Creating Indie Cinema: A Guide to Making Low-Budget Films

By LTC

(Originally published in BackStage; but re-posted here for educational purposes)

The rationales for making films are manifold: an undying passion to tell a particular story, a chance at making millions of dollars, or the hope of creating a “calling card” flick that will result in more work. An actor unhappy with the roles he’s been getting (or not getting) might decide to take his career into his own hands by producing a vehicle for himself. A writer unable to sell her screenplays (or tired of seeing her work destroyed by others) may finally direct her own project.

Still, making a film can seem daunting—the camera, lights, crew, cast, editing systems, and other peripherals often scaring potential filmmakers off before they’ve even started. But take a long and careful look into the abyss and the realities come into focus: The technology, distribution options, and costs have all reached a point where making a film and reaching an audience is easier (and cheaper) than ever before.

Of course, before investing copious time and money, aspiring filmmakers need to objectively examine why they’re making the film, what they’re really capable of doing, and what their intentions for the final product are. Here’s an overview of the whole process, from the concept to distribution.

All Story, All the Time

The most important aspect of any film is the story. Some filmmakers already have a special tale in mind—a saga they’re passionate about and will do anything to tell—but others are more interested in creating a project that will gain them attention and lead to paying gigs. Either way, if the story isn’t compelling, the film just won’t work.

There are plenty of books available describing plot structure, dramatic arcs, and screenplay formatting rules, but, again, filmmakers must first find a narrative they find compelling. That doesn’t mean directors or actor-producers have to write the project themselves, of course. Placing a “writer wanted” ad in any entertainment trade magazine or online message board will elicit dozens of responses from authors eager to show off their work or hungry to write something new. And websites like Kevin Spacey’s TriggerStreet.com allow members to browse through hundreds of new screenplays, nicely categorized by genre, and contact the writers via email.

“People just need to practice. I’ve been making films for over 20 years and I feel like I’m still just a beginner just learning how to do it.”—filmmaker Caveh Zahedi


Other possibilities include adapting classic plays or novels that are currently in the public domain (anyone can steal from Shakespeare). And some living playwrights, novelists, and short-story writers will allow filmmakers to adapt their work for the screen in exchange for nonexclusive rights, screen credit, and/or the possibility of profit sharing.

If a director does decide to also double as a scribe, or an actor feels capable of writing a zinger of a role for himself, then there are a number of screenplay software applications that can help speed up the process—everything from free word-processing templates to semi-expensive (but enormously useful) programs like Final Draft and Movie Magic Screenwriter.

Once written, the real work begins: rewriting, fine-tuning, and preparing for production. “I would urge a filmmaker to workshop his screenplay…in order to get more feedback before shooting,” says Tamara Straus, editor in chief of Francis Ford Coppola’s literary magazine, Zoetrope: All-Story, and a screenplay development executive at Coppola’s production company, American Zoetrope. Screenwriting classes, workshops, and staged readings—as well as comments from friends—can help iron out problems in a script before shooting begins. Two online resources, Zoetrope’s Virtual Studio (located at Zoetrope.com) and the aforementioned TriggerStreet.com, provide free online writing workshops where writers can post screenplays and receive valuable feedback from other writers (in exchange for critiquing a set number of automatically assigned scripts).

“Film is expensive,” Straus notes in an email to Back Stage, “and smart, honest critiques are hard to find. One of the advantages of the Virtual Studio’s review process is that it’s impersonal; thus, a screenwriter stands to get less-biased and watered-down feedback than in a workshop or from a friend or colleague.”

TriggerStreet specializes in showcasing unproduced feature-length screenplays and finished short films, with members posting short reviews that affect the work’s overall ranking in the system. Zoetrope, on the other hand, focuses on a wider variety of writing—everything from poetry to short screenplays to features—and encourages its users to post long, thoughtful dissections instead of simplistic reviews. Both websites boast the tantalizing fact that the production companies financing the sites might buy outstanding screenplays for development.

