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No Budget Report - 3 No-Budget Case Studies

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The No Budget Report is a series of exclusive articles devoted to the creation and appreciation of no-budget films, written by No Budget Film School founder and independent producer Mark Stolaroff. To receive these reports in your email box, subscribe to the No Budget Film School Mailing List. Archived editions can be found at the bottom of this page.
Archived editions of the previously published No Budget Newsletter are available HERE.

No-Budget Films At A Fest Near You
June 2012
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I go see a lot of films and I see many of them at festivals. In addition to attending Sundance and many local LA festivals every year, I've been to over 20 festivals in the last year with my film PIG. Often I'll seek out what I think might be a no-budget film. Not only do I enjoy these films, I also teach no-budget filmmaking, and as I like to say, I'm as much a student of the art as a teacher. I like to stay abreast of what techniques filmmakers are applying, what tools they are using, and what results they are getting from the process. Often these filmmakers end up as guest speakers in my classes, and very often they are able to move up to the next level from the success of their no-budget feature, even if sometimes, that success is only moderate. [One of the guest speakers in my upcoming class, Michael Mohan, has done just so, moving up to make Save The Date, which premiered in Sundance this year, after premiering his feature debut, the no-budget One Too Many Mornings, in Sundance in 2010].

But just as often, I go see a film at a festival because I think I'll like it, irrespective of budget. The interesting thing I'm noticing is that more and more, these films are also turning out to be no-budget films. There are probably several reasons why this is true, and you could start with the ongoing recession, the proliferation of low-cost tools, or the influx of people who want to become filmmakers and who will do whatever it takes to become one. But the bottom line is, no-budget filmmaking works. No-budget films stand proudly next to higher budget ones at many of the world's great festivals. And the opposite is also true: many higher budget films are not getting into these same festivals. So, at least you can say that a high budget--and by association, name actors, high-end cameras, and perfect production values--are not necessarily necessary when it comes to be accepted into a festival these days. And for some festivals, like SXSW, which relish these scrappy films, you might even argue that slicker, higher-budget fare fares worse.

This is essentially why I continue to teach No Budget Film School. For talented, budding filmmakers who have not had a chance to prove their talent, no-budget filmmaking provides them an opportunity to launch their career and demonstrate to the world what they can do. For the rest, it allows us to develop our craft, or figure out that we're not good at this yet--or ever--without pissing away our bank accounts, pissing on our credit ratings, or pissing off all our now-former friends and now-distant relatives. There's nothing more disheartening than making an unsuccessful film for $100,000 or $200,000--one that doesn't get into any major festivals--and then attending Sundance or LAFF and hearing in the Q&A how the filmmaker scrounged up $5,000 and a couple of friends and made the film you just watched.

I could regale you with many such stories, but it just so happens that the last three narrative features I've seen at film festivals were made in beautifully wonderful no-budget ways. Here's a little taste of how they were done:

1.) THE OLIVIA EXPERIMENT. I went to see this little gem when it world premiered a couple of weeks ago at the Dances With Films Film Festival because the director, Sonja Schenk, a veteran reality TV show producer, (The Batchelor), was a student in one of my classes. I really didn't know how she'd made the film before I sat down and was pretty sure as I was watching it, that she hadn't heeded any of the lessons I teach in my classes and had gone ahead and spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on it--it just looked that good, that expensive. I was happily surprised to find out that she shot the film in 13 days, shooting mostly on weekends, with a smallish crew (DP, gaffer, grip, 2 AC's, 1 additional camera operator, sound mixer, and PA), with no filming permits, and on a couple of $600 Canon T2i's (this is essentially a cheaper version of the popular Canon 7D DSLR). The cast was made up of eager, talented no-names, and much to my pleasant surprise, the Berkeley-set film was actually shot in and around the director's neighborhood of Venice, CA.

Her apartment was one of the main locations. With her long-time connections, she was able to wrangle help in post--editor friends helped put the first cuts together until she had to finish the edit herself--and an experienced sound designer she found on Craigslist did an amazing job on the post sound. They were shut down by the Culver City police for shooting without a permit--something that wins you the No-Budget Badge Of Honor by me--and DP William MacCollum managed to make the whole thing look great with inexpensive cameras that anyone could afford to buy or borrow, a tiny crew, and nary a grip truck in site, often having only three or four lights to work with. Mistakes were made, as they often are on a film, but Sonja's reality show experience taught her to keep moving forward, and that there's often a way to improvise a solution to any problem.

