February 18, 2016

From A to Z: How to Get Your Micro-Budget Feature in Front of as Many Eyeballs as Possible

I believe every film has its own path -- some are just more narrow and curvy and bumpy than others. 

My name's Marcus Mizelle, writer, director and producer of industry satire Actor For Hire. To get our movie to a sustainable place and with a very limited amount of money to work with required a very specific set of adjustments and expectations from the very beginning. We had $50K to spend on the entire thing which had to cover prep, shooting, post, marketing and delivery. The overall objectives with this project were to 1.) raise the career profiles of all involved, 2.) tell an authentic yet colorful story of a struggling actor in Hollywood, and 3.) increase chances of return on investment with a creative campaign and low overhead.

Here's how we did it -- from A to Z:

3 quick things to remember throughout your entire process -- obvious but crucial:

  • Be determined: Every "no" is only temporary. Incentivize people to get what you need.
  • Be creative: Especially once the film itself is complete. Getting people to care about and eventually buy the film is the real trick.
  • Be grateful: Appreciation for the many helping hands and favors along the way is a no-brainer.

A to Z

A: ABSORB & READ UP: Learn everything you can from sites that target the low and micro budget filmmaker. Soak up everything and make your own assessments -- apply what feels right to what you think your brand of filmmaking is. Know your strengths as a filmmaker and play to them.

B: BRAINSTORM: Decide on a strong, clear concept, characters and story world. Also think about genre, subgenre(s), culture, etc. Start small and write the first 5-10 pages first. Also look at similar films that have found success and use them as inspiration. As soon as I realized our film was about persona and could benefit from accessing disguise comedy elements, I soaked up films such as Tootsie and Some Like It Hot. Also take inspiration from real life: I did so by deciding to write a story around my friend and actor Jesse O'Neill, who was a struggling actor at the time. A likable guy who just can't catch a break is Comedy 101.

C: CASH OUT & MAKE A WEB SERIES PILOT: With whatever money you have or can raise, bring it to life and find your tone, story potential, etc. Make a second episode as well. We raised around $500 on Kickstarter.

D: DEVELOP THE SCRIPT & SCHEDULE: Write the best feature length screenplay you possibly can, because it will make or break the final product. It will also help determine who will ultimately decide to work with you along the way, especially since you can't pay much, if anything. Plus, it's free. Diligence and creativity cost $0. Use what you got -- I already knew most of the main actors beforehand and had them in mind as I wrote their mannerisms and likely dialogue. Also break the script apart and schedule, as usual.

E: EMAIL EVERYONE & SET UP A FACEBOOK PAGE: Reach out to the universe for help; in other words, start Facebooking and sending out emails. When I decided to move forward with the feature, I put a post out that said, "I'm making a movie this year, who's coming with me?" Next thing I know, an old Kinston, NC friend, Dustin Taylor, was the investor. Also start a Facebook page for the film and try to promote. Hope for at least 5 likes per post. Sad, I know.

F: FULLY REALIZE THE ENTIRE BUDGET: Think about what comes after the film is completed. Think about film festival submission fees, promotion expenses, shipping costs, DCPs, a publicist for the premiere, constant printing of flyers/posters/promos, etc. -- there is never enough money, but at the very least, don't make a movie no one knows about. We spent about $14K on actual production and the rest on post and marketing. It was the key difference in our success.

G: GET THE BEST CAST POSSIBLE: Other than the parts I wrote specifically for actors I already knew (such as Jesse O'Neill, Joel Hogan, Jandres Burgos, Hollie Shay), there were many day players throughout the film. I used LA Casting which is a free service on the producers end and proved time and time again to be invaluable, as long as I was descriptive and provided incentive to the non-union actors that sent in audition videos and head shots. It's a lot of work but there are many talented actors out there who just simply want to work, especially here in LA. I also had everyone keep their real first name and told them they are simply playing a version of themselves. This ensured authenticity.

H: HAVE & MAINTAIN A RESOURCEFUL MINDSET: Use the web series pilot and its second episode as the first 10 minutes of the actual film. That's 10 minutes you don't have to shoot. This was always part of the plan. We made sure we shot on the same camera (RED Scarlet) and matched as much as we could. We also already had a template for tone and style to draw upon, but we certainly focused on making it better as we went along.