Already, says Straus, “two screenplays have been optioned through the site and are in development with American Zoetrope. For now, no Virtual Studio scripts have become films; perhaps within the next two years. It is very likely scripts workshopped through the site have been optioned by other studios, though we have not kept track of these stories.” And many screenwriters have gone on to win awards after using the Virtual Studio to polish their scripts.

The Zoetrope Virtual Studio also provides tools and forums for directors, artists, musicians, and others. “The site was conceived by Francis Ford Coppola to bring these kinds of professions together,” she says, “to essentially bypass middlemen, so that filmmakers, screenwriters, actors, and even producers and set designers could meet and trade information and insights online and decide whether or how to collaborate.”

The Long and Short of It

Beginning filmmakers should try their hands at making short films before they progress to feature-length narratives, allowing the director, cast, and crew to learn the ropes.

There are also a bevy of websites and film festivals where short films can be showcased and reviewed, and shorts can provide material for reels or act as a calling card that can be sent to producers and agents. Shorts are also more likely to be passed along through the industry, since they don’t consume much of the viewer’s time. A pitfall, however, is that shorts typically work best only as comedies—they don’t provide enough time for audiences to connect to dramatic material. Another rule of thumb: The shorter a short film is, the better. And the story should be simple: Trying to pack a feature’s worth of material into 10 minutes sinks most shorts.

Once the new auteur becomes comfortable with the process of filmmaking by experimenting with shorts, it’s time to make a feature. The odds of the film becoming successful aren’t grand, but there are countless tales of directors launching thriving careers after completing their first (or second or third) indie feature. And actors, too, have found great success in spearheading their own projects.

An example: Action star Vin Diesel, the Sylvester Stallone of the new millennium (for better or worse), took a page from Stallone’s playbook by writing a vehicle for himself, a short entitled “Multi-Facial.” After directing the short in 1994 and entering it into various festivals, Diesel spent a couple of years saving up for his first feature, “Strays.” Meanwhile, his short made its way to the Cannes Film Festival, was seen by Steven Spielberg, and soon enough a muscle-bound movie star was born. (Historical note: Stallone opted not to direct his first big break, “Rocky,” but he landed Academy Award nominations for both acting and writing.)

“It’s the beast of necessity—if you have a story you have to tell, and you can only get $10,000 for it, then you should find a way to tell that story, and just do it.”—producer Jake Abraham


And the list goes on: Jon Favreau wrote and co-produced the indie sensation “Swingers” to kick-start a new phase not only in his career, but in the careers of his friends (most notably, co-stars Vince Vaughn and Ron Livingston). Edward Burns—after making a couple of short films—wrote, directed, and starred in “The Brothers McMullen,” a 16mm feature film that reportedly cost only $25,000 and took just 22 days to shoot (the shooting days were spread out over eight months). Burns’ movie was a hit and he’s since starred in a dozen more pictures, directed five more, and, despite receiving mixed reviews for most of his post-”McMullen” work, still has no trouble raising funds for his own projects. Stage actresses Heather Juergensen and Jennifer Westfeldt co-wrote and co-produced “Kissing Jessica Stein.” Although their film careers have not advanced, Westfeldt was recently cast in the Broadway production of “Wonderful Town,” was subsequently nominated for a Tony Award, and is now prepping for a new network television show.

“I think actors, especially, would be well-advised to make their own movies,” says award-winning filmmaker Caveh Zahedi. “There’s nothing more painful than waiting around, dependent on someone else to cast you.”

The Digital Revolution

George Lucas and James Cameron have famously jumped on the digital video (DV) bandwagon, and more and more Hollywood directors are following suit. However, the budgets for Hollywood films have not dropped, and films still take months to shoot. The reason is that for big-budget filmmakers, the type of camera being used is really just one cog in a giant machine: For a film to have the Hollywood sheen that audiences expect, enormous amounts of time and money have to be poured into complex lighting and sound setups, grand locations, killer special effects, wind machines, rain generators, and on and on.

