Is Your Micro-Budget Feature Worth It? (Yes, Yes It Is)

Credit: Matthew Lucas
Here's a pep talk to prepare you for the near-fatal road ahead.

This post was written by Matthew Lucas.

The night you were at the bar with all your cute l'il filmmaker buddies and you said, “We’re doing it. We’re making a micro-budget feature,” is a night you’re going to play over and over in your head.

There will be days you look back on it fondly, proud that you spoke something into existence, followed through, and wound up with an actual movie to show for it. There will also be days when you wish you could travel back in time to that moment, punch your past self in the throat, and scream, “NO. BUY A HOUSE INSTEAD. OR DONATE WHATEVER TIME AND MONEY YOU THINK YOU HAVE TO A LLAMA REHABILITATION CHARITY. ANYTHING BUT THIS,” and then run off cackling into the crisp, pre-pandemic night.

If you’re about to embark on the micro-budget feature journey, you are already the world’s mightiest hero and there will be statues in your honor, there will be feasts, there will be songs. Now... the songs will technically be at your funeral (you will, unfortunately, not survive this project) but it will be worth it! You will have made something out of nothing but sheer willpower. Your creative brain will learn and grow in ways you didn’t expect, and if you really see it through, actual human animals will get a chance to see your hard work on their five-inch phone screens and then leave a scathing review on Amazon. The dream!

I’m kidding, but the thing is, there’s nothing “micro” about a micro-budget feature.

And I’m not just talking about money. It takes macro amounts of time and energy, and when you have nothing more to give... it takes more. So is it worth it? And are there ways to make the journey more manageable? I can only offer my perspective from the little corner of the universe where I produced and directed my first feature, Kringle Time, a micro-budget project that took three years to make and landed a distribution deal during a global pandemic.

Playing the Hand You’re Dealt

If you’re considering shooting anything other than 90 minutes of yourself silently crying in the mirror, my guess is that you’ve already started making a list of the people who can help you bring your movie to life. You might know a DP, an editor, a sound mixer, maybe even a few actors, and you’re ready to send out charming emails asking them to work for free or cheap on your big passion project. You’re prepared to make it work with anyone you can personally reach because, hey, the money’s tight.

But are you applying the same mindset to your story? Too often we look at our scripts as precious, immutable objects. If you’re willing to adapt the manpower but not the script to fit your circumstances, you may well end up putting talented people to work on something they can’t reasonably achieve.

And I do mean adapt, not compromise. What kind of story can you effectively tell with the props, costumes, and locations at your disposal? It’s a lot easier to reverse-engineer the literal, physical things in your movie from what’s around you than it is to fully realize your grand epic on a backyard budget.

In a perfect world—one where money and time are no object—you’re sitting down with a blank slate and writing a script in which the only limit is your imagination. But one of the most effective ways to prevent the scope of your project from creeping beyond your control is to admit you have to play in a sandbox. And set those boundaries early.

Credit: Matthew Lucas
When we sat down to make Kringle Time, our first thought was not, We must make a movie about a singing cowboy snowman.

The writer, Zan Gillies, and I were both interested in exploring the idea of being in-between phases of life and realizing our childhood dreams were kind of bullshit. Making a movie just seemed like more fun than going to therapy. So we made a list of everything we had access to and wrote a movie using that list as a prompt. Its setting, characters, and the snowman itself were all dictated by that initial sandbox, and we didn’t need to sacrifice what our movie was about along the way.

A movie is an idea, and ideas are malleable. A story can be reskinned without losing its intent. And if your script really has a beating heart, it will find a way to shine through any limitations your budget will place on it.

Flipping the Switch

A studio will spend $100 million and whole pet lifetimes making a single feature, and you’re trying to do the same thing for loose change over a handful of free weekends—it makes sense that you’re going to get some weird looks and some naysaying along the way.

I had people confidently tell me to my face that I would fail. I can’t count how many times the word "untenable" was spoken aloud when sending out call sheets. These people were entirely correct to be concerned; my goals were recklessly aggressive, page counts were too high, the pace was blistering.

