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Indie Filmmaking: How To Make a Movie for $5000

Back in the early ’90s, making a movie for $5000 was the stuff of legend. Nowadays, that number seems much more doable. My first movie The Great Intervention was shot and edited for just that. Here are a few ideas for your project, to help you keep your budget from breaking the bank.

1. Be realistic in the scriptwriting process. I won’t get in to how to come up with your story idea (I did that here) but when you write the actual script – KEEP YOUR SCENES AND LOCATIONS SIMPLE. Many people fall in to this trap: “The camera dollies back from the pitcher’s mound and pans up to reveal our heroes, sitting at Dodger Stadium, enjoying a few beers and watching the ball game.”

Boom! You just blew your entire budget.

WRITE SCENES WITH A MAXIMUM OF THREE OR FOUR PEOPLE. In a house or location you have access to FOR FREE. Do not pay for your locations. You simply can’t afford it. The above scene should be rewritten to “Medium shot of our heroes drinking a couple of beers in the park.” No dollies. No extras. Daylight.

2. Rent – don’t buy – your camera. Technology is changing rapidly. In fact, The Singularity is coming. But until that time, don’t spend your budget money on a fancy camera in the hopes of selling it afterwards. By the time you’re done, the camera will be worth half as much. Instead, rent a camera package from your local rental house (I think the new SLR digital still cameras are the bomb.) Or, find a cameraperson with equipment on Craigslist. Hell, maybe you should just shoot your first film on an iPhone like this one.

3. Pay your (small) crew. At your level, interns are unreliable. Friends can be enlisted of course, but you should  have your cameraperson on the payroll. AND the sound guy – these positions are crucial. At least $100 a day, more if they bring their own equipment. Try to avoid getting into fancy lighting packages. It’s incredible what these new cameras can do with so little light – take advantage of it!

4. Have the actors supply most wardrobe and props.  Actors have a TON of clothes. They LOVE to “get into” their character! Have them bring a bunch of wardrobe and select from that.

5. SAG. Speaking of actors, make sure you sign onto the SAG Ultra Low Budget Agreement, from the Screen Actors Guild. This allows you to use professional actors for $100 a day – a bargain that will make sure your film is actually good.

6. Get production insurance. This is tied in to item 5 and will be a small chunk of your budget. (You can’t hire SAG actors without the proper insurance coverage.)  BUT this will perhaps give you access to locations you might need, as you can show them you are professional and they will not be liable if anything were to go wrong.

7. Avoid the financial trap of writing popular music into your film. The Rolling Stones are not going to allow you to use “Gimme Shelter,” period. Find local bands to do your music and/or a music student to do your score. Since I am a musician, I used my own music for my movie. If you have those skills, great – use them. If not, there are plenty of hungry musicians who will lend you their song, and many composers who will work for free or cheap to compose your movie. Look around at your local schools and music clubs.

8. Edit the film yourself. Ok, some of you are saying “but I’ve always heard it’s better if someone else cuts your movie!” Nonsense. First of all, you don’t have the budget to hire a professional editor. Second, editing software is cheaper and easier to use than ever. This is your first film! LEARN. Be sure to get feedback from others – and perhaps you may be able to find someone to give it a so-called “final tweak” inexpensively, but try and follow the script and assemble most of the film yourself.

9. Keep the hours short, the shooting days few, and the food delicious. By keeping locations and cast size realistic, you can do this. Plan for no more than 10 days. Try and make your days 8 hours – 10 maximum. Be professional and keep things running on time. And reward everyone with nice hot meals and delicious snacks. It’s amazing what M&Ms can do for morale.

Well, there you have it. With good planning and discipline, you too can make a great movie, without going to the poorhouse.


Stephen Moramarco is a writer, actor, director and musician. He has been DIY-ing indie projects for over 20 years. His self-released indie CD Hill of Beans was a top-ten hit on college radio and the song “Satan, Lend Me a Dollar” was featured on Showtime’s Weeds. His latest project is his indie film debut, entitled“The Great Intervention”, which he made for $5000. He will be sharing his own insights and opinions on the current DIY revolution taking over… well, just about everything!

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