It doesn’t matter how much money you have to make your low budget movie or short film, just as it doesn’t really matter how tall you are, or where and how you were born. It is what it is.
You can either get busy doing what you love, or find excuses not to.
You can pursue your dream or die trying; or you can roll over and watch somebody else do it.
Let’s start by watching this video:
How to make a short film on a low budget
The first step is to acknowledge there’s no such thing as an ideal budget.
If your movie is a spectacular success you might have gone grossly over budget and it wouldn’t matter. If your movie is a colossal failure you might have spent nothing and still go into debt because you neglected to work or earn anything.
Even zero isn’t ideal.
What is the ideal budget? The ideal budget is one which allows you to:
- Earn it within your current means.
- Spend it without penalty.
- Recover it with reasonable activity.
In simple terms, if someone stole your wallet with all that money in it today, your life shouldn’t change tomorrow.
And if you have to take risks, make sure you are willing to pay the price of failure.
Still young and dreaming you’re going to make that $200 million movie next year? Grow up.
Oh wait, what? You know guys who did just that? Well, I have a few examples of people who contracted fatal diseases and never lived to see their dreams being fulfilled. Should you live your life as if there’s no tomorrow?
Don’t get me wrong, I’m all for optimism, but not unrealistic optimism. Nobody can stop you from dreaming. But there are a billion things waiting to stop you from making that dream a reality.
Shoot for the stars if you must, but never forget you have earth to deal with first.
Before we proceed, read this important disclaimer:
The information in this article and video is for entertainment purposes only. It is not legal, investment, financial or career advice. The information should not be construed as personal investment advice or financial planning advice. Please consult your accountant, and/or local and country laws before taking any action.
How do you know when you have enough money for your short film?
Too often people think of story ideas for projects without thinking if they can actually pull it off within their financial means.
Making a movie is a long and complex process, and what seems like a simple affair at the beginning becomes murkier the deeper you get. Ask any filmmaker: It’s almost always impossible to remember how a project started once you have passed the grinder that is filmmaking.
It’s a classic case of the butterfly effect. One small decision you take today will alter your film in profound ways. Even short films!
Money is serious, even if you don’t believe that yet
When you’re young you believe you are indestructible, and that’s fine.
Go fight the demon! But before you do, let me just pull back the curtain to give you a sneak peak at him.
You buy gear and it lets you shoot your projects. You buy once, and shoot multiple projects. Money works similarly.
You earn once, and as long as you can recover it after having spent it, you can continue spending it as many times as you want.
If you’re a little smart, you’ll try to recover a bit more than you spend, because there’s always the following kinds of expenses that suck your “fund” dry:
- Failure of gear or maintenance
- Per diems
- Unexpected expenses
- Failure of project to recover money
If you’re in a small town or city, and you want to get your short film or feature film underway, what kind of budgets should you look to spend
The wrong answer is: Whatever you can afford to lose.
No, the budget for your movie is not what you have with you right now. The budget for your low budget film depends on two factors you might not even have considered yet:
- How much will you earn?
- What is the size of your audience?
We’ll get to short films shortly (see what I did there?), but first a small calculation about feature films.
Let’s say our small town has one multiplex with two cinema screens showing four shows per day. Each screen can hold about 250 people. Out of this, you only get to show your movie in one screen because the other screen will be showing a ‘big movie’.
Let’s say you want your movie to run for 14 days (not in your hands, really). The total number of human beings who can (theoretically) watch your movie = 250 x 4 x 14 = 14,000.
If your town has a population of 100,000 people, that’s 14% of them who can show up if they wanted to. But they won’t. In most likelihood, the seats will be empty more than half the time. Which means, you might be lucky to get 5,000-7,000 people to watch your movie over the 14-day run, with more people coming in the first week than the second.
If each person is willing to pay $10 (just a number), then the total revenue from such an exercise is about $70,000. All this doesn’t come to you, because the cinema owner will get a percentage, usually 50% (or more!). That means you will be able to collect a theoretical maximum of $35,000.
Will you really see all of this money? Only under two conditions:
- If you movie is really good, and more importantly:
- If you have marketed your movie well, like it was toothpaste.
But once you take out taxes, expenses, marketing, posters, advertising, legal, accounting, etc., how much will you have left?
I’m not going to even give you a number. Today, the only real hope you have is to get an OTT platform (Netflix, HBO, Disney, Amazon Prime, Hulu, etc.) to buy it.
You’d have to make your movie on a really low budget to not feel the pain.
Can you make money on your short film?
For fun’s sake let’s assume nobody buys you film, even though it’s good. But, you being smart, didn’t spend a lot of money on your short film.
