This post was written by Courtney Pape.

The idea of making a film, even a short one, is intimidating to most people. It’s a giant puzzle of moving parts. To execute, it takes many talented and qualified people utilizing multiple skill sets. It’s hard, but it’s attainable. It’s possible.

Sure, digital technology has democratized filmmaking over the years so anyone can make a movie with their phone. If your intention in filmmaking is more for fun or hobby then there are many tools readily available to the average consumer to create and elevate your vision. If however, your goal in filmmaking is to make a career of it–or really a life of it–then if you’re anything like me when I first started, you may be craving more actionable advice than, “Grab your friends and a camera and shoot in your backyard.” I wanted to know how filmmakers really made it happen on a professional level.

My latest work, Before Marriage, is my fourth short-form project as a writer-director-producer. I’ve also directed music videos and produced narrative short films for fellow filmmakers.

'Before Marriage' panel at a film festivalCourtesy of Courtney Pape

The script for Before Marriage was a semi-finalist in the WIF Shorts Lab supported by Google. While that placement did not grant us any money, the semi-finalist ranking was a validating motivator. Four months after receiving that news, we were on set filming. We utilized SAG-AFTRA’s Micro-Budget agreement for projects with budgets under $20,000, filmed on location in just two days with two actors, a skeleton crew, and a lot of favors. Self-funded through day jobs and a self-distribution plan through YouTube, Before Marriage, is a true independent filmmaking production.

We premiered at Mammoth Film Festival and are enjoying the tail end of our festival run with our next exhibition at Topaz Film Festival in Dallas, Texas.

This piece has been written with the intention of demystifying and un-gatekeeping the process. From the perspective of someone who had a few short films under her belt, has a background in theater and comedy, lives in Los Angeles, and is making a career and a life out of filmmaking here are my step-by-step, very loose, not all-encompassing, sometimes tongue-in-cheek instructions on how to make narrative short films on a micro-budget for all the current and aspiring independent filmmakers out there.

This is not a one-size-fits-all guide as there are too many steps and nuanced decisions for each project, but hopefully, the motivational spirit will inspire you in some way to create. Even if you have no money or connections at the moment, you can build those relationships, raise the money, and make it happen. You just need vision, taste, organization, and the willpower of a nutjob.

BTS of 'Befor Marriage'Courtesy of Courtney Pape

A Step-By-Step Guide To Make a Micro-Budget Short Film

  1. Write a script (or hire someone to write) about something you’d like to see as an audience member and make sure you love it so much that you’ll be obsessed with it for years. Because you’ll be working on it in some capacity for that long.
  2. Write it for someone specific: An actor or person you know. As long as one voice is solid you can build around that. Many independent films star non-actors who give great performances. Think outside the box.
  3. Think like a producer from day one: If you have access to one or many beautiful locations then tailor the story to be set specifically there. If you don’t have that access then write it with neutral locations. This allows you to be flexible and take the best, prettiest locations you can find with zero to little money
  4. Apply for grants. See if someone else will fund this project for you. If you get accepted, you are now funded and can begin pre-production.
  5. If you get denied, keep going.
  6. Put together the lowest budget you can. If it’s too high, take something out, cut pages, merge locations, do whatever you have to do to get down to a budget number you think you can manage
  7. Start getting your personal finances and credit score in good shape if they’re not already. There will be inevitable costs down the line related to the project you couldn’t plan for and you will be as they say, “in for a penny, in for a pound.”
  8. Do whatever you can to finance your short film. If you can’t find financing outside of yourself, don’t worry about it. Finance it yourself. I don’t care what job you have. You can do it. Save up for six months or a year or more. Get a second job if you have to. Make funding this film your number one priority and see what you can shift around in your life to make this a reality.
  9. You’ve saved all the money you need–or enough to get started. You can now create what you want and have no one telling you what to do. Party on.
  10. You’re a film entrepreneur now so prepare to continually invest in yourself, bet on yourself when no one else will, and know when to go all in at just the right time.
  11. Assemble your key team: Cinematographer, editor, casting director, and actors. If these people are not in your personal or professional spheres then get into theirs. Wherever you live, find people of like minds and be open to people who may not have as much experience but have a clear goal, and vision and work hard.
  12. Tell people you’re making a film. It’s scary and vulnerable to talk about but you need to get the word out to find your people and also you never know which one of your friends or colleagues may help volunteer their time or energy in some way that will support you down the line.
  13. If you’re working with SAG-AFTRA actors–don’t be intimidated by union contracts. Apply for SAG Signatory to receive their micro-budget agreement for certain projects with budgets under $20,000. It's a simple process, do your research and work with union actors.
  14. Find the most visually dynamic locations you can secure for free–start asking around–put the word out on what you’re looking for and be open to pivoting
  15. Put together the smallest skeleton crew that works well together–better to have three people who work seamlessly together than five who don’t
  16. Prep, plan, shot list your head off, and build in extra buffer time in case you run over (you will).
  17. Plan as little company moves as possible–they always eat up more time than planned.
  18. Visualize everything in your mind so clearly that you’re able to describe it to anyone
  19. Hold the vision until it’s in the can
  20. Film as quickly and calmly as possible. Feel the times when you need to slow down to hold space for the performance and the times you need to rush before you lose light.
  21. Remember, most likely everyone is working on a discounted rate, so go the extra mile on food, beverages, coffee runs, mini breaks, and words of encouragement–whatever you can tell helps take care of everyone and keeps morale high.
  22. After everything is shot, throw away the vision (fantasy) and look at the footage (reality).
  23. Create the 2.0 vision and start assembling it in your mind.
  24. Work with your editor in a collaborative way to best utilize what you captured while serving the story best.
  25. If you can afford a post-production supervisor, do it. If not, no worries, just prepare to go mildly insane.
  26. Generally speaking: Prepare to go mildly insane.
  27. Take your time in the edit, there’s no rush. Having said that, submitting to a festival can be a solid deadline date to try to hi.
  28. Post-production will probably be longer than expected. Be patient.
  29. Think about distribution. Do you want to submit to film festivals or not? You don’t have to.
  30. If you do want to submit to festivals, budget ahead of time for those submission costs. As well as additional travel costs if you get in and attend the festival in person. And/or do your research and apply to the few festivals that will pay for your travel costs to attend.
  31. If you don’t submit to festivals, think about how you want to exhibit or distribute your film. Is there somewhere you can screen it in person: a theater, a bar, a backyard–anywhere to showcase your work. Or where will it live online and how will you plan to get the word out?
  32. Remember, you’re a film entrepreneur now so think about where your money will have the most value: you can put money towards the distribution of this project or maybe you want to save that money and use that for your next project. The choice is yours and there’s no wrong answer.
  33. There’s always the next one…

This post was written by Courtney Pape.