From the Archives: How To Make a Movie for $10,000 (1978)

You could be the next Sylvester Stallone.
Movie
Courtesy High Times

by Amos Poe

If we have learned anything from New Wave (punk) rock, it’s an aesthetic for the new form: the minimal sound and the maximum idea that what is fresh and unpretentious is somehow more truthful and—maybe—more honest. What’s the use of Elton John speaking of pain (unless of a hair transplant) or Peter Frampton talking of sorrow, when we all know that these two men can buy their way out of five or six infernos and can jet from here to eternity and never miss a gig? Not that rich boys don’t experience pain or that a fat wallet is any antidote for sorrow, it’s just that a million dollars will buy the kind of escape that most of us can’t afford. What many of us can afford, however, is to make movies. Sounds crazy? Well, I’m 27 years old, and in the last seven years I’ve finished 32 Super-8 films and seven 16 mm films (this is not a Guinness world record). These films, especially the early ones, can be categorized as home movies, portraits, structural films, diaries, “presence” films and epics. Lately I’ve taken to the full-length (90 minutes), fictional narrative format, and I’ve written, produced and directed Unmade Beds and The Foreigner in the last year and a half. These two films were produced for under $10,000 each.

In 1975, Ivan Krai, guitarist with the Patti Smith Group, and I were filming our favorite groups and bands. We used an old Bolex camera, which we acquired second hand, and a newer slightly dented Beaulieau. Both cameras could be held with one hand or placed on a tripod, so that we could hold a movie light simultaneously. After a couple of months of this, we edited the film and named it after a Richard Hell song, The Blank Generation.

To date, The Blank Generation has been shown in Japan, England, France and Canada, and it is the only filmed record of the early performances of The Heartbreakers, Ramones, Tuff Darts, Patti Smith, Harry Toledo, Television, Talking Heads, Wayne County and the Back Street Boys.

There are many recipes for making a movie, and though the amounts of each ingredient may vary, this is the basic list of needs for the 90-minute $10,000 movie. It is up to the filmmaker to add spice and imagination:

10,000 ft. of black-and-white 16 mm film (also known as raw stock)

1 motion-picture camera

1 tape recorder. Nagra is preferred

2 to 5 movie lights

1 cameraperson

1 sound technician

1 lighting technician

1 story

2 to 8 actors

1 director

1 editor

1 film laboratory for processing film and making prints

1 editing table

After taking great care in preparing the story, either as a script or as storyboard, choose two to eight actors, or as many as are needed in the story. It is important to remember that the simpler the story is, the easier it will be to execute, therefore it is my suggestion to remember Julia Child’s great remark: “When it comes to cooking, less is more.”

Next, combine the camera with the cameraperson (also known as cinematographer). This person should know how to load the camera and how to read an exposure from a light meter; if this person can do more, fine. Combine a sound technician with the tape recorder. This person should be able to get a sound reading. The lighting technician should know how to change bulbs. These three people should practice with the equipment at their disposal prior to the first day of actual shooting and should have a good rapport with the director, who must instruct them in executing his or her vision of the script on film.

As for the actors, a director should rehearse them several times with the script right up to the time of actual shooting and right before each shot is begun. It’s important to remember that in directing a film, 75 percent of the film is created in the casting of characters. The closer the player is to the role, the more honest the portrayal; the vanity of the screenwriter excluded, no character exists on paper, however believably it might read. The character is in the player alone… and in the overall dream of the project.

All your film should be kept at room temperature; make sure raw stock is never too hot or too cold. Both these conditions will prevent the film from exposing properly. Before you begin shooting, open a deferred-payment account in a film lab by depositing $2,000 with the credit manager of the lab. You are now ready to begin filming.

Equipment for the $10,000 Movie

Except for lights and accessories, the equipment and prices listed below reflect the basic hardware and per diem cost for making a professional-quality, 16-millimeter sound movie. These prices are taken as an average from several New York rental houses. As in any rental situation, prices decline as equipment is used for longer periods of time. For example, a 6-plate Steenbeck that rents for $30 per diem will rent for $400 per month—the time it takes to edit a feature-length motion picture.

Most importantly, it is imperative to get equipment for free, and the less spent on rentals the closer to budget a filmmaker gets. Equipment should only be rented in emergencies. Free equipment can usually be obtained from universities and colleges with filmmaking courses or from media equipment resource centers. The equipment for my films was obtained from the Media Equipment Resources Center at 4 Rivington Street in New York. For a nominal deposit almost anyone can get free equipment and create his or her movie for under $10,000.

