How I Learned to Stop Whining and Love the Game

by Katherine Bruens

I work professionally as a Producer and Production Manager in the advertising industry and independent film world here in San Francisco. I am also one half of a partnership that has produced three micro budget features here. Rather than become frustrated that the market in San Francisco has demanded that I spread my attention between these three worlds, I’ve embraced this hybrid.  This market gives me a way not only to maintain my freedom to usher forward new personally driven works, but it also allows me to produce media through a broad spectrum of strategies, sometimes with vastly different amounts of money. What’s more, in the end these projects are all trying to achieve a similar result.

CXL, my partner Sean Gillane and my current feature, is just starting its public life with a local premiere at the San Francisco Film Society’s Cinema by the Bay, while our first film Corner Store is delivering to its final distribution outlet with Hulu. Thus I feel I am in an interesting place to look both back and forward at our experiences producing and developing audiences for these local films in relation to the spectrum of possible strategies and budget categories I have been a part of professionally here in San Francisco.

The following is a collection of some of my thoughts and experiences dealing with how to produce a film by recognizing that yes, all projects need resources, but that while of course they can be purchased for money, they can also be developed through relationships and time. What's more, when money is lacking, and it always is, look to the potential value of the resources around you and the potential value you have to offer in the project itself.

From top to bottom and beginning to end, making a film takes a lot of resources, this we know. This is what makes the production process both so challenging and so potentially beautiful.  It’s important to remember that each project has a unique set of needs and resources, perhaps its best to begin thusly:

1      Assess your resources and strategize the best way to satisfy those needs

2      Choose a production style and timeline that accommodates the valuable resources around you (your own time and energy included)

3      Offer what you have in exchange, which in many cases is a real stake in the project you are working on;

4      Deal with the remaining hard costs applying all the same

Perhaps these are obvious when read, but I want to push the particular point of doing this as early as possible, especially when money is the resource most lacking.

A lot of the initial feedback for CXL has been anchored in praise over the uniqueness of the ideas and the success achieving these ideas in the final product. This praise is gratifying in part because the project was designed to do just that.

When we started CXL, the director Sean Gillane and I spent time examining the resources (money, time, relationships) that we had available to us and created a script and production strategy that utilized those resources, rather than chasing resources that we had no access to. By beginning this way we were able to ensure that this film would 1) be completed and 2) be completed to our standards and expectations.

Perhaps a micro-budget example will help to illustrate the point:

I want to make a narrative feature and know I don’t have the money to pay for a casting director and subsequently to pay my talent. Do I a) give up and cast myself knowing I have no training, or b) go to a local theater performance and scout for talent that would be interested in working with me for the experience? By choosing the latter, I have used my time and relationships to get my film the talent it deserves and have substituted time and relationships for money. Moreover, in order to cast this highly capable actor as the lead in my film, I need to ensure that he can fit our production schedule into his life without being financially affected. My calendar will need to shift to make sure that the value of this relationship afforded me can make it to the screen.

The process repeats itself with locations, crew and post-production personnel.

At this point another distinction must be made that applies to micro-budget, but perhaps just as much to Low-Budget as well. There is a world of difference between calling up, say, a director of photography and asking if they can come work for 30 plus days for you on your feature for free, versus grabbing a coffee with someone who is a shooter whose work you love and saying “I have this project and I’d love to show you the script and see what you think.”

You have a project that is empty of personnel and hungry for the checks and balances a creative team should give it. Why not approach someone with a blank canvass of possibility? How would they like to be involved? What do they think your project could value from?

If you have an LB or ULB project keep in mind any added value you can give your team by inviting them to be part of a collaboration. This will supplement the drop in pay they will ultimately need to agree to and will help you assemble your human resources while improving your film in the end. I can tell you from experience that nothing will piss off your crew more than treating them like hired help when they came on despite the rate for the love of the game.

Even in advertising I can approach crew for a job and ask if they can help make my budget work in this or that way if, say for example its a new client for them and they feel as though helping out will help them get more work in the future.

When indie filmmakers get wind of what commercial budgets are like, it can be a shocking and sometimes infuriating experience. But when I have the opportunity to look back on this spectrum of production, it is no surprise that commercial budgets could have me spending 500K on a couple of days of shooting. This content has to be delivered in breakneck speeds. With weeks or even days to assemble what without money could/should take months, the cash keeps things moving. Oh yeah, and the client gets the final word.

So what of the hard costs in indie? When I began Corner Store, all I had was my time and access to a subject I was sure would make a wonderfully interesting documentary. After my own ducks were in a row I reached out to two parties, a camera owner to help me shoot some test footage, and a friend interested in film who had a history of event coordination. Both became interested in their own right and organically became part of the team. With that I could begin to create the infrastructure to help us raise the money for the hard costs of equipment and our travel costs to Palestine.