You spent $1,000, all-in. This includes a good sound mix, posters, a good trailer, and good production values all around.
Will your short film or feature film be purchased by Netflix or Amazon Prime or HBO or Disney+ or Hulu?
The odds are against you. And even if they did, will you really see any money?
The odds of that happening are even lower.
Which means you have to self-publish.
If you price your movie at a respectable $1.99, you’ll need 500 eyeballs to get it back.
500 out of 100,000 (the population of our theoretical town) is doable. With the reach of the Internet, it’s more like 500 out of the entire Internet-using public who speaks the same language. That is doable!
The big elephant in the room is: How many people can you reach?
And how can you reach them? Two different things. You can theoretically reach all of them, but practically their attention is hard to get.
This is why companies pay lots of money in online advertising. Social networks owned by Facebook make sure not all your subscribers see what you post.
Imagine subscribing to ten magazines but only getting three issues every month, because Facebook decides it knows better than you.
They do this on purpose because they want you to spend money on their platform.
Google is a lot better, because Google allows for notifications and show you clearly how many people have opted in to be notified. Yet, Google ads are not cheap. No advertising is.
The average cost is $1 per click. That means, to reach 1,000 people through advertising, you’ll be spending $1,000. But you don’t have that sort of money!
That’s not the whole story. Most conversion rates are less than 1%. Let’s say for fun it’s 10%. That means, for 500 buyers you’ll need to reach 5,000 people.
Unless you have inundated your town with stories about your movie, like it was a new shoe from Nike, this is unlikely to happen.
But let’s say it does happen (I told you I’m an optimist – a tough optimist).
What’s the takeaway here?
It shouldn’t take a degree in rocket science to figure out that the budget of your movie depends on how much you have to spend for marketing it.
This is how you know you have earned enough. You know you have earned enough when you know you have enough to market your film.
That’s what we’ll look at next.
How much does marketing cost?
How far can your scream be heard?
Go to the rooftop and scream about your low budget film. How many people are likely to hear it? If you’re in a crowded city maybe about 20-30 (unless you’re a T-rex, then about 100).
Out of the people who hear you, how many are likely to arrive at your doorstep (or payment processor) with cash to watch your film?
A lion’s roar is more powerful than a mouse’s squeak, unless the mouse can mimic a lion’s roar.
This is what low budget filmmakers have to do in marketing – mimic a lion’s roar. The secret to doing that is twofold:
1. Reduce the area you have to scream to, and
2. Make sure it echoes all around to reach even more people.
In a small space echoing all around, a mouse’s squeak is a lion’s roar.
The goal is to find the perfect balance between the marketing area and the total size of your audience – so you can recover your money.
This is marketing.
We saw it takes about $1 for a click in the Internet space, and the conversion rate of those who visit a link is very low. Advertising is too expensive.
You could leverage influencers you know, but how many average people know any?
Still, you must try. You must explore all the options at your disposal. Some of your efforts might pay off, so try!
But, don’t assume. You can’t assume miracles will happen. If it happens just count your luck, but stay humble because many others aren’t so lucky.
The other option is to build a following of your own. This takes time, and is also something you can’t plan for.
Ultimately, I feel if I’m giving advice, it needs to be something most readers should be able to do. Otherwise I could just tell you to buy a lottery ticket – if all you want is a pipe dream.
Let’s step away from Internet marketing and look at the real world. Believe it or not, your greatest chance of success is in the people around you. The people you know.
In a small town, to reach every individual, you’ll have to do one or all of the following:
- Get on your local radio and/or cable station
- Find local YouTubers, TikTokers, Instagrammers, or other social media personalities. Even the small ones. Especially the small ones.
- Get on your local newspaper multiple times.
- Stick posters wherever it is legally permissible to do so
- Cinema advertising.
- Hand out flyers. Make them creative!
- Ask your friends and family to put your trailer and poster everywhere they can.
- Get your trailer on every screen at every mall, bar, saloon, hospital, gym and sports center. And your poster next to that screen!
- Ask local businesspersons, shopkeepers, online marketers, ecommerce owners, etc., how they market to your town?
This is where smaller towns have an advantage. You’re very likely to know people who know the right people. The larger your area, the more difficult it gets.
Going national? Not unless some major studio picks your movie at Sundance!
Sometimes, you’ll need to place ads because people won’t take you seriously. Money always talks. You still need some to print posters or flyers, or to make phone calls, or to go to the other end of the town hundreds of times for meetings.
But make that small amount of money go a long way. One thing you can be certain of – the smaller the area, the greater your chances.
Will you reach 5,000 (or more!) eyeballs? In a smaller town, you might.
In a large city, it won’t. It’s funny how that works. Large cities have more people (just like a country has more people), but they’re harder to reach because the demands on their attention are more.
