Tips on How to Make a Low Budget Film: Filmmakeher's March Meeting Recap

By: Lesley Shannon


Making a feature film above the micro budget level, putting it lightly,is really freakin’ hard. As a part of our filmmakers meeting, we sat down with Sarah Wharton and Naomi McDougall Jones, and this is what they had to say about their film Bite Me.

Prior to Bite Me each of these awesome ladies had experience in the micro-budget level, so approaching the new endeavour of a much larger budget together, couldn’t avoid a little trial and error. So before we can go into specifics of their journey, below are basic funding options and terms as I understand them.

  1. Co-Production- Upfront money that is given to film through a country’s subsidies or incentives. It has a long approval process and is very strict in guidelines for eligibility according to each individual country, but doesn’t require you to raise equity elsewhere.You don’t have to pay back these funds.

  2. Grant- Upfront money that has be applied for through a specific organization. Similar to co-production but not applied for through a government, but an organization instead. It also will have requirements, but usually not as strict as a co-production. You do not have to pay back these funds either.

  3. Development funds- Money used to begin the initial stages of filmmaking. Money is given at the time of commitment. There are 2 options for investors who contribute in this stage.

    1. Roll the investment into the film and once funding is complete they receive 5,000 in addition to their original investment.

    2. Give them an executive producer credit.

  4. Get a rich person to donate all the funds- This is pretty self explanatory, but unlikely unless you are hanging out with people who are rolling in dough.

  5. Sales Agent- An agent for the movie that sells the film to distributors and takes a piece of the pie. Can also sell via pre-sale and provide money to help make the movie.

The process for Sarah and Naomi has been less smooth. They originally had a Canadian director, and were planning on taking part in a co-production in Canada until she was offered a position that she couldn’t pass up and had to leave the film. In doing that, they no longer qualified for a co-production and had to rethink their whole funding process. They also had to find a brand spankin’ new director in the middle of the development phase. They wasted months on negotiations with an actor’s representation for him to ultimately say no to the project. It was likely that he was using them to negotiate the actor’s value for another project and never had intentions of saying yes. With all of these sets back, they had to reschedule shooting dates which comes with a whole nother set of problems. Because of these shenanigans, they want to share with you what they learned.

  1. Trust yourself, you know more than you think you do.

  2. You really only need about 10,000 in development funds for a film with an estimated budget of 500,000. 10,000 should cover your upfront payment of 2,500 to a hire a lawyer(negotiate a flat fee with your lawyer that you pay in installments through the process) and the rest for a casting director (make sure the hire a CD for a flat rate- this process can take forever, and you will be broke otherwise).

  3. If you have any connections to well known actors, use them. It is so hard to get that direct connection to an actor when working through their agent, so anytime you can speak to them directly, do it. Having a few stars or named actors in your film is what helps you to raise money, so you are actually able to make your film, which I believe is the point.

  4. The more people you bring on in the investment process the more people that will want creative control. Having a minimum contribution level that is reasonable but high will help to keep less hands out of your cookie jar.

  5. When in the casting process and discussing increasing payment for actors, the agents should deal directly with your lawyer. If they try talking anyone else about it, let them know immediately that they should speak to your lawyer. Things are much less messy this way.

  6. You can only do 1 offer at a time for your acting roles, so again employing your direct connections to people is crucial in saving time.

  7. If you have a role for an older female character, cast them first because tragically there are less roles available for that age range. Once you have one well known on board, it helps to get other actors to join the train.

  8. Cast actors that have a following in your specific niche genre. It will help to ensure buzz and a dedicated audience for the movie from the get go. EX: If it is sci-fi cast someone who is well known in the sci-fi community.

  9. Always keep your eyes and ears out for investors. When you are looking they will materialize. Talk to people about your project and when they respond in a very positive way, write their names down. Listen to why they would be interested and keep track of that.

  10. Have a known or well seasoned producer on board for the project. It helps a LOT!

  11. Just because you have a well known actor cast in your project doesn’t mean you can share that information in a press release or public forum until all the money is raised and the parties involved give you the go ahead.

  12. Trust that the right thing will happen in the end. The people who stick around through the whole process are the right people. You just have to believe in that. Lay down the idea that any explosion in the process is your fault. It is a luxury to indulge your doubt.

Many thanks to Naomi and Sarah for sharing your story with us. It will no doubt help ease the process of making an Indie film above the micro-budget level for the rest of us.