The same principles apply to your supporters as when assembling your production team. I have the great pleasure of being able to say that in our two largest live fundraising events for Corner Store we were able to raise first $6,000 in one day and subsequently $12,000 in one day to supplement the thousands we continued to raise along the way on and offline. I could write a lot on how this was accomplished, but one thing I can say here is it was not done by expecting that people would care about my project and sitting back to let the funding come to me. The burden was on me to create relationships with leaders in communities I felt would see the most value in what I was doing and, just as with my crew, showing them how their help would be crucial to what would become our shared goal.

By allowing them access to the creation of the film I was inviting them to share in the subsequent feelings of success. Whatsmore, by treating each and every person like a member of our team by the time the film was released we had supporters there to fill every theater and feel as though they were part of the collective effort to push the film out into the world.

All of this, as previously stated, is the beauty and the burden of film. Even as I’m sure my future experiences will more clearly mold these ideas and I can only hope will usher in many more, at this particular vantage point I wish to highlight two main take aways;

1) When you want to build something, anything, a strategy should take precedence above all else. This seems inordinately obvious when applied to most industries, but should be considered just as important in the creation of the most collaborative art form available. 

2) Money is just one kind of resource, and I’ve never seen any production be successful through money alone.

Trailer: http://vimeo.com/51766635

BIO: Katherine Bruens is a local Producer and Production Manager in both Advertising and Independent Film in San Francisco. Her directorial debut Corner Store, a documentary feature, gained a strong local following and enjoyed glowing reviews from local news outlets as well as the New York Times. With Corner Store in distribution internationally and a digital deal with HULU in the works, she is focusing her energy on partner Sean Gillane and her current feature, CXL while beginning to develop their next project with their ever growing San Francisco team. 

Just The Start -- Microbudget filmmaking in the UK

by Tristan Goligher

In the UK micro budget films are often sneered at, often derided, and often rightly so. It is a fair criticism that many of these films can be high in over indulgence, and low in technical execution. But increasingly, over recent years, micro budget film makers are proving to be amongst the most exciting and innovative of emerging talent. In the states this grass roots creative movement has been evident for some time, giving birth to film makers like Kelly Reichardt, Andrew Bujalski, and Joe Swanberg, to mention just a few. Now it seems that we, the British, are catching on too. Change is in the air, and momentum is gathering. 

 

One big difference, and potential advantage, we have in the UK over the US is public funding for film. For a number of years now we've had several 'microbudget schemes' running in the UK. These involve open calls for applications, with large numbers of film makers applying, before being whittled down into shortlists which go through development, with a final fortunate few being commissioned. The highest profile of these programmes is Film London's Microwave, and iFeatures on which I am now an Executive Producer. Born from these schemes we have been some very notable, stand out films, such as Time and the City, and Shifty  but often the resulting films usually find themselves looking in from the perihpery of the British cinema landscape. Unlike in the states we don’t have the abundance of festivals celebrating such films, and giving them a genuine platform for exhibition.

This status on the periphery, however, is beginning to change. But slowly so. It's become increasingly difficult for first time, indie (usually drama), directors to get their work funded. Without named cast in front of the camera, or already famous film makers behind it, it's all but impossible. At last years BIFAs (British Independent Film Awards) the Debut director category consisted of Joe Cornish (Attack The Block), who in the UK is a famous comedian, radio DJ, and co-writer of Tin Tin. Ralph Fiennes (Coriolanus), no biography required. Richard Ayoade (Submarine), a famous TV actor whose film Submarine included Paddy Considine, Sally Hawkins, and as an Exec Producer Ben Stiller. Paddy Considine (Tyranassaur), again no biography required. Lastly John Michael McDonagh (The Guard), who is a real new comer. This is not a criticism, but it does paint a good picture of the current state of affairs for emerging directors. In this context emerging film makers face one of three three choices. Firstly get a different job, secondly attach names, which is not always possible or appropriate, or lastly make your debut, or even sophomore, feature for less money. For this simple reason micro budget film making is now crucial for emerging talent here in the UK. 

When Andrew Haigh and I came to finance Weekend, we already had an established relationship with some of the funding bodies in the UK having already made a successful short film called Five Miles Out. Andrew had also one very good (admittedly niche) feature film, Greek Pete, under his belt, but still the project was seen as too great a risk, even for the micro budget we were looking to raise. Without delving, too deeply, into the travails of financing this film we ultimately raised about 70% of what we set out for, and were faced with a decision. Do we give this film up? Or do we take the plunge and make it for what we have? We went ahead, made the film for less than $200,000 and premiered it at SXSW in March of last year. Since then it's gone on to win a number of awards, achieve critical acclaim, sell internationally, and so far generate over a $1,000,000 worth of transactions. There is no question, what so ever, that it has exceeded anything we could ever have, realistically, expected from it. Most importantly, it's hopefully given us a platform that will help us get the next film made. For that reason I now acutely appreciate the value, and necessity, of micro budget film making. 

