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The Low Down: Is Microbudget Production the Response to the Industry’s Devaluation of the Dramatic Feature Film?

Mary Twala Mhlongo in This Is Not A Burial, It’s A Resurrection (Photo by Pierrede Villiers)

There are conflicting opinions regarding the budget cutoff for the category commonly referred to as “microbudget filmmaking.” Sometimes referred to as “no-budget,” “ultra-low-budget” or “nano-budget,” the term refers to an increasingly popular level of filmmaking below “low-budget” that emerging filmmakers as well as, in some cases, veterans engage in.

When Venice’s Biennale College Cinema was started eight years ago, the budgets of €150,000 (about $162,000) awarded to each filmmaker seemed low. And indeed, while makers of films—ambitious pictures such as The Fits, H., Memphis and This Is Not a Burial, It’s a Resurrection—produced through that program struggled with the budget cap, they succeeded in delivering singular works that went on to reach significant international audiences through festivals and theatrical distribution.

For many filmmakers struggling to raise production funds today, however, the Biennale College budget cap seems high. Filmmaker Kentucker Audley, who has a website, NoBudge, that streams microbudget films, says he focuses on films made for less than $50,000. “It’s somewhat arbitrary because you could crowdfund a film for $100,000 and have complete creative control while, conversely, you could get an investor to put in $25,000, and they want to push you in a more commercial direction,” he says. “I think it’s more about the spirit of the filmmaking than the dollar amount of the budget. I think it’s about attitude and rebellion. Not conforming to trends or standards of easy viewing.”

Last year, Tyler Taormina’s feature Ham on Rye had its international premiere at the prestigious Locarno Film Festival and—despite its many nighttime, well-lit exteriors and interiors—was made for $25,000.

What budget range should define microbudget cinema in 2020? And, more important, in a world where streamers dominate the acquisitions marketplace while simultaneously turning away from low-budget drama, what kind of films should be produced within penurious microbudget parameters?

How Low Is Low?

First, the definition: A safe place to put the high-end cap on “microbudget” as opposed to “low-budget” is the Screen Actor’s Guild’s cutoff for their Ultra Low Budget Agreement. For a theatrical feature film, shot completely in the United States, that’s $300,000.

So, if the high-end cap is $300,000, how low can you go? 

In the past, the answer was defined by technology: the cost of the camera, lights and film stock. Low-budget filmmaking initially took off after World War II because of the lightweight news camera. The camera was a war-proven workhorse whose compact, well-balanced shape allowed filmmakers like Ruth Orkin, Morris Engel and John Cassavetes to go handheld with tiny crews and minimal lights into actual locations. In the early 1960s through the ’70s in New York City, microbudget filmmaking was called the Experimental Underground. Jonas Mekas and visionaries Jack Smith, Ron Rice and Shirley Clarke were quite clear that they had no intention of making their films acceptable, in form, to the mainstream. It wasn’t until the next generation of New York, rock-and-roll-inspired ’80s era filmmakers that commercial narrative form was embraced despite the tiny budgets. Films like Smithereens, Parting Glances, Variety and Stranger Than Paradise were depictions of marginalized alternative communities, which, though more commercial in structure, flaunted their edgy attitude through boundary-pushing aesthetics. In the late ’80s and early ’90s, the first years of Filmmaker, a new generation of filmmakers embraced the same microbudget attitude and made films like Go Fish and Poison. Back then, before the “digital revolution,” low-end budgets were structured around such fixed costs as 16mm or Super 16mm film stock, processing, camera rental and an editing suite. (There was no Final Cut Pro back then.)

When digital cameras started to become somewhat capable of a decent resolution in the ’90s, we saw the rise of a new group of microbudget filmmakers using “prosumer” cameras, many of which, though cheap, could not shoot in 24p. Post-production was the biggest unknown and held the largest possible trapdoors for a budget. (Back in those early days of digital filmmaking, we all got worked up comparing notes about 30-frame-to-24p-to-35mm print conversion strategies.) The big risk with these cameras was that even with a great transfer, their image quality would not allow a film to pass the international and domestic broadcast networks’ QC (quality control) departments. The challenge of early microbudget feature production was thus more about how to use inferior technology to achieve results that allowed these films to compete in the same marketplace as the bigger-budget films with longer shooting schedules, bigger lights and 35mm capture. Problems aside, with the rise of 24p digital cameras we started, for the first time, to glimpse the feasibility of making microbudget films that could stand alongside the more typical high-budget features. 

