Indie Filmmaking Guide: Getting Everything Free!

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This is where a transfer of power becomes necessary and learning how to is accomplish this feat is a skill essential to any burgeoning filmmaker.  And stealing the power from your budget means more power for you as the creative lead, meaning more freedom to work without the restraints of money holding you back.  So after more than twelve years in the industry of filmmaking, I will share my tips for getting everything for free.  Some you can accomplish overnight, others will take some time, while a few may take a long while to perfect, but each of them will bring you that much closer to seeing your dream become a reality.

Equipment

Obviously, you can’t shoot a film without equipment.  Your basic package includes a Camera with Mount, a microphone, sound recorder, and a light or two.  However, the bigger the film, the more of this stuff you need.  The more technical the film, the more expensive your equipment will be.  But not all things need be paid for!

Work for Trade: Probably the easiest method of obtaining equipment is by trading work for the use of that equipment.  By working and conducting yourself in a professional manner on another filmmakers project, you could find yourself with free, or extremely cheap, access to the camera, lights, and sound equipment you need.

Collateral Swapping: Another method is the product-for-product swap.  If you use a filmmakers camera, he gets to use your truck, or if you use his sound equipment, they get to use your friend’s garage, while your friend gets to use your camera.  The possibilities are endless.

Borrowing: This is tougher because it requires proven trust between filmmakers.  Trust that you will take care of the property, trust that you will have it back when needed, and trust that you can handle yourself professionally with it.  But if you’re lucky enough to have such a friend, make wise use of it.

Location

No matter where you are shooting, that place is apart of your location list.  And when you step off of your own property, things can get dicey.  So here’s a few tips to lessen or eliminate the cost to simply stand somewhere and shoot a camera.

Work for Trade: Once again, sweat equity applies.  I once gained unlimited free access to a Realtor’s lot, just for offering to clean the area of trash and debris the day before we shot.  Don’t be afraid to negotiate and never take “No” for an answer.

Ready Access:  The easiest by far, simply shoot where you are welcome, but be sure to make good use of props, lighting, and sound to your ensure production value isn’t hit too hard.

Credit Offering:  An option you’ll see several times.  I cannot tell you how much free stuff I have gained access to just by offering a credit in the film.  Credits to external businesses are like instant advertising and if a business can get that kind of exposure just for letting you tromp around a space for a few hours, almost all of them will jump on that bandwagon. 

Talent

The term is “Hungry” and every aspiring actor is possessed by this simple trait.  And it is a trait, no matter how bad it sounds, that can be utilized to your benefit.  Established stars will always come with and be defined by a price tag.  But unknowns are a dime-a-dozen (I can say this because I myself am an unknown).  The following suggestions will require good negotiating skills as actors all tend to be well-versed in the business matters of their craft.

Future Credit Deals:  All actors want to work.  I can attest being an actor myself.  One way, I’ve landed actors for free is by offering them multiple credits for their resumes.  Why offer only one credit for a role when you can divide the project up into three smaller projects and offer three credits.  Actors salivate at building up their resumes.  Don’t ever forget that.

Percentage Plan: Instead of money up front, do the George Lucas bit and offer a portion of the future of the film (otherwise known as the Gross).  Harrison Ford and Carrie Fisher did it, but Mark Hamill failed to see the opportunity.  Their careers are the proof.

Deferred Payment:  The tried and true option, you’ll be paid when the film makes money.  Deferred payment plans come in many forms.  If the film makes money, you will have contractually pay your actors (if you don’t that’s a little thing lawyers call Breach) but in the meantime they work for free! 

Music

A cornerstone of any good film will be the scoring and soundtrack.  It creates emotion, tension, relief, and suspense.  When it comes to this aspect of your film, you get what you pay for, but on occasion, with a good ear, you can save bundles with these options.  This is another one where tapping your contacts list can help immensely.

Royalty Free:  The internet will be your greatest resource here as numerous websites offer royalty free music that you can purchase for very little money, or even download for a trial for free.  The best part of purchasing the royalty libraries now, is that for every film you make in the future, you already have your music cost covered.

