The Velocity of Money: Breaking Down the Microbudget of Princess Cyd
My origins as a filmmaker split the past 25 years in two. I’m now nearly as close in time to my debut efforts as I was to the early 1990s American New Wave when preparation for those efforts began. As an aspiring filmmaker with no formal film training, nothing was more inspiring to me during the mid-aughts than soaking up the narratives of DIY filmmakers who took it upon themselves to make something from nothing, way back in the grand ol’ 20th century.
In reviewing the logistical and budgetary recaps presented in these pages by Peter Broderick more than two decades ago for films as varied as Kevin Smith’s Clerks, Gregg Araki’s The Living End, Nick Gomez’s Laws of Gravity and others, it’s brought vividly to mind how drastically the landscape has changed, primarily due to the rise in digital means. When Robert Rodriguez (El Mariachi) talks about his Arri 16S being so noisy that it sounded like “it was eating the film,” Smith losing so much sleep he “slept through the fight sequence and didn’t see it until the workprint” and Lodge Kerrigan (Clean, Shaven) writing that it took “five months on and off to get an assembly, which was used to raise more money,” one is reminded of conditions in the analog trenches that plagued moving image creation during that time. Nowadays, once a project is up and running, whether it’s a $500 short film or a $600,000 feature, everything is right there in front of you and relatively easy to achieve, technically — for better and for worse.
Not unrelated to the rise in digital technology is the fact that the number of crew members who own their equipment has increased exponentially since the ’90s. In an early article written for Filmmaker about making independent film in Los Angeles, The Living End producer Andrea Sperling writes that “one benefit of shooting in LA is the number of people here who, in an effort to make themselves more attractive for producers to hire, own their own equipment and allow you to either use it for free when hiring them, or rent it out to you in exchange for a salary, with them attached.” While this may have been a Los Angeles–specific rarity in the fall of 1992, equipment is so relatively inexpensive now that to meet a DP or sound person without their own equipment would be very strange indeed. This streamlines the process considerably.
It’s tempting to name as a distinct difference between then and now the sheer number of filmmakers making movies in the 2010s. I often think about how it was actually possible to see everything made and released in a given year, even as early as 2000 or 2001, when there were so few people able to wrangle together a budget and actually see a celluloid project fulfilled to completion. Now, there are tens of thousands of filmmakers seeing thousands of projects to completion every year (every month?) — with, admittedly, varying degrees of success. But tens of thousands of filmmakers does not equal tens of thousands of Gregg Arakis or Lodge Kerrigans or Allison Anderses or Spike Lees (though it is very important to ponder whether a blind submission of The Living End; Clean, Shaven; Gas Food Lodging or She’s Gotta Have It would even get past the initial screeners at a top-tier festival these days). So, amidst all the noise, I’m not sure the spirit of the thing has changed as much, and indeed, in reviewing these old narratives, I’m more struck by what hasn’t changed than by what has. This may not be true for others, but it’s true for me. The old guard feels like family.
I’ve written before in these pages of my slow-burn growth as a filmmaker. A cinephile from birth, but a theater major in college with not a single filmmaking course to my name, I jumped into filmmaking with the verve and passion of the early ’90s filmmakers who inspired me, but without the appropriate understanding of film narrative, the requisite grasp of scale and economy. By the time I made The Wise Kids — my first film to reach audiences beyond my adopted home of Chicago (I am originally from the Carolinas, where The Wise Kids was filmed) — I had already rendered myself ineligible for the majority of developmental labs, and my early efforts had not achieved festival success. As a result, I was relegated to making movies the old-fashioned way each time out. I feel a deep kinship to those early folks, scraping together funds from individuals, even strangers, equipment from schools and crew folks, ads placed on the internet, cold e-mailing potential crew and, finally, working with capable friends and producers to cut corners to make something special for very little money, not because I did it once, but because it’s the only way I’ve ever been able to make movies. My early efforts were made for between $5,000 and $60,000, but I have yet, even with Henry Gamble’s Birthday Party and Princess Cyd, to cross the $200,000 threshold. Strangely, this has put me in the position of having a decade’s-plus worth of microbudget features, each and every one put together in the exact fashion as those early DIY filmmakers. There has been no calling card and no single breakout. Whatever legitimacy I now have is the cumulative result of stubbornly making films from thin air, Living End–style, for 12 years.
