Why Make a Microbudget Film? Five Questions for Director Paul Harrill on the Virtues of Ultra-Low Budgets
Is there a business in microbudget filmmaking?
The question is begged by the title of an upcoming class at the IFP’s Made in New York Media Center titled, yes, “The Business of Microbudget Filmmaking.” The program copy reads:
In this class, you will learn proven, cost-effective filmmaking and business techniques for producing a $50,000 (or less!) film project. We’ll go step-by-step through the filmmaking process to discover tips and tricks for developing, planning, producing, and distributing a microbudget film.
The class — a two-parter taking place February 13 and 20 — is taught by filmmaker Paul Harrill, which is itself an encouraging sign. One of our 25 New Faces — way back in 2001 — Harrill most recently completed the independent feature (and IFP Lab project) Something Anything.
I asked Harrill to elaborate a bit on the topics of his class, which include the current stage of microbudget filmmaking, the most common under-budgeted items, and, yes, whether or not there’s a business in microbudget filmmaking.
“The Business of Microbudget Filmmaking” is not yet sold out. Details for registering can be found at the Media Center site.
Filmmaker: Okay, your class is called “The Business of Microbudget Filmmaking.” Is, or can, microbudget filmmaking be a business, as in a professional endeavor? If so, what are the things filmmakers and producers need to be aware of to make it one?
Harrill: Let me tackle the first question. If you’re asking, in essence, “Can you make a living making microbudget films?” you know better than I do that, statistically speaking, the answer is, probably not. But there are several reasons — even from a business perspective — to make them.
First, microbudget films can be profitable, or even highly profitable — Tangerine, would be an obvious example. Secondly, many filmmakers have used one or many microbudget films to transition into non-microbudget work, whether they’re making work for studios, or Netflix, or cable. The Duplass Brothers, Amy Seimetz, Joe Swanberg, and so on — they all work full-time careers as filmmakers now, and they wouldn’t be doing so if it weren’t for the microbudget work that they began their careers with.
I think those two types of examples are sort of traditional models of thinking about microbudget success. But beyond those models, we could also talk about how microbudget filmmaking can be used to augment the careers of folks who work in production companies and typically pay their bills doing corporate work, advertising, and so on. I know producers, for example, who make a living doing that corporate work, but part of the reason companies want to work with them is because they’re also known for the microbudget films they’ve made. For them, those films have a positive economic impact on their lives that far outweighs the actual income the film itself may have made. This is true for filmmakers who work in related fields, like academia. For people like us, having a film play at Sundance, or get picked up by Netflix, or get a great review in The New York Times, can help a person earn tenure, which is essentially a full-time gig for life.
So, no, I wouldn’t encourage a person to quit their job a get into the lucrative world of microbudget filmmaking. But making these films can be profitable in different ways, to say nothing of how it might profit you emotionally or spiritually to do something you consider meaningful.
As for your other question — “If so, what are the things filmmakers and producers need to be aware of to make it one?” — I think that’s what I try to do with this class, which is just talk about how to make the best and most original film you possibly can for the fewest resources possible.
Filmmaker: Should microbudget filmmakers try to raise money from actual investors — i.e., people they may not know and who anticipate a return? Or, is it more fruitful to stick to friends and family? If the former, how do you recommend filmmakers find and approach actual investors?
Harrill: One of the main ideas of making a microbudget film, to me at least, is the idea that you’re not spending years in development hell, whether it’s the Hollywood version of that or the independent film world version of that. I’ve certainly been there. So, I think the answer is that you want to raise the money from whomever or wherever you can get it most quickly and without compromising the project. That might be crowdfunding for one person, and for someone else it might mean a few family members coming on board as investors, knowing that it might end up being more of a donation. In many cases the money will come from different places — some crowdfunding, some investment, maybe a grant, and so on. Every film is different. I think the main thing is that anyone approaching investors for a microbudget film needs to be up front about the high risk nature of the thing.
Filmmaker: On a production level, what’s the most commonly underbudgeted item in a microbudget production?
Harrill: I’d say either music rights or distribution. If you’ve underbudgeted for music, that’s somewhat easier to deal with — pick some different, cheaper, music. [Just don’t shoot that expensive music on-camera! — Ed.] But underbudgeting distribution, or not budgeting for it at all, is a big deal. Submitting to festivals can be costly, especially if you don’t have previous relationships with programmers who might grant you a waiver. Premiering at a festival, especially a prestigious festival, can be very costly. Deliverable expenses can be costly, particularly if you’re working with a distributor that isn’t offering a minimum guarantee. And self-distribution — which is a totally viable way to get your film out there — requires an investment too. But too often beginning filmmakers don’t know to budget for these things.
Filmmaker: I often speak to filmmakers who proceed ahead on films even though their budget is, to my mind, too low. When should a microbudget filmmaker not make his or her film until more money is raised?
Harrill: I’d love to hear lots of filmmakers answer this question, because you’d hear different perspectives. If I was working with investors (or, really, even crowdfunded) money, I would not go into production unless I knew I could reasonably shoot and finish the film so it could be screened at a festival. I always remember a phrase you mentioned in the IFP Labs, and that you always play the long game. If you risk shooting something that might never be finished — if you gamble with someone else’s money in this way — you aren’t only risking this success of this project, you’re risking your reputation. That’s everything.
Filmmaker: Finally, you talk about distributing microbudget films through iTunes, Amazon, Netflix. What’s the landscape like right now at these companies for smaller films? And what’s the best way for a microbudget filmmaker to approach them?
Harrill: As far as the “landscape” a distributor or sales agent could probably give you a more macro view answer than I can. That caveat aside, Netflix has been picking up some microbudget titles. And even if you do self-distribution it’s very straightforward to get your work on iTunes, Amazon, etc. through an aggregator. Sales on those platforms are all over the place — it depends on how much audience development you’ve done and what kind of niche you might be able to tap into. Another avenue that filmmakers don’t necessarily think about is the educational sphere — Kanopy, for example, which is like the Netflix for universities.
In terms of approaching these outlets, assuming a filmmaker doesn’t have a distributor, the filmmakers should go through an aggregator, whether it’s Quiver, or Juice, or whomever. If you’re going that route, and approaching them yourself, I think the best plan is to play some good festivals, establish an audience, and build up your social media followers. Then shop the film around to the aggregators and see which company might work hardest for you, which might cut you a deal on their up-front costs, and which company might be most enthusiastic about pitching your film to services (especially Netflix). In the end, just like so much of the rest of filmmaking, a lot of it is about trusting your gut and thinking about who you feel will be the best collaborator.