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10 Ways to Make a Successful Feature Film for a Few Thousand Dollars

1.    LEADERSHIP & VISION

First, you can be an actor, screenwriter, director, investor, movie lover or trained monkey and get the ball rolling, but whatever the project is going to be, it is going to need someone very organized and very motivated, who is passionate about the vision and has the charisma and negotiating skills needed to inspire others to be involved. You don’t have to be that person, but if you aren’t, the first thing you need to do is find someone who is.

2.    SCRATCH THE ITCH OF A NICHE

Some people often just have a story they are so passionate about telling that it drives the whole project. Projects of love are often the ones that succeed, but it doesn’t hurt to use a little strategic planning to give yourself the best chance of success. For example, if you aren’t sure about the project, consider that documentaries probably have the least chance of being big financial successes, while horror films made on a small margin probably have the best chance of being financially successful.

Perhaps you can hit on a market that hasn’t been targeted yet, where there is a viewership chomping at the bit for content. For example several recent movies, “Lincoln,” “Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter,” and “The Better Angels,” have been made about the topic of Abraham Lincoln. Why wasn’t this done before, when many people would be interested in knowing more about Abraham Lincoln? Several movies have also been made about terminally ill people, but “The Fault in Our Stars,” actually put a more uplifting spin on it and made it for a younger audience to great financial reward. Meanwhile, the elder audience is massive and yet few feel-good movies have been made for that audience since “Cocoon.”

This is all to say that especially if you’re not sure what story you want to tell, it benefits you to select a genre and a story that have a good chance of being financially successful, even if you consider yourself an artist and don’t care that much about money, because films that are popular and financially successfully usually get distributed and are seen much more than films that aren’t. Financially successful movies also give you the resources and reputation to continue to make movies.

3.    THE SCRIPT

This is probably the most mindboggling oversight for film-makers the world over. A professional quality camera can be had for a few thousand dollars. Movies can be edited on free home computer software, so almost anyone can make a professional looking movie now, but the mistake most make, even at the professional level is that the scripts just aren’t that good.

Some other people may actually have the nerve to argue with this, but there is NOTHING as important as a script is to a movie, NOTHING. Take movies like “Napoleon Dynamite,” “El Mariachi” or “Blair Witch Project,” they did not have a massive financial investment, but they had good scripts and they made millions of dollars, while many movies made for far more money failed abysmally and lost money.

Some of the many atrocious wastes of money include movies like “Stealth,” which squandered a great cast and promising premise to lose more than $58 million and “Red Planet,” which had a mediocre script supporting big budget aspirations and lost more than $46 million.

Tip to the wise, unless you are really very clever, avoid period pieces and science fiction movies like the plague, if you are working on a low-budget.

People don’t realize that a great script can carry a movie and that a script can be tailored to make a low budget movie. For example, a great writer can write a one-location script, similar to “SAW,” that requires little or no special effects and keeps audiences riveted simply with great characters and great story.

Sure, most scripts are not good, but there are literally thousands of unproduced writers trying to break into Hollywood and many have multiple scripts waiting for an interested party. Bet your bottom dollar some of them are amazing! If you are a talented writer who is willing to write their own script or you take the time to read other people’s scripts until you find a great one, the most important part of your project is already done.

This will also help more actors, producers and marketing peeps want to be involved with your project and make them more willing to donate their time and resources. If you have a mediocre script it is going to be a lot harder to get people motivated without paying them a lot of money.

Here is the atrocity…the script is the core of virtually every movie and yet less money is generally spent on the script than on the actors, the production team and even in many cases, the special effects. Believe this… an amazing script with mediocre actors, production team and special effects is going to make for a much better movie than a mediocre script with amazing actors, production and special effects.

The up-shot to you, the filmmaker, is this…amazing scripts can be shockingly available and affordable, even if known actors are supremely expensive and hard to come by. But we don’t need them to tell a tremendous story!

There are also countless amazing books that could be turned into successful movies and some of them even have large followings and a history of success that waves a big green flag saying, “Make me!!! Make me!!!”

4.    COLLABORATION FROM PRODUCTION CREW

You want to put together a production crew that is solid and reliable. You may have to go through some people to find that. This is why it’s better to start by shooting some easy short scenes, auditions or short films to feel out your crew before you travel to a location and find out your camera man or sound crew didn’t show up, because they aren’t actually reliable.

Many professionals have their own equipment, which they can use on your film. This will help lower your production costs. If you get someone to agree to participate and you’re planning on using their equipment, make sure they know that. For example, you may get a camera man to come to do a shoot and you confirmed they have their own camera, but if you don’t tell them to bring it, they may actually show up without it and say you didn’t tell them to bring it.

Another great place to get production crew is from film school programs.

Production staff are a little like actors, in that there are a lot of them working very hard and they often have bigger aspirations and they often have not worked on fun or satisfying projects. You may be able to get your production staff for a production credit and promise of back-end net-profits. An executive producer credit can sweeten the pot, if need be.

Make sure you consider cinematography, sound, lighting, production photography, etc. You should try to get knowledgeable individuals to help you in each of these areas.

You may also be able to go the extra mile and get people to help with makeup, wardrobe, set design, catering, transportation, etc.

5.    COLLABORATION FROM ACTORS

There are a lot of starving actors and many of them are very talented and passionate about their craft and many of them are very handsome or beautiful. Like you, they are just looking for a break or a really good opportunity. You can be their break and their good opportunity!

If you have a great script, there is a very good chance you can get an actor to be in your movie simply for the opportunity to play a great role and get a film credit in a well-made feature film. If you have the perfect actor and that’s not enough, you may actually need to pay them a little bit for their time.