I: INCENTIVIZE EVERYONE INVOLVED & MAXIMIZE PRODUCTION: It's important to think about how you're going to shoot before you're on set. Be realistic and know your limitations. Due to cast and location availability, I knew we would have to shoot in chunks as opposed to the traditional all-at-once way. 3-4 day chunks, with a week and a half prep in between. So a lot of pre-production happened simultaneously with production. I also knew that our only realistic option for shooting was to have a documentary-sized crew- essentially a tiny splinter unit the whole way. We used 3 LED lights and kept the camera on sticks. The 3-person crew was made up of myself, the DP and the Sound Mixer/Boom Op. When the DP couldn't make it, I shot it. I told myself to just do it, because the movie's already not going to be "perfect", whatever that is. What is most important is getting it done, because guess what -- there's a lot left to do. (We're only on "I"!) As for locations and cast availability changing, be flexible and expect it, especially when you have no real money to pay anyone. Replace who/where/what if needed to get it done.

J: JAZZ IT UP: Try your very best to excite people about the movie and to get them behind you and your team's hard work. Email everyone connected to the film (and one degree away), and begin building an e-newsletter. Also continue promoting on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter. Send thank you emails to everyone that has helped so far. Be creative. Always progress each email and post -- each MUST be better/more progressive than the last. And be grateful! (It's important to note that producer Jillian Longnecker pulled favors for most of the post production. I calculate we saved about $10K because of this.)

K: KEEP MOVING FORWARD UNTIL THE FILM IS COMPLETED: Score, sound mix, color timing, editing, test screenings, etc. Just keep your head down, your ego out of it, and do one thing at a time. Don't get discouraged and never put anything off for another day, because you will want to, especially if you have to do it all yourself. Keep an open mind during feedback -- you won't see everything that others might. But know what you want.

L: LAURELS: Submit to film festivals. It was always our plan to submit to an absurd amount -- the name of the game with this project was always to build a pedigree (screen anywhere anyone would invite us to, and hopefully have the laurels build up on our artwork as we moved forward).

M: MARKET THE MOVIE: Artwork and your trailer are everything. Get these going and make sure to knock them both out of the park. They are the 2 most important pieces of marketing you will have the rest of the way (and ultimately what got us distribution over all other elements). Also do a quick, fun Behind-The-Scenes video to post on social media to keep that buzz going.

N: NO -- GET USE TO IT: You will get rejected from film festivals. We were rejected by about 50 (of 160) film festivals before the first yes came in. Email film festivals that have not yet decided to select you. Incentivize them to screen the film. Be smart and engaging, but don't harass them too much. (Later, as the laurel and press builds, share this with the remaining undecided festivals. They will start accepting you. Some at least.)

O: ORGANIZE A POTENTIAL DISTRIBUTOR LIST: Reach out to them strategically. Know which one that makes the most sense for your film, even if they don't know yet themselves. Email them. In our case, we always wanted to go with Gravitas Ventures. I believe the key to this was to stand out among the pack by strategically sharing with them our progress as it happened. Also reach out to sales agents.

P: PREMIERE THE FILM (& GET PRESS): We were finally fortunate to be accepted by Dance With Films, where we premiered the film at the Chinese Theatre. This got us our first bit of press, and our first true bit of momentum. Throw yourself into all press opportunities and hire a publicist, at least for the first festival so you can get an idea. Later on you can send out your own press releases.

Q: QUALITY AND QUANTITY: Email thank you's to everyone involved up to this point. Email the distributors that are or might still be interested again. Email undecided film festivals, again. Put them on your e-newsletter list, so they can see the process and ongoing buzz. Send out progressive updates via your e-newsletter. Make sure to be engaging, succinct and focused with any and every email you send out. This represents your work ethic and overall product. But remember, don't be spammy. Cross your fingers and pray to the Gods above. If you work hard and smart here, it will absolutely pay off one way or another.

R: RAISE & MAINTAIN OVERALL VISIBILITY: Go to more film festivals. Print flyers, posters, business cards -- more than you think you'll need, and put them EVERYWHERE. Continuing to raise awareness and the movies brand is key.

S: SCREEN THE MOVIE AGAIN AND AGAIN: You made it so people could see it right? Screen it as much as humanely possible and continue emailing all press in every area the film will be screening. Continue promoting the film on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and e-newsletters. Be strategic and expect at least 50 likes (or more) per post. Email any and everyone who might be able to help push it forward in any way, but again, be strategic and try not to come off as spam. People hate spam. But also be shameless in telling everyone about your film -- sometimes it's the only way, and you never know who might take notice. (I know, a contradiction.)

T: TAKE THE BEST DISTRIBUTION DEAL: Respond to emails from interested distributors (in our case, Gravitas Ventures). They have seen our progress, liked our artwork and trailer and would like to distribute our movie! Their offer is reasonable so we reached out to our lawyer. After a short back and forth, we reached an overall agreement. Respond with "Yes please" and sign on the dotted line. Best feeling ever.