Shooting on 35mm will at least give an independent film an immediate professional gloss, but it’s costly. The same goes for using the DV cameras preferred by the likes of Lucas and Cameron—high-end, expensive high-definition digital video (HDDV) camcorders, usually utilizing digital 24-frame progressive scan technology (“24p,” for short), ultraluxurious film-style lenses, and enhanced variable-frame-rate capabilities.

For filmmakers working with a budget that precludes any of the above, “prosumer” DV cameras are a good alternative, so long as the film’s intended aesthetic fits within the strengths of the format—DV tends to work best with smaller, intimate stories. (“Prosumer” refers to equipment that is of higher quality than that used by the typical consumer: A low-end DV camera may only offer quality comparable to old-school VHS or Hi-8 home camcorders, while prosumer cameras provide professional levels of quality at a relatively modest price.)

Lars von Trier’s vérité-influenced Dogme 95 film collective helped show the world just how powerful and captivating DV films could be. Working with low budgets, small handheld cameras, natural lighting, and no special effects, the Dogme filmmakers made it clear that the versatility of DV, when used effectively, was a force to be reckoned with.

In turn, the Dogme movement inspired the formation of Independent Digital Entertainment (InDigEnt), a New York City-based production company founded in 1999. In an attempt to foster the nascent craft of digital filmmaking, InDigEnt teamed with the Independent Film Channel (IFC). Its original goal was to create 10 films a year at $100,000 per film, but “the truth is, they cost more than that,” notes producer Jake Abraham, InDigEnt’s head of production and operations. “Established filmmakers are accustomed to a certain type of crew with a certain level of experience…and a certain level of postproduction,” so in order to attract established talent, the budgets had to be raised. InDigEnt (www.indigent.net) is now trying to make at least three films a year for around $300,000 per film, with each film’s entire cast and crew sharing in the revenue generated.

“But I wouldn’t say anyone going out there needs to spend this much money,” says Abraham. “It’s the beast of necessity—if you can get a million dollars to make your film, then you should do it. But if you have a story you have to tell, and you can only get $10,000 for it, then you should find a way to tell that story, and just do it.”

InDigEnt is dedicated to Mini-DV and “prosumer cameras that can be palm-held,” says Abraham. “As soon as you go to the shoulder style—Beta or DigiBeta or high-definition—you’re kinda headed back toward that film world. But with Mini-DV, it can be an amazing experience for the actors because they can do a lot of creative work in front of the camera because they’re not waiting for the film to be reloaded or the lighting to be reset or any of the number of things that are often done in a film-style production.

“These palm-held cameras are very sensitive to light and easy to use and completely unobtrusive. And the tape stock is really cheap, so you can run a 10-minute take without the director pulling his hair out.” (A 35mm film mag usually runs out every 12 minutes, with every foot of film raising production and processing costs, but a single DV tape typically lasts for an hour or more.)

InDigEnt’s creative atmosphere, profit sharing, and quick shooting schedules have attracted big-name talent, with all actors working for scale on a SAG Modified Low-Budget contract. More impressively, despite being shot on digital video and having relatively small budgets, InDigEnt’s movies have consistently found theatrical distribution and critical accolades—not an easy feat in a market awash with independent films that can’t find distributors. Past projects include Richard Linklater’s “Tape” (starring Ethan Hawke), Gary Winick’s “Tadpole” (starring Sigourney Weaver), and Peter Hedges’ “Pieces of April” (starring Katie Holmes), as well as movies by lesser-known filmmakers and theatre veterans.

And thanks to InDigEnt’s partnership with IFC, all of their films are guaranteed at least some distribution. “In return for financing the films, IFC takes third-tier basic cable,” says Abraham. “So all of the films at some point air on IFC,” after theatrical, video, and first-tier television distribution.