What sets my recent Princess Cyd apart from my other films is that — and this is certainly an arguable point — it marks the point in my career (around which I’m tempted to put quotes, but aren’t we all) when DIY ingenuity meets a modest and economical storytelling mode without technical compromise. Put together quickly for $180,000, and shot over the course of 18 days (at approximately 12 hours per day), Princess Cyd found me finally feeling the fear of risk that defined the early ’90s debuts but with the confidence of an experienced storyteller. This brings us back to how things have changed: In the old world, there’s no way someone like me, a middle class–raised theater major without any connections to wealth, could’ve made six-plus microbudget films in the ’90s, without a significant breakout, and continued to press forward, finally achieving something of a reputation in certain circles after 12 long years.
As you’ll see below, Princess Cyd was as much a labor of love as my early, unseen efforts, and could not have been made without the support of the Chicago film and acting community and the ingenuity of my producers, Grace Hahn and Madison Ginsberg, producing stars in the making.
Story Rights and Copyrights 310.00
Cast 17,864.00 (incl. casting)
Total Above the Line 18,174.00
Set Operations 11,725.00 (catering, production, supplies, walkies, loss/damage)
Production Staff 20,110.00 (incl. director, producer, AD department, scripty)
Art/Set Dressing/Props 11,025.00 (incl. labor)
Wardrobe 5,475.00 (incl. labor)
Make-up and Hair 3,985.00 (incl. labor)
G&E 11,782.00 (incl. labor)
Camera 32,680.00 (incl. labor)
Production Sound 7,800.00 (incl. labor)
Transportation 11,225.00 (incl. cast/crew travel)
Total Production 125,908.00
Film Editing 8,240.00 (incl. assistant editor and hard drives)
Music 7,400.00 (incl. original compositions and song rights)
Post-Production Sound 9,000.00
Color Correction 5,000.00
Finishing Fees 1,750.00
Fest Publicity 5,000.00
Total Post-Production 37,890.00
Total budget 181,972.00
Story Rights and Copyrights
Includes LLC establishing fee. Beyond that, no script to buy or secure rights for, just the task of making sure my own original script was registered with the U.S. Copyright Office. (Side note: I made this film after pushing another, larger film into the future. I pushed the latter in early July that year and wrote the first draft of Princess Cyd in three days, ahead of an August 30th start date.)
We utilized the SAG Ultra Low Budget Agreement, which required actors be paid $125/day plus health and pension. There were approximately 30 speaking roles and assorted background players. My casting directors, Mickie Paskal, Jennifer Rudnicke and AJ Links, are long-time partners who, budgetarily, will graciously meet a project where it’s at if they love the script and have time.
Sixteen locations, with 10 days in our main house location (plus two days prep/wrap). We saved by being our own locations manager. A real advantage to shooting in Chicago is that the community is generally excited when a movie is being made, and so the majority of our locations were donated. Even our central house location, which we paid for, was owned by complete strangers who were excited and generous and didn’t require much in return. (Side note: we almost didn’t scout our main location, initially, because we were tired, the residents were strangers and it seemed a long shot. That would’ve been a near-fatal mistake.)
A must. Build good relationships with insurance people. It’s a collaboration like any other.
Several items here that helped us cut costs: 1) No production office; we worked from locations, our homes, etc. 2) In terms of supplies, we only rented tables and chairs for days when we had 20 cast members, and we only rented enough walkies for half the crew, barely using them, ultimately, because the production was so small. 3) Catering is so expensive we ended up sourcing meals directly from restaurant catering. 4) We also served as our own accountant, saving further. (I actually don’t recommend this.) 5) Lastly, credit must be given to the handful of interns — each paid an embarrassingly negligible amount — who helped things flow during the shoot.
