The Business of Screenwriting: Low-budget filmmaking [Part 2]

November 8th, 2012 by

Last week, I shared the story of a low-budget indie film script I wrote called “Snowbirds”. You can read that post here. Using a set of production guidelines (e.g., 90 page script, 4-5 week shoot, no more than 10 actors, 1 primary location), I wrote a script which Trailblazer Studios acquired to produce. Here is what happened next.

We went into pre-production. Director. Location scouts. Budgets. Production schedule. And for me the most exciting part: auditions.

As screenwriters, we spend so much time alone, just us and our words. We may hear dialogue in our mind, our version of the characters ‘speaking,’ but there is nothing quite like hearing actual actors give their interpretation of your words.

We did auditions in LA and NY. Even though “Snowbirds” was a low-budget movie with actors being paid scale plus ten, we had some terrific talent read for roles. Indeed a bit of buzz generated about the project and some surprising names surfaced to audition. It was especially gratifying to hear comments from the young actors who read, how they loved the script and the idea of being involved in such a different kind of story.

So the project gained steam landing some excellent actors including Academy Award winner Brenda Fricker (My Left Foot) and Bernard Hill who played King Theoden in The Lord of the Rings. There was a start date and things seemed to be moving forward…

Until they stopped. For a variety of reasons.

For one thing, the budget kept creeping up. Originally around $600K, it hit $750K, and with some desired production choices would likely go even higher.

Additionally there were schedule, then medical issues with some of the talent.

So the project was put on hold. Temporarily. But here is something I discovered about trying to make an independent movie: If you aren’t making progress, that doesn’t mean you are standing still. Rather it means you are moving backward.

Making an indie movie, even a low-budget one, is a risky venture. There are a thousand reasons why you should not make one. Sound reasons, good reasons, almost all tied to one simple fact: It’s hard to turn a profit. Anybody can make a movie. Getting distribution? Another thing entirely. And that is a daunting challenge.

Once there is a break in a project’s momentum, that gives all those reasons against making the movie air to breathe.

Now if the project is funded by a major studio, a mini-major or even an independent production company, since they have fixed overhead costs, they find themselves in a situation where they have to make movies, even if they, too, know how challenging it is to hit profits. They may want to say ‘No,’ the safe route, but the way their business is structured, at some point, they have to say ‘Yes’ and greenlight some movies. It’s a simple equation involving creating product to sell to consumers to generate revenues.

If, however, you are a truly independent filmmaker or small stand-alone producer, there is really no compelling business reason why you must make a movie. Indeed all evidence points in the other direction: You are crazy to make a movie.

So the temporary hold on “Snowbirds” stretched into months. Then years. To date, that movie has not been produced.

My guess is it has a lot of company. The Sundance Film Festival may receives thousands of film submissions each year. Beyond that there are thousands more indie movies produced annually. But there must be tens of thousands projects that start to get made, but don’t. Multiple reasons why that’s the case. The biggest one has got to be the financial risk factor.

That’s why if you are a screenwriter or writer-director interested in making a low-budget indie film, when you sort through potential story concepts, my advice would be to do everything you can to keep your budget down. For example, Paranormal Activity used one location, two actors and the found footage device to make a movie for around $20K. Think strategically to slash your budget and minimize your financial risk.

Regarding “Snowbirds,” it would seem to be one of those projects that almost made it into being, but died on the vine. Maybe. Maybe not. There’s a new wrinkle in that saga. I’ll get into that in next week’s TBOS post.

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