Micro-Budget Feature Film Survival Guide
How Producers/ Production
Companies read scripts?
Captivating the audience with
Micro-Budget Horror Films
How to write in the era of a pandemic?
The truth about distribution and sales or What happens after your films gets made
How to Submit a Copyright
How to write in the era of a pandemic?
As difficult and challenging as times are amid the coronavirus, there’s one fact we know for certain, life will go on. Offices and schools will eventually reopen, and for all of us in the entertainment industry, filmmaking will proceed. What we don’t know for sure is when, or how things will look during this “new-normal”.
As of this writing, there’s still no indication when productions will resume. Unions, government agencies and insurance companies, are still figuring out their endgame. And for the most part, the entire entertainment industry is at a standstill.
The best train of thought as a screenwriter, is to brace yourselves for the new world once production restarts. Since there’s no timetable for when a vaccine will be created, we can only expect to follow strict protocols on set for the forcible future. There is certain to be social distancing rules, limits of people on set, sterilized work environments, and the list goes on and on.
What does this actually mean for you as a screenwriter? Make no mistake, we’re not trying to guide you down the path of writing another pandemic-related script. What this means for you, is that you should adapt and change your writing style to fit the times we’re living in.
Envisioning what the state of film production will look like, will guide you as a screenwriter. At the very least, you want to stay parallel with the industry. In order to do that we encourage you to modify your writing style to what works during these trying times. And by adapting and changing with the new methods of production, you’re essentially becoming more marketable as a writer. Companies will appreciate that you thought about these aspects when you approached them. After all, if you want to sell your script, you need to know what the future of production will look like.
It’s important to point out that there’s going to be an explosion of content purchased once things start to get back to this “new normal” and you’ll want to have a piece of that. So, take what we assume will happen with productions and make your script fit. You don’t want to give a production company a reason to say no to your script, and believe me, there will also be plenty of reason for them to turn something down.
Let’s examine three key elements that you may consider in order to adapt your writing style for the “new normal”.
Remove Large Crowd Scenes
Since there will be restrictions on the number of people allowed to gather at any given place, avoid large crowd scenes in your script. For example, if your scene revolves around a couple out on a romantic date, try to avoid having them eat at a crowded restaurant. Instead, maybe they can have a long walk alone under the stars, or go on a romantic picnic in the park. You’ll most likely find more interesting ways to tell your story, without losing the essence of what the scene was intended to do in the first place.
Write a script with minimal locations. There will be protocols for cleaning and sanitizing locations, so the more of them that appear in your script, the harder it will be to produce. As a general rule, if a location can support at least one full day of filming (about 4 or 5 collective pages), then it will make it easier to justify. If, however, you have a lot of locations that appear for only a tiny amount of time, sprinkled throughout your script, it will make it harder to produce. Production companies will be looking out for the health and safety of the cast and crew, so making multiple company moves in a day will be harder to sanitize. You should adjust your script accordingly.
Minimize Day Players
Many Production Companies have discussed quarantining the entire cast and crew for two weeks prior to filming. As you can imagine that would be a very costly venture. Similar to reducing crowd scenes, you should look at all the speaking roles in your script and figure out who is non-essential, or which roles can be combined into one. I can assure you that most productions will not want to cover the cost of salary and logging during a 2-week quarantine for a bit role. So, element and reduce down to what’s necessary to tell your story. Many times, you may find this as a great way to get your script as tight as it can be.
In the long run, if you make a few adjustments to your script, and think about the future of production, your chance of getting produced will increase. Until there is a vaccine, expect the unexpected. Stay safe and healthy. Happy writing!
How Producers/ Production
Companies read scripts?
Congratulations, you completed a screenplay! Whether it’s your hundredth, or your first, it’s an incredible achievement. There’s no denying that It took tons of hard work, lots of dedication and painfully restless nights.
You finished your billionth re-write, meticulously dotted every I and crossed every T, and made sure all the formatting was up to every industry standard you could possibly think of.
Now, the hardest part is still ahead. (Yes, it gets harder, if you can imagine that.) Now comes the tedious part of what you’re going to do with your marvelous script. While the printed pages might make a sturdy mousepad or a hefty coaster, you know you want more than that from this masterpiece. You want this unique one-of-a-kind story out into the world for everyone to experience.
