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What to direct a microbudget film? Write it yourself.

It seems almost every microbudget film made since 1994 was created by a writer-director. Why 1994? That's nearly 25 years ago, and when Clerks came out. Defining microbudget before that is a challenge. (Lower salaries and property prices made making films much, much cheaper in the 1980s and before. Even in 1997, five pounds an hour was "good money.")

This makes sense to me, as it's usually easier to raise money than to convince talented people to work for free or for minimum wage. Even people who work for minimum wage in their "day job" would often rather donate to a crowdfunding campaign than to show up early for little or no pay. Both writing and directing are huge commitments, and it's easier to get one person to commit than two.

It's also easier to write a low budget script yourself. If you want to keep location costs down, set the script in your home, your workplace, somewhere you can easily get permission to film in or the desert or city that you know well and have access to. Want to keep cast costs down? Write characters that look and act like people you know. Props and costumes? Write about what is in your closet, what you can build yourself, or what your friends will lend you.

You get the idea, what's low budget depends upon your connections and resources, not those of a screenwriter you never met.

In other languages, like Swedish, the benchmark for microbudget seems to be lower. I guess crew will work for less if the market is smaller. And, after watching quite a few European films, I think continental audiences have lower expectations when it comes to production values. And yes, many of those films are still made by auteurs.

Let's look at who wrote some of the best known microbudget films:

Napoleon Dynamite: writer director (director's wife is credited as a co-writer, so half an exception. But, it was in the family, like the Coen Brothers.)
Benji (1974): writer / producer/ director
Blair Witch Project: a pair of writer directors
Paranormal Activity: Writer/director
Clerks: writer/director
Monsters: Gareth Edwards is credited as writer and director, although he had more of a step outline than a script.
Pi: the one exception I can find. The credited writers include the director, lead actor, and a producer.
She's gotta have it (1986): writer/director

As I said, I'm not sure if examples before 1994 are worth listing, but I wanted to create more genre variety.

UK Films:
Locke: writer/director
Anuvahood: writer/director/star co-writer/in-the-cast co-director/producer-credit
Still Life: writer/director
Weekend: writer/director
Redirected: some count this as microbudget, but the budget was over two million. So, according to script-pitch categories, it's over four times "high-budget" and we won't count it.
And so on.
(documentaries not counted because I can't remember docs on script pitch.)

If someone pays me per hour, I'll list German, French, Swedish, Japanese, Chinese and other languages, and Australian films and so on, but I expect to find the same trend.

As Bollywood and Nigerian cinema have a different economic structure, I'm not sure I could make a comparison on what is "micro-budget" there, but many of those I've found have a writer director.

In fact, many microbudget films were made without a script in the traditional sense. They had a shot list, or a treatment, so they could adapt. (A script makes things easier when you have a large team, but more difficult when you have a small team and no money.)

The producer credits in many of those films are less trustworthy. Are they given a credit because they invested (sometimes even after the film was pretty much completed)? Did the director do much of the production work in the development phase? In some cases, yes.

But, it seems that as a rule, a film made for less than half a million pounds/euros/dollars should have the same writer as director. The lower the budget, the smaller the team should be. (If it gets too small, you should really think about raising more money, but anyway.) With larger projects, it makes sense to have two separate people, as each task becomes more complicated.

I've been approached in the past by people who can't afford to pay a writer and a director, and my answer is always, why not hire a hyphenate? It's so much more difficult to direct someone else's script when you don't have a lot of money.

Instead of script pitch, I propose project pitch, where writer/directors or writer/producers can pitch their projects to potential financiers. I mean, we already have a

  • Even though your post didn't finish, you make a lot of sense. I know I can write outlines and treatments, but writing high quality scripts is whole 'nother matter. I agree that it is more important to focus on raising a reasonable budget and then shooting with the locations and actors/crew available to you.

    1 year ago
  • Fascinating insights...particularly about the '1994' date bit (love so many of those on the list). I am curious what the rest of your post said. Is that written somewhere else?

    1 year ago
  • That's a nice contribution Vasco, good food for thought.

    The fragmentations of the old long standing business models are also adding to the pallet of possibilities and creating newly viable vacuums of potentiality. These include both straight forward documentories and, perhaps of special interest in this context, hybrid drama documentaries that can benefit from much easier crowd funding vectors than has been available for arts fiction dramas that regardless of scale and ambition are not far removed, in terms of social perceptions, from being vanity projects that may or may not have credibly viable distribution 'legs on it'.

    Clearly the bigger and more complex the project the greater is the challenge for a one or two person 'creative management' team. It's doable however if financial resources match the aspiration. One of the advantages of not being suckered into a large scale 'corporate' structure during development and preproduction is that one can take ones time finalising both the creative construct and the production plan, after that, for the 'paint by numbers' phase when the real money is sent, one needs to function with the precision of a brain surgeon and know ones limitations sufficiently well so as to hire or collaborate with those who can fill the gaps.

    Whatever the scale or nature of a production realistic empirical planning is pretty much everything.

    1 year ago
  • I think it's a good idea, Vasco. To have a "Project Page" so not just scriptwriters, or directors, but a page or area which has writer/directors. Not sure how successful it would be, as so many people want to direct. But for producers wanting to make micro budgets, I think it's a great idea.

    1 year ago
  • Thanks for replying everyone. After looking through them, perhaps I'd have just a "pitch" rather than script pitch. Maybe project pitch sounds too dorky. I don't know.

    Maybe the part advising writers could just drop the line about directors wanting to know budgets, or replacing the word "directors" with "investors." (For a short with a budget of 100,000, you might have a separate director. Features, however, are a different animal.)

    As for the rest of the post, perhaps another day. After looking at my style flaws above, I think I need some time off.

    1 year ago
  • For added inspiration, I made this list of five of the best known films shot in the director's home, with trailers for four. (I can't find a good trailer for the one with the silly title, sorry.)

    Under that list are lesser known films.

    If you've written-directed a feature film in your home, apartment, bedsit or workplace that you consider reasonably successful, let me know so I can add it to the list.
    (Note, I have in the past tried to shoot films in my bedsit, only to have the landlord revoke permission. Make sure you get all permissions in writing.)
    All of these that I could find were writer-directors.

    1 year ago