But ya know what... someone’s hair is gonna have to turn grey on a project like this. That person is you, and no one is going to understand it. You’ll have to flip a switch inside of you that refuses failure at any expense.

You’ll have to do this because no one will care about finishing this movie the way that you will. If you don’t flip this switch early, nothing will happen. If you don’t set shooting dates at some point, no one else will. Your closest collaborators will be there to support you, and you absolutely can’t do it without them—but they also have their own lives, projects, and priorities.

You need to brace yourself for the hilarious amount of work you’ll be doing alone, after you finish work for the day, and straight through the night until work the next morning, for weeks and months at a time. If this sounds fun to you, consider seeking help, but also congratulations, you’re going to finish your movie!

Now, I say to flip this switch in order to have success “at any expense,” but I think it’s important to acknowledge that high-pressure working environments can easily open the door to toxicity, which... and hear me out on this... is bad.

You’re going to be asking a lot of people for favors, and it’s your responsibility to find the emotional bandwidth to fully appreciate those favors. There’s going to be stress, there may even be some good ol’ fashioned interpersonal conflict. Just don’t steamroll people. You should be the only one forced to sleep on set under a chemically treated scrap of duvetyne, age 45 years during your 18-day principal photography window, and ultimately pass into the shadow realm where you will float in a cosmic jelly composed of self-loathing and invoices for things you didn’t know you were going to need to spend money on.

(Stay tuned for my next article, “The Mutual Exclusivity of Self Care and Filmmaking.”)

Credit: Matthew Lucas

Drawing Up Divorce Papers

After having committed blindly to your own success, you’ll eventually have something resembling a movie. Congratu-Sundance-lations!

Starting in the later phases of post production, literal humans will be watching your work and providing feedback—your producers, your DP, your soon-to-be-ex... everyone’s gonna have an adorable opinion! Around this time you’ll need to start watching your own movie more objectively. Which, of course, is impossible.

We all know we need to be ready to kill darlings, and that there’s a right and wrong way to take notes. From where I’m sitting, especially if you’re the person who drove the bus every day for a year or two, you really need to find a way to entirely break up with this thing or you’ll have another obstacle to finishing: a deadly combination of analysis paralysis and separation anxiety.

Eventually the day’s gonna come when you stop editing. The movie won’t be done, of course; you’ll just tell everyone to put their pencils down. And then you’ll deliver assets to a distributor, archive the project, and finally be free to unsubscribe from Creative Cloud so you can afford the liquor that you will so desperately need.

I highlight this divorce process because I’ve seen it prevent artists from completing their work, and it makes me sad. It will be hard to say goodbye. You may always feel like there’s a sequence that still isn’t working, a visual kink that you can’t get over, the question of whether you could have edited it entirely in reverse—it will never end, my guy.

You have to end it. Dedicate the time you need to finish the movie, and then have the constitution to actually call it finished. You owe it to everyone who helped you along the way, and it’s another thing no one’s going to do for you.

Credit: Matthew Lucas

So, Will Anyone Ever Care?

Not to optimistically suggest that the weight you now carry will ever allay itself, but once your movie is released in some fashion it is now in the hands of new stakeholders who aren’t your cast and crew, they aren’t your friends and family, and most importantly they aren’t you. This is extremely freeing if you’ve been the one pulling most of the weight this whole time. Even if you wanted to keep working on the movie, you couldn’t. If you were successful in divorcing yourself from the project, you are now free to fall asleep thinking about something else for the first time since you had the troublingly insane idea to make a micro-budget feature.

Having advocates out there with their own goals for your work mostly translates to an always-developing list of pros and cons. But, on balance, the mere fact that you’re done means that you can take a step back and look at the lessons learned.

And that’s the biggest reason to give yourself a pat on the back at the end of your micro-budget feature. Even if the thing sucks, even if it’s about to be torn to shreds by comment trolls, even if you made a bad deal or burned a bridge... you learned something. You have a hunch about what you might try to do differently next time. You bit off way more than you could chew but you saw it through. 

You are my fucking hero.     

Matthew is a writer and director in Los Angeles. His own micro-budget feature, Kringle Time, is distributed by Gravitas Ventures, and is now available on iTunes, Amazon, and other VOD services. 

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