I think the term "low budget movie" has become irrelevant. In Hollywood, this used to mean a $2-5 million filmed theatrical release with a couple of name actors working for scale. In the direct-to-video market this would be $150,000-$1.5 million film production with some B-list actors and no theatrical run. If shot on video, the total cost could plummet to $50,000 (or less) with distribution in brick-and-mortar stores and rental outlets.
A "microbudget" (the budget for the rest of us) would logically fall beneath any of these, but would rise above "no-budget" which would eschew everything resembling a production value because there are literally zero resources available. Let me just say that I am proud to fall into this category. You can do a lot with a little bit of money if you embrace the limits imposed on you, and use your creativity to find a way to solve problems. But how much are we talking here?
The term "micro" literally means "extremely or very small", but you have to have some money to make a movie. Even if you don't pay your people, you should at the very least feed them (if you don't they won't hang around long), and provide them with a DVD when finished. This is why you see "copy and meals provided" in casting notices. While the thrill of working on a movie may be the best incentive, this is a reassurance that you're not completely taking advantage of those involved.
So how much do we need? There is obviously no set amount, but because I like round numbers, I'm going to say that a microbudget feature will run you between $1,000-10,000. Here are some examples:
The Last Broadcast (1998) $900
Filmmakers Lance Weiler and Stefan Avalos predated The Blair Witch Project with their creepy camcorder mockumentary about a killer in the woods of New Jersey. The movie was the first to be streamed digitally into theaters and just recently had a re-release on DVD. Both Weiler and Avalos have gone on to bigger (low) budgets with their films Head Trauma and The Ghosts of Edendale, respectively.
El Mariachi (1992) $7,000
This is probably the most famous example of the most bang-for-your-buck, but I almost don't like to use it. It's true that Robert Rodriguez did shoot his action movie on 16mm for this paltry sum, but after it was acquired by Columbia for theatrical release, another million was poured in to revamp the soundtrack. Still, Rodriguez cut his teeth on video which led to his miserly techniques that everyone can learn from. His book "Rebel Without a Crew" is required reading (I've even read it) for the microbudgeter.
Sex Machine (1995) $8,000
Christopher Sharpe's "artsploitation" action/horror movie shot on DV is another good example of what can be done with under ten grand. With most of the budget going to makeup effects (and food, I'm sure), he also built sets, shot in moving cars, and had dolly shots up the wazoo. I haven't seen it yet (how about a screener, Chris?), but it garnered enough press to get Bill Cunningham's attention, followed by a DVD distribution deal with Anthem Pictures.
To pull this off, you're going to have to have some resources already in place. I spent $800 on my short Middle of Nowhere (equipment rental for a night shoot in the woods), but can't employ the same mentality when I do a feature. Instead of renting a dolly every time I need one, I'll have to borrow or make one. Working at a TV station hooks me up with all kinds of folks with all kinds of gear. Most will trust me, dropping equipment costs to almost nothing.
I really like the idea of the $1000 budget, propelled by the guys over at the movie blog $1000 Film. This is the ultimate in conservation and is a budget that anyone could save for, eliminating investor interference and total creative control. Even if you do have to borrow, asking ten people for $100 isn't that hard. Some will argue that $10,000 is too high to be called "micro", but if you consider that mainstream Hollywood stuff can cost $200 million, 10k is "extremely or very small" in comparison.
What do you think? What does "microbudget" mean to you?