Alongside 24p cameras in 1999 came a New York–based production company, Independent Digital Entertainment (InDigEnt), devoted to microbudget production expressly for the new digital broadcast channels that needed quality product. The company, created by attorney and producer John Sloss, director Gary Winick and IFC Productions, formed around the idea of making features for microbudgets (usually around $300,000). Productions could be broadcast on IFC Production’s parent company IFC or sold upstream during a festival bidding war. In fact, just such a sale—Tadpole, which sold at Sundance to Miramax in 2002 for $5 million—got InDigEnt’s financial model rolling. With cheap cameras (which InDigEnt eventually bought) and guaranteed upfront financing backing scripts that could attract top acting talent, the only remaining challenge for InDigEnt’s microbudget model became the cost of labor.

At the time, InDigEnt had a revolutionary approach to the labor issue. Because it was pretty hard to predict which of their $300,000 films would be worthy of securing a top minimum guarantee (MG) at a festival or market, the only way to motivate experienced crews to work at a microbudget salary was to dangle the carrot of an active gross-profit participation plan for everyone, not just the key creatives. A PA whose first job was holding traffic on Tadpole actually saw significant backend payouts due to the high MG the film secured at Sundance. This concept of the potential for gross-profit participation is the dream that sustained the model over the course of some seven years.

DP Harlan Bosmajian, who shot one of the final InDigEnt films, Andrew Wagner’s 2007 picture, Starting Out in the Evening, said he was paid “something like $125 a day, and I still get, every three or four years, a check for $125. InDigEnt was pretty good about sharing backend, unlike all the other companies that gave points [but for which] backend did not really exist.” 

Today, technology creates very few budgeting barriers when it comes to shooting a professional image. And you don’t need to shoot your film on an iPhone; the rental rates on an older model, full -size ARRI AELEXA are quite low now because the marketplace demand is for the ALEXA Mini. Many DPs own their own RED, Canon 5D Mark IV or Blackmagic cameras and are willing to charge little to nothing for the opportunity to shoot a dramatic fiction feature. To create a stunning poetic image, 2K is more than enough information to use if you are not compositing or doing CGI. When it comes to postproduction, with the rise of home post studios, owned by technicians I call “kitchen geniuses,” everything from color correct, compositing, CGI, conforming and even DCP creation can be done for a fraction of the original 30 percent we used to reserve for post in our budgets of old. (Twin brothers Ranju and Sanjit Majumdar have a post company in their Queens apartment called Resurgence Imaging. They do final conform, color correction, and minor compositing and title services if needed. For conform and color combined, rates start around $6,000 flat.)

But, the one component of creating a feature that has not gotten cheaper or changed that much from when the first digital cameras reduced crew size is still the unavoidable cost of labor. 

The Current Bottom Line Cost of a Microbudget Film

Let’s assume you’re starting with a well-designed script where the budget is the aesthetic and that doesn’t rely on CGI, stadiums of period extras, big stunts or multiple complicated location moves. Assuming you have that proper low-budget script, the main budget issue becomes labor, and the law is quite clear on how that works. In the New York low-budget world, we have a shorthand saying: “$225 for 12,” meaning that because of minimum wage laws you can’t ask someone to work for more than 12 hours for less than $225.

So, let’s calculate 10 paid crew positions at minimum wage (10 times $225 per day) and, let’s say, 18 shoot days (three six-day weeks). And then let’s add 10 prep days and two wrap days. That adds up to $67,500 just for crew, without taxes. (Film workers are not private contractors—the call sheet proves that fact—so you must pay payroll taxes. In New York, through a payroll company, that’s around 18%). 

The SAG Ultra Low Budget contract allows you to pay cast $201 per eight-hour day, or $697 a week, before taxes and SAG P&W (pension and welfare). Add catering, craft services, locations, equipment, dressing rentals, legal fees, insurance and transportation costs. Don’t forget you’ve still got to add in post production, delivery and festival costs. So, it’s pretty clear that to get below $100,000 you need to reduce the amount of paid crew and consider reducing shoot days. (There are many professional TV movies of the week that get shot in 12 days.) It’s through the reduction in the amount of actual paid labor and shoot days that most microbudget films are able to go below $100,000.