You’ll really have to repeat your marketing for two weeks in every avenue possible. Get your short film to as many people as possible, and be relentless.
How to calculate the budget of your short film
Let’s say you can confidently reach 5,000 people in your town, with the help of friends and family, and your efforts. Let’s say it’s going to cost you $500.
$500?? Yeah, even a brilliant marketer like Saul Goodman has to spend some money to get things done.
So, if you only have $1,000, your budget is $1,000 minus your marketing spend. You’re left with $500 for your movie or short film.
If this figure is not enough to realize your story, then you’ll need to raise your budget. If you raise your budget, you’ll need to branch out into neighboring towns to increase your market size.
The downside of this is, your marketing costs increase proportionally.
Tough thing, this marketing.
It will take a lot of hustle and networking to get good deals on marketing. You’ll face a lot of rejection, but the more people you approach, the greater your chances. And, the only people you can realistically approach in your budget are the people closest to you.
This is what it takes to allocate a realistic budget for any low budget film. You play with the numbers until they balance out and make sense. Involve as many friends and family as you can (at least the supportive ones).
Sometimes you won’t agree with their ideas or suggestions. You don’t have to. You don’t have to follow them either. But you do have to listen to them.
If you can combine hard-nosed local marketing with smart Internet marketing, you might just be able to pull it off. Even a short film can make money!
Now that you know how much you can spend on your short film, the next question is: can it be done?
Yes. It’s been done before. Thousands of times.
Somebody somewhere is making a movie right now. Let’s see how.
How to Make a Short Film on a Low Budget
Here are seven tips to help you make a short film on a low budget, or even a zero budget.
1 Stop making excuses
Some people look at the empty wallet and say: “Oh, that’s a problem”. Others say: “So what? That’s one less problem I have to worry about.”
Which one is you?
The people I see fail the most in life are those who are great at finding reasons not to do something. E.g., “I don’t have a camera”, “I don’t know anybody”, “I don’t have 10-bit 4:2:2”, etc.
These people have been complaining all their life, and they’re an expert at it. And, they’re going to keep doing it while someone else makes their movie.
These kinds will never get ahead in life, because they specialize in not starting.
Try to take ownership of your life and look for reasons to get something done.
2 Write stories about the people you know
A lot of filmmakers write scripts that take place in their rooms, because that’s all they have. That’s perfectly normal. But why do they insist on writing about characters they have no idea about?
Write about people you know. It’ll make your short film look real.
If you don’t know anything about firefighters, for example, but your short film is about a firefighter trapped in your room, it’s going to come out fake. But let’s say you know the postman very well. Why not write a story with the postman trapped in your room?
If you don’t know a postman, make it the landlord. Will you be able to tell a better story when the character is someone you know?
You don’t have to change the genre. If horror’s your thing, or comedy, whatever, pick characters who you know, and place them in those situations. Don’t write characters that you have never met or know personally.
Kurosawa made Samurai movies, Spielberg made and still makes films for kids, and Scorcese made movies about Robert de Niro and Joe Pesci killing people. Tarantino makes movies about psychopaths cracking jokes before and after killing people. They write about things they know.
3 Don’t make your film in 4K or 8K
Many Oscar winning films are shot and projected in 2K. That’s HD for all practical purposes. 1080p.
Here’s how shooting in 1080p opens some magical doors:
- You can buy a cheaper camera with better image quality.
- You get higher frame rates in 1080p.
- You don’t need the sharpest lenses.
- You can edit, grade and finish on a cheap computer system.
- You can make focus mistakes and it’s not so evident in 1080p. Neither is bad makeup, problems in costumes or hair.
- All the things that make low budget look worse are hidden in 1080p, which is the exact same reason major Hollywood films are finished in 1080p.
They might shoot in 4K, and maybe Netflix wants 4K, but your short film will be just as great in 1080p.
Same goes for audio as well.
Don’t overcomplicate audio with more characters, overlapping dialogue, sound effects and complex music. A good simple stereo mix is better than a bad 5.1 mix. It’s not a compromise. You’re just deciding to eat a fresh apple instead of a rotten apple pie.
Shoot in 1080p, and focus on your movie.
4 Learn the right filmmaking process
Taking steps in the wrong order wastes a lot of time and money.
The best way to take down a monster is not by approaching it head on. So there are different ways you can approach this. I have my own:
In this blueprint I’ve laid out the steps I would take to make a low budget film – in the order that I feel is the best strategy for all filmmakers.
I know you might have read some books, good for you. You might have been in film school or have read magazines or Wikipedia on how a film should be made. That’s great, at least it shows you are proactive. But these techniques don’t work for low budget films, and even less so for zero budget films.