An Argument for Film

Although DV is the most cost-effective option for low-budget filmmakers, there are still plenty of benefits to shooting film. The golden ring for most indie stalwarts is 35mm and 70mm, which provide color depth and picture resolution beyond the capabilities of (arguably) any digital medium. And many music-video directors still prefer 16mm, while shooting on Super 16 (a high-quality, wide-screen version of normal 16mm) is a price-conscious way of approximating 35mm, although it possesses a rugged aesthetic beauty all its own.

Director Mike Figgis, for instance, shot “Leaving Las Vegas” on Super 16mm because he preferred the gritty/soft look of 16mm and cherished how new high-speed film stocks were able to shoot in extremely low-light situations. (DV doesn’t have the same flexibility in postproduction when it comes to pushing and pulling an image—adjusting the exposure and contrast—that film stock provides.) Also, film is a better medium for shooting fast and slow motion.

And with new, high-tech 16mm cameras like the Aaton A-Minima Super 16, filmmakers can have the lightweight, handheld advantages of a DV camera while still shooting on film. Another consideration: Compared to standard DV, film and HDDV look much better blown up on the big screen.

Raising Cash, Raising Cain

It’s a brisk, sunny September day as a crowd of aspiring filmmakers line up outside the Puck Building in Soho, casually networking between events at the Independent Feature Project (IFP) Market.

The throng is made up mostly of young unknowns, including Tennessee-based actor-musician Jeremy Luno and Philadelphia-based director Matthew Manahan, who have arrived in New York in the hopes of finding funding for their feature film, “The Book of Caleb.” Like many of the out-of-town filmmakers attending this event, they’re staying in a cramped hotel room (their troop includes two producers and a cinematographer), they’re short on cash, they have a limited amount of time to pitch their film, and their optimism is unbounded.

“Our budget right now is at $1.5 million, which is actually our fat budget,” says Manahan. “If we get a name actor or use SAG, we’ll need that. Otherwise, we can get it in the can for $800,000. We’ve raised about $200,000 so far, between cash and in-kind donations.”

Luno notes that IFP officials have warned attendees not to expect a quick fix: Although important movie industry folks scour the market, it’s rare for deals to be made on the spot. Instead, the event is intended to help create links between filmmakers and the industry that will eventually lead to financing, distribution, or even just some good advice. So Manahan’s hope of raising another $1.3 million might seem far-fetched, but he’s going about it in the right way: setting up a business plan, launching a sleek website for casting and promotional purposes (www.thebookofcaleb.com), getting his project accepted into the IFP Market as part of its popular work-in-progress showcase, competing for a spot in the prestigious Sundance Film Lab, looking into public and private grants and partnerships, and networking tirelessly.

“We’ve set up an escrow account to protect the investors, so we can’t legally touch any of the money until we reach at least $800,000. That’s part of the business plan,” says Manahan. “If the time comes to shoot and we don’t have the money, we’ll talk to the investors. Right now, our locations are all going to be free, and our production design is really simple, so our biggest cost will be the camera, the film, and the lights. But our costs will be much higher if we use SAG talent, so we’re still considering that.”

Manahan hasn’t started full negotiations with the Screen Actors Guild yet, but filmmakers shouldn’t be scared about working with the actors’ union. In recent years, SAG has become far friendlier to independent productions, introducing new guidelines and levels to its contracts that allow filmmakers to use SAG performers without paying full scale wages up front. The SAG Experimental Film Agreement and various SAG Modified Low-Budget contracts are available to directors for the express purpose of making it easier to keep costs down. And SAG has even set up a website, SagIndie.org, to help directors navigate through the complicated seas of making a SAG-signatory film.

“I mean, if you’ve only got a VHS camcorder or an old 8mm film camera, go for it. You’ve gotta work with what you’ve got.”—filmmaker Matthew Langdon Weiss


The Directors Guild of America (www.dga.org) and the Writers Guild of America (www.wga.org) also have low-budget agreements available. But filmmakers should look over all union contracts carefully, because in some cases distribution beyond the film festival circuit can be held up if union participants want to stop the film’s release for some reason. Any contract details that can be negotiated before shooting begins should be worked out in as much detail as possible.

