Cashing Out: How to make a feature film with no money
No money is a bit of a lie. It’s pretty much impossible to make a feature film with zero dollars. However, you don’t have to be a million to make it happen either. In the age of the Internet artists have the ability to ask for money through crowd-funding websites, fundraising, or outright asking friends and family. I didn’t want to do any of that because I didn’t want to owe people something if I couldn’t delivery. Instead, I carefully saved my money for years from working a day job, not spending my tax refunds, and doing video jobs when I could. I’m not doing to disclose how much I have spent because I some times fear publically announcing that information will make people think the production quality will be poor. I’m sure most of you can figure out that I have not spent a significant amount as I am not in any debt from this project and I continue to pay for post-production and a lawyer.
Planning the movie was one of the biggest challenges. I didn’t use any movie budgeting or scheduling software. I used Microsoft Excel and customized everything I needed from scheduling, keeping track of costumes, and tracking scenes that needed to be shot. One of my strengths as a filmmaker is the ability to be economical. I use actors who enjoy working with me along with bringing on actor’s that are willing to work for free. I absolutely hate that I cannot pay these people, so instead I offered to do their demo reels, resumes, audition tapes, and anything else that would help them progress their careers outside of my project. I tried to do the same with my crew, but since some of their positions do not require reels I made damn sure to feed and keep them happy any time they volunteered for me. If you do have money make sure you invest in good craft services. I’m also not talking about feeding pizza to everyone everyday. I made sure to have a wide variety of dishes every shoot. Some days called for pizza, but out of my 26 day shoot I probably served pizza three times. Pastas, tacos, sandwiches are cheap and keep everyone a lot happier than a five dollar pizza. Having a lot of snacks is also important. I’ve been on sets where once the snacks were gone then they were gone for good. Don’t do that. I spent maybe about $600 dollars on food and snacks for all 26 days. If you can shoot a movie faster than me then you can certainly save in the end.
Another big cost was props. We used real guns on set (we had a firearms expert that I knew), a full size poker table, and a ton of others. Don’t skimp out on the props. If you’re lucky enough to have a real location most of these places will allow you to use items they own. We shot at a restaurant that allowed us to use their dishes, table ornaments, etc. We shot at a movie theater were I was allowed to use popcorn, tubs, cups, etc. You get the idea. While you’re scouting for location always be sure to ask if there is anything you would be allowed to use that would increase production value. You can also ask around for more specific props, such as when I asked for guns. There is a dance competition scene that I wanted to have a very specific look (I took a lot of inspiration from Silver Linings Playbook). Our location provided the tables, and I knew someone who had a PA system, cloth tablecloths, and then I ended up buying whatever else I needed. While I’m not condoning this method, I may or may not have purchased certain props and then returned them immediately after using. This method is not recommended, but you have to do what you have to do. I maybe spent in total around $500 on props. You can spend less if you are crafty.
Having solid locations is very important for production value. While I was writing the script for Cashing Out I had a list of locations that I knew I could use. Most of these were people’s houses, apartments, etc along with new places my fellow crew or actors knew were filming friendly. I was fortunate to only have to pay for one location in the entire film, and that was the venue where the dance competition takes place. I fell in love with the look for this particular location and I would be damned if I didn’t get to shoot there. It was at a local park where I needed to present what I wanted to do at a board meeting. I went to this meeting and pitched to the five or six board members and they were all about it. It was a super relieving feeling. It was one of those moments when you show how passionate you are about something that people will respond positively. I didn’t get a single “no” from their votes, so I was all set after that. I will get more into this on another blog, but I‘m lucky enough to have a lawyer for the movie. There are a lot of locations that I did not receive permission to shoot, which some ended up being okay and other’s not. This is not lawyer advice, but shooting anywhere publically that is government is generally safe without permission. That is not saying anything outside is safe, so make sure you’re planning accordingly. When in doubt get a release.
The debate on gear is always going to be a battle. While you can certainly shoot on anything I’m extremely picky about how my material looks. If you absolutely cannot afford equipment then use what you have. You can certainly shoot a movie on your phone or a cheap camera. If you have a limited budget I would recommend using that money on something other than a camera. A Red or Alexa are not going to choose good angles for your movie and make it have crisp clean sound. If you don’t have a sound recordist with equipment invest in good sound equipment. People can handle crappy picture more than crappy sound. On this movie I used a Blackmagic 2.5K cinema camera, a Canon C100 for the opening scene, and an iPhone SE for a couple scenes. I owned the Blackmagic camera for about three years by that point, so I didn’t spend any extra money on a camera. I mostly had to spend money on hard drives to store the over 12 terabytes of footage that I shot. However much storage you think you need is never going to be enough. I shot a feature with five terabytes of footage a year prior, so I used that as my basis. It wasn’t enough. Always assume at least two to three times more than what you think you will need. The camera you shoot on should dictate how much you need.
As far as production goes, everything I talked about are the only times where I had to spend money. I’ll do a future entry about the costs that have come up during post-production, which is where I have invested the most. The main takeaway is that I needed to be resourceful in order to accomplish what I wanted to do. If I only had $1000 to shoot this movie I would have found a way to make it work. I have been fortunate enough to have money saved up, but I do understand not everyone does. How much you can afford shouldn’t deter you from wanting to make your passion project. I’ve shot dozens of short films for zero dollars to whatever it cost to take my cast and crew to lunch. You can make it happen. You just plan carefully and having the passion to get it done.