In my limited experience independent short films and features tend to either be made for practically nothing (under £1000 for a short, under £10,000 for a feature) or they tend to be made for an amount that can barely be considered low budget (around £15,000 for a short, £500,000 for a feature). There doesn't seem to be anything in between. I think I'm starting to learn why.
Firstly, to help illustrate my point here's a random university story. At one stage I was briefly affiliated with the university Cult Film Society (although I can't remember what I actually did other than once lending them a copy of City Hunter). I don't want to sound like an old man talking about when all this were fields, but this was in the late nineties and a Cult Film Society was kind of a necessity if you wanted to see the more obscure genre or exploitation films. Films were harder to get hold of, some of them were even banned at that point - I saw A Clockwork Orange at one of their screenings, and to be honest didn't like it that much, but it was still the only way I could see it. I also saw Suspiria for the first time which is still one of my favourite ever horror films, and there were screenings of films I may not have seen otherwise like Welcome to the Dollhouse and Love and a .45.
Anyway, every week we'd use the meagre funds gathered from the £3 membership fees to hire a room and a projector and show some films . Sometimes, for extra special occasions, we'd splash out and print fliers This worked fine, until the tech guy we hired the projectors from pointed out that we were showing the films illegally - that the message at the front of the film prohibiting public screenings applied to us as well as prisons and oil rigs. That to do this legally someone needed paying.
We took this in good spirits. A Halloween screening was arranged in conjunction with another film society so the costs could be shared. It was cripplingly expensive.
Essentially it meant that without charging for entry (and given that our attendance was between 5 and 10 people per screening we would've had to charge a LOT) the Cult Film Society could only really show one film a year. I'm not disputing the legalities here, but the intention of the society was to watch obscure films that were not readily available with a group of like-minded individuals. It was not designed to make a profit and for the most part the films being screened weren't readily available anyway. But on paper it should not have existed. On paper, we probably should've been fined an awful lot of money.
Recently I was reminded of this situation in relation to my short film. Our budget is around £500. That's for everything, and as it's our own money it's not like we can push it up when required - I don't even know if we can afford that much. And remember - this is a short film, there's no profit here.
Anyway, one of the locations I'm thinking of filming in requires us to get permission to film there. No problem, I'd rather do everything legitimately and am happy to get permission first. Except permission costs money, an undisclosed sum of money. Okay, so say we apply for permission and see how much it is. Bit of a risk - feels like when you need to get a day off work but there's a possibility you won't be able to take it as holiday and if you ask anyway and don't get it you can't then pull a sickie cos they now know you want that day off. Not that I'd ever do that.
So say we ask for permission, they say it's £500, we say we're not paying - we can hardly then try and film there anyway.
But there's another problem - in order to apply for permission you need insurance. I don't have insurance. I understand why you would need insurance. I also understand that it would cost most of our budget. Plus say we get insurance, that opens up a whole can of worms in terms of other aspects. We'd need to set up a company for one, and then we're employers and we need contracts and we need to pay minimum wage and suddenly our £500 budget is closer to £10,000. I know people who've spent that on short films, but I don't have £10,000. If I did I doubt I could justify spending it on a short film that is not going to generate any profit. So then you're into looking for funding, and if you're going to that much effort you may as well look into developing a feature instead for all the time and hard work it's going to take to get the money.
I do get it. I understand it's an industry in which peoples' time and good will can be very easily exploited without reward. But as someone who has been exploited many times with no reward I know that people make their own decisions and take their own risks. And it's also an industry which is oversubscribed and I can't help but think certain organisations are profiting from that, but that's another argument for another day.
My point and the thing that concerns me is this - on paper, no-budget film-making should not and cannot exist. On paper the short films I see at events and festivals would never have been made if the filmmakers had paid for everything they were supposed to pay for. It means film making becomes a pursuit of the rich and privileged elite. It makes it the only art form that isn't open to everyone, which goes against the whole reason that art exists. Art should obviously be open to everyone to enjoy, but at the same time it should also be open to everyone who wants to make art.
Obviously short films do exist, but only because people bend or ignore the rules and duck the authorities that want them to pay for certain priveleges. The moment you decide to do things legitimately, to pay the costs that in reality are put there for large-scale commercial productions, it becomes a much more costly undertaking.
Of course I may be over-reacting - we're still looking into the cost of these things and I'll let you know if I'm pleasantly surprised. And it may be that a different analogy could be applied to me - that perhaps I need to learn some lessons from feature film production and accept that I just need to make a more affordable short film; that I'm aiming too high. If you can't afford something, you don't do it. Simple as that. But I'm not ready to accept that just yet.
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