Says Manahan: “I don’t think you can be taken seriously with a first-time feature unless you’re shooting 35mm. I’d rather just take the time—even if it takes two or three years to secure the financing—to do it right. It comes down to what kind of story it is. If it’s a story that clicks [stylistically] with DV, then you can shoot DV, but our story is a 35mm type of story” because it has epic qualities that won’t work as well on DV.

Manahan’s feelings are echoed by David Gordon Green, the director of the critically acclaimed films “George Washington” and “All the Real Girls.” In an indieWIRE.com interview, he says, “It doesn’t matter if you don’t have any money… You can make a film that takes advantage of natural light and natural landscapes. You can get equipment donated and make friends in the right places…which aren’t necessarily the heads of studios—they can be the guy who adjusts the lenses at the camera house.”

Bucking the DV trend, Green shot his first low-budget feature on 35mm anamorphic CinemaScope, a process usually reserved for expensive Hollywood epics—a gamble that paid off, since the film’s exquisite cinematography immediately set it apart from its competitors, garnering ravishing reviews from the likes of The New York Times.

Bargain-Basement Cinema 101

“I’d love to shoot on 16mm, 35mm, HD 24p, or even DigiBeta—if I had the time and budget. But I’m all about working within your means and not being beholden to the equipment,” says Matthew Langdon Weiss, who’s had experience as an editor, cameraman, and assistant director on a number of indie projects and is an associate producer of the upcoming indie feature “Wang Dang,” directed by Tom Noonan (co-star of Michael Mann’s “Manhunter” and writer-director-star of the award-winning “What Happened Was...”). “I mean, if you’ve only got a VHS camcorder or an old 8mm film camera, go for it. You’ve gotta work with what you’ve got.”

After taking acting and improv classes as a way of honing his ability to direct actors, Weiss stumbled into professional acting and can currently be seen as a recurring character in Trio’s new comedy miniseries “Pilot Season,” directed by Sam Seder and co-starring, among others, Sarah Silverman (“School of Rock”) and David Cross (“Arrested Development”). To pay his bills between gigs, Weiss founded Langdon-Boom Productions, a “script-to-screen” Mini-DV filmmaking facility that he runs out of his New York apartment. Weiss’ goal is to help other indie filmmakers complete their projects on a low budget.

“I shoot on a Mini-DV three-chip Canon GL1 and a tiny one-chip camera, and I edit on a Mac G4 with a dual processor and Final Cut Pro,” he says. “For sound design, Final Cut has enough rough-and-ready audio stuff so long as you’re not mixing a Dolby Digital movie with symphonic fidelity and a ton of sound effects.”

Sound is an often overlooked element by first-time filmmakers—and bad sound can instantly make an indie film seem amateurish. To save on postproduction expenses, it’s important to capture good audio on set. Weiss and most other professionals prefer using boom-mounted Sennheiser microphones when possible, and wireless lavalier radio mikes when necessary.

If the budget is available, then on-set mixing and noise-reduction equipment can improve sound quality enormously. And during postproduction, picture-editing software such as Avid, Final Cut Pro, and Adobe Premiere provide basic sound-design tools, but power users will want a pricey stand-alone program like Pro Tools to fine-tune the audio. (An older version of Pro Tools is available for free, for Mac OS 9 and Windows 98/ME operating systems only, at www.digidesign.com/ptfree.)

When a filmmaker comes to Langdon-Boom Productions, says Weiss, “I’ll look at the script and break it down and tell them what they’ll need and how much it’ll cost, and then I’ll bring in extra crew members or rent equipment as necessary.” If the filmmaker can get equipment donated and recruit volunteer actors and crew members—and if the locations are simple—then the costs of the film will plummet.

