Filmmaker Stories are crowdsourced articles directly from The Filmmaker's Process community. Because they come directly from people who have just made, or are in the process of making, an independent short or feature film, they're a fantastic way to learn the ins and outs of filmmaking.
To learn more about writing and submitting your own Filmmaker Story, click here.
FILMMAKER: Craig Inzana
STORY: Paying Cast & Crew on a Micro-Budget Feature, the Incredible Difference It Made, and How to Raise Money the Smart Way
I’m a filmmaker from a small market (Pittsburgh originally, and now Austin) where micro-budget filmmaking is essential if you want to make movies at all. After a few years of producing short films and a web series for under $1,000, I finally was able to work on something where we could pay people. The difference was amazing!
Recently, we produced a feature film for $10,000 in twelve days in the middle of the Pennsylvania woods. That film is called Blood on the Leaves; not only did we do the crazy thing of trying to make an intense survival drama with a budget and schedule like that, we made the crazy decision that we needed to pay people.
I’m going to preface all of this by saying, every film project is different and your film might not need to pay people in order to get what you want out of it. Also, not everyone on our film got paid. If it weren’t for the immense amount of work myself and the two other producers put in on and off set for free, there’s no way this film would be happening.
In addition to producing, each of us had on-set jobs that normally would cost a pretty penny to fill. Vincent, who had written the script, directed and then edited. I filled the role of assistant director, hammering out all of the schedules and trying my best to keep everything moving smoothly. Ryan was the cinematographer and will be color correcting the film as well.
Obviously there’s a sliver of a chance we’ll make a small amount of money after our investors are paid back. That’s not really the reason any of tackled this project though, and with free lodging and vacation time (for some of us) the two weeks of filming didn’t take that huge of a blow to our personal finances.
Did you catch the word “investors” in that last paragraph? I thought you might. As a micro-budget film, this is often something people shy away from. Sometimes they really, really should shy away from it; if you’re genuinely not interested in ever making a penny off of your movie, don’t take money from anyone unless it’s a crowdfunding campaign or they can make it a tax-deductible donation through a fiscal sponsor.
I’ll get back to how exactly we raised our money soon. Also, I’ll cover a few other ways to raise the money to pay for your film. First I want to dive into the topic at hand: Paying People.
A Case for Paying Your Cast and Crew
Two years ago, Vincent and I made a feature length web series for under $1,000. That web series was a huge learning experience for us and a lot of fun. We were both really passionate about the story and the way we were telling it.
The actors did a great job, especially considering many of them had never acted before. The crew…. Well, we really didn’t have a crew most of the time. Some of Vince’s hometown friends came on set for a few days and learned as they went. They filled crucial crew roles for those nights with bigger sets, and they were just excited to be there helping. The series couldn’t have been made without them, but a large amount of the series was just Vince, me, and other actors.
After we released the series, both of us realized how much better our next project would be if we could pay to have really experienced crew and actors. I can honestly say that, after doing just that for Blood on the Leaves, if you can pull off paying for some professionals (even at extremely discounted rates), do it.
When someone is being paid to be there, they’re committed. That is their job for the duration of the shoot, and the difference couldn’t be more noticeable. We reigned in the crew we used to just three people beyond us three producers and kept the cast tight. We ended up paying our actors, a production sound engineer, a special effects artist, and a production designer. That was all we needed to make a cinematic film to really do the script justice.
After paying everyone, we were pretty much tapped out. Luckily, we were filming in a great small-town community that helped us secure just about everything else for free. Except food, we still paid for supplies so my mom could make meals three times a day and keep the cupboards stocked at home-base. Thanks mom!
Every single day we were tackling a pile of pages. To pull that off --and to pull it off with any amount of cinematic quality—everyone had to be at the top of their game. Luckily they were as often as they possibly could be. We had a few hiccups here and there, but nothing that we couldn’t steamroll through because everyone was working at 100%.
I think the quality really shows through in the final project. Not only that, it was a total pleasure to work alongside a group of people as equally dedicated to the same outcome as we were. Pretty soon after we started filming, you couldn’t tell the difference between the few of us that had worked extensively together before and the newcomers.
I can’t even begin to imagine how it would have all panned out if we weren’t able to pay everyone to take their minds off their day-jobs or other freelance for the duration of filming. All I can say is consider paying people to work on your film if you can possibly figure out a way to raise the money to do so. On that note:
Getting Money for Your Micro-Budget Film
Okay, let’s say with that section that I’ve convinced you to consider paying for a few key crew members and your cast. Well how are you going to get the money to do something like that?