U: UNIFY ALL ELEMENTS & DELIVER THE FILM: Oh God, what a pain. Honestly would not have made it through this process in one piece if it weren't for producer Jillian Longnecker, who had been down this road several times on other films. So glad to have it behind me and to know what to expect in the future: chain of title, E&O insurance, closed captioning, encoding fees, contracts, deal memos, stills, trailer, film master, etc.)

V: VIDEO ON DEMAND: Finally release the film on Digital HD (iTunes, Amazon, VUDU, Google Play, etc.) and On Demand (Dish, Cox, Charter, VerizonFios, SuddenLink, etc.). Promote the hell out of this.

W: WIN AWARDS: Share your success at each film festival and be on point during Q&As by preparing general bullet points to talk about if needed. This is a great opportunity to whet peoples appetites about your film and you the filmmaker. Find new investors for future projects. We linked up with one at the Virginia Film Festival, who decided to drop a small amount in for marketing expenses, in exchange for an EP credit. 

X: X MARKS THE SPOT: Target (more substantial) press and know your target audience. Continue circling back. With the marketing budget, get as much as you can and be as creative as possible in getting it. It's the difference between getting your film seen and not seen. We decided to take a full page ad out in Backstage Magazine as well as 2 digital ads in their e-newsletter, Facebook ad buys on key posts to expand the reach, mini posters up at the main Hollywood Casting Offices. Our steadfast approach has resulted in press from The Hollywood Reporter, Indiewire, Deadline, MovieMaker, The Wrap and now, No Film School, thankfully. Remember, having distribution is one thing. People knowing you have distribution is another.

Y: YOU'VE DONE IT -- SAY THANKS & CELEBRATE: Send another round of thank you's with a mini poster of the film, complete with laurels, notable press, VOD logos and quotes. Make everyone involved feel as if their time and energy was well spent. This would mean a lot to me if I were them. Use the remaining money left from marketing (that you should have set aside) for shipping, printing, etc. Then, go get drinks.

Z: ZERO IN ON WHAT MADE THE FILM SUCCESSFUL & SHARE: Reach out to sites such as this one. The least us filmmakers can do is to share our journey and hopefully help the next inspired, aspiring micro budget filmmaker.

With determination, creativity and a small amount of money, we were able to see Actor For Hire go from a web series pilot to a full length feature that screened at 25 festivals and got distribution on all the major streaming platforms, followed by much press in major outlets. Now you know how we did it. I hope at least some of the above has helped, and I wish you good luck with your next film. And don't forget to check out Actor For Hire, now available on iTunes, Amazon, Vudu, Google Play, Dish Network, Cox, Charter, VerizonFios and many more.      

Your Comment

17 Comments

My main question is - was it profitable? Can you really make profit on such a small, full indie production?

February 18, 2016 at 2:35PM, Edited February 18, 2:35PM

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Andy Tokarski
Director, Editor, Colorist
1230

Having just released the film a little over a month ago, we're now waiting to receive our first earnings statement for end of 1st quarter (April). As we filmmakers know, it takes time to see a potential return, no matter the budget (12-18 months is standard). With our low overhead, solid production values and creative festival/marketing campaign, and having already reached 2 of our 3 initial objectives above (raising our profiles & telling a story we wanted to tell), we already consider this project a success. In regards to our last objective (full ROI), this is quite obtainable but can't be expected immediately upon release on any film. Would it clear things up if the article was updated to say the film was just released Jan 1?

February 18, 2016 at 9:21PM, Edited February 18, 9:29PM

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Marcus Mizelle
Director/Producer/Writer
81

Problem I've heard from friends going with a distributor is that they will spend a lot (office, staff, travel, etc.) in the very beginning to "promote" your film. This could easily be $75K, usually there would be a limit in your contract with them. This money would have to be paid back before you see any money from the distributor. They also probably own a large percentage if not 100% of your film.

I've heard so many horror stories about distributors just outright now paying the filmmakers. Claiming there costs have not been met. In most cases the filmmakers will have to sue the distributor to gain the rights back.

With my current feature "High Relief" we are going with a completely self distributed model. We expect potential revenue to be about $150K over 3 years, with a distributor they would take everything. Leaving us with close to 0 for all the work and investment. I would rather go with distribbr, get on iTunes and all the outlets you mentioned for much less, promote ourselves and we keep 100% of the money.

Also after 18 months most distributors will stick your film in their "catalogue." Good luck once it goes in there, no one will ever see it again unless you sue.

February 18, 2016 at 11:08PM

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I think you're missing the point. It doesn't say how to get rich. I'm sure that would be great but getting your movie watched while raising everyone's profile is a great start.

February 19, 2016 at 3:39PM

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Getting screwed and having to sue someone is never fun. Losing your initial investment because of this is also not fun.

Not many of us get rich or this, I just want to be able to eat.

