Wednesday, April 20, 2011

What IS Low Budget?

            Every year the Oscars seem to select one “Low Budget” movie as its flavor of the month. When Brokeback Mountain was all the rage no one would stop referring to it as a “Low Budget Movie.” Oh, wow, they made it for such a low budget. Everyone took super low salaries so they could work on it. On and on and on. Well Brokeback Mountain cost $14 million dollars to make. The Hurt Locker was ten million. Little Miss Sunshine was $8 million. Even Winter’s Bone was $2 million (which gives you an idea how independent film is trending).
Low, Ultra-Low, No are budget categories loosely based on the Screen Actor’s Guild (SAG) various contracts for independent film.
            SAG’s independent arm (SAGindie) has three levels: Low budget (for films with a total budget of under $2 million and above $650,000); Low Budget Modified (for films between $200,000 and $650,000) and Ultra-Low Budget (for films under $200,000). I have produced two Low Budget Modified films, one Ultra Low Budget film and currently have two additional ULB films in preproduction. I also produced a feature under SAG’s previous Ultra Low Budget style contract which at that point was called their “Experimental Contract.”
            I want to give a huge shout-out to SAG for creating SAGindie and these three contracts. It is a testament to both the way the world of independent film is changing and how SAG is providing the best opportunities for their members. Prior to these contracts no SAG performer could work on any project that wasn’t fully SAG, with a minimum scale of $750 a day per performer. Back then I made a short, and a SAG actor was desperate to get the lead. I would have given it to him, if SAG had allowed me. But there was no way I could pay him, and he wouldn’t work behind their backs. 
            No-Budget is not an official term by any recognized union or guild but should be taken fairly literally. A production budget of $15,000 or less is essentially No Budget, but others are making very credible films with even less than that. In this blog I will talk a lot about making films at this level. Though there are clearly disadvantages to working so low, there are also definite advantages.
            A filmmaker friend of mine recently was laughing about someone trying to raise $2 million for their film. He said, “They’re never gonna get it. I would be more confident if they said they were going to make it for $200.” I agreed. If you plan on making it for only $200, I’m not sure you can actually make the movie, but I’m sure you can at least raise the money. There has never been a time when raising money for films has been easy. Our current economy makes it nearly impossible. Instead of just waiting for the money to fall out of the sky, however, savvy filmmakers are now making films for what most people just a few years ago would have said are impossible numbers, and creating business plans and strategies that ensure their Return of Investment.
            Remember: You’re not a filmmaker if you’re not making films. You’re not a film producer if you’re not producing films. I would rather make five $50,000 films a year than one $5,000,000 film every five years.

Updated rates: In 2015 SAG raised the rates of the SAGIndie contracts to: Ultra Low Budget: $125 (for budgets from 0-250k); Low Budget Modified: $335 daily or $1,166 weekly (for budgets from 250k-700k); Low Budget $630 daily or $2,190 weekly (for budgets from 700k-2.5 mil). 

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