Where to Cut Costs
Screenwriting. I have no love for programs like Final Draft. Paying $500 will not make you a better screenwriter. It won’t even guarantee you’ll get the format right (trust me...I cringe at incorrectly formatted scripts, and some have come from FD). Read a few books on correct format, and then download a free Microsoft Word template from the Internet (or make your own). They’re out there. Focus on the writing . . . don’t let an over-expensive program take advantage of your dream.
Actors. There are so many spectacular actors out there that are willing to work for free that the other ones – the ones that want money – just can’t compete. I’m lucky enough to live in the New York area so I had hundreds to choose from, and I honestly believe I got the best of the best for my film. Actors, especially young ones, are starved to add credits to their headshots and take part in REAL productions. Look for them, but be sure to treat them with respect for the entire shoot. And do what I did: compensate their travel (in my case, train tickets), always keep them fed and hydrated at no cost to them, and have them sign your contract long before the shoot begins. My form stated clearly what I expected from them, and what they’d receive from me. My cast gave me 100% and for free, so if you do things the right way, you’ll get the same from your cast.
Locations. You have to plan ahead on this one, and that involves taking inventory of what locations are available to you BEFORE you start your shooting script. Homes, public places, and maybe your place of employment are good jumping off points. For whatever locations you have left, either network or ask some favors. For example, the bar we used belongs to a friend, so that was accessible. But what about the comic book store where half of our shoot took place? How’d I do that? I asked nicely, blockhead. Again, I made it clear in advance what we needed, and I was very respectful for the whole shoot. Now, I didn’t pay to use his location, but I DID pay to insure his location. The two are very different. He didn’t ask me to insure the store during the shoot, but I did it as a sign of professionalism and to cover my own ass. Sometimes you’ll have to pay a little for a location. That’s fine, but get everything in writing. You don’t want to be held hostage the morning your crew arrives because the owner suddenly wants more. Also, try to have a backup location ready to go when possible.
Soundtrack. Odds are, you already know one or two musicians or bands that would love to help you out for free. Maybe you’re a musician of some sort. That should get you started on your film’s soundtrack. The rest is not hard . . . the world is FILLED with talented, unsigned musicians looking for exposure. It took me a long time to build my film’s soundtrack because I had very specific needs, but in the end, I got what I wanted and didn’t pay a dime. In exchange, these talented musicians are getting exposure. Sometimes a band might want a lump set for a defined term of song usage (ie pay $500 for 1 year of song use). This puts a timetable on making your movie successful, so I’d personally advise against it (unless you have a direct “in” somewhere).
Government. I write this on my blog a lot, but it holds true. In terms of extremely rough estimates, I paid $24,000 to make a movie, and I got back $8,000 from the government. That’s because I incorporated my business long before the shoot and maybe every thing related to the film tax deductible. Now, I’m no mathematician, but 8-grand is a lot of money.
A very important added note on cutting corners: Be VERY wary when someone offers you a free service, even if it’s a friend. Free means they’re not tied to you, which means they can flake at any moment. And they will. I’ve had THREE motion graphic designers disappear on me before John Kilgour was good enough to whip me up a Warm Milk Productions motion graphic. Sometimes you WILL get the end product, but not in a suitable timeframe (i.e. a few weeks after you really would’ve liked to have gotten it). That’s all a case by case basis, but be wary. I did get free work from a lot of people who didn’t flake on me, and usually it was because they also had an interest in the film’s success, which is awesome. So, be careful.
Where NOT to Cut Costs
Crew. This is usually the FIRST place amateurs look to cut corners. Stupid. Unless you’re making a student film, don’t hire a student crew. In fact the only students on your set should be assistants or interns, or supervisors but unless he or she has the best demo reel you’ve ever seen, try not get a DP willing to work for free.
Food/Water. I won't lie, catering and coffee and lunches and even waters were a royal pain in the ass during my shoot. At the start I had an assistant taking care of it, then she left me high and dry and Laura and I were forced to keep on it. Which sucks, because I'm trying to direct a movie . . . and I had to leave my own shoot for a deli run one day. But still, you can't skimp on this; make coffee available, serve your cast and crew lunch, and always make sure there's water nearby. If you cut this corner, they'll all just think you an a-hole and won't work with you again.