Respecting the Shoestring

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Guest post by Nathan Ashton

(Originally published on Nathan’s blog in June of 2015)

“Can you make a theatrical feature film for $25K?”

This is (basically) the title of a rather long thread on LinkedIn. Here is an excerpt of the kinds of responses that question generated…

“Can I have the money now so I can prove it can be done?  ;)”
“I have several scripts that could fit that budget.”
“I would do this for a worthwhile project.”
“Blair Witch Project and Paranormal Activity both came in under $25,000…”

I applaud the bravado put forward by these filmmakers, but I feel like they are underestimating what it means to make a movie. Let me explain.

$25K would be a modest budget for audio post services.

Considering that my team can bring $500K in resources and 75 years of experience to focus on your film, this is actually a great deal. We may put 500+ hours of work into your film. I am running a business. I have hard costs that must be covered and kids with a powerful need to eat. Each film I work on has its own set of demands and financial constraints so the ideal budget might be higher or lower. However, the work I do is basically the same without regard for the cash that changes hands. So, for the sake of this discussion, lets say we are making a romantic comedy and my card-rate is $50K.

This means that I will be pouring $50K into your movie. Period. If you are paying me less than that, it means that I am investing in you and/or your film…. Or I am an idiot.

No idiots here.

Since none of us are complete idiots, the “Can you make a theatrical feature film for $25K” question can only be answered “Yes” if one of these four situations apply:

  • SITUATION 1) This is my hobby. We can make an amazing film for $25K since the day job is paying the light bill and buying the production toys.
  • SITUATION 2) I am a professional with little experience and am willing to take a gamble. I need a calling card more than I need money. Worst case, I have to get a day job or move in with my parents again. The idea better be amazing and have a laser focused marketing strategy because I *really* don’t want to move back home again.
  • SITUATION 3) I am a professional. You are asking me to be an investor and match your $25K with $50K of my own. I have years of experience, overhead and $$$ sunk in hard assets. My partners are also professionals. Making a film for $25K does not make financial sense on the front end, so the idea better be amazing and have a laser focused marketing strategy because I am looking to make more than $50K in the long run off this investment.
  • SITUATION 4) I am a professional and care deeply about the subject matter. For me, the film doesn’t have to be financially profitable. I am matching your $25K with $50K of my own because this issue *must* be addressed. Maybe I need my hard costs covered, or maybe I am willing to take a loss in order for your project to succeed.

Each of these situations are valid, but in NONE of them is the film getting made for *only* $25K.

Every professional involved is an investor that elevates the true cost of the film. Furthermore, the original question asked for a theatrical feature. Someone will have to put forward the P&A so that anyone will come see your film. Even if you do a Facebook campaign, *someone* is investing time and effort further elevating the cost of the film.

OK. Maybe some people are idiots…

There is a 5th situation that lures filmmakers to their doom. It looks like this:

  • SITUATION 5) I so desperately want to be a filmmaker that I have lost sight of the business of filmmaking. I have called in all my markers, drafted all my friends, taken a $10K loan from my family and put the other $15K on my credit card. My script is perfect as is. A-list actors are overrated. If I film it, the audience will come. Obviously films like the “Primer”, “Paranormal Activity”, and “Blair Witch” prove that my dream is realistic.

While “Blair Witch” spent only $22K, “Paranormal Activity” $15K, and “Primer” a slim $7K, these films *cost* a lot more invested by the cast, crew, and artists. For every success story like these there are hundreds of wanna-be films that fail.

A film in the $25K range had better build something beyond a bank account, since it probably won’t make financial sense.



Scorched Earth vs. Forging Friendships

Production is crazy hard work. Postproduction is crazy hard work in an air conditioned studio.

A shoestring production that loses sight of the $50K every member is giving up might get finished. However, it will leave behind an epic wake of burned relationship bridges and the dead bodies of professionals who must quit their craft to recover financially. This is shortsighted and selfish. Everybody gets burned. Everybody loses.

A shoestring production that brings professionals together, throws in a few hobbyists, and forges a solid team centered around a worthwhile project has the potential to be amazing. The heat of the project can create lifelong relationships based on mutual respect and trust. The future is forged by bravery and many of the most successful filmmaking teams started right here.

So, lets ask a better question:

“Are we making a shoestring movie
or investing in shoestrings to launch careers?”

What do you think?

Nathan Ashton has served the creative community for 18 years as an audio producer. Nathan specializes in using sound effects and Foley to create realistic environments. He was Sound Designer for the Burn’s Family Studio film, Beyond the Mask, Henline Production’s film Polycarp, and many more. For nine years Nathan taught audio production at Oral Roberts University. During this time he developed curriculum for a new Music Technology degree and an affinity for working with young people. He continues to mentor new audio engineers through in-home internships and project collaborations.


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Director - MWCFA

Andrew Bartlett is one of the co-founders of Bartlett Productions, a small media company based out of northern North Dakota. He has a passion for serving Christ through the visual arts and has had the opportunity to work on a number of films as well as produce marketing materials for businesses and organizations. Andrew is also the Director of the Midwest Christian Filmmakers Academy, where aspiring filmmakers can learn the craft in a hands-on way.