The majority of the production team — 1st Assistant Director, 2nd AD, Script Supervisor, Key Production Assistant and other PAs — was paid “full” rate (relative to this size budget, which means rates hovered around minimum wage), but my two main producers (both of whom did double duty as line producer and unit production manager for no fee at all) and I took a very low flat fee ($1,500) to keep costs low, paid at the end of everything.
Art / Set Dressing / Props
Small team for the incredible work done, including production designer, art director, set dresser, two painters and a graphic designer. However, only the first three were on set. This line would’ve been much costlier if we had not found locations so perfectly suited to the narrative.
Our brilliant costume designer Kate Grube, assisted by Robin Lee and two interns, found some incredibly specific clothes for the diverse cast of characters, with many — maybe even most — costumes pulled from actors’ wardrobes. Total line amount was split between crew rates and purchases.
Makeup and Hair
The needs here were standard and naturalistic but significant, as this is a summer-y film about sensual pleasures, with a focus on skin. It helped to have a designer like Sarah Lawless, who was in love with the project and trusted the team.
Grip and Electric
We had master local gaffer Stephen Wester gaffing daily, assisted by a pool of swings totaling 10–11, from which we’d call two to three per day. We had a fairly mid-size package for an indie — a couple of HMIs, babys, gaff kit, dolly, grip equipment — which was donated by Northwestern University, where I teach and of which my producers are alums.
Our cinematographer, Zoe White, owned an ARRI Amira camera, which we were planning to shoot on, but it actually ended up being cheaper renting locally than shipping hers. That said, we shot two days of pick-ups at the end, during which we utilized Zoe’s camera, after a fortuitous trip to New York made it possible.
Similarly, sound recordist Rob Davis owns his own sound package and is committed to meeting productions he admires where they’re at. Rob also recorded sound for Henry Gamble’s Birthday Party. Again, find your people.
Keeping it local keeps costs down in terms of travel and lodging. We only had three out-of-towners: actor Tyler Ross, cinematographer Zoe White and make-up/hair designer Sarah Lawless. This line also includes G&E truck rental, art truck rental and gas reimbursements/mileage.
Veteran commercial editor Christopher Gotschall is a friend who has kept up with my work and with whom I’ve always felt a kinship. He knew we didn’t have a lot of money and wasn’t sure his schedule would allow for it at first, but we worked to balance his daily work schedule throughout our approximately four-month process. As a result, he was not cutting full time, but only during downtime. Thankfully, his late September/early October was light. We had a first cut by mid-October, less than three weeks after completing the shoot. It helped that camera DIT Thomas Molash and assistant editor Marion Hill were on set transferring, syncing and prepping the footage for him.
Christopher edited using Adobe Premiere Pro, which was new to him (Cutters Studios, where he works, is an Avid-based editing house), but which we felt was safest seeing that we weren’t sure if he was going to have to hand the project over to Marion or me if he got busy.
To score the film, we had the brilliant Heather McIntosh, a frequent collaborator of mine and someone who has worked on much bigger projects. She, like others I’ve mentioned, is willing to meet her passion projects where they’re at and was able to gather a handful of instrumentalist friends to create a score that sounds more expansive and expensive than it actually was. I was also able to land the rights to all of my first-choice songs, due to the generosity of various musical artists. (Important: it never hurts to ask!)
To also file in the “It Never Hurts to Ask” category, Another Country is one of the top sound design companies in Chicago, having worked on Drinking Buddies, Happy Christmas and Life Itself. We almost didn’t approach them because we thought it would be too expensive, but they were happy to fit us in at a low rate because of the rep of the team and quality of the film.
Similarly, Chicago’s Company 3, led by master colorist Tyler Roth, met us where we were. They’re wonderful to work with.
This includes various hard drives, DCP creation, shipping, etc. Periscope Post & Audio in Chicago worked with us to get us a good deal on our DCPs.
My dear friend Marty Schousboe, a successful comedy director and editor in Brooklyn, was willing to hop on and tackle these for a low rate. I’m not skilled in After Effects and wanted someone who was.