The Realities of Producing a $1 Million (and Below) Feature Film
Say hello to shrinking budgets & rising expected production values.
At Buffalo 8 Productions, we’ve produced over 30 feature films ranging from $100,000 budgets to $8M budgets with the average project settling around $1M.
We’ve seen budgets shrink, projects come & go and expectations shattered or met with disappointment during the process.
Through our experiences we’ve gathered and built a manifesto for the do’s & don’ts of making low budget projects. Some are obvious, others are elements we picked up after handfuls of wrong turns.
All in all — we broke it down into three key successful elements:
- Overhead — figuring out the right equity, debt, pre-sales structure will make or break any project.
- Negotiating — an ability to contain costs and logistics through negotiations is the key to successful maneuvering.
- Hiring — with strong department heads and a great cast – a weak project will be better, a mediocre project stands a chance at being decent and a strong project will explode with possibility.
Each of these principles begin day one — from the first steps of development through the delivery of the final DCP materials — overhead, negotiations and hiring choices will more often than not dictate the success of a film.
Producing a film successfully depends on a great story, a great team and a strong execution — the following outline breaks down these necessities.
Once you’ve found a story & script you’re excited about — make sure that it has been written for your budget. Such that, if you’ve raised $500,000 and the story requires period-piece locations, background, wardrobe and set pieces — chances are the project is not feasible.
However, if tailored properly any story can be told for any budget — relying heavily on overhead, negotiations and hiring structures.
With your script in hand you’re now ready to breakdown the elements. Meaning, using MovieMagic Budgeting & Scheduling (the industry standard applications) to outline the shooting schedule, cast logistics and line item costs for the project.
A line producer is the experienced and professional member of most teams who performs these tasks — which take roughly 4-5 work days to perfect given the intensive specificity required.
Working with your line producer (and/or sometimes the 1st AD) to perfect these elements you’ll want to group together locations, cast shoot days and speciality equipment or FX (steadi-cam, rain, children, animals, etc…) to contain costs and simplify the process.
With approved breakdowns from your line producer (again, assuring that you’ve hired well for this crucial role) you’re then ready to begin approaching talent and financiers.
Attachments (the process of adding talent – actors & actresses as well as a director) to projects has changed. The global economy has continued to reshape how each industry functions and the film business is no exception.
While the media is full of $100M+ blockbusters making a select few actors & actresses very wealthy — there is a plethora of talent with strong bankability available and interested in more independently driven projects in the lower budget ranges.
Use your strengths as leverage — whether your experience, your team or your great story (refrain from overselling how “amazing” your project is & remember that those words are uttered thousands of times a day in Los Angeles) and approach talent with confidence with the understanding that attachments are difficult in the early stages.
A great tip to utilize here is “agency packaging” whereby you find a talent agency who represent a strong roster of talent (more than 5-7 members of their roster able to fit into your casting wishes) and incentivize the agency to come on board to support the film by piecing together multiple roles or “packaging the film”. This grants both a financial and long term incentive for the agency that otherwise would perhaps have passed on the opportunity as too low budget.
With interested talent willing to offer LOIs (letters of intent — stating they will commit to the project is their availability allows once financing is completed) you can now approach your investors.
For 99% of filmmakers this is the most difficult portion of the process. Orson Welles famously quipped that he “spent 90% of his time raising money to make movies and only 10% actually making movies” and this isn’t far from the truth.
As an investor and as a speciality financier in other businesses — we’ve seen both sides of these struggles.
Film is speculative as an investment early on — meaning that being the first money in is difficult because there is no telling when the project will even get made let alone earn you a return.
And vice versa — being the last money in often requires an investor to act within a single week to close a deal — which is too hasty and rushed for traditional investors.
The simplest way to look at film investing is that there are ways to off-set the risk and please your investors from day one.
- Have some skin in the game early on with either some equity you’ve scraped together from family, friends and colleagues or your own cash.
- Understand the necessity of finance — meaning, respect an investor enough to off-set their capital injection through “soft money” (pre-sales, debt, tax credits, etc..)
- Bring more to the table than just a script and a cast. Showing an investor that you’ve already gotten the ball rolling with the tax credit and that you’re working to finance the pre-sales will show them you’re serious and capable. Removing as much speculation as possible will provide your investors will a level of security they’d highly appreciate. Strategize with a bit of equity, a bit of tax incentives & pre-sales cash-flowed (which your investor can provide helping both you and their return) and you’ll be in the best spot possible.
