inspiring!”

Acknowledge the difficulty, do it anyways. Further tips and tricks were divulged, such as the critical role Craft Services plays on set, as well as the “favored nations” strategy of paying all members of a microbudget production (often including cast) the same day rate.  “I hope at the end of this, you all want to rush home and make a microbudget feature yourselves,” said Werner. The active Q&A session after the panel–and ensuing networking reception in the Film Independent cafe–indicated that such plans were very much underway. Capping things off, the HieronyVision founder asked for the best part of the microbudget filmmaking experience. “Creative control,” said Bilal. “Community,” echoed both Rigoli and Najor. Speaks smiled. “When you finally see the rough cut,” she said.


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