At this point, a director should be able to shoot a film for next to nothing, by Weiss’ estimation. Or, for $1,000-$3,000, a small company like Langdon-Boom could provide a cameraman, sound person, and Mini-DV camera for a few days—and edit the film in less than a week at no additional charge. When longer shooting and editing times and larger equipment packages are needed, costs go up accordingly.

Hired Guns

With a borrowed DV camera and a couple of volunteers, a film can be shot for nothing more than $10 in tape stock. If an aspiring filmmaker can then track down a friend with editing software, she’s all set.

For more ambitious indie filmmakers, though, more cash will be required. Small outfits like Weiss’ Langdon-Boom can bring a film in on a modest budget, but what if a bigger crew and higher-quality equipment are required?

For crew members, ads can be posted in the trade papers and jobs can be listed on free message boards online. Usually, it’s not too difficult to round up a semi-experienced team of recent film-school graduates and fellow aspiring filmmakers who are willing to work for free or in exchange for helping them on their own projects. Here’s the catch: The more money a filmmaker is putting into a project—and the greater the quality of the equipment being used—the easier it will be to find an enthusiastic volunteer crew, because a well-organized and well-financed production will be a better experience for everyone involved and will give the impression of being bound for success.

For a film student’s final school project—a thesis film—budgets typically range from $2,000 to $30,000, depending on the medium being used and the length and scale of the production. The final film is usually somewhere between seven and 27 minutes long. These are decent ballpark figures that a filmmaker can use to base a budget around if he’s planning on seriously competing against other short films.

So what can a filmmaker get for, say, $10,000? If shooting a feature is the goal, then a Mini-DV camera and a tiny volunteer cast and crew would be the best way to go (remember, some of the budget needs to be reserved for postproduction, and the crew has to be fed).

However, for 15 grand, a filmmaker could try shooting on 35mm. A professional cinematographer and soundman could even be hired—complete with minimal camera and sound packages—for around $2,000 or $3,000 per day (film stock and processing not included).

Another option would be to use a professional television crew. Not local news guys, but DV crews that have worked for top-shelf national news and entertainment shows. A filmmaker won’t get a traditional film look from a TV crew, but they’ll be able to use DV specialists accustomed to working quickly and on their feet, obtaining quality images with minimal lighting packages.

Atlantic Television (www.atlantictv.com), a national production services company, for instance, hires out cameramen who have shot for “60 Minutes,” the Olympics, “Queer Eye for the Straight Guy,” the BBC, and numerous PBS documentaries. Catherine Counihan, Atlantic TV’s production manager, says that, on average, “a complete package—an experienced cameraman, soundman, a pro-level camera, a boom mike, two wireless mikes, a mixer, and a very basic lighting kit—would cost between $1,250 to $2,250 per day, with crew members working no more than a 10-hour day without overtime. The price is dependent on the type of camera used. A crew with a PAL DigiBeta or NTSC DigiBeta goes for about $1,650. A BetaSP crew’s standard rate is $1,450. A two-person crew with a three-chip Mini-DV—usually a Sony PD150, or a similar camera, like a Canon XL1—would be $1,250. And the standard rate for a high-definition crew is about $2,250 per day.”

A Continuing Education

“I don’t think people need training. I went to film school, but I don’t think I learned that much there,” cautions San Francisco-based underground filmmaker Caveh Zahedi (“A Little Stiff”). “People just need to practice. I’ve been making films for over 20 years and I feel like I’m still just a beginner just learning how to do it. It’s a difficult and long road, but I think once you start—it’s like if you want to play guitar, you pick up a guitar and start trying things. You’re not going to start playing great music right away, but you just need to start doing it.”

Most people in the mainstream haven’t heard of Zahedi, but for those in the know, he’s considered one of the most interesting and dynamic creative forces working today. His films, filled with raw, naturalistic performances, bring to mind the work of indie film pioneer John Cassavetes and innovator Jean-Luc Godard. There’s also a touch of classic Woody Allen in the witty, neurotic humor that runs through his work. And yet every Zahedi film—whether he be directing, acting, or editing—is infused with staggering originality and attention to detail and form.