2.) RED FLAG. Admittedly, I read a bit about how this film came together before I saw it earlier this week at the Los Angeles Film Festival. I read how writer/director/star Alex Karpovsky, who you probably now know from his terrific stint as the asshole friend of Marnie's ex-boyfriend on Lena Dunham's talked about HBO series Girls, shot the film while on a two week tour of an earlier film of his called Woodpecker. I actually saw Woodpecker at a festival in 2008 and was completely impressed, and I've seen Karpovsky in many other acting roles, notably in my friend Bryan Poyser's no-budget Sundance feature Lovers Of Hate. Red Flag came about when Karpovsky was asked to tour Woodpecker through the South last year, right after a hurtful breakup. Knowing that he was going to have to spend hours in the car alone stewing about the broken relationship, he decided to bring along some friends and shoot a story roughly based on the actual incidents. So, the director is real--Karpovsky plays a director named Alex Karpovsky--and the tour is real--we see Karpovsky speaking to several real audiences, signing DVD's, and staying at shitty hotels, (there's a great running joke about trying in vain to get a late checkout).

Actors play his friends and ex-girlfriend, but there are many non-actors playing themselves. Most notably, the film was made with a crew of ONE. Adam Ginsberg, (who incidentally shot the terrific short that played before the film, Todd Sklar's '92 Skybox Alonzo Mourning Rookie Card), was the DP and sound mixer, and that was the whole crew. Shot with the Canon 7D in mostly available light and using wireless lavalieres often to get the dialogue, the production values on both sides--sound and picture--are amazingly solid. For this kind of film, which is playing off the cruel honesty of the characters' actions, these production values just need to be adequate, especially the visuals. The 7D can deliver a great look in the hands of someone who knows what they are doing, but give Ginsberg extra credit for getting such useable sound, which I would argue for a film like this, is much more important. Based on a 30 page outline, the improvised film was shot during the two-week tour for about 8 days, then Alex edited, then they shot for another 8 days or so many months later as he honed the story in the editing room. While he (or any of these filmmakers) refrained from disclosing the actual budget of the film, it doesn't take an accountant to figure out that a film with one title card of crew members doesn't have to cost a lot of money to make. You will probably be hearing more about this hilarious film as its creator's star continues to rise this year.

3.) SATURDAY MORNING MASSACRE. I picked this film out of the catalog because of its irresistible premise: four somewhat bumbling young ghost hunters--well five, if you count the big dog they take along--are hired to check out a probably haunted house where a lot of bad stuff has happened over the years. If the group, who drive an old VW bus sound vaguely familiar, you're starting to get the idea behind this no-budget, high-concept horror comedy. It's set in 1994, so there's no scarf, but there are a lot of acid tabs, so if you ever wondered what Shaggy was up to, here's one interpretation. I never figured this one for a no-budget, and the whole time I was watching, I just assumed the film was made on a relatively large budget. All the production values were there. So I was shocked to find out that the amount of time it took between thinking they should make a movie set in an old house found by one of the producers and actually finishing principle photography was only 6 weeks!

The shoot itself was only 11 days. And yes, if you were wondering, it too was shot on a collection of Canon 7D's and 5D's, sometimes four cameras at once. It's the classic one location shoot, though writer/director Spencer Parsons smartly opened the film up in the beginning, shooting in several smaller locations before settling in at their main location, an old Austin mansion that was up for sale, but with a ticking clock of availability. Parsons quickly wrote an outline that his actors improvised within, and put together a crew of friends and friends of friends and jumped right into shooting. It was all done so quickly that there was no time to log anything, and with multiple cameras, that meant that Parsons had to edit the film himself, since no one else would be able to identify where all the footage was supposed to go. With such a commercial premise, you have to wonder why someone would need to work this way, but remember, that's not how this project came together. There was an opportunity, and the time limitation inspired a level of creativity that made it all happen, which included the Scooby-Doo-inspired idea.

In today's incredibly difficult distribution environment, where digital platforms have turned dollars into pennies, the need to work on smaller budgets is more important than ever. Believe me folks, it's hard to get $100,000 back on even a successful film. Better to let your limitations fuel your creativity and keep those debt collectors from calling.

No Budget Report August 2007 - LAFF
No Budget Report March 2007 - Sundance
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