We did have public funding support from EM Media, and Creative Scotland, but despite that Weekend was still largely made outside of the 'system', and we were lucky enough to have three excellent Executive Producers, who trusted us, and worked with us. But over the next few years I suspect that the majority of profiled microbudget work in the UK will come through more, centrally managed, structured schemes.

This is great news, and should mean more opportunities for film makers trying to make their breakthrough films, and establish their careers. Now working on one of these initiatives I do often ask myself what the potential problems and pitfalls of this approach may be. My politics fall firmly left of centre, so I don't suggest we should not have public support for the arts. But by simply looking at the micro budget work being commissioned (and not being commissioned) in the UK it's apparent that in the past something has been missed. The public funding structure, and the culture that has grown around it, seems to lack the vibrancy and originality of the more entrepreneurial American scene. To be clear I don't doubt the benefit of public funding to support emerging film makers through short films and microbudget features. However, I do question, the culture that has grown alongside it. A culture that seems to be to our creative detriment. The decision of the 'powers that be' to fund our work or not, is often the stamp of approval we need, or the kiss of death we dread. Many aspiring film makers don't make it past their early rejections, and others find themselves, after a few shorts supported, no longer in favour. Rejection is as true in America as it is in the UK, but I think it's compounded by two things here. Firstly there's a relatively small number of key financiers we can go to, and without their stamp of approval it’s hard to pursue further finance, such distributors, sales agent, and co-productions. Secondly those key financiers are not private investors, but rather they come as plenipotentiaries of the state. To varying degrees their opinion is endorsed. At it's worst this leads to a culture of 'cap in hand' film makers seeking not only money, but by proxy, approval for the work they make. For those of us that survive the rejection to fight another day, the next step can often be to dilute, and homogenize our work. We hope this will help us better fit the mould of what we perceive as ‘fundable’. UK Film Council shorts are a case in point. There are many proficiently crafted, well developed, well acted short films that have come through the various short film schemes, You can sense a mile off, however, that they’ve been through the system. The uniqueness, and the joie de vivre is too often ground out. I know because I have, at times, been part of that system. This predicament is particularly damaging to young or inexperienced filmmakers, eager to please.

After the early rejections in financing Weekend Andrew and I suffered from just that. We put the script on the shelf, and began looking for new material. Fortunately, and quickly, we realised that Weekend was the film we wanted to make, and inspired by the endeavour, and persistence, of the American mumblecore ‘movement’ we put our heads down, were fortunate enough to find some champions, and got it made.  

Other, notable, new filmmakers in the UK have done the same, Eran Creevy on Shifty, Nick Whitfield on Skeletons, Ben Wheatley on Down Terrace, and Joanna Hogg, on Unrelated and Archipelago. All but one of those being made outside of the 'schemes' I mentioned. Which raises a second challenge for more traditional financiers. With so many exciting talent being born from the microbudget scene how can they engage, and help foster these creative spirits. A challenge I often consider in my new role is the importance for us to support ideas through development, without simultaneously homogonising. Can the freedom of spirit, and individuality of the film makers I mentioned above surface through a more structured creative process, with more voices, and more at stake? I believe that it can. At Edinburgh international Film Festival this year there was an abundance of micro budget films on display, with both iFeatures and Microwave premiering strong films to excellent reviews, Flying Bling and Borrowed Time respectively. The talent is out there. Hopefully through initiatives like iFeatures the traditonal financiers are finding a way to engage with this new landscape. Hopefully in my role there I can embrace microbudget filmmaking for what it is; collaborative, innovative, and entrepreneurial. A diverse industry, telling diverse stories is something to strive for, and if risks can’t be taken at this level, when can they?

We can all look at the world through the prism of the past, and lament the lack of opportunities for first and second time directors, to make 'real films' on 'real budgets' or we can embrace the world we're now in and appreciate the creative license that lower budgets give us as filmmakers, and the lesser risks it entails for financiers. 

We can be realistic. We can make films. We can learn our crafts. We can see these as the first steps, of the long careers, that we hope they are. 

Gareth Edwards' MONSTERS Is A Microbudget How To Model

I recently had the great pleasure of watching MONSTERS.  I enjoyed the movie on many levels, including that it is just good fun.  But what I really loved was how well micro-budget production techniques enabled good story telling.  In my raving about this, Jonathan Stromberg responded and pointed me to his far better articulated post on the same subject.  What follows is his first two paragraphs in CineSpect , but check out the whole post here.