So, a brilliant idea pops into your head…. you decide you should send it off to a Producer or Production Company. After all, they’re the ones making films and television, and they’ll be sure to want yours. Sounds easy enough, right?
While it’s true that there are endless amounts of companies you can send your script to, getting them to look at it is another task altogether. After all, there are way more screenplays floating in the universe then people who can make your dream a reality.
But let’s say you get your script in the door, what do you do next? Well, the answer to that question has more to do with how Producers are reading scripts in the first place.
Your goal as a screenwriter is to craft scripts that are page turners. So well-crafted and designed, that the Producer has no other choice but continue to turn each page until that final bittersweet FADE OUT.
That task is extremely hard to do, but it is possible. Most producers are juggling hundreds of things at once, so when they finally have time to sit down and read your script, make sure it’s in the best shape possible, that It’s been workshopped and examined thoroughly by trusted industry professionals.
Before you send your final polished draft off to the biggest studios in town, we suggest you review what we believe are some of the key elements that Producers and Production Company are looking for when reading scripts. Because unless you are a big-name screenwriter, you have to write better than your peers to get noticed. Many of those peers have years and years of writing experience and long IMDB pages.
You need to make your script a fast, crisp, easy read where the words float off the page like clouds. That means you need to follow some rules to start. (I know, rules suck!)
Write a Kick Ass opening
Make sure your first 10 pages grab our attention. It needs to be amazing from the first page, if you want a producer to continue reading. (For example, put your character in an active, tense situation to start, rather than a large expotionary scene or a situation that doesn’t offer much excitement.)
Write great Action lines
Many beginning writers think they need to be overly descriptive. But that won’t attract producers who have short attention spans and limited time. Learn to write action lines that are no longer than 3 lines. Short sentences. It should flutter off the page like a poem. Crisp, smooth, clean. Make your verbs expressive and active, keep them in the present tense. Write them as visually as possible. A good example is to look at the first few pages of Saving Private Ryan. It’s magical!
Brief is better
As a General rule of thumb, less words is more when it comes to a screenplay. If you’re shooting your own project on a credit card, it's less important, but if you’re looking to impress a producer, it needs to be at a level to rise above the slush pile. Craft matters the most, so keep it brief. As a good general rule, keep it at half the empty space and half the ink on the page. Break-up long monologues with action lines. The bigger the blocks of text the harder it is to read, so best to avoid that.
Write how people would actually talk. Too often scripts die with wooden or on the nose dialogue. Make your dialogue zing off the page. Be clever and give the characters a unique voice. The story can unravel over time with visuals and doesn’t need to have long expository dialogue. One common example is when the villain reveals in one large monologue at the end of the story, all of the reasons why he or she did the evil things they did. That is not the best approach and can come across as lazy writing. Characters can keep secrets or know things about each other that the audience will eventually understand. It doesn’t have to be all spoon-feed to us, if you did your job in the rest of the script. People have secrets and so should your characters.
Think about Marketability
Most importantly, a Producer or Production company makes their entire living making movies. They need to feel they can make their money back and then some extra. While there is a place for personal art house pieces, generally speaking, production companies are looking for more mainstream projects that have wider audiences. So, while a personal piece you wrote about your cat might be interesting, it most likely won’t be enough to get a producer interested. Elevated genres for instance, usually do well. (Horror, Sci-fi, Action, Etc.)
Write A Killer Logline
This is not about the script itself, but it’s still very important. Production companies and producers will read loglines and decide quickly if it’s worth them reading the whole script. Therefore, you should put in time and energy into writing this the best you can. It should be brief (one or two sentences), explain the protagonist and what they want, and include the antagonists attempt to block the protagonist from their goal.
The Extra Mile
This is not as important as all the above, but it will help you raise your script and gain attention from Producers. If you can find someone of note, and get them excited about your script before you pitch it, that can help. That could be a famous director, actor, etc. Producers always love when someone who is well-thought of in the industry is excited about a project. They usually don’t want to miss out on that opportunity themselves.
