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Why DIY?

August 22, 2011 | By | 4 Comments

Part of “Best of Chicago DIY Film Magazine,” originally posted January 13, 2011.

By Marie Ullrich

As a filmmaker with a short making the festival rounds (Faster!) and a feature film in the works, the question of whether to shoot on a microbudget (starting with crowd funding sources such as Kickstarter or Indiegogo and private investors) or whether to look for a heftier budget via more traditional avenues is currently on my mind. I don’t pretend to know all (any?) of the answers, and I’m more or less thinking out loud here. I may be oversimplifying. But I hope this will start a conversation – please join me by posting your own thoughts on the subject below.

For the sake of argument, let’s say that a microbudget feature is anything under $200,000 (the SAG Ultra-Low Budget limit), and a low-budget indie as anything between that and $5 million, a respectable, but still solidly indie, figure.

With digital media so ubiquitous, the means to make films have never been more accessible. Independent film is nothing new, but now it seems like anyone can make a microbudget feature. But should you? Or should you hold out for that “real” budget and the benefits that can bring to your feature. What are those benefits?

Why not just go for the brass ring – the big budget? Well, if you have outside producers, you’ll have to make concessions to them in terms of your story, the talent attached to the project, and more. And even finding those producers to begin with is no easy task. How many Chicago producers are there who are willing or able to put up or put together feature film funding? Are you going to travel to LA or New York to pitch your film? And once you’ve pitched your project around, well…if you’ve got a solid and original concept, there’s no telling what will happen. It certainly doesn’t pay to be paranoid, and yet it’s no coincidence that movies with the same essential elements seem to be released in clusters by different studios. (See Saving Private Ryan v. The Thin Red Line, Antz v. A Bug’s Life, Dante’s Peak v. Inferno, etc.) People talk.

A larger budget has obvious advantages just in terms of production. The resulting film will hopefully be more polished. It can give you access to talent that might otherwise be harder, if not impossible, to attract; though you may be able to attract name talent to your feature on the basis of a great script, they’ll probably want to be treated “in the manner to which they’ve become accustomed,” and you’ll probably want to oblige. By virtue of being able to pay your crew more, you’ll also be able to ask for, and receive, more of a commitment from them. I personally have had wonderful experiences working with all-volunteer crew – but then to date I’ve only made shorts, and the time commitments were relatively short. Continuity in your team is highly desirable; you work more efficiently and better the more time you spend together. Another virtue of being able to pay crew is that it’s harder and more time-consuming to find volunteer crew. Should illness or some other emergency arise, you’ll suffer less disruption by being able to fill in as needed on a moment’s notice by being able to offer freelancers a (respectable) rate.

What does DIY have to offer, by contrast? Presumably you, the filmmaker, will have much more control over your story. Finding a larger budget will take longer, so going DIY means you’ll be able to jump into production sooner. How much sooner? I’m making educated guesses here, but it seems like finding more substantial funding could take years – 3 years? 7 years? – if it ever happens at all. So even if you take a year or two to put together your microbudget, you’ll still be on set sooner. So the real appeal of DIY is DIN – Do It Now. It’s much more satisfying artistically to be actually, currently making something than it is to be talking about it. Then, let’s say you make a great first feature – hopefully finding a bigger budget will be easier next time, with one feature already under your belt, although to hear Darren Aronofsky and Lisa Cholodenko tell it, both award-winning filmmakers with new features out this year, funding a film is hard even with a solid track record of recent success.

There are downsides to DIY, obviously. Budget restraints may mean you don’t have access to equipment, locations, talent, crew, music, etc., that you’d really like. You’ll need to adapt your story to fit your assets. Is this acceptable? Or will you be shortchanging your film? Will there be money left for marketing? Film festival entry fees are nothing to sneeze at, and they’re only a small piece of the marketing puzzle.

Filmmaker, Know Thyself. It’s all going to come down to what’s appropriate to you and your story.

Is your script really strong / new / exciting enough to get outside funding, or is it too arty / slow / risky for others to feel that it’s marketable? This might actually make the decision for you.

Does a DIY aesthetic suit or even enhance your story, or will you feel like you’ve sold yourself and your film short? What about all the other people involved, from the investors to the crew to the talent? My personal feeling is that you owe it to all of these people to make a good film, especially if you can’t pay them or pay them adequately for their efforts.

What are your goals? Is theatrical distribution your holy grail? If so, then you may need to hold out for a bigger budget. Are you just aiming for film festival screenings? Then DIY might be A-OK.

What about distribution? If you’re using music in your film, you can’t ignore licensing fees. Is this in your microbudget?

It’s important to know what you’re hoping to accomplish, and to be realistic about you and your film’s strengths and weaknesses.

I find this both a very exciting and a very frustrating time to be a filmmaker. Studios are taking fewer and fewer risks, and seem to have settled on a very limited palette of comic character films, remakes and adaptations, chick flicks, and horror. Explosions and zombies and other familiar tropes may be safe bets, but I got into filmmaking because my needs as a filmgoer weren’t being met – and they still aren’t, to a very large degree. So more and more, with the encouragement of fellow filmmakers and film viewers who have expressed a desire to see my feature film, DIY seems like a good place to start.

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Comments (4)

  1. Excellent article Marie. I like the DIN approach. Storytelling is challenging enough when your content embraces the standard–it is impossible (to find funding) if there is any sort of cultural spin. We are at a time in this industry where DIY+DIN=F4ST or Fund for the Short Term. You may not find the 200k to produce a piece, but you can find ‘chunks o change’. It really is where you will hone your producing chops.

  2. Asil

    It seems to me that the ingenuous approach keeps a story fresh and fierce. I’m also betting that Doing It Now keeps the fire stoked to get through the next big hurdle of post-production. DIN gets It Done.

  3. Interesting points, Marie.

    DIY film – like anything creative in the new digital era – can mean the difference between creative productivity and creative frustration. I think filmmakers who bring forward challenging, engaging and high-quality films through non-traditional avenues are doing the whole art of filmmaking a great service.

    Filmmaking as an art should be about the art, and removing the accountability to risk-averse studios and financiers puts the power back in the hands of creatives. It upsets the status quo, and this can only mean good things for the future of filmmaking. A shift to DIY has the potential to help innovate an industry that chugs along according to archaic philosophies. And the more people that choose the DIY route, the greater the resources and lower the prices the option will become.

    It’s a very good discussion to be having.

  4. Marie

    Excellent points, all.

    A question – do you think we sacrifice anything by going DIY or DIN? For example, if we have lower production value, will we find the audiences we need?

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