The INDIE guide to making movies with no money: Part 1

“The enemy of art is the absence of limitations.”

Truer words were never spoken by filmmaking’s great auteur and innovator Orson Welles. Welles understood that, even in Hollywood, you will never have everything you need to perfectly realize your vision, so as an artist you need to adapt to achieve what is possible with the resources you do have. Citizen Kane feels boundless in scope and ambition, but undoubtedly Welles’ classic was faced with a myriad of problems and limitations, and we all know how that turned out.

But that’s a different story, isn’t it? You’re an aspiring filmmaker with no money, no equipment, no crew. Just an idea and a desire to tell stories. How can you possibly create anything of value with nothing? Well, the answer to that is simple – if you have a good enough idea, all you really need is a camera and the will to do whatever it takes. The odds are always stacked against filmmakers, even those with unlimited resources (which never really happens) so you might as well work with what you’ve got.

And fortunately, in today’s world, you have far more than you think. Even with no budget there are many free or inexpensive resources that are available to you, and this series will list but a small sample to get you on your way. Just remember – at the end of the day it’s your vision and ambition that will make the difference, and many working filmmakers have gotten to where they are today by seizing whatever few opportunities they had, and running with them because they refused to be contained.

So celebrate your limitations, and broaden your horizons with these resources for filmmakers with no money!

Educate Yourself

So of course you want to jump and get shooting, right? Well that’s good, but before you do it’s valuable to steep yourself in some film knowledge before the train starts irrevocably rolling down the tracks.

Assuming you didn’t go to film school (or even if you did) nofilmschool.com is a great place to start your supplemental education. They have articles on topics ranging from the technical specs of latest high-end camera system, to examinations of specific filmmakers’ styles, to tips on just about every aspect of filmmaking. There are a wide range of similar websites and blogs covering specific topics in more depth (for screenwriting my favourite is scriptshadow.net) but the important thing is to know what information you are lacking and then find a source, or several sources, that can enlighten you.

But while the Internet has revolutionised access to information, the best film school has been available to everyone since the dawn of cinema – cinema itself! Martin Scorsese, the consummate filmmaker’s filmmaker, starting watching and re-watching films from a young age to understand what made them tick. You can find his list of 85 films every aspiring filmmaker needs to see here. It’s a truism, but the more films you watch the better you will be able to make your own. Filmmaking is a language, and you can only gain fluency in it through exposure and practice.

Beyond watching films, it is incredibly valuable to learn directly from the people who actually make them. These filmmakers can illuminate what drove their creative decisions, and reveal aspects of the film that you never would have otherwise noticed. A great resource for this knowledge is in Director Commentaries, available on most movie DVD releases (just navigate through the DVD menu until you find an option to turn the commentary on). You get to hear directly from the filmmaker for the duration of the film, talking about moments as they happen. Interviews with filmmakers are another great resource for learning from the masters. Many publicity interviews can end up sounding canned and repetitive as filmmakers have to promote their movie, but film critic David Poland has a great series on his YouTube channel of candid interviews with filmmakers about their recent projects.

So before you dive into making your own film; watch, listen, and learn, so your work can be the best possible version of what you want it to be.

For Fund’s Sake

Budget isn’t necessary for making a great film. Granted, most films you see have significant money behind them so it feels like it’s not possible to make a great movie without millions of Rands, but every year there are a host of great films that are made with little to no funding.

But, money is something necessary, if only to acquire the bare necessities of making your project happen (acquiring a camera, for example). A great resource for fundraising that has emerged in recent years is Crowdfunding.

Crowdfunding is essentially receiving small donations from a large number of people that ultimately adds up to a significant amount of money, which is in opposition to the traditional film-funding model where a large amount of money is fronted by only a few interested parties (usually film studios). The internet has made crowdfunding possible through platforms like Kickstarter, Indiegogo, and Seed&Spark.

I will talk about each of these platforms briefly, but before I do there are a couple of misconceptions about crowdfunding that I want to dispel: First, crowdfunding money is not free money – you should offer something in return for people’s contributions. This is especially important if you are seeking donors who you do not know personally, as they will want an incentive to get involved in your film. These ‘perks’ you offer donors don’t have to be anything of monetary value – it can be as simple as a written thank you note, or a copy of the film once it is completed. You just have to offer something in return for people’s generosity.

Second, it is very unlikely that strangers will find your crowdfunding campaign on their own. There are thousands of these campaigns happening all the time, and very few contributors are actively seeking films to fund. Crowdfunding is better employed as a way to get donations from friends and family. Promoting your campaign on social media and asking others to promote the campaign for you are good ways to spread the word. If you do want to try to get your campaign to a larger audience, you will have to get creative in how you put it out there. This might mean getting in touch with local media to help publicize the campaign, or reaching out to influencers. The more people you can get to promote your campaign the better.

And third, presentation is everything. You cannot create a basic campaign and just expect the money to start pouring in. All of the platforms mentioned have the ability to share video, images, and written description of your project, so be sure to put as much effort into representing your project online as you will into actually making it. Donors want to see your passion and vision, and if you half-ass the fundraising campaign they will assume you’ll do the same with the film itself. So bring all your creativity to bear and make an unforgettable crowdfunding campaign!
Kickstarter – The original online crowdfunding platform, used by filmmakers like Zach Braff and Spike Lee. Kickstarter has the largest base of users, but comes with the caveat that if you don’t reach your fundraising goal you won’t receive any of the funds. This makes sense for a lot of projects, because if you need R5000 to rent a camera and you only make R2000 then you’d be in the awkward position of having only part of the funding you need. Donors can also be encouraged to donate more to help you reach your goal, because they know the consequences of not hitting the mark.

Indiegogo – The preferred platform for many indie filmmakers, the chief difference from Kickstarter is that you have the option to keep as much of the funding as you raise, even if you don’t reach your goal. This can be beneficial if you are raising funds for a variety of things and you can still make the film with partial funding, albeit with some compromises.

Seed&Spark – The best crowdfunding platform IMO, Seed&Spark is designed specifically for film fundraising, and has the fantastic feature where of allowing people to contribute to a specific part of the budget. For example, if you need R5000 for a camera and R1000 for a location and R2000 to feed your crew, a donor can choose which element their contribution will go towards. This makes people feel more involved in the process, rather than just contributing to some lump sum.

So try to think beyond funding, but if you need the cash there is no better way to get it in the digital age than through crowdfunding.

Coming up next time: Cameras, lighting, and keeping things stable

Sam Besser enjoys writing about arts and entertainment because he likes pretending people care about his opinions. He is a great lover of film and a casual lover of 15th-century stained glass windows. These interests rarely intersect.