“Writing a low budget or Micro budget movie is a waste of time!”
Over eleven years of screenwriting I have lost count of the number of times I have heard, and indeed said, that phrase. It’s the mantra of many an arrogant writer, myself included, thinking I am god’s gift to screenwriting. After all, I have read countless books, have attended numerous courses to develop my craft, and have had two of my 6 full feature screenplays optioned by producers.
But boy, I was wrong.
Of course we all want our scripts to be picked up by the greats of Hollywood and want to have our vision turned into $250m movies where our work is launched into the stratosphere, lauded by our peers and appreciated by millions of acne ridden popcorn junkies – and that’s just the critics!
Meanwhile back in the real world… we actually want to get one of our movies made. To do so, we need to understand the concept of risk. And the movie business is one of the toughest and most competitive in the world.
Enter the micro budget movie.
The business, however, is not rocket science. The more expensive a movie is to make, the more bums on seats are required to make it viable. Of course the reverse is also true. If it is easier it is to recoup costs, the risks are lowered.
The lower the risk, the more chances that a producer or an investor will step up to the plate. The lower the investment, the less the producer or investor has to lose and the more chances you will have to get your movie made.
So how do we specifically write a micro budget movie that’s worthwhile?
Here are my Ten Top Tips for writing a micro budget movie
Writing Your Micro Budget Movie
1) High Concept. The micro budget movie absolutely depends on great story. A concept that has a great hook that will draw people in. But keep it simple.
For example, our micro budget movie 54 Days is about 5 people trapped in a nuclear shelter. They are surrounded by nuclear and biological contamination, without enough food and water to go round. Either one dies or all five die. It’s simple – but primal.
2) Think like a producer. Before you start writing the first FADE IN of your micro budget movie, try to carry out a financial audit in your mind of your concept. Focus on the big print – how can you squeeze out every cost in your story without compromising the heart. If you have already written your script, give it a “financial edit”.
Take the time to read the big print by itself with a cold, hard eye on cash; on how much things cost and how can you reduce those costs. If it means re-writing scenes – so be it.
So often you will be surprised to discover new aspects of your story, and new dimensions to your character. Remember there is never a problem… Only an opportunity for improvement!
3) Locations – Eradicate them. Each time you have a new location, you have to move an entire crew. That takes time. Reducing the locations to an absolute minimum reduces the time taken to shoot your movie. As with any business – time is money.
Squeeze out the time.
4) Small Cast – Actors cost money. Keep them to a minimum. Of course there is a balancing act as you are shooting a movie; not putting on a stage play. If your micro budget movie is 90 minutes long and you have developed great characters on paper, you can explore them in even more depth if you restrict the number of characters on screen.
What quality actor in their right mind is going to turn down the opportunity to have extensive screen time for really well drawn characters?
5) Characters – One of the Golden nuggets of successful screenwriting is to write great characters. It’s the writer’s nirvana. In micro budget movie making, great characters have to be at the very crux of your script.
6) Story Structure – Stories have been around for thousands of years as a means of communicating and understanding the human condition. There is a very clear structure that works for successful stories. Call it formula if you like, but think like Hollywood but without the budgets!
7) Special Effects – Don’t have them. Again time is money, and whilst low cost options do exist for outsourcing special effects, keep it clean and simple.
Are there any alternative ways to show your plot points other than referring to CGI? (Perhaps CGI in the world of micro budgets should stand for Costs Guaranteed to Increase!)
8) Keep the script short. The shorter the script the less time it takes to shoot, and the lower the costs. Given that 1 page of script typically represents 1 minute on screen, keep the script down to 80 to 100 pages – preferably closer to 80.
9) Edit Ruthlessly. Make the script super tight. Reduce it down to the bare bones of the story. If you can say something in one line instead of 5 – do it! Be economical, because you will get the story moving quickly, make it much more intensive and give the audience much more value.
10) Research what is possible – Network and talk to as many filmmakers as you can. Talk to them about tips and tricks to get great production values, but at nil or very low cost.
Keep a bank of them in your mind and build them into your script. Knowledge is power. In this case the power to reduce costs and therefore risk.
Writing well for a low and micro budget movies is incredibly difficult.
Not only do you have to take the core craft skills from Hollywood screenwriting, but you also have to take a page out of their accountants’ books, squeezing out every cent you can.
It takes toughness, ingenuity but perhaps most importantly: an open mind. Because in micro budget filmmaking, there is no such thing as an open chequebook.
Karel Segers wrote his first produced screenplay at age 17. Today he is a story analyst with experience in acquisition, development and production. He has trained students worldwide, and worked with half a dozen Academy Award nominees. Karel speaks more European languages than you have fingers on your left hand, which he is still trying to find a use for in his hometown of Sydney, Australia. The languages, not the fingers.
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