“I had this LSD experience where I had an insight that beauty is all around us,” he says. “And there’s no need to look elsewhere for anything. Everything is right in front of us. I decided at that moment that I would make a film about my own life. And I’ve been doing that ever since. But it’s not the only thing that I’m interested in. I have a bunch of things I’d like to do, but it really depends on financial considerations, and what I need to do to make a living.”

Zahedi has notoriously had problems finding funding for his projects, but he’s learned from his experiences: “I spent five years of my life trying to raise a million dollars for a movie, and I did nothing for those five years except knock on doors, and at the end of it I hadn’t even made a single movie. I think people should just make movies at the budget they can afford, and if the films are good, then they’ll eventually get the attention that they’ll need to organically make films at higher budgets.”

However, he says, “I don’t believe in the calling-card idea. It takes so much energy to make a film, you might as well make something that you believe in and care about, that stands on its own.”

While working on the completion of his feature films, Zahedi has kept busy making documentaries, video diaries, and experimental shorts—including a newly completed 30-minute project entitled “Tripping With Caveh,” featuring iconoclastic singer Will Oldham. He’s also dabbled in acting—starring in his own projects and making appearances in indie classics like Alexander Payne’s “Citizen Ruth,” Greg Watkins’ “A Sign From God,” and Richard Linklater’s animated “Waking Life”—but he doesn’t have an acting agent and he’s even turned down roles.

When acting in his own films, he says, “I try to monitor the other actors’ performances while I’m performing, which is hard and tends to make my performances less in the moment. I also find myself mouthing all the other characters’ lines.” To help alleviate this problem, Zahedi often uses a co-director, such as his frequent filmmaking partner (and cinematographer) Greg Watkins. Still, he admits, “I’d love to be able to just direct, and not have to do both. So right now my fantasy is to not have to act.”

That should be an easy enough fantasy to fulfill, were it not hard to imagine a Zahedi film not starring the very inimitable Zahedi. And suitable actors, he says, are hard to come by: “There are really great actors in the world, and then there’s a lot of mediocre actors, and then there are nonactors. For someone like me, I generally find that the nonactors are better actors than the mediocre actors. They’re just more real. A lot of acting-school people come across as very theatrical and phony. I’ve had bad experiences with so-called actors, and I’m sure that’s because I haven’t had many good ones. But I occasionally have, and I’ve been very impressed.”

When the performances in a Zahedi narrative are working in synchronicity, the effect can be breathtaking realism. Conversely, his documentaries and video diaries (such as “In the Bathtub of the World”) are rife with situations where everyone on screen is noticeably aware of the camera. With Zahedi staring into the camera’s lens or a girlfriend shunning the spotlight, it’s as if his narrative works have been turned inside out, exposing the artifice of reality and the truth of fiction.

“Some people make a distinction between performing and not performing,” Zahedi muses. “But I think that distinction is a little false. People are always performing in some way, and they’re always not performing in some way. I’m just being myself, but what is ‘myself’? It’s a construct on some level. I’m not trying to fake anything, but I’m definitely engaged in a relation with someone else whose gaze I’m aware of, and I’m acting accordingly.”

Having shot on both DV and 16mm, Zahedi is also eager to shoot on 35mm and HD 24p. Given the opportunity, he promises the projects would be very different from what he’s done before. But in the meantime, he’s happy to make films that work aesthetically with his current artillery—a small Sony one-chip camera, a three-chip Sony PD150, a few lights, mikes, and a Mac G5 with Final Cut Pro. It’s all a person needs to make a film, he says, although he wouldn’t turn down a chance to work with a bigger budget.

With his current feature, “I Am a Sex Addict,” almost complete, Zahedi is already thinking about the future. “I hope the film makes its money back and I can get the money to make another one. But mostly,” he says, “I just hope that people are moved by it.”