This is where a fledgling producer might come in if you’re really incapable of doing any of the business aspects yourself. If you’re going to be raising money (outside of crowdfunding), you’re going to have to understand a little bit about the legalities of certain types of fundraising.
For now, I’m not going to go into that too much. I’m going to assume you have a basic understanding of law in your country/state and how to use the internet to find out the details. Alternatively, I’ll assume that you have a producer that can do this for you.
Here are some different types of fundraising that might start you off in the right direction:
For us, we wanted to make sure that if the film made money, that the profits would stay local. So we built an “investment” package and reached out to local community members, friends, and family that might be able to donate $1,000 or more. We did accept some donations under that amount, but we set that as a minimum for investments.
These investments really worked like a personal loan with revenue sharing repayment rather than interest. Each investor signed a contract basically outlining what we were allowed to do with the money and how we would pay them back.
This came along with a lot of planning. Before we even started pre-production, we thought about how we could sell the movie. We opted for self-distributing to independent cinemas and eventually VOD. We put together a business plan for this trajectory and figured out exactly how much money we could reasonably expect to make if we had a decent go at it.
That’s where we came up with our budget, and we worked backwards from there to figure out what we could afford to do within the script that Vince had already written. We built a business plan and pitch-deck around these projections; then we reached out to everyone we knew that we thought would be interested.
To be completely transparent, we set out to raise $18,000 and ended up raising about $7,000; we ended up having to put some more of our own money into the pot to reach $10,000.
There were a couple of reasons we didn’t reach out goal. One was that we may have been too local in who we were trying to raise the money from. The other is that we didn’t start until two months prior to filming. So give yourself some more time, and reach out to a wider network.
Because we didn’t raise nearly as much as we had budgeted for, we’re really scraping the bottom of the barrel to pay for post-production and release the film. So we are doing a crowdfunding campaign.
We were planning on doing this anyway, as a way to give our most dedicated fans some exclusive rewards. It just so happened that we ended up needing it more than we initially had planned.
Crowdfunding is starting to get a bit… crowded. It seems like this is the go-to way for a lot of filmmakers to raise the funds to make their movie/series/short film. Unfortunately, it’s also started to get crowded by big-name talent trying to crowdfund as well. Overall, it’s getting harder and harder to raise a significant amount of money through crowdfunding.
Now don’t get me wrong, people do it. Some people are still raising exactly what they need to make their project happen. Most of these people are REALLY good at social media or already have a decent sized following that is hungry for content from them.
Our first web series, Blue Card, raised enough money to get made with just friends and family contributing to an IndieGoGo. Granted, we only needed about $500 for food & props, but if that’s all you need then go for it!
This route can get a little tricky (yes, trickier than investors). However, I’ve seen some filmmakers pull it off exceptionally well. Grants and donations through a fiscal sponsor work really well for documentaries and short films. I haven’t seen a feature get financed this way, but I’m sure it’s possible and probably been done.
A fiscal sponsor is an eligible organization that will sponsor your film so that donations and larger grants can contribute to your project. This is obviously geared towards more “non-profit” type projects, but a lot of micro-budget filmmaking is just that anyway.
Reach out to your local film society (or the closest one to you) and ask about fiscal sponsorship. A lot of mid-sized cities have an organization like this that will sponsor your project with them if you are a member or are willing to become one. Those memberships sometimes come with added bonuses like office space to use and equipment rentals.
My conclusion to all this is that you should do what you feel is right for your project. From the experience of working on Blood on the Leaves, I highly recommend trying to find a way to pay your cast and crew. This will work best if your script calls for more limited locations & actors like ours did.
I’ve been part of films that raised their money through all three examples I gave; each one was successful in its own right. If you can get a team of super-dedicated and professional crew to work on your project for free, then do your thing. If not, then consider one of these fundraising options to cover the minimal (compared to industry standards) costs of paying for quality.
I’d love to hear other ways people have financed their micro-budget films and/or secured resources for free. The Filmmaker's Process has some great articles about all of these things and I highly recommend you spend some more time on the site reading what the authors have to say.
Filmmaker's Process is ad-free and always will be because of readers like you. If you find this content useful and want to see it continue for years to come, consider becoming a patron today. Plus there are some pretty cool rewards!
If you enjoyed this article, you'll love the Filmmaker's Process newsletter. Each week, we share our latest posts, a weekly filmmaking resource, curated stories from around the web, a short film that we love, and a healthy dose of filmmaking inspiration.
Are you ready to take your filmmaking to the next level?