Your Low Budget Screenplay Doesn’t Have To Become A Cheap Movie


This isn’t another article about how to create visual effects that are impossible to distinguish from the high budget special effects in the world.  An article on how to make your $50k movie look like it was made on a studio budget.

Instead, I going to discuss what to consider when writing a screenplay to be made for “a price.” i.e. a low budget film.

Never think of low budget films as the poor cousins of studio films. They exist proudly in their own right and have their place on our screens.

What should you avoid in your low budget screenplay?

A low budget film producer will generally steer clear of science fiction movies, period pieces (that is set more than 25 years from the present; past and future), large casts, too many locations, copyrighted music, anything with explosions, fires, extensive stunts and car chases.

So what’s left. THE CONCEPT.

Yep. That’s it. Your wit, your writing soul.

Most indie films tend to be dramas and comedies that are character driven rather than overly visual. This is your chance to shine as a screenwriter. A scene which you thought could only survive on a large budget must stand on the clever dialogue you’ve written.

A low budget film isn’t a death sentence. It’s a license to create the film you want. Studio budget movies come with studio level interference and strings attached. I believe the tradeoff is worth it.

If your story requires a certain level of visual effects, reduce them to the absolute minimum. Alternatively, you can make cheap looking effects part of your film’s schtick. Make them look intentional rather than a compromise.

Also, use music from unsigned artists. They’d love the exposure. Alternatively, there is plenty of free music on the internet which is downloadable.

Double (or even triple) up on your locations

Do you know anyone with a restaurant, boat, swimming pool, baseball stadium (maybe this is a stretch) or vacant building? Ask for favors. If you never ask the answer will always be a no.

Think about maximum exploitation of your locations. Perhaps the utilities cupboard  or the cellar in the restaurant can be used as unrelated locations. Or repurposed.

Also think about set dressing. The cellar could be a basement bedroom, office or even a prison. This can actually enhance your film rather than making it look cheap. I know a director who used the same bedroom for three different sets by rearranging some furniture or swapping it out.

Even using a wall or some other distinctive background in a location can be used to create another location. Get creative. Compare this to booking a stadium for 4 hours and you can’t come back for pickups.

Also, always opt for existing sets rather than having them built.

Anything that minimizes transportation of equipment, cast and crew will greatly reduce your budget.

Reduce your shooting days

I know you’re an artiste and want a shooting to scene ratio of 5:1. Try halving that. Do you really need all those tracking shots?

Shoot the master scenes with a few closeups and move onto the next setup. Reducing your shooting days can trim thousands of dollars off your production budget.

Be nice to your cast and crew

A low budget movie doesn’t mean a low budget attitude. Treat everybody as if they’re on a studio set. Feed them. Thank them. They understand this is a labor of love rather than a fat paycheck.

Is your movie franchisable?

Think about Paranormal Activity, Saw and The Purge. They became multi-million dollar franchise with sequels. The originals of these films had a definite ending structure; end of the chapter, but not the end of the book.

Set the core characters, genre and tone of your film early on. Be wary of a hard bookend ending such as killing off the main characters.

Who are your key hires?

Have at least one name actor. Doesn’t have to be an A-lister, although that always helps. You’d be surprised at how many actors will star in a low budget movie during their down time. Maybe look at TV actors too? This really helps with marketing and distribution.

Directors are also pretty important; although brilliant actors can mask an average director’s weaknesses. Although some directors may disagree with this statement.

Cinematographers, lighting technicians and sound recordists are also pretty vital. A bad looking film that’s poorly lit with scratchy dialogue can’t save an award winning performance.

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