Our film Family Obligationstells the story of an isolated man learning to engage in meaningful relationships for the first time in his life. It wears its heart on its sleeve as a comedy-drama with no recognizable names in its cast and a minimal crew. We shot it around our home of Rockville Centre, New York, for $16,000 with an inexpensive six-year-old camera, budget LED lights, and the leanest, quickest shooting schedule we could create.

For our efforts, we were rewarded with three best feature film prizes and selection to the Austin Film Festival alongside many of the year’s Oscar contenders. The film is currently available to stream on multiple services and on Blu-ray disc through MBUR Indie Films Distribution.

One advantage we had in this process was experience. We had already distributed our first microbudget feature, The Mix. In fact, since completing Family Obligations, we have delivered a third feature, Sofa King.

Not every filmmaker will want to make a microbudget feature, but for those who do, there are many positive experiences to be had and some pitfalls to avoid.

Here's what you need to know. 

Technical specs don’t matter. Craft does.

It’s incredibly clichéd (and misleading) to say that gear doesn’t matter. You’ll need access to some basic tools, and there is no way around that. However, the proliferation of higher resolutions/bit depths/dynamic ranges/color spaces shouldn’t cloud your budget or decision-making. No festival (including the Academy-Award-qualifying ones we’ve played) has ever asked us for a 4K master. Neither has any distributor. Full HD is still the standard.

So instead of throwing your resources at a bigger camera package, consider your production design, locations, and performances. While you certainly need to meet basic minimum requirements for picture and sound, you’ll find it easier and cheaper to do so now than ever before. Most of the quality that your audience will perceive up on screen will come not from your technical decisions but from artistic ones. If you keep the focus there, you can make the most of what budget you have.

Familyobligations1On set with director Ken Frank & AD/Sound Kevin WorlfringCredit: In the Garage Productions

How much (or how little) you spend doesn’t matter. Where you spend it does.

It can be tempting to call your film a “no-budget” film, but don’t be misled. Your film will cost real money.

We began our first feature with the goal of spending as little money as possible. Counterintuitively, this led us to spend more. Without a concrete budget to define the project, we became more likely to spend first and ask questions later. By acknowledging a finite sum, we were forced to make tough decisions earlier, which vastly improved the process. To that end, the writing and pre-production process will reveal to you what are (and aren’t) wise investments.

For example, on Family Obligations, we knew we were able to handle most production roles ourselves at no cost, which left us room to pay everyone else and to spend on a few key areas. I wanted a particular visual style mimicking Super 16mm film, so I was able to allocate money for a colorist.

Our colorist Jan Klier became vital to the project, and he also took on the final sound mix at a very reasonable rate, and he is lined up to be director of photography on our next feature shoot.

Another goal was to push this film to a wider audience, so reserving some budget for marketing was money well spent. At first, it seemed crazy to spend money on the film that wouldn’t be seen “up on the screen,” but in retrospect, it probably went further than any other expense. In fact, when we asked our distributor MBUR what we could do to increase our presence, they responded, “Build your audience as early as possible. This will afford you the opportunity to bring the value-add of a built-in audience to the distributor.”

Familyobligations2On location in Long Beach, NYCredit: In the Garage Productions

The conventional wisdom (even though it’s probably correct) doesn’t matter. Your expectations do.

All of our films have violated common-sense observations of independent film, most notably that comedy and drama are nearly impossible to find success. These are genres most dominated by Hollywood budgets and star-driven casts. Instead, indie filmmakers are encouraged to stick to genres like horror or other high-concept projects that have a built-in niche audience. Admittedly, this is solid advice, particularly for people looking to kickstart Hollywood careers.

However, our goals with this film were specific. First, we wanted to reach a wider audience than we had previously. While larger productions have the benefit of producer’s reps or sales agents, it is still entirely possible to foster these relationships yourself at no cost. We were fortunate to find several critics willing to review our film for free and several festivals that championed our film because they saw it and liked it. These all came from simple email communication or face-to-face networking.

When we wanted to go even larger than that, we engaged Bunker15, a company that facilitates reviews from higher-profile critics for smaller films. At the time, spending money on such marketing was difficult on the budget, but it has gained measurable accolades that stay with the film in the marketplace.

Familyobligations3Behind the scenes of 'Family Obligations'Credit: In the Garage Productions

Second, we wanted the production to serve as a template for working small. While many undertaking a microbudget film hope to land work in the industry on other projects or secure financing for a larger film, we tried to exercise a kind of discipline that would reveal the core necessities of replicating small films. This way, when we had another story to tell, we could get back on set with as little impediment as possible.

In other words, if we had made this film with the hope of a big sale or being plucked from our small set and plopped down in Hollywood with a big budget, we would have been sorely disappointed. However, we forged relationships with key collaborators, found financial backing for our next project, and learned more of the ins and outs of festivals, distribution, and marketing that will help in amplifying subsequent films.

If you are passionate about the story you are telling and open to what the process can show you, a microbudget feature can be educational and an artistically satisfying experience.

Have any tips when it comes to microbudget filmmaking? Share them with the community below. 

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