Independent movies or Indies usually are low budget movies. They are made independently without the help or support of an established production house. However, once in a while, famous studios venture into small budget movies too. But the definition of a low budget is subjective from producer to producer.
So, how much does it cost to make a low budget indie? Today, the average budget of an independent movie is roughly under $2 million. The costs of no-budget films are meager whereas a micro-budget ranges from a few thousand to $400000. A low budget movie usually falls between $400000 to $2 million. The cost varies a bit depending upon the value of locations, cast, special effects, etc. Also, every country has a different take on its thresholds.
For starters, the actual budget for an independent film is made up of above-the-line and below-the-line costs. Actors, directors, producers, and writers fall into the above-the-line category, and the production crew, craft services, equipment, incidentals, locations, and materials make up the below-the-line costs. But what qualifies as a low budget movie?
What Qualifies as a Low Budget Film?
Independent films or low budget movies are usually the pet projects of newbie filmmakers who are still proving themselves in the film production arena. Some of those films have historically shown that low budget productions can indeed end up making it big on the silver screen.
Now, a general rule of thumb in this day and age, where significantmotion picture budgets can run upwards of hundreds of millions andbeyond, a low budget is qualified by a budget of less than $2 million.And, the actual defining quality of an indie film is any film that hasbeen created without any support or financial backing from the major Hollywoodstudios.
Low Budget filmmaking can happen for various reasons. The primary objectives are :
- The script doesn’t demand high costs
- Lack of commercial viability
- An attempt by a newbie or a young filmmaker
- An experimental film with a very niche market audience
- Pure artistic endeavor
- Lack of funds, investor or producer
The project cost of a low budget film may be meager if you compare it with a Hollywood studio film. However, the process of making a movie is similar. Even the budget breakdown is the same. Therefore, it all boils down to the costs you need to work upon to realize an independent production.
You can further breakdown the budgeting into three categories:
No or Zero Budget Movies:
As the name says it all, a No budget film is made virtually with no money. Or, You produce it with no or minimal exchange of currencies. The services are paid in kind. And, mostly all the hiring and costs are borne by the talents and technicians. It means they do it for free and provide equipment, locations, and services for free.
The costs incurred are usually not recorded during the process of filming, and hence it stays as a No Budget or a Zero budget movie.
Micro budgets vary anywhere between a few thousand dollars to about $400000. The figure is average considering all the filmmaking nations.
Some of the popular microbudget movies are El Mariachi by Robert Rodriguez and Eraser head by David Lynch. Famous directors like Christopher Nolan, Richard Linklater, Steven Soderbergh, and Kevin Smith have successfully started their careers with micro-budget films.
Rodriguez made his film in just $7000, and during that time, digital filmmaking was entirely unheard of.
Indian legendary director Satyajit Ray made his Apu trilogy under five figures. They still list today among the all-time great movies.
Paranormal Activity in 2007 made around $200 million from a $15000 production. ( As per Wikipedia)
Low Budget Movies:
As per the survey by stephenfollows.com, anything below $2.12 million, the movie is considered as a low budget movie. In the same study, Hollywood brands a low budget movie to be under $3 million. South Americans, the maximum budget dips to a million dollars.
In many countries, you can make a pretty decent production in that range. However, there is a perception that low budget films look cheap and poorly produced. They lack finesse. But there are some great examples of small budget movies that broke the box office.
RogerCorman is considered a legend in this category. Some of his prodigies were Francis Ford Coppola, Martin Scorsese, Jack Nicholson, Robert Di Nero, and Jonathan Demme. Steven Spielberg closely followed his school of low budget filmmaking too.
Factors that go into the cost of filmmaking:
Above the line costs of an independent film ( which is significantly enormous ) need to be cut down to its bare minimum. Usually, the indie filmmakers write, direct, and produce their films. So, you bring down the primary budget significantly.
Many filmmakers act or make their friends work in them. It pulls the costs further down. But, when it comes to below the line budgeting, the pitch can be slippery here as the filmmaking production incurs a basic cost. It includes the equipment, the services, crew location, etc.. Which may not be cheap.
The biggest challenge for a low budget film lies here. But, we have seen how filmmakers innovate and beat the cost challenges to produce quality small budget films. So let’s look at the factors that add up to the cost of a movie.
Development or Scripting:
As the name suggests, the filmmaking cost begins with a script. If you are looking at adaptations or buying scripts, these costs add up here. Usually, the development charge is approximately 5% – 10% of the total expense. It includes the licensing, hiring of the leading casts, producers, and the director.
The remuneration of actors and directors is significantly higher in big-budget movies. Since we are talking about a low budget indie, the costs are minimal.
Without production, a movie is just a dream. While making the film, the production stage eats into the significant chunk of the budgeting pie. Whether it be the salaries of the crew, the equipment, shooting logistics, hiring services, buying insurance, or food, production covers it all. It is the most significant chunk of the film’s cost. It is estimated somewhere between 35-40% of the full cost.
Post – Production:
Nowadays, post-production plays a critical role in bringing down the costly production by putting colored screens behind the actor. Those backgrounds are created under the special or visual effects category. The post has become expensive, but it saves a lot of money as a whole.
Post-production also includes editing, sound, music, and printing costs. Estimation is about 10 to 15% of the total cost.
Marketing & Distribution:
Marketing and distribution is key to a low budget indie. It needs a lot of dollars to market a film. In today’s estimate, producers spend around 30% of the total cost towards marketing and distributing the film. Many consider not to include this cost in the total cost of production. But imagine if the movie grosses $500000 in profits and the marketing and distribution cost were the same. So in actuals, it just breaks even. The whole economics of moviemaking changes if the cost is not taken into account.
Are independent films as good as major motion pictures with big budgets?
Well, let’s face it, most of them are lacking the massive special effects budgets as well as the budget for big-name star-power. However, some stars will do independent films for a bigger piece of the back-end rather than a hefty paycheck during production.
Modern technology is putting special effects, CGI, and more in reach of independent filmmakers more and more every day. Since the script is the most important factor, an excellent screenplay can make an independent film just as riveting as those made by the big boys with their big budgets.
What Makes Independent Films Sell?
The script is, of course, the most crucial factor, and the consensus among industry professionals is that the producer and director’s track records don’t matter very much.
The cast is a big selling factor as well and star-power aside, even independent films need good acting these days. The independent film genres that sell the best historically are horror movies followed by comedies and action movies.