The Seed&Spark Blog

Taking The Plunge: Tips for Getting the Most from a Self-Financed Film

March 22, 2018

• Tom Dever

If you’ve invested the time, money and energy in trying to “make it” in the Southern California film industry, by now, you should be able to make a distinction between independent and studio films. The latter being an immensely lucrative but elusive club reserved for those of a fortuitous and nepotistic disposition and the former being reserved for the born hustlers who have mastered the art of asking friends, family, enemies and strangers for favors and money. Mostly money.


While a tireless and often frustrating pursuit, self-financing a project is something all filmmakers owe it to themselves to consider. You willfully signed up for a job that requires to work a minimum of twelve hours a day, stand for hours on end, wait for the lighting department and never fully being satisfied with what you shot, so some part of you is a masochist. How bad can spending a sizable chunk of money to have total control and total ownership of your project be?


Whether you’ve decided to cash in the nest egg, found you’re related to a dentist (hint: it’s always the dentists, never physicians) or crowdfunded your project, the principals of making a film for tens of thousands of dollars or even a few hundred dollars should always be the same. There are a few obvious bits of advice: write something that can be made for the budget you have, write to locations you can realistically get, take it easy on props, vehicles and animals, and do what you can to limit night exteriors. 


If you haven’t learned those the hard way yet, consider yourself lucky. I’ve learned all of those the hard way. Well, not the animals one, but I’ve heard some stories. I’ve made features for under $100k and under $25k. I’ve worked on shorts with practically no budget at all. Like any production, there’s never enough time and never enough money. But if you’ve decided to dive head first off that ledge and self-finance a project, here are some important things to remember:


Prioritize Good Performances

We all want to shoot our film on a Red Dragon in 6K. “We can punch in on wides for close ups,” you’ll say. But as we’ve seen over the years with Blair Witch Project, Baghead, Cloverfield and with Sean Baker’s Tangerine, audiences actually have a pretty high tolerance for what's technically considered 'poor' picture quality. You can actually work a gritty, unprofessional or even sloppy look into the aesthetic of your film to serve it well.


There are two components you can’t get around, though, and bad performances is one of them. Luckily, if you’re living in California, you’re likely arm’s length from a dozen actors right this second. And better yet, most of them are AMAZING. Seriously, don’t let a lack of credits or exposure fool you — there are so many talented actors that will deliver an incredible performance in your film for a reasonable rate or even just the credit. Do the due diligence through Actors Access or Breakdown Services to find them. They deserve it.


Don't Skimp on Good Sound

The other component you can’t get around is poor sound. We should actually take this opportunity to pour one out for the sound mixers, the unsung heroes of production. It’s a common thread to hear filmmakers geek about Lubezski or Deakins and how they want to mimic that sick oner from Goodfellas. 


Rare is the conversation where a director gushes about production sound mixing. And yet, while gritty cinematography can be worked into a film’s style, crappy sound cannot. Do not go cheap on a sound mixer or equipment. Always treat these mercurial saviors with the reverence they deserve. And always, always, always, always do another take if the sound department asks for it.


Deferred Payments (and Skin in the Game)

The reality of self-financing, though, is realizing you will not be able to pay cast and crew what they want. If they believe in the project or you as a filmmaker, they will likely work at a discount. But the risk you run when getting anyone below their rate is getting something below their best effort in return — which doesn’t do anyone any favors.


Don’t be afraid to creative with compensation for those making the sacrifice for your project. You can structure payment deals to give them bonuses if your film gets distribution or makes its budget back. You can also give them an equity stake. This way, everyone will feel respected and also be invested in the project’s financial viability moving forward.


Don’t Be the Most Experienced Person on Set

Structuring such a deal will allow you to court more experienced veterans both in front of and behind the camera, which is essential for lower budget productions. It's likely that everyone will be stressed out at some point. With dwindling funds, time will be especially precious, meaning your understaffed cast and crew will inevitably have to work at a faster rate or do the job of multiple people. This will lend itself to times of immense pressure and stress.


When those moments come, having a veteran who knows what they are doing and how to solve the problems that come up is the best way to avoid descending into chaos. With your own project, you’ll have enough things to worry about; you don’t want a team of people looking to you as the source of calm in those situations. Having someone you can look to and learn from in those moments will help you moving forward.


Work With People You Trust More Than People You Like

It’s enticing to hire friends. They love you. They support you. They want to help you. Hell, they may even do it for free. But a film set is a place of madness, especially if you have invested your own money and livelihood into a project. Having a well-intentioned friend whose mistakes you can’t correct and whose feelings you have to worry about is a recipe for disaster.


That’s not to say to hire a crew of people you feel comfortable yelling at so much as bringing on people you trust to do their job and do it well. Cast and crew can be difficult. They can be emotional. They can, and likely will, be passive aggressive or outright rude under the circumstances. If you have a friend you absolutely trust to do their job, go for it. But the safest bet is having someone you won’t have to worry about carrying their weight, regardless of how good of friends you are.


Buy The Comfortable Shoes

Lastly, have some comfy kicks, because you’ll be on your feet A LOT. With great power comes great responsibility, right? And with a self-financed project comes the job of about ten different people. It’s terrifying and difficult but, at the end of the day, the success or failure is in your hands. What more can you ask for?


Tom Dever

Tom Dever writes for The Script Lab.



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