February 20, 2016 at 8:09AM, Edited February 20, 8:09AM

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Same question - seemed they covered everything except the bottom line: was it, or will they be profitable?

February 18, 2016 at 5:20PM

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Russell Max Simon
Producer, Writer, Director
89

Great article. It's something we have been doing since 1998 with many projects. Right now out TRACE Doctor Who Fan Film is going places. Although we can make profit, but it had garnered a lot of viewership and festivals showing while comic cons are inviting us to attend. Not to mention, we over raised our indiegogo crowdfunding. So yea it works. We even got interest from distributors to thinking of offering our shows as free episodes in 4K.

We figured to do a fan film to attract new fans so it can bring more interest in our future projects which included a web series action film soon to be released. So that would make $. For this, it's a marketing tool that gone well.

February 18, 2016 at 8:39PM

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Johnny Wu
Director, Producer, Editor
197

There's a problem with this technique although it seems like it would be very effective. Micro budget films rarely have enough money to finish the movie let alone submit to 160 festivals, go to festivals, hire Publicists, etc.. I barely had enough money to complete Space Trucker Bruce. I went in debt to buy the last bit of music and create DVDS and promotional material. I couldn't afford to do most of the things on this list. After submitting and getting rejected by 10 festivals I gave up on that route because I felt I wasted the money. Festivals aren't worth it. Most of the eyes for my movie are on the internet or in local theaters. Next time I plan to spend the festival money on targeted advertising. The trick with micro-budget films is to figure out how to get the most press and marketing for hardly any money. I ran Space Trucker Bruce in a theater then online on-demand then after about a year I put it on YouTube for free. YouTube has been wonderfully successful once the algorithm for suggesting movies picked up my film. I had one weekend with 600 views in one day. It's a great feeling to have people watching my movie and giving positive comments and thumbs up. Much better than festivals.

February 19, 2016 at 11:19PM

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Anton Doiron
Creator/Filmmaker
478

See "F: FULLY REALIZE THE ENTIRE BUDGET" above

February 20, 2016 at 4:56PM

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Marcus Mizelle
Director/Producer/Writer
81

I'd rather put most of my money into making the best movie I can, not save the majority of my budget for Marketing. But your point about a movie nobody sees is correct. Although Space Trucker Bruce is gaining momentum on YouTube, it's not because of me but more because of things out of my control like the suggestion engine. When I finish my current movie I'll be broke or a few thousand in debt. the trick will be finding a way to get people to see it without spending much money. That's the holy grail of micro-budget filmmaking.

February 21, 2016 at 9:21PM

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Anton Doiron
Creator/Filmmaker
478

I feel that with my micro budget attempts, that gathering an audience (list of emails, facebook followers, etc) is the most important piece. My goal is to get works I do in front of the most eyeballs and to be able to reach out to my audience for fundraising. For example, you could collect emails in exchange for a downloadable version of your movie. I've already watched it for free on youtube, but did you get anything from me to help with your next?

February 28, 2016 at 12:10PM

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Ethan
Producer/Writer/Director/Prop Maker
54

I like your email idea but something about sending out mass emails seems like spam to me. You're right, gathering an audience is very important. That's probably the most important thing but it's hard to do. I think YouTube helps. I get subscribers, likes and comments. If you watch my movie I'm happy. Getting an hour and a half of someones time is valuable by itself. I've resorted to self-funding and the occasional grant for my current project. I don't want to waste time with Kickstarter. I need to focus on building sets and actually filming something.

March 14, 2016 at 8:45PM

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Anton Doiron
Creator/Filmmaker
478

Great article. I can see a lot of commenters need to change their view of filmmaking. Negativity will get you no where.

February 20, 2016 at 12:50PM

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William Scherer
Producer, Writer, Director, Aerial Photography
203

Negative? Why is being experienced and educated in the way the film industry works in 2016 negative?

Good luck, you will really need all the luck you can get.

February 20, 2016 at 10:58PM

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They'll need luck to make a profit, especially with a distributor taking a cut but they spent so much on marketing they may succeed in getting people to watch it and that's 50% of the battle.

February 21, 2016 at 9:25PM

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Anton Doiron
Creator/Filmmaker
478

I really wanna watch the trailer but the media-player on this site sucks.
You cant get a full view and the image is too big so you cant watch the entire frame either. Yeah and also the pause/play-button is in the middle of the frame the entire time and wont go away.
Fuck this!

February 26, 2016 at 3:47AM, Edited February 26, 3:47AM

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Hey Johan, you can also watch at actorforhiremovie.com and here: https://vimeo.com/119083250

February 28, 2016 at 8:11PM

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Marcus Mizelle
Director/Producer/Writer
81