How Much is a Microbudget?

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?


Cunningham said…
Actually, Scott it was the movie itself that impressed me, and not-so-much any press it had at that point.

Since I see many screeners per week (6?) from would-be filmmakers looking for my opinion (which I am glad to share)and from clients needing my expertise in marketing their movie, I tend to fast forward through most of them, stopping only at the good stuff.

Chris's movie had me from the beginning, through the titles and straight on through to the end. There were some slow moments that I thought could be tightened up (and they were), but overall I enjoyed myself. Very rare indeed.

That's why I represented the movie; why we were able to negotiate the distribution deal with Anthem; and why we received such outstanding reviews from Fangoria and the like - Chris made a good movie.

If he keeps going in this direction, with this much momentum, he'll make a great movie someday.
Scott Eggleston said…
Thanks for the clarification, Bill! That detail actually makes a good story even better. You weren't influenced by anything but the movie itself. Excellent.
Anonymous said…
I've always have been a big fan of El Mariachi and his book.

I also think it is unfair to jusge his movie as a non-micro budget movie simply because the parent company put more money into it.

I am sure there are plenty of examples of where this has happened.

Plus isn't the goal of anyone who makes a movie to be pick up for distribution by a major company? Good for Roderigez for doing so.

A micro-budget can be misleading sometimes as well. For example I own my own cameras, and editing system. Somewhere around the $15,000. If I make a movie with it, you could say my budget was somewhere over $15,000.

BUT if I rented the same equipment my cost would be cheaper, and THEREFORE "COOLER" since I made it for less money. Just a thought though.

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Gregory Conley said…
I consider 'microbudget' to be a more derogatory version of 'low budget.' When you consider that both a Hollywood filmmaker working with a $2 million budget and a woodsy Illinois guy with $5,000 will both call their films micro, the term shows itself to not have much meaning.

I tend to associate microbudget with those schlocky Brain Damage horror movies, or the boring urban BS put out by York and Maverick, that are made by people who have no idea how to pace, light, or properly record the audio for a movie. If a film is low budget and shoddily made I'll place the microbuget label on it. If a film is low budget and succeeds despite that, I won't place it into the category of other microbudget films by referring to it as such.
Scott Eggleston said…
Martin, I think that if you own your own gear, you can't factor that into your real budget. After all, you're not renting from yourself. I guess if you had a "theoretical budget" then you could add up the real-world numbers, which would also include what you'd be paying everyone if you could.

Gregory, I see you're point. Maybe we should just refer to the quality of the movie, and not what it cost to make it. After all, some films that cost very little, rival those with limitless amounts of money to spend.
Anonymous said…
In the same way you could flip the problem over. A bigger budget certainly doesn't make for a better movie.

But there is still the appeal that one could make a great movie without needing Hollywood to back it up.