16 Millimeter Sync Sound System

Camera:

1. Arriflex BL with crystal control, Zeiss 10-100 millimeter lens, 2 magazines, 2 power packs, changing bag, sync cables, slate, body brace and Spectra light meter

2. Auricon 72-A, either Frezzolini adapted or cable sync, Angenieux 12-120 lens, 2 400-foot magazines and light meter (optional; backup)

Audio:

1. Nagra 4.2 tape recorder, ATN, Beyer headset ($60)

2. Shure M-67 mixer: 1 line input, 3 microphone inputs ($15)

3. Sennheiser 805 shotgun condenser microphone ($17)

4. Sony ECM 50 lavalier condenser microphone ($10)

5. Sony ECM 16 lavalier condenser microphone ($10)

6. Sennheiser 415 hypercardioid condenser microphone; optional ($15)

7. Floor stand, table stand, fishpole boom with cue head ($10)

Lights:

1. Lowel 1,000-watt Soft light ($12)

2. 2 250-watt Shuguns with two rechargers ($15)

3. 2 650-watt or 1,000-watt Colortrans with barndoors ($20)

4. Lowel 1,000-watt Quartz D with snoot or scrim; optional ($15)

Accessories:

1. Tripod with fluid head and NCE wheels ($15)

2. Hi Hat and Baby Legs ($8)

Editing:

1. Steenbeck or Moviola 6-plate table ($30)

2. Guillotine or Reeves splicer ($5)

Making a movie for under $10,000 requires a certain number of abilities that are a combination of ambition, fear, intelligence, style and obsessive perversities that may border on the realm of genius. A person has to wear the hat of a producer, the eye-patch of a director and the thick glasses of a writer. And remember that working within a limited amount of capital requires inventiveness, precise bookkeeping and generous amounts of good luck.

Since film stock prices are controlled by the monopolistic Kodak Corporation, black-and-white film is de rigueur. A 90-minute film is approximately 3,600 feet long, which means that the shooting ratio (i.e., film shot versus movie length) must be no greater than three to one. This is no problem for a tightly scripted and carefully planned production. There are many scenes that can be done on the first take. Others may require three takes. Using a scene containing a montage of stills is also beneficial. The conservation of raw stock and the importance of not overshooting a scene are primary ingredients in keeping a production under budget.

The producer-director must acquire the services of all personnel and the use of all equipment at the lowest possible cost, which means as close to nothing as possible. Don’t rent equipment from camera rental houses; it’s best to borrow equipment from friends or from institutions that regularly loan it out. For example, for Unmade Beds I was able to borrow all my equipment from the Young Filmmakers Foundation, which is a New York-based equipment resources center. The cameraperson and sound technician both had cars that we used for transportation. I only paid for gas and oil.

Another rule to follow is to never pay for locations. Use existing locales, friends’ apartments, local stores, a relative’s factory. If possible, get a film permit (contact your local mayor’s office or City Hall). This piece of paper is invaluable in that it notifies police that you are authorized to shoot in the streets and minimizes hassle. In shooting my last film, The Foreigner, the police even helped clear the area for the final scene. This was invaluable assistance, especially since gun play was involved and we were shooting in a crowded park.

Then there’s the matter of salaries. Actors and crew, no matter how dedicated, must get paid. Pay rates for everyone involved are done by “points.” A “point” is a percentage point (.01) of the film’s eventual profit. The producer promises to pay each person involved in the production of the film, when and if the film makes money; this future commitment could mean a great deal of money. For example, if the cameraperson is promised two “points,” and the film’s profit after one year is $4,000, he or she would receive a check for $160. If after five years the film has earned $40,000, he or she receives $1,600—all this for two weeks work. A contract for a film is easy to draw up. A lawyer can help but is not necessary.

Bookkeeping is a tedious and time-consuming proposition, but it is also an important factor in both keeping a film within budget and in measuring the eventual profit of your movie. Other than lab costs, the costliest single item in making a film is feeding the cast and crew.

When the film has been developed, edit the work print. Edit the sound and effects. Cut the negative, A&B roll. Have the lab make you an “answer” print; when you’re satisfied with the “answer” print, get the lab to make you two or three release prints. You’ll now owe them several thousand dollars, but that’s okay because you have credit. You’ve stretched $2,000 to $4,000, another example of the magic of cinema.

What follows is a list of the final touches:

1. Use the stills (which you presumably shot while directing) to make a poster for the film. It’s a good idea to look at some of your favorite movie posters for an idea.

2. Write a press release and send it to as many newspapers, magazines and friends as you can find.

3. Promote a “world premiere” for the film at a local theater and begin the process of finding a distributor. A book on How to Distribute Your Film by Yourself has just been published by the AIVF, 99 Prince Street, New York, New York. It’s a good primer and worth the $3 cost.

4. Enter the film in a few film festivals.

Film festivals are a good way to plunge into the two most difficult jobs for any filmmaker: trying to distribute the film, and trying to locate and reach the film’s audience. Distributing is a matter of sending out flyers, brochures and writing letters to various film groups who might be interested—a big pain in the ass, considering that many film distributors cheat producers almost as a matter of policy.

I wanted to send Unmade Beds to the 1977 Cannes Film Festival, the biggest and busiest in the world, but it was rejected by the selection committee. However, the film was welcomed at the 1977 Deauville Film Festival, which is more receptive to films made in the USA, and filmmakers looking for the exposure should contact the French Film Office, 745 Fifth Avenue, New York, New York 10022.

Read the full issue here.

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