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The Micro-Budget Myth

by Samuel Marlow. Published 24th May 2013

As you may know if you follow me on Twitter, I've spent much of the last week formulating the (hopefully!) final incarnation of the business plan for All About Town.

Blair Witch

In accordance with tradition, or business plan convention at least, I have included details of the budgets and profits of existing films in a similar genre and budget area. Years ago I was told never to cite The Blair Witch Project - yes, it made millions of dollars from a puny budget, but it was a fluke and will either make you look naive, or set up unrealistic expectations in investors.

There is, however, another reason I would be reticent to invoke the Witch when discussing budgets, and that is because I wouldn't know which budget to invoke.

The Blair Witch Project is actually a fairly benign offender - it's cited budgets are usually somewhere between $10k and $100k. One of the worst, in my opinion, because it is the one waggled in front of the noses of young filmmakers as an example of micro-budget success, is Robert Rodriguez's El Marichi.

El Mariachi Poster

"Shot for $7,000" it went on the be a massive success that set Rodriguez up as a professional filmmaker and has been a benchmark of how to make a movie with almost no money ever since. The problem is that the film audiences paid money to see didn't cost $7k. It didn't even cost ten times that. Estimates of El Mariachi's final cost put it nearer a quarter of a million dollars, more than thirty times what people think it cost. Okay, $250k is still a very modest budget, but there is a big difference between the two. With scrupulous saving, hard work and begging family and friends for help, $7k is in reach of most people within a year or two. It's a lot less than the cost of a wedding for example. $250k, by comparison is more than a lot of people would spend on a house, and you can't take out a tracker mortgage on a film!

Don't get me wrong, it's still one one-thousandth of the cost of John Carter, but it is more than most people could scrounge together to make a movie on spec.

Zombie horror Colin had an official budget of just £45, presumably the cost of tape-stock (9 MiniDV tapes at £5 each, for example). But I guarantee that while this was the budget, this is a lot less than it cost - with the price of petrol what it is the cash budget probably doubled just going to and from the location every day. And did the cast and crew not eat during principle photography? That's probably a few hundred pounds there. Already the cost of the movie looks to be more than ten times the official budget.

Zombie Colin

Again, I don't want to seem overly critical. Even if the film cost a hundred times its official budget, £4,500 is the sort of money most people have access to. What is interesting to me is the way these figures have become accepted and form part of the "myth" of a film.

Danny Boyle made me so angry I nearly threw my remote at the television screen during his Oscar acceptance speech for saying it is amazing that he could make a film like Slumdog Millionnaire for "only $15m". Bollocks! Okay, I'm biased because I consider Boyle to be the motion picture equivalent of a confidence trickster and my favourite film ever, Amélie, cost two thirds of that (and still found money to pay its actors!). When I look at the difference between them, both visually, and in terms of the quality of the narrative, Slumdog ends up looking like a high-end film school project.

So in a world where "low-budget" means anything from £45 to $20m, how can a novice filmmaker unpick these budgets?

The only good thing I can say about Slumdog is that $15m is probably fairly close to the cost of getting the movie into theatres. And that, kittens, is the nub of the issue - it may well be that £45 is what it cost to shoot Colin. $7,000 is what Rodriguez spent on principle photography of El Mariachi. But principle photography is only one stage of many in filmmaking.

Slumdog MillionnaireHow I feel after watching Slumdog Millionnaire...

Certainly prior to affordable, high quality digital camera gear editing a film could cost many times more than shooting it as the production would have to print and cut film, hire specialist editing suites sometimes at hundreds of dollars an hour, and so on.

Now, with solid-state memory and memory cards, if you have access to a camera and computer, you can theoretically make even a feature film for free. If you can find a cast and crew who will work for free, your production budget is £0.00 + VAT.

To me, the problem is that budgets have become part of the marketing of a film. Whether very high or very low, there is press milage in being able to say "We made this movie for less than the cost of a fancy meal," or "This film cost more than the GDP of the Cooke Islands!" At either end the numbers are impressive, and people will talk about them.

Ironically, at the upper end of the budget scale the opposite it true. The perfectly serviceable Superman Returns was slated in part for its monster budget of $230m. What is often overlooked is that this includes the cost of several aborted Superman films (which still cost money to develop and pre-produce), and expensive "pay-or-play" deals with a number of high-profile actors.

Superman Returns

Fundamentally, though, what a high-profile budget says to me is that the producer or studio doesn't have faith in their movie to entertain. If you can't talk about the story, talk about the budget (and/or some other aspect of production like special effects, a high-profile cast, etc.) No one talks about Amélie's budget because no one cares. It's like asking how much money Leonardo spent on paint for the Mona Lisa. With micro-budget especially, heavy discussion of budget always feels like the filmmakers saying "We know it's not very good, but this is all we had to work with". If the story is good, people won't care. And if some people do care fuck 'em - you're budget is small enough that you don't need their business.

Despite what it may seem, none of this is intended to put off the micro-budget filmmaker. Once Rodriguez shot El Maricahi he found money to finish it. The same is true of a lot of movie projects on Crowd Funding sites - having shot the scenes and edited a trailer, people know what they're getting and are more likely to cough up the dough.

Finally, and maybe I'm being cynical here, the biggest perpetrators of the Micro-Budget Myth are film-schools, film courses, film-making books, all of which are there to tell you "You can do this, too!" because if they didn't you wouldn't give them your money, Of course you can do it, within law and reason you can do anything, but it may not be as easy (or cheap!) as certain people with vested interests would have you believe...


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