Where do you find these actors…Put an article in the local newspaper, post fliers for auditions, University drama programs, high school drama departments, internet communities, modeling agencies, people working in stores or walking down the street who look the part, friends, family and friends of friends. First get your peeps and then hold auditions to find out who really has the necessary talent and who is best suited to fill certain roles.

6.    LOCATION LOCATION LOCATION

If you are making a low-budget movie, realize that this limits the number of and type of locations you will be using in your film.

For example, you don’t want 120 set locations that will require relocating cast, crew, lighting, etc. to many different locations. If your peeps aren’t being paid or aren’t being paid well, they aren’t going to want to invest that much extra time and effort.

Likewise, you are probably going to need to eliminate certain locations from potential plans. You probably can’t shoot in China, because you aren’t going to be paying to ship your crew there. You probably can’t shoot on a bus, unless you know someone, because you can’t afford to rent one, etc. 

7.    MUSIC

Take the time to search out people or bands that make incredible music or music that especially fits the tone of your movie. Pay them if you can, if not, many starving musicians would probably agree to let you use their music, simply for a credit, the exposure of having their music in a feature film and perhaps the promise of profit on backend net-profits if that ship comes in.

8.    EDITING

Home editing programs can be had for free. If you don’t know how to edit, you may be able to hire an aspiring film maker in college at a very reasonable rate or get them to do it for a promise of back-end net-profits, an editing credit and perhaps even an executive producer credit, if you want to sweeten the pot.

However, this may be one area where it is wise not to skimp. A good editor can not only help you make your movie a lot better, they can also do some nifty tricks like stabilize camera shakiness, fix sound problems and improve your lighting.

9.    MARKETING

This is actually the most difficult part of the process. The ideal thing is probably to enter your movie in numerous film festivals and hope it catches the eye of some distributors, who contact you to make you an offer for using your film.

There are other avenues you can also try. You can try to get an agent to market your script or take it to pitch festivals and try pitching your film. You can put it in internet newsletters like Inktip or post your script online through similar services.

10.    DON’T MAKE THESE MISTAKES

Don’t make the same mistake as so many Hollywood types. If you’re going to go to all the time and effort to make a movie and ask a number of people to lend their time and energy to the project, don’t make a mediocre movie. Make sure you get a great script and shoot for big things!

Don’t make the mistake of not having a photographer. While a professional or even a hobby photographer can really add something to this department, at least get someone to take still pictures, even if it has to be a mother, father or neighbor. These stills can be invaluable in production updates, bonuses for actors and staff and if you want to add a documentary to the end of your DVD. If no photographer is available, stills can be pulled from the video itself for additional uses.

Another tip is to have two photographers working every set. This is ideal, because between the two of them they are more likely to get the perfect shot, but also one can be assigned to back-end production shots which are good for production updates, documentaries and DVD bonuses and the other can be an additional camera angle shooting the actual film, which is better for the actual actors and for promotional stills, DVD packaging and posters.

Showing up empty handed to negotiate with people isn't so hot, so if you've never done a film, you may want to make a nice short film ASAP to give you some credability, so you can show something decent to prospective actors and production staff to show them you're not just a hobbiest trying to take a wild swing at something they have no experience with and know nothing about.

Try to stay humble and realize people are donating their time and energy to help you. Mistakes will be made, even by you. Try to make it as beneficial as possible for everyone involved. If you help the people who participate in your project it will help you in the end. Make sure you do things like provide DVD copies of your finished film to those who participated, mention everyone correctly in the credits and don’t forget anyone or leave anyone out, offer special thanks to those who deserve it in your credits, put the credits on your Youtube and Vimeo posts to give them extra exposure and have still photographers shoot your film production so they can give production stills to actors and crew for their resumes.

As you do this, you’re building a great network , a film-making community that can be used to make future movies, but make sure you deliver on your promises in a fairly timely fashion, otherwise you’ll lose this newly formed community and gain a bad reputation that could hinder, if not prevent, future collaborations.




By Evan Marquisee
November 1, 2014

Comments sent

4 comment(s).
DEBEM BOXER 50 - 4/14/2018 2:27:02 AM
The most important thing to make that success, I think is the cooperation between the parties and find the great place to deploy. However, cost is still the most essential thing :)
Thank you for the post!
Logical Spiritualism - 1/24/2015 8:21:52 AM
Good point, Migdia! Thanks for sharing!!!

Yes, springing a little extra moeny for food goes a long way in creating goodwill with your crew! Having people working hungry, especially for free, can make for a more unpleasant work situation.

Hiring a professional craft service company is one way to go, but if you are really hard-up for funds, three alternatives are...

Order pizzas!!! Most people love pizzas. They are relatively cheap and can be delivered to your shooting location quickly. Pizza can also be eaten standing up without tables or a lot of silverware, etc.

Another alternative worth mentioning is to cater your own movie event. Think of something simple that you can make well. In the U.S., if you want to be thrifty, get some nice condiments and boil a huge pot of hotdogs. A huge pot of chili is also a posibility, though more costly and not everyone may be partial to chili.


A third option is hiring a friend or family-member to make a large dish of something you know they cook well. For example, in Costa Rica, one of the local cuisines is rice with chiken (chicken fried rice) and you could hire any number of people in CR to make a huge pot of that, which would feed a small army without breaking the bank.
Migdia Chinea - 1/23/2015 10:17:22 PM
Please, disregard obvious syntax errors. It's autocorrect's fault:)
Migdia Chinea - 1/23/2015 10:05:34 PM
I found this article to be very informative and will share it with others. Should there are production tricks to save money and cheat locations, the one often overlooked tip here is craft services. If you're not paying the actors and crew, you need some decent food and nice presentation. Thank you.

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