Exhibiting and Distributing

The film is completed. Done. In the can. So what does a filmmaker do next? Well, spend more money, of course.

The motion picture has to be submitted to festivals. Promotional materials and DVD copies of the film must be sent out to distributors, agents, and studios. Rejection must be faced, stared in the eyes, and overcome.

“First-time filmmakers shouldn’t be discouraged if they can’t get into Cannes, Sundance, Toronto, Berlin,” or any of the other major festivals, says Paola Freccero, the senior vice president of film programming at the Sundance Channel. Lots of indie filmmakers and at least a few small-time distributors, cable networks, and scouts from other film festivals can be found attending the medium-sized festivals. And the people behind even minor festivals often have industry contacts that can benefit filmmakers in one way or another.

“If a filmmaker can get into a local festival,” notes Freccero, they should take advantage of the opportunity and “develop a relationship with the people who are there and ask the people who have championed their work to champion it more.” She also stresses that networking, even at film-fest cocktail parties, is vastly important.

“It’s very, very, very hard for a typical film to break even,” she says. “It may break even after years—once you’re done with theatrical distribution and all the TV plays and video sales. It is possible that in the end it might work out okay, but certainly not until after quite some time. If you’re a filmmaker that has made a film for less than $500,000, and you’re really lucky and the film is really accomplished, and some distributor thinks that it has the possibility of breaking out of its low-budget home, then there is a good chance that you can find yourself made whole, at least on the production costs. But what most filmmakers don’t factor in is ‘How do I live when I’m promoting the movie?’ and the insurance costs and the travel to film festivals and stuff like that. But if you’re in the $500,000 to $5 million range, that’s a really tough range to be in unless you have a hit on your hands. Unfortunately,” warns Freccero, “it is kind of a losing proposition.

“If you’re doing it to come out whole [not lose any money], I’d say turn back now. If you’re doing it because this is what you want your career to be and you really want your work to be seen, then great—but don’t have unrealistic expectations about rolling in money.” Ten years ago, it was easy for quality independent films to virtually disappear after a run around the festival circuit. Today, thankfully, indie films have new distribution outlets, mostly due to the Internet: boutique video stores offering wares online, megasites like Amazon.com allowing indie sales, DVD rentals from subscription services like NetFlix.com and the über-indie GreenCine.com, and even filmmakers selling their own movies from their personal websites. What’s really changed the indie scene, though, is cable TV: The Independent Film Channel and the Sundance Channel are broadcasting indie films into households all across America, all day, every day.

“The number of films that get theatrical distribution of any kind—be it tiny or a big deal—is still very small,” Freccero says. “That miracle success story of being in a film festival and then being bought by Miramax is really, really rare. But what has changed over the last few years is that television has become a place where filmmakers can, first of all, actually get some money for their film, and they can make sure that the film gets a very sizable audience. We have 21 million subscribers. So even on a slow day at the Sundance Channel, that’s still more people that are going to see a filmmaker’s film than they would if it had had a small art-house release. We’ve become a very valid alternative to a more traditional distribution opportunity.”

The popularity of the indie cable stations has allowed IFC and Sundance to expand into the home video market, placing indie DVD titles in major rental outlets. So the potential audience for indie cinema keeps widening every day, and opportunities for creative film artists widen along with it. It’s just a matter of having the drive and tenacity to actually stand up, shake off the dust, and make a film.

“I think the most important thing if you’re an aspiring filmmaker is to get rid of the ‘aspiring.’ How do you do that? You make a film,” Academy Award-winning director James Cameron told The Guardian. “I don’t care if it’s two minutes long and shot on Super 8 or DV or whatever. You shoot it, you put your name on it, you’re a filmmaker. Everything after that, you’re just negotiating your budget.”


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4 comments:

Anonymous said...

Great article. Well informed and encouraging while maintaining a realism about the business. I agree with the comments withen - if you want to be a film-maker, make films!
Great stuff!

Movie reel said...

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pdf editor said...

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