Just remember, a Producer wants to read the next best thing. Send them your script only when it’s a well-oiled machine that can rise above the rest. Make it unique, well-crafted and special. And as they say in the Hunger Games, “may the odds be ever in your favor”. Good luck out there!
Captivating the audience with
Micro-Budget Horror Films
Fade in. Close-up of a young woman. Determined.
Standing in front of a closed, rusty metal door.
She reaches her hand -
Good stories make us forget they are not real. They take over our senses from within. Suspense, thriller and horror stories do that by connecting with our deepest desires and fears, embodied in fictional characters and worlds. Captivating a wide audience of different ages and backgrounds is not an easy task. That being said, the solution is hardly ever related to the amount of money or resources filmmakers have.
Since MiLa Media announced our open submission platform and the ambitious goal of producing 12 horror films, we received hundreds of screenplays. Our team is still hard at work sifting through the many worlds you’ve created. We’ve also received many questions about our selection process which combines both market intelligence (assessed via our network of world-wide partners) and quality measures. The latter, while subjective, is still measurable. Keeping in mind that there will be minimal resources and money, it is paramount that we crack the question of quality.
So what makes a GOOD horror film? Is it the amount of blood spilled? Is it the jump-scares? The extremity of the evil force? What separates those films which have it from those which do not?
There is no simple answer. However there are still tried and tested methods to increase the storytelling efficacy. Many screenplays submitted to us have an excellent foundation, a fascinating world and even a structure that captivates the audience. But limitations dictate micro-budget films. Single locations become repetitive. Unknown actors fail to attract audiences. Visual ‘fireworks’ are beyond reach. The list goes on and on. For a micro-budget film it is simply not enough to be good, we need to blow it out of the water.
To help writers achieve this elusive goal, we’ve decided to share some traits we identified in our most successful screenplays:
Extraordinary things happen to ordinary people
A character is relatable not because of the superficial details of his/her life (job, family, pets, house) represents the average person’s life but also because his/her desires resonate with the audience. These desires and flaws cannot be abstract or remote but must be the driving force behind the action. A mother will go to great lengths to protect her children in Bird Box, A Quiet Place and The Shining, for example.
Audiences crave transgressions
We want to do what we are not allowed to do, and the closest thing is to live it through a fictional character we identify with. Whether the story confirms the rules (by punishing the characters) or the characters (by rewarding them) is less important than bringing taboo elements to light for characters to grapple with. In Flatliners a group of medical students embark on a series of dangerously forbidden experiments, for example.
Clear and simple actionable objectives
What the character wants must be crystal clear to the audience. The character must be able to do something in order to achieve it. After all, the conflict created to prevent her from achieving it leans heavily on our understanding of the objective. Wanting to survive may be more than enough in the climactic scene where the monster attacks, but it will not carry the rest of the film. Each scene in the film should have such an objective, and for each of the main characters. A Quiet Place opens with a scene in which the family is looking for medicine for one of the children. The objective of the parents does not entirely align with that of the kids who want to play.
Psychological depth with super-objective
Actionable objectives should not be confused with a super-objective. In Every Time I Die Sam is in love with Mia and wants to be with her. This goal, however, translates into many of his actions as he pursues smaller, specific objectives (keeping Mia from leaving in a morning scene is an example for such a smaller objective). A super-objective dictates a character’s overall strategy. In The Babadook Amelia is struggling as a single mother trying to make ends meet, for example.
Even deeper, establish a need
Characters are not real people, and therefore it is not necessary to create multifaceted psychological profiles for them. They do need to trick us in believing they are real, though. To achieve that a shallower profile can be created in the form of a need that the character itself may not be aware of. A conventional outcome for a film is that the character has failed in getting what it was after, but instead revealed what it really needed all along.
A twist on the familiar
An every-day super market becomes a beacon of hope in every post apocalyptic story. This principle is especially useful for micro-budget films which must use accessible and familiar props and locations. Paranormal Activity famously used low resolution security camera footage as an integral part of the story. Pick your location and introduce a twist that can only happen there.
Lose the exposition
Do not tell the audience about the characters. Instead let the characters speak for themselves with their actions. Introduction by conflict is a concept used by many filmmakers. It allows the characters to express their objectives and what holds them back immediately, while establishing the setting and the tone. It Follows starts with a young woman running away from an unseen pursuer. Zodiac starts with a scene between two lovers who are brutally murdered.