But the question remains, is such an approach fair? Is underpaying—or even not paying—labor an ethically justified way of creating your film? To answer that question, we really need to ask ourselves a more existential question.

Why Make a Microbudget Feature?

Or, in other words, is our dream truly worth the free or underpaid labor that it will take to get it in front of an audience? In France, where labor rights are not considered dirty words, microbudget films are frowned upon and even considered exploitive. 

I believe there are both legitimate as well as exploitive reasons to make microbudget films. For example, if the goal of a project is nothing other than to produce a calling-card film to get the writer/director a TV career, then that project should be a half-hour TV pilot with a paid crew, not a microbudget feature.

There are certainly many more valid reasons to make a microbudget feature—reasons of aesthetic invention, or to reach an underserved community or to make a political statement, to name a few. But no matter the reason, I believe that today we must always take into consideration the moral costs of these labor issues. Both investors and crew must enter into the endeavor of a microbudget film open-eyed about the current market undervaluation of the feature film dramatic format. Furthermore, when we are making these types of films, I think we owe it to all who involve themselves in the creation process to preemptively acknowledge the true nature of the struggle not only to recoup but even to get the film seen.

Pretty much no subject is too taboo for TV these days. A radical subject or political perspective will not prevent you from getting your film seen on Netflix. But a radical attitude toward form, pacing and narrative will put you into streaming exile. So, the challenge facing microbudget filmmakers today is not just how to make a film for as little as possible, it is how to unify an audience around non-corporate-endorsed artwork that speaks in a language that dominant media considers incompatible with its fiscal model. The streamers have changed the perception of film narrative thanks to their overreliance on plot to maintain subscribers’ attention in a crowded streaming market. 

How can filmmakers who value image and character above plot and dialogue, who strive to create a visually driven, personal cinema, help build community around these shared aesthetic values? We have to build an alternative viewing culture apart from the corporate TV world. There are other distributors and streamers who are less dependent on such TV fare and whose business models echo these same concerns. Theatrical distributors such as A24, NEON, Grasshopper and Factory 25 have designed their identities around cinematic values and their recent successes demonstrate that there is a demand for something other than typical TV product. Explains Matt Grady of Factory 25, “The most original filmmakers today are making films often without budgets for name actors or special effects. Factory 25 has built a curated catalog by releasing films that don’t fit into the mold of what Netflix or the big streamers are looking for but get out into the world in theaters and digitally without depending on these streaming companies. There is a microbudget film audience looking for personal stories that won’t be seen during a festival run. The key to hitting that audience is well-curated distribution that gives people an easy place to find similar films. Without that, films will just get lost.”

I am a poetry fan; the audience for poetry is quite small, but it does exist. Likewise, just because an art form or a style of film is not popular with a mass audience, it does not mean that type of film should not exist. Currently, as we are making films for as low a cost as possible, we need to acknowledge, to all involved in their creation, that there are other reasons besides money to create such works. But, unlike poetry or novel writing, film is a collaborative form, and if we are going to engage in this medium, we owe it to our collaborators to recognize their co-creation generosity and fully inform them of the true risks and costs of such endeavors. If everyone who participates in the film’s creation accepts the financial risks and costs, and they still feel that the world needs this particular work to exist, then perhaps this pluralistic creation gains significance just through the honest, open collaboration of all involved.

So, let’s try and get this alignment of writers, directors, crew and audiences to thrive equally, in a nonpredatory zone, centered around locally owned community theaters that are free from the influence and financial pressure asserted by conglomerate corporate streamers and their big-festival studio handmaidens. Let’s embrace that spirit so well-articulated by Jonas Mekas in the ’60s, and let’s view microbudget not as a curse or a stepping stone but as a portal toward personal cinematic freedom. 

In his “Anti-100 Years of Cinema Manifesto,” Mekas wrote, “In the times of bigness, spectaculars, one hundred million dollar movie productions, I want to speak for the small, invisible acts of human spirit: so subtle, so small, that they die when brought out under the Klieg lights. I want to celebrate the small forms of cinema: the lyrical form, the poem, the watercolor, etude, sketch, portrait, arabesque and bagatelle, and little 8mm songs. In the times when everybody wants to succeed and sell, I want to celebrate those who embrace social and daily failure to pursue the invisible, the personal things that bring no money and no bread and make no contemporary history, art history or any other history. I am for art which we do for each other, as friends.”

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