Zero budget filmmaking may sound like a terrible idea. After all, if you look at the marketplace as it stands currently, you’ll see all the super-heroes squishing everyone else out of your local cinema, you’ll see the hundreds of millions of dollars shine in the spotlight and relegate anything else to the background.
However, if you look at the names of the filmmakers that are now directing tentpole blockbusters, you’ll also find that they are not just Hollywood hacks that are just here to be manipulated by the money people. Yes, money people do pull the strings, but what they buy is not just an industrious outlook on an artistic endeavour, it’s a creative vision. And since that can’t be bought, it means you can achieve it on zero budget.
Small is beautiful
“Small is beautiful” is a phrase that comes from the field of economics and is the title of a 1973 book that greatly criticised the way that Western economy was running. The subtitle was: “A study of economics as if people mattered.” The principal thesis of the book is that an adequate and targeted use of technology which would simply fulfil human needs without going further into greed or the search for profit for profit’s sake would make the economy sustainable. That idea didn’t percolate really well, as the next decade saw the liberal economic policies of the Reagan era and corporations becoming “too big to fail”.
In a seminal talk, director Steven Soderbergh argued that, for purely financial reasons, it made more sense for studios to make bigger films than to spend time doing average-sized movies, once you include marketing and other costs. What that means is: the film business is following the same trend as most Western societies today, which is extreme polarisation between those that are “too big to fail” and those that are small and beautiful —in our case, the blockbusters that are guaranteed to gross over a billion dollars at the box office, and the tiny indie fares.
The mean streets of zero budget filmmaking
Getting money into the bank has always been the struggle of independent filmmakers and public funding cuts that are happening at the moment are merely another iteration of that struggle. However, content creators have an opportunity here. There was a time when the main difficulty was getting your hand on equipment -which was the struggle of masters like Scorsese and Cassevetes, in the days of Who’s That Knocking on my Door and Shadows, respectively. Nowadays, you can shoot a film on your iPhone, the struggle has moved to distribution and getting your film seen -and that can be done with smart social media strategising and very small resources.
There are many ways of leveraging technology and whatever resources you have at your disposal to make your small budget go a long way. For instance, Christopher Nolan on his first feature -which was the zero budget Following– shot a lot near windows in order to use natural lighting. You’ll notice that he did the same on his $ 250 million blockbuster The Dark Knight. The original Star Wars film was an independent film at heart and had a very emotional core that went far beyond the equally enjoyable but less emotional notion of man versus nature that drove the narrative of the oft-compared blockbuster Jaws.
Crowdsourcing your film
Making a film with zero budget means that you, a bright up-and-coming independent filmmaker, have to find more creative ways of breaking into the film industry. That means crowdfunding, that means social media, and that means also how to do things with that principle of “enoughness” that underpins the notion of “small is beautiful”. You may not have plenty, but you will know how to use it. If you desperately something extra (money, gear, a post production studio you can use after office hours): you know where to ask and who to call for favours.
That implies that you’ll need to angle your film towards a niche from its inception. Tangerine was not just an incredible technical achievement, it was also a film that represented a disenfranchised group, transgender people of colour, beautifully and humanely. Therefore, the film had a strong echo in the LGBT community at a time when the world was ready for intersectionality to leave the offices of gender studies and/or subaltern studies researchers and leap into the world.
Embracing zero budget filmmaking may seem like a constraint -but be assured that even films with huge budgets are tempted to ask for more money. You certainly have resources you can harness. The question is how to do so, and to what end. When is not even a question: the time is now.
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