This post was written by Zanah Thirus.
Named one of Diversity in Cannes' Top 10 Filmmakers of the Decade, I am an actress, producer, writer, and director from Chicago.
Since launching my brand, Zanah Thirus Productions, I've shifted focus to merging arts and activism through documentary and narrative storytelling. My films encompass subjects such as gender, race, politics, and mental health. In 2019, my documentary, Black Feminist, was an official selection at the Bronze Lens Festival of Atlanta. That same year my short film, Demons, was nominated for Best Short Film at the Content Creators of Atlanta Awards, and my short film, MeMaw, landed a Best Director nomination at the Georgia Shorts Film Festival.
Recently, my documentary, Unlearning Sex, won Best Human Rights Film at the Toronto International Women's Film Festival and the Silver Award at the Spotlight Documentary Film Awards (2020). My documentary Black Feminist won Best Documentary at Coal City Film Festival (2021) in Nigeria, and the Jury Award for Best U.S. Documentary at the International Black & Diversity Film Festival (2021).
This year, I branched into comedic storytelling with a romantic comedy short The Love You Want Exists, which is premiering at an Academy Award-qualifying festival, Bronze Lens (2021).
The gag is that all of my productions are microbudget indie films. My biggest production budget to date has been $5,600, and most of my films are shot within a few days. My approach to filmmaking is very simple, and I lean into resource-based productions. I'm on a mission to prove that you can be a successful (and very decorated filmmaker) regardless of budget or size of production.
Here are my tips for being a microbudget filmmaker.
Credit: Zanah Thirus
Write scripts according to the resources available to you
I’ll be honest, I hate crowdfunding. To me, it’s the equivalent of walking up to a complete stranger and asking them to give you $20 toward your film. The idea makes me cringe.
Also, while I was in film school, I never understood the "Write this $20M script, then go to LA and beg executives to make it while you sleep on a friend's couch!” approach. He’s a cinematographer, I’m a producer, you’re a director, she’s an editor, they’re a writer, my aunt said we can film in her house... why are we not making things with the resources we have available to us?
So I took that approach and ran with it. This is the reason why I am able to create consistently. It’s simple... stop writing scripts that contain 50 locations, a helicopter chase, and $50,000 worth of VFX work.
Instead, shift your focus to writing the most amazing script you can that takes place in one single location and has minimal characters. Lean into the tension between a minimal cast, create a high-stakes situation that takes place in one room (YOUR APARTMENT). There are some wild conversations that can happen in the front seat of a car, or at a dinner table. A great story doesn’t require a ridiculous budget.
Writing scripts according to the resources you have available to you is how you can go from an aspiring filmmaker to a filmmaker.
Collaborate and barter
Let’s be real, the majority of indie filmmakers cannot afford to pay union day rates for an entire crew and cast. We can’t afford to pay for $20,000 locations for one or two scenes. Likely we aren’t shooting on an Alexa Mini. But the secret weapon that filmmakers have and need to lean into is collaboration with bartering.
I’ve post-production supervised a film in exchange for someone to script supervise my film. I’ve put together entire production decks (production, shoot, and post schedule, budget, and distribution/marketing plan) for a DP on their film in exchange for cinematography on my film. I met another DP at a film screening, and we both loved each other’s work, so we decided to collaborate on a production and combine our resources. I met an art director at an ad agency, who was looking to get into production design, so I pulled her into my film (she killed it).
My point is—all too often we forget that filmmaking is about community and creating art. Don’t be afraid to collaborate with other filmmakers and share your resources. Everyone brings something unique to the table. Put egos aside, find/build your tribe, and lean into creativity. Which leads me to my next point.
Build your film tribe
You are absolutely nothing without your team. As a filmmaker, networking is your superpower.
Check out indie film streaming sites, watch films, go to the credit roll, and connect with the team on social media.
Go to film festivals.
Seriously, attend film festivals. Not just the major ones like Cannes and Sundance, I’m talking about the local, indie festivals that cater to indie filmmakers. There are some incredible festivals in Atlanta, Chicago, DC, Seattle, NOLA, and NYC. Film festivals are a hub for screenwriters, directors, producers, actors, and cinematographers to connect. You never know who you'll meet. Check out FilmFreeway, a massive database of festivals all over the globe.
Also, take advantage of virtual film fests. You can attend film festival screenings all over the globe right from your living room.
Credit: Zanah Thirus
Having a job that pays your bills doesn’t make you any less of a filmmaker
Goodness, if I had $1 for every time someone looked at me shocked when I say that I have a full-time job... I’d be rich. I’m a commercial producer at an advertising agency. I like to tell people I make commercials by day, and movies by night.
The whole starving artist thing just... it never worked for me. I never could wrap my head around the idea of writing expensive scripts, going to one of the most expensive places to live (LA), and pitching AKA begging strangers to believe that your work was "good enough" to sell to the masses.
IDK about y’all, but... having a 9 to 5 and filmmaking on the weekends/using my PTO to make films is way less stressful than not knowing how my rent is going to get paid.
It is perfectly fine, and also quite common, to have a job while also being a filmmaker. Your job doesn’t define you, your passion does. I look at my day job as my primary investor for my indie films. It’s also the reason that I am able to create consistently. I know filmmakers that are teachers, Uber drivers, own restaurants, or work at creative agencies (like me)!
Credit: Zanah Thirus
Learn the production process: stream the Microbudget Indie Filmmaker’s Podcast
This is a limited-season podcast (three seasons only) that covers the entire microbudget indie film production process from preproduction to distribution.
The best part is that each season has a corresponding workbook with templates and guides that supplement the filmmaking process. I created this podcast because I wanted filmmakers to realize that creativity is not limited to massive budgets. More importantly, I wanted to share every ounce of knowledge that I have with indie filmmakers, and I want to see more creatives utilizing the resources they have available to them to create.
SEASON 1 includes 10 commandments of microbudget filmmaking, script breakdowns, budgeting, and budget hacks.
SEASON 2 talks production scheduling, shoot scheduling, post scheduling, casting, and your indie crew.
SEASON 3includes pandemic production, tax write-offs, marketing, and distribution.