While it may seem a lot, many filmmakers not only strive to achieve all of the above - they do so right in the beginning of the film!
It (2017) opens with a young boy running in the rain after a paper boat. The first words in the film, spoken by his brother: Be careful. One minute into the film and the paper boat falls into the drain. The boy wants his boat back. 15 seconds later he is already negotiating with a monster to get it back.
Bird Box opens with a woman telling her kids about the journey they are about to take. The words are harsh, almost as if talking with an army squad before a raid. But the tone leaves no room for mistake - it’s kids, and there are life or death stakes. The contras is stark. One minute into the film and we are starting the journey with them.
It Follows opens with a sleepy suburban street. A young woman runs out of a house. It is clear she is afraid for her life. By the one minute mark she has refused help from a neighbor and her father. Shortly after she grabs the keys and takes off in a car. We know almost nothing, other than what this character is experiencing right now.
A Quiet Place does take a moment to expose the world with an empty street and fallen street-light. However 25 seconds in, and we are with the family in the grocery story looking for medicine. A minute later the medicine is found and more details start emerging as the characters interact.
Many successful films distract the audience with conflict to deliver crucial information to the audience. That distraction has a name: suspension of disbelief. And it is the micro-budget filmmaker’s best friend. In order to distract the audience from the single location, lack of visual effects and no-name actors you need a good story, high stakes and characters the audience identifies with. We hope that these ideas will help you in the process of realizing your story!
The enemy of art is the absence of limitations, said Orson Welles. It is a truth that independent micro-budget filmmakers must embrace, and it starts with the script. Writers who keep the micro -budget challenges in mind may benefit when creating stories which are ready to materialize at this budget level. But first --
Why the micro-budget feature?
The reason to make a micro-budget feature extends well beyond the difficulties any filmmaker faces in raising money for their independent film. While it is probably more difficult than ever to get your independent film made, excellent stories are still able to surface. So why make films for a fraction of the budget when it is possible to aim higher?
As many of our readers know, raising money for an independent film means relinquishing a certain amount of creative control. This is not only because of wealthy partners who have expectations and demands. Expensive films require a well-known actor to add value to the film for distributors. Name actors or directors often bring with them a set of expectations that the producer or writer may not have considered. Selling an expensive feature is also more risky, especially in today’s saturated market. A cheap independent film will not be hindered by the same factors and may, therefore, find a quicker route to production.
What can a writer keep in mind when writing a
The first and most obvious thing: location. A single interesting location that can be used in many different ways will take a micro-budget film to the next level. Relying on an expensive location (driving on a busy freeway for example) or incorporating multiple locations may be cost prohibitive. Additionally, the elements inside a location may have a huge impact as well (finding a club or concert hall may be possible, but filling it with hundreds of people may be an issue). Visual effects created in post or practical special effects can cost prohibitive as well. The bottom line is that micro-budget filmmaking forces the writer to focus on the story and not be able to solve difficult moments with the use of narrative ‘fireworks’ as many Hollywood movies do. The writer must be aware and selective with the use of resources, possibly saving the spectacular moments to pivotal or climactic scenes.
But what about the money?
The writer should have a realistic expectation for reimbursement. The WGA minimum for a spec sale, for a film under $200k, is $12,510 as of 2018. Writers of micro-budget features are not paid their worth on the front end of the deal. The good news is that if done well, micro-budget features have a higher likelihood of returning their investment. The answer to the salary problem is the back-end, where writers can and should negotiate percentages (points) from the net profit of the picture. As we know, there is virtually no limit to how much money a very successful film can make.
The truth about distribution and sales
What happens after your films gets made
The world of independent film distribution and sales is a mystery to many filmmakers, a fact that is unfortunately being used by predatory distributors and sales agents profiting off the hard work of disadvantaged filmmakers. A deeper understanding of how it works may change the way many independent filmmakers approach their projects on the business side as early as pre-production or development.