Build your audience before you get into production.
This phrase has become the go-to statement for the grass-roots and mid-level festival films over the past several years.
Social media gives you an ample opportunity to organize your following — whether you raised donations on Kickstarter, signed an actor with a 1M+ Twitter following or have a director coming off a TV gig — use whatever you have in your corner to gain traction and steam.
Snowballing this momentum in to a domestic distribution deal and additional opportunities for attachments and financing is a huge factor — but ultimately investors and distributors look to “proof of concept” like campaigns to assure that there is a valuable relevance at stake in the project.
This of course stems from and leads to the overall sales strategy for the film — which we will discuss more in depth next week and can also be reviewed in our SALES eBook linked here.
Once you’re geared up and organized you’ll want to hire the team leader for the project, the Line Producer.
The line producer will file the entity (LLC), open the financials with the producers (bank account, checking, payroll oversight) file necessary unions paperwork (SAG, IATSE, DGA) and bring on his team to begin the heavy lifting of the project.
Great films stem from tremendous preparations and the line producer is the captain leading the team into battle.
Again, this is very abbreviated and the full versions are available in the eBooks.
With a few key attachments and some capital (equity & debt) attached to the project you’re ready to begin filling out the rest of the cast.
A Casting Director & packaging agency (specifics in our full eBook and reiterated above) offer the best possible scenario for great cast selections based on the relationships that casting directors hold. Additionally — attachments from casting directors bring weight for distribution and further cast members wanting to join the project.
Once again relying on your ability to negotiate & call in favors — you’ll begin scouting locations.
On these lower budget projects you’ll want to cluster your locations, find studios/standing sets that can double & triple as locations and even look for further ways to simplify your shooting schedule.
Company moves (literally moving your team from one location to another) causes issues — time, financial, energy, stress — that can be avoided through preparations and compromise.
Again when renting equipment, props, vehicles, catering, etc… you’ll rely heavily on your ability to negotiate.
Using independent owner/operators (individuals who will both supply equipment and work on the film) will give you leverage to haggle over final pricing.
These negotiations from locations, rentals, purchases and casting — will save you endless money and time if you’re able to perfect the needs and realities of your project.
Refers to the process of beginning to truly assess the spending of the project, to begin distributing the necessary documents (stripboard schedules, crew lists, preliminary call sheets, etc..) and to begin holding the necessary meetings required for pre-production.
Again, focusing on pre-production is huge and will lead to the most successful shoot possible.
3.) Production & Wrap Out
If you’ve focused & executed well enough during pre-production the production period (while still stressful and full of fires to put out) will be more about managing and overseeing expectations and personalities than anything else.
Low budget projects tend to get stressful because everyone is wearing multiple hats and working crazy hours for little money — but if you manage these elements in pre-production you can avoid pitfalls.
The specifics for the financials (petty cash, check requests, actualizing and hot costs/daily reporting are reviewed in the eBook) but the general gist is that the daily oversight will require checking in with department heads to assure that spending is properly allocated, workers are getting along and feeling comfortable in the stressful setting and that respect if being had across departments.
The more organized a production is before it heads into principle photography the easier wrap out will be — this is the process of making returns, accounting and actualizing the final spending totals, creating the production binder (detailed in the eBook at length) and reviewing next steps with the financiers.
Early on, typically best to do before production, you’ll want to set out hard dates for editorial through delivery. These dates will often not be met — as low budget production is often side tracked by workers needing to take other gigs to supplement their incomes — but they provide the necessary structure to finish a production.
Just like production, post-production success comes from great hiring. You don’t need to know how to do everything — you just need a great team with experience and confidence to deliver your film.
When done correctly, you’re able to sit back and monitor the progress without having to get crazily involved in each tiny detail.
A choice can be made early on if editorial will begin during or after production. In our experience on lower budget projects it’s best to be assembling while shooting in order to give the financiers, director and team involved a chance to see where things stand. Also, should you need to adjust elements or re-shoot/add additional shots you’ll catch this much earlier than if you waited to edit until production wrap.
The necessary deliverables (sound, VFX, titles, DCP, exports, chain-of-title/legal filings) are all detailed thoroughly in the eBook which, if interested, we’d suggest reading for further information.
Next time we’ll discuss the sales & distribution strategy, oversight and realities of the $1M (and below) international film world.