Ever seen Jackie Chan fight in his movies? He finds creative ways to use things around him to kick ass. Look around you. What you see is what’ll be in your movie: the locations, the props, the things you have access to. They are your assets. This is what Robert Rodriguez did with El Mariachi.
Don’t feel restricted by it. Think of it as a game. You have to make it work, somehow.
So start focusing on the how. Failing is part of the process.
5 Make the world small
You remember the mouse analogy we talked about earlier, right?
When you make the world small and bring in the walls, a mouse’s squeak becomes a roar.
You make the world small in your movie and outside your movie. Everything becomes small. Locations are smaller, the number of actors and crew members are smaller, the number of days you shoot are less, the number of scenes are lesser, you shoot lesser shots, lesser lights, you get the idea.
The world outside your movie gets smaller as well. You find locations in your town or village. You talk only to your friends, family, and people in your locality. You don’t travel far, and most importantly, you set your sights to only what you can see.
Don’t make travel plans for the moon when you don’t have money for a bus ticket to go down the block.
In the age of the Internet, you’d think it’s a crazy idea to restrict yourself, but it’s not. You’re just preparing to roar like a lion!
Even if you live in a town or village with just a thousand people, by involving everyone in your film, you’re going to get stuff done for free or peanuts, and they’ll gladly pay you to watch your film at the end.
Just put up a projector or find a projection room and show your film to everyone who already knows about your film and have probably contributed somehow to your film. Charge them something nominal. You’ll make your money back and be ready for your next film. You can only do this with people you know, and who know you.
Most filmmakers ignore the people closest to them and then complain when strangers don’t care. Don’t be like that.
Embrace your community.
6 Don’t buy a camera
It is the single dumbest mistake you could make. There might be scenarios where the camera rental works out to be more than the purchase, but in that case you can still save money by finding a cinematographer who owns a camera.
Let’s face it, humans are primed to buy stuff, sometimes for no damn reason. So it’s easy to buy a camera, but it doesn’t take you closer to making your movie. Just like buying a race car doesn’t take you anywhere near winning a race or even being able to race.
I’ve seen countless examples of filmmakers who won’t pay peanuts to a cinematographer with a camera, but somehow insist on buying their own camera. I’ve done it myself, I’m sorry to say, so I know how powerful the impulse is. I also know I was wrong and dumb, and I hope hearing it from me makes a difference.
I made my first short film with a Digital 8 camera. It was an embarrassment, but today, about 18 years later, it doesn’t really matter. What I remember most are the things I learned, the friends I made, and the fact that I got it done on a zero budget – except for lunch and the auto rickshaw fare.
I was able to do this because of my next tip:
7 Put together the A-team
No, not the Avengers, these guys:
A bunch of misfits who somehow complete each other and make everything seem fun.
You have to motivate them, you have to take charge, and you have to believe in yourself. And all this happens in your head and theirs.
Sharing excitement is infectious. It works. Show people a mountain peak and motivate them to climb with you.
Note: I didn’t say “ask”. You don’t ask them. You don’t tell them. You motivate them. You don’t have to pretend you know the way. All you have to promise is fun. You keep the fun coming, everything else will take care of itself.
Don’t believe me? Speak to other filmmakers who have made their short films and feature films. Ask them what they miss the most? Was it the camera, or the technicalities?
I can speak for myself: What I miss most about all the work I’ve done over the last two decades is the experience of doing it, the fun.
If you gave me the option of going back in time to shoot the same projects with the same crap cameras and money, I’d do it in a heartbeat. Because today, I can make a bad camera look good. It is not as important as I thought it was.
I had to become better, and it took me two decades to learn.
No matter how challenging your film, always remember to have fun. Make it the most important thing on your list, pronto.
How do you go about doing it?
Treat your short film like an event, like a night out with your new friends. It’s not business, it’s strictly pleasure. When that’s obvious to everyone, you’d be amazed how that attitude changes everything.
If you’re passionate but are not a good talker, beg a friend to be part of your A-team. They might not care about your film, but they care about you. Filmmaking is painful, and that friend is the glue that will keep your ragged band together even when it hits the fan.
If you can’t motivate others, or even get out of bed or finish a script, then filmmaking is probably going to be hard for you. You might get there, but only after you change first. That won’t happen by itself. Watching movies does not make you a filmmaker. It makes you the audience. Studying and practicing filmmaking makes you a filmmaker.
Even if there’s nothing to do, spend your time learning, studying, practicing, and engaging in the art and craft of making movies.
You can start by taking a look at our store for the best filmmaking courses on earth.
So, no money to make your film? Be thankful because that’s one less problem you have to worry about!
Now go make your movie!