The involvement of distributors or sales companies can happen either in the financing stage by the offering of pre-sales (the company would fund part of the movie in exchange for certain rights. They will later first recoup their initial investment before any revenue flows to the filmmakers) or later on when the film is already made. While pre-sales is coveted by many independent filmmakers, it is out of reach unless a significant actor is involved. How significant? The key word is ‘house-hold name’.
If that still requires clarification, we usually ask young filmmakers to ask their parents if they know if that actor, as well as young siblings or nephews. It’s a rough test, but it’s effective! For most small independent films, pre-sales will be out of reach.
And still, many filmmakers make their films without a-list actors or funding from distributors. Private equity, tax credits and loans are just some of the ways filmmakers are able to finance their films. So how does an independent film get distributed?
Film Festivals: a promise and a lie
We have all heard fairytales of filmmakers who attended Sundance only to be recognized by a big studio or distributor and get bought outright. Can it happen? Of course, anything can happen! Is it a valid business plan? Not if you don’t have a previous relationship with said buyer or a significant name talent attached to your film. In fact, most announcements at festivals occur after the deal is already made, well before a festival even begins. Lately, film festivals have proved to be a very bad indicator for a financial success of a film. Many films purchased at Sundance tanked at the box office, making buyers wary of trusting the reviewers of the festivals themselves. With the amount of feature films submitted to Sundance being in the tens of thousands, the curators are simply unable to give every film the same kind of attention. The bottom line is the for a small independent film, festivals are a gamble. While worth submitting to the top tier festivals, it is not worth putting all your eggs in one basket.
The irony is that even the small distributors use festivals as an indication whether a film is worth their attention. The reason is somewhere between laziness and fear of making the wrong call. The truth is that no one really knows what ‘the next big thing’ is, so relying on a-list actors and popular genres is safe. Distributors will either be selective and take films they think can be popular, or collect many films cheaply in the hopes that one will make it to the top. In both cases, the filmmaker is disadvantaged.
The buyer’s perspective
In the market, people who license films (mostly distributors but also broadcasters, streamers etc.) are called buyers. Those who sell them are the sellers. The market can be a physical event, such as the American Film Market or Marche Du Film where buyers and sellers meet to discuss deals. But now, and especially after the COVID-19 pandemic, markets are online and communication between buyers and sellers is ongoing.
Traditionally, a sales agent is retained by the producer to represent the film in the market. The advantage of a sales agent is that they have a network of existing relationships to tap into. Perhaps past successes give them an advantage or a direct link that others don’t have. Additionally, markets can be an expensive ordeal. Between the physical travel and lodging, printing of posters and pamphlets, legal expense as well as an expensive booth in the market - it can be very costly.
This is why sales agents need more than just one film to bring to the market, and their existence is dependent on the quality of the films they represent. In return, they ask for their expenses to be recouped from revenues and for a profit share, anywhere between 10-40% off the revenues of the film as well as the exclusive right to sell your film in the territories (countries) available. Deals with sales agents vary in term length, anywhere between 5-15 years, mirroring the deals they will be making with buyers. Upon making an agreement with a sales agent, minimums or ask prices are agreed upon with the producer, so ensure that the sales agent cannot sell the film below a certain threshold without the producer’s approval.
The sales agent is considered the seller, and the distributors, broadcasters and streamers are the buyers. In selling the film, the following criteria is often used:
Recognizable actors who can help sell the film.
Recognizable or experienced directors or producers.
A unique story or new approach to a popular story.
A genre that is in demand.
Proven success in a top tier film festival.
An existing following or audience.
When a buyer is interested in a film, a deal with be made between the agent and the buyer. Most of the deals with distributors allow for recoupable expenses anywhere between $10-$100k for smaller films and often more for larger films. This means that the distributor will incur expenses when pitching the film to streamers or placing the film in theaters, as well as marketing costs. This is often called P&A costs, Prints and Advertising, still referring for the need to make expensive film prints that are no longer made. A distributor will often take a fee in addition to a revenue share anywhere between 10-40% out of the revenue. For certain films, a minimum guarantee is given, which is really an advance that the distributor pays anticipating future profits. That advance is recouped by the distributor from the first cent coming in. For smaller films, it generally is used to cover the expenses made by the sales agent, and some of it will go to the producer.
