If you’ve been kicking around in the film world, you’ve probably heard the term ‘Micro Budget’ come up, along with other phrases like ‘No Budget’, ‘Big/ Mega Budget’, and similar. Most of these terms are very general and no-one really defines what exactly they are, but they are usually thrown around as a way to measure the scale of a film.
The idea is pretty simple: no-one will trust you to be responsible on a big budget film until you’ve first proven yourself on a smaller scale. And that ‘smaller scale’ film? Often that’s a Micro Budget Film.
But it’s easier to think of a number to start. So let’s look at the generally-accepted ‘cost’ of a Micro Budget Film:
How Much does a Micro Budget Film Cost?
There are a number of sources that explore this. Here’s a few:
- Stephen Follows, in this article, explains the results of an interview he conducted in 2014 asking 542 film professionals what they believe the maximum cost for a ‘Micro Budget’ film is, and the average answer was: $392k
- SAG-AFTRA, one of the leading unions for the Screen Industry in United States, have an ‘Ultra-Low Budget Agreement‘ (another name for ‘Micro Budget’), which they cap at $250k excluding deferrals, or $625k including deferrals.
- The International Specialised Skills Institute released this incredibly insightful report in 2015 that defines Micro Budget Films as being between $50k and $250k.
So although they don’t all agree, we can see that it’s generally less than $500k, but more commonly people would say around $250k. That’s a rough figure and it’s also a lot less than the regular millions of dollars that we hear about being spent on big films.
Bear in mind, we’re talking about maximums. So a film that costs $65k would still classify as Micro Budget.
But before we get too caught up in dollar amount, here’s the thing: It doesn’t really matter.
Why The Budget Doesn’t Particularly Matter
Measuring a Micro Budget Film by it’s financial outlay is perhaps not the best way to go. At it’s core, Micro Budget Filmmaking is less about what it costs, and more about the approach to managing the entire film project. The general rules of cameras and continuity editing will stay the same despite a film’s budget, but it’s how you approach the management of that film that gives it most of it’s ‘Micro Budget’ characteristics.
Of course, that approach to managing the entire film project is born out of necessity for squashing a film’s budget down to something that suits what filmmakers can afford. So forgetting the dollar amount for now, what characteristics define a Micro Budget Film?
Characteristics of a Micro Budget Film
It’s important to note that we are referring here to feature length films, generally 90+ minutes. Although some sources say that 60+ minutes is the minimum for a feature, you’ll probably receive some resistance from audiences since ticket prices are about the same irrespective of a feature film’s length. Anything less than about 80 mins will feel like a rip-off, when major studios are releasing 2 hour films that cost the same.
Again, taken from the ISS Report mentioned above, a Micro Budget Film has these characteristics:
- “Generally characterised by their independence from mainstream distributors or financiers”
Absolutely. A multi-million dollar film is going to have all kinds of business deals relating to equity investment and pre-sale distribution that simply won’t be offered to a filmmaker at the start of their career. If anything, the success of a Micro Budget Film is meant to prove that a filmmaker is worth those kinds of business deals for their next project.
- “Specialist appeal and limited release across the spectrum of available exhibition platforms”
‘Specialist Appeal’ can also just be called niche. And it’s incredibly important, as we’ll look at in another article at a later date. ‘Spectrum of available exhibition platforms’– the world of distribution and Self-Distribution is continually growing and changing. Micro Budget Films may not be released the same way we’re used to with Studio-made big-budget films, and you need to accept that.
- “Professional filmmaking that creatively exploits constraints or limitations, generally fewer locations and smaller cast and crew size”
There’s two pieces of value in this bit: “Professional Filmmaking”– that means it meets a standard of quality. It’s not sloppy. But also “creatively exploits constraints or limitations”. That’s the essence of this type of filmmaking. It’s about being malleable to suit the scale of the production.
- “May offset industry standard wages with profit participation arrangements”
This is the ‘deferrals’ that the SAG-AFTRA agreement was referring to. Deferrals or profit participation is something you need to approach carefully. If done incorrectly, it can land you in legal trouble. But if done correctly, it may bring a film’s budget down to something low enough that it can actually get made, rather than sitting as an untouched script on a shelf.
- “Cost-saving measures such as equity partners (facility deals), or a staged-financing approach such as seeking additional completion funds after principal photography”
To be honest, equity partners are less common (though not unheard of), but the staged-financing approach? Yes. Getting a film through it’s production stage means you have something to show which can make it far more attractive for additional funding in Post-Production. And although that can be a financial death-trap, if managed correctly, it could be the difference between getting a film made and never actually starting.
- “In certain cases, may adopt a particular low-budget ‘aesthetic’ and production style (e.g. ‘found footage’ horror)”
It’s inevitable that certain genres and styles will creep in to Micro Budget Films, but what particularly excites me is what else can be done in this world.
Why Make a Micro Budget Film?
To me, Micro Budget Films represent hope. They’re the kind of films that we can make, that we can afford. I don’t believe that Cinema is an art form that needs to be reserved for the wealthy. I want to see people try something new, and bring new experiences and stories to the screen.
And this is the bizarre irony: The less a film costs, the more freedom you have! When you’ve got a board of directors at a studio breathing down your neck out of fear that their 10’s or 100’s of millions of dollars need to be spent the right way, then sometimes you end up watering down cinema into something that’s just being too careful and doesn’t provide any real value to audiences.
So what about when you’re working with a ‘Micro Budget’ and there’s less financial risk? Hopefully you’ll see that it’s an opportunity to take more creative risks and bring something new to a screen. But for the love of god, don’t regurgitate past film tropes in the belief that “this is what’s worked before”. Offer audiences something unique, not only to develop your own reputation, but also to help the entire film industry’s reputation.
If you’re interested in learning more, then like the facebook page. This site will grow, more resources will be added, and if the bare minimum is that I can motivate and inspire you to develop a story you’re passionate about and put it on the screen, then I’ll be happy. And I’m looking forward to seeing it.