How the Most Affordable Short Film I Ever Made Landed on Max
Filmmaker Maria Mealla breaks down how she made the smallest short film of her career, and how that short film found a home on Max.
This post was written by Maria Mealla.
The infamous “just make movies with your friends” phrase has always irked me because it willfully ignores that even these films come with hard costs that aren’t accessible to everyone.
I didn't go to film school. I came up in the industry through work-trade on indie films, so I am not advocating against making movies with your friends. But let's not make light of the work and the financial implications of doing so. As a person who spent a great chunk of her adult life avoiding group outings out of fear the bill would be split equally, I felt betrayed the first time I heard a breakdown of funding by one of the “make films with your friends” fellas and learned they had invested 50K of their own money into their ultra low budget film.
It made me realize that when those filmmakers were giving advice, they weren’t talking to me.
So, you out there with not enough money to make an ultra-low-budget film, here is how I made my dirt cheap, itty-bitty-budget short film that landed on one of the biggest streaming services, Max.
LA MACANA Trailer - PHLAFF2023youtu.be
First Thing First: Contain Your Story, It’s Gotta Hook Your Friends
When I wrote LA MACANA, I had two guiding questions as boundaries for the story: Can this be filmed for cheap? and Can this be filmed adhering to COVID-19 protocols?
They say on average you can film six pages a day, but I needed wiggle room to account for COVID-19 protocols so I was aiming for less. A company move takes two to three hours out of your shoot day in the best-case scenario. Not worth it. Extras also take time.
So what is left to work with? Getting personal. Finding a small intimate story and telling it well. Mine was LA MACANA, a story about a recently divorced couple desperately trying to get along so they can support their daughter through her first period.
Two interior locations
It was an easy pitch to the film friends, and we were ready to go.
Pre-Production: Beg and Borrow (From Your Friends)
It’s worth mentioning here that I’ve been working as a producer for about a decade, and with that comes, travel, and with travel come points, which I took full advantage of to bring this movie to life.
The vision for this was simple. The daughter in the script is named Sol, which means sun, and I wanted it to feel like she brought the sun with her. The mom’s house was warm and colorful, and the dad’s apartment lit in cool tones until she showed up.
I asked my production designer if we could film in her gorgeous home as our first location. I sent her roommates on a staycation with their dog using points. The total after points: $20.02.
I convinced my best friend to let me use her apartment for the second location. Her one request was we wear booties: $34.99.
Travel and Lodging
I flew two out of the three talents in from Los Angeles and put them up using miles and points. Naturally, the easier way to go would have been to cast locally, but the spirit of “make movies with your friends” really had a choke hold on me here, and I wanted these two in these roles because I love them and I knew they could deliver. Total after applying rewards: $170.76.
The company I work for supports their internal staff’s passion projects, and they umbrella’d this short as an internal production so we were insured through them. This hasn’t always been the case and--in the spirit of sharing resources--you can get project-based insurance at places like Film Emporium for anywhere between $400 - $?? depending on the complexity of your story. Our total for insurance on this one: $0
Pre-production total: $225.77
Production: Hosting a Party for Your Friends and Their Friends
Meals and crafty
Breakfast and lunch for a cast and crew of 19 over two days came out to $786.40. Crafty for the same gang was $101.61. Let’s be real here for a minute. When you’re making films with your friends, it usually also takes your friends’ friends. And if you’re telling your friend they can bring someone to the party, you better have enough food to feed them well. Never skimp on crafty!
With plenty of loans and big discounts, there were still equipment needs that required we count the pesos under the couch, including a follow focus and some fancy lights. Total: $1314.00
I bought it all myself and then returned it. Cost of my Bart tickets: $8.00
Most of this was also a game of buy and return except for a few expendable items, including prop food.
Pro tip: If you write dinner into your script, then you can have it for dinner when the shoot is over.
Production total: $2210.01
The cast and crew of 'LA MACANA'
Back to the party you’re hosting. Your crew are all artists and craftsmen and if they landed on your set, you owe them the space to play and bring their art to the table. To make an itty-bitty indie, you’ll find the most success when you’re open to all ideas of how you can make magic with the resources you have.
Excerpt from script:
Post-Production: Where You’re Really Pushing It With the Friend Asks
Post-production and the freebie game are a bit of a different beast. Our post pals don’t get to come to set and “make movies with friends” for the different summer camp vibe that commercial/corporate shoots offer. They’re still sluggin' solo on their computers, be it a commercial or your super fun short.
We got great deals from our pals and had a finished colored, mixed, and composed film for $1,000.
I cut a few corners here by editing the trailer from the finished film and teaching myself to create captions and subtitles in Adobe Premiere. Cost of the trailer and subtitles: $34.09 (one-month subscription to premiere) and then we paid $265.90 to put it on a DCP.
Post Production total: $1299.99
Technically at this point, you have a finished film for $3,735.77, so if you want to throw it on the internet and let it garner 200 views over the next decade on its own, your journey has ended. But since most of us want an audience for our films, and the “just make movies with your friends” advice implies success at the end of the tunnel, there is more for us to do, and that starts with (roll dem drums, baby!)...
The Festival Circuit: Because Your Film Needs an Audience, and You’ve Put Your Friends Through Enough
I spent $1,200.00 on festival entries. They say on average you get into 1 out of 10 festivals, and let me tell ya, those odds made those dollars the most painful ones.
But the odds paid off in our favor. The Miami Film Festival submitted our film as their finalist to the HBO Max Pa’Lante competition and it got selected as one of the winners!
I wasn’t able to attend all the festivals because those costs add up quickly! I went to three film festivals: Dances with Films, Official Latino, and Tallgrass. And I don’t regret it one bit.
Total: $803 on airfare and $2,039.00 on lodging. This number looks big, but it’s worth noting you spend it gradually over a year, mostly $50-200 at a time.
Festival Circuit: $4039.00.
Delivery/Second Post-Production: You’re on Your Own Kid
Naturally, there were specific specs needed for the final delivery of the film for streaming.
I spent another $800 on a new 5.1 surround sound mix. A Title Search Report and Legal Opinion which cost $775.00. E&O Insurance came out to $2,544.00. Lastly, I finally got the film copyrighted for $65.00.
I decided I would do the final export by myself so that cost another $34.09, three liters of panic, two nights of self-doubt, and multiple phone calls and emails to aforementioned post friends. (You're not totally on your own, but still, it feels like someone is calling your mom through the speaker system because you wandered off at the mall.) I also purchased a song from Marmoset for the HBO max trailer: $500.00
Second post-production total: $4718.09
Just make movies with your friends at the dirt cheap, itti-bitty-budget level came out to a total of $12,492.86. So there you have it.
Making a nuanced, relatable, and easy-to-execute film was the key to success. It allowed us the time and flexibility to focus on the details and play in every phase of filmmaking. Sure, there is always a luck component to this. But after my film screened at the San Diego Film Festival, I had another distributor call inquiring about licensing my film, and--I gotta tell ya--I haven't seen my impostor syndrome since.
It felt like proof you can put in the work to sway luck in your favor. Making movies is hard. It's expensive, it's exhausting, and it's worth every second if you have the grit to do it.
This post was written by Maria Mealla.