The following review is partially adapted from a workshop I gave to film students at the State University of New York at Purchase College on 6 October 2010.

“Monsters”, the debut feature of writer/director Gareth Edwards, is, from the point of view of a spectator, an imperfect film. It is, however, from the point of view of a filmmaker, one of the most exciting releases I’ve seen this year. Edwards’s production reads like a map for young filmmakers, marking pitfalls with his struggles and showing a way forward with his successes. “Monsters” is one of the clearest case studies yet for the challenges—and advantages—of micro-budget filmmaking.

The ostensible auteur Edwards approached his first feature from his background in visual effects and documentary television. In some ways, this spelled destiny for the production style of “Monsters.” The narrative is basically theatrical, but the shooting style is strongly influenced by the production necessities of non-fiction television. For example, the film has no script per se. Edwards shot using scene outlines and necessary plot points but allowed his cast, Whitney Able and Scoot McNairy, to improvise freely within the scene. The apparent production doctrine was for Edwards, also the cinematographer, to shoot the scene multiple times from different angles to get broad coverage of every beat. The film in this way develops a signature somewhat different from more traditional narrative constructions. Edwards foregoes the “establishing wide then punch in for medium shots and close ups” archetype for something that ends up more like a multi-camera shoot. The angles in any particular scene are more varied, but also less predictable. In documentary television we—I work in non-fiction television as well—often shoot this way. In this way, a decision regarding the mode of production has significant impact on the film’s aesthetic, for better or worse, in a way that contrasts it to traditional productions.

The Good Machine No-Budget Commandments

Back in the day, before I had This is that, I had a production company called Good Machine. James Schamus and I founded it together, and we later partnered with David Linde. Mary Jane Skalski and Anthony Bregman were also partners, and we had the good fortune to work with a host of other talents including my later partners Anne Carey and Diana Victor, and Ross Katz, Glen Basner, Heta Paarte, Lamia Guelatti, Melinka Thompson-Gody, Jean Castelli, Kelly Miller, Dan Beers, Eric Papa, Jawal Nga, and many other later-legends to be. As good as the films we made, as great as the individuals we got to collaborate with, we also had a genuine fondness for memos and how-to's. If you come to my office these days, it looks like a FEMA site; we are going paperless, and I am sorting through the files, finding many choice nuggets. My madeleines.

One day, way back when, I went into to speak to a NYU grad class and I felt I would feel more substantive if I had something to hand out (btw I believe The Savages director, Tamara Jenkins was in that class). That was the start of the Good Machine No-Budget Commandments. James and I revised them here and there, and I am pretty sure, that Mary Jane and Anthony tossed more than a suggestion or two.

My surprise in reading them today is that no where do they say "The budget is the aesthetic."  That had seemed like the mantra at times.  We get pretty close with #4, but not as dogmatic.

They hold up today. I still subscribe to the full set of notions.  Here they are, for your critique and comment, in their dusty glory.

1. Write to direct. A screenplay, especially a no-budget screenplay is a very loose blueprint for a film – ultimately every choice you make will compromise something else.

2. Write for what you know and for what you can obtain. This goes for actors, locations, animals, and major propping or set dressing. If your friend owns something, anything, write it into the film.

3. Remain flexible. Recognize the essential element in a scene and allow it to take place in a variety of locations or circumstances.

4. Choose an aesthetic that will capitalize on the lack of money (i.e. period anachronisms, monochromatic color schemes, etc.). Invest meaning in everyday commonplace things – make an orange a totemic object John Ford would be proud of.

5. Don’t over strive. Don’t try to show how much production value you have (you don’t have it, so you’ll either fail or unbalance your film). A film that people say is “well produced” usually means that the story didn’t have much going for it. Keep the story aligned with the budget.

6. Don’t limit yourself to too few locations – it’s a dead give away of lack of dollars. I like the number eight.

7. Use everything more than once. You’ve already paid for it, so use it, use it, use it.

8. Write for a very limited audience – your closest friends. Do not try to please anyone – crowd pleasing costs.

9. Write to cut it back later. You can trim to subtlety.

10. Contradict the above commandment and only write what you know you absolutely must shoot.

11. Keep it simple. You can learn how to do the impossible on your next film. No dogs. No babies. “Business” is expensive. Keep it controllable.

12. Keep it intimate. Dialogue and close ups are cheap.

13. Make the most of a day’s work. It’s easier to get a commitment for one day than it is for a week. Exploit people’s willingness to give a day.

14. Ignore everything listed above if it doesn’t further the story.