Finally, when the distributor secures an exhibition of the film, either in a theater or on a streaming platform, additional fees are taken out. iTunes, for example, takes 30% of all revenue. Film theaters may take up to 50%.
The waterfall turns to drops
As you can see above, the traditional model to distribute an independent film can be disastrous for a producer and those who invested in the film. Let’s run the numbers for a $1M film:
The producer secures a deal with an investor, promising 15% return on their investment. The film is made and then a deal with a sales agent to represent the film internationally.
The agent takes $10k in fees and asks for 20% out of the revenue. They are able to secure an exclusive deal with a medium size distributor in the USA.
The distributor agrees to pay $10k as a minimum guarantee, but asks for $50k in expenses and 30% from the revenue. They are able to get the film on most streaming platforms in the USA.
The streaming platforms take different fees, on average a 70/30 split in favor of the distributor.
In the realistic example above that is based on real-life experiences, the filmmakers would need over $3M to get their investors the promised money. Anything above that would be profit. Needless to say that for an independent film to make $3M is extremely difficult, unless a significant marketing machine is employed… and those are costly. To be clear, distributors seldom participate in a significant marketing effort other than the use of their own social media outlets and defer to the filmmakers to do the leg work. A good festival can definitely help with marketing… but we are back to gambling.
What’s the way out?
The good news is that it is easier than ever to reach out directly to distributors outside the markets and ask for your film to be considered. Some offer direct submissions, others may require more effort by the filmmaker. Generally buyers prefer to work with agents since each producer represents one film, and it makes it difficult for them to work in large volumes. Still, considerable effort and persistence is needed by the filmmaker to materialize a deal. But taking out even one step in the sales agent-distributor-exhibitor chain will undoubtedly result in a better deal for the filmmaker.
Alternatively, a filmmaker can join fires with other likeminded filmmakers. In 2019, MiLa Media positioned itself as a producer’s representative in the film markets. The goal is not only to bypass sales agents, but distributors altogether! Why pay high fees when the power of numbers can be used to link directly with streaming platforms internationally? The costs for such activity are always significantly lower than any fees taken by traditional sales agents of distributors. We recommend reaching out before you even make the film and will always be happy to discuss our experience with like-minded filmmakers at no charge at all. Together we can make this industry friendlier to the independent artists.
How to Submit a Copyright
A copyright is extremely important because it protects your original work of authorship in case someone tries to steal your material. Copyrights however, do not protect general ideas or concepts. Therefore, we recommend that everything you submit to the Creative Bank should be original and have obtained a copyright from the Library of Congress.
Below are some steps you’ll need to take in order to protect your work. We’ll only be showing you the online registration, although there is a snail mail option but it’s more expensive and takes longer to process. Neither the Creative Bank nor MiLa Media is authorized to give legal advice and we always recommend that you if you have any questions, please consult an entertainment attorney.
To register online with the Library of Congress do the following:
Go to their website: www.copyright.gov
Click on “Register a Copyright”, and log into their Electronic Copyright Office (eCO) system. Then register as a new user and go through the log-in process.
Complete your application: Once you’re logged in, click on the option to “Register a Work”. The standard application applies for most projects. On the top of the screen click “Start Registration”.
Choose the Type of Material: You’ll need to choose the type of material you wish to copyright. Please note that if you’re registering a screenplay, you want to select “Work of the Performing Arts”. The Motion Picture option is for completed films that have been shot, not for scripts.
Complete the Application - Follow the steps to complete the entire online application.
Pay online: Registrations currently cost somewhere between $35-$55 and you may pay via debit or credit or by an ACH transfer payment.
Upload your Material - You can submit both “published” or “unpublished” work. Most material is “unpublished”, however if you have copies of your written material for sale or rent, then it’s considered “published”. Choose an option, then upload your material. The website will offer information on acceptable file types.
The Waiting Game - After you submit you’ll receive an email confirmation that your application was received. While it will take a few months for a copyright registration, the effective date is the date the copyright office received your completed application, your fees, and the copy of your work.
Once again, it’s highly recommended that you take the necessary precautions to protect your work, before you shop it around town. It’s not a lot of time or money to go through the process and you’ll have the peace of mind that your property is protected.