Product Composition:  Having the music composed yourself can also save you a bundle.  Knowing a band can also help.  Several friends from my high school went on to become professional musicians.  As long as the relationship remains positive, you can always tap their creative sides for help.

Credit Offering:  Once again, bargaining with advertising.  It’s a tried and true method as advertising is like currency in today’s economic market.  This method works best with unsigned bands and composers.  Before going this route, be sure to have your marketing and distribution strategies planned to help sell the offer. 

Props

From automatic weapons to Zen Waterfall machines, everything that appears in your film other than talent and locations is a prop and needs to be bought, rented, borrowed or acquired by some other means.  Here are some best bets when it comes to getting the right items to create your scenes.  Having a strong collection of contacts can also assist in keeping costs to a minimum or even eliminating them altogether.

Theater Houses:  Local theater houses are sometimes willing to help promote the arts in the area and assist your film with access to props and possibly costumes.  This can also be made easier with established contacts in the theater industry.

Credit Offering:  For those who donate, seeing their name up on a big screen can be all the sales strategy you need.  See how far you can get and how much you an get just by offering this very simple thing.

Thrift:  Thrift stores are a wonderful place to shop.  Goodwill, Dollar Stores, Swap Meets, and Flea Markets can be a dream come true to an indie filmmaker, where often the purchase of many cheap things could get you a more expensive thing for free.  Negotiation skills are a must. 

Food

Feeding your cast and crew can be tough as people usually are not in the business of giving away free food, especially to a bunch of scrabbling indie filmmakers.  But when you’re on set, it can be tough to get everyone fed without burning through cash to transport everyone to a place to eat and then shelling out money for food.  Follow these tips to keep stomachs full and minds creative without breaking the bank.  Once again, solid negotiating skills are a must.

Hat Stacking:  Quite simply, limit your cost by limiting the number of mouths to feed.  It’s easier to feed a Grip, Cameraman, Light Tech, Director, and Actor when they’re all the same person.

Family and Friends: Your contacts come in handy here.  Moms love to cook, Dads love to cook, and Friends love to contribute to parties.  Don’t hesitate to ask who’s available and what they can bring to feed your people.

Credit Offering:  There it is again!  I myself have fed crews and casts simply by offering a small business or small chain a credit in my film and gotten their cheapest food offerings for free.  Sure it’s not catering from Del Friscos, but then again, you didn’t cast Johnny Depp, did you? 

Travel

Now travel is a tough one and almost impossible to make “free” in any aspect, so it’s quite easier to simply limit the overall cost.  In this area of expense, it’s really all about who you know.  The more contacts you have, the more people can assist you and that always helps to trim the costs.

Carpool:  Travel expenses can be avoided completely by shooting in town where you live, but if you must shoot abroad in your state or even out of state, you’re better off just trying to offset the cost by grouping everything and everybody into a view vehicles as possible.  Make sure everyone is really comfortable with everyone else as there may be some Lap Sitting Scenarios.

Family and Friends: Of course, having your contacts assist by driving their vehicles and using their gas can help worlds in saving you money.  Feel free to use any methods of negotiating to offset their investment. 

Accommodations

So you’re going to be on location for a couple of days, away from home, and after a 15 hour day people need a place to rest (and you need a place to watch dailies).  Another near impossible one to get for free, negotiating can get your far, but the right contacts in the right places can get you the distance.  But if you have some budget for this expense, here’s a few ways to limit the overall costs.

Hey! Guess Who’s In Town?:  Surprise your friends and loved ones with a pop-in.  Little do they know, you’ve got cast and crew in tow!  While being so dramatic is not necessary, having friends in the places you’re shooting can seriously drop your cost level.

Credit Offering:  Last time I swear!  Offering a credit can get you so much.  It’s worked for me on a few of my films, especially when negotiating with privately run motels where the owners are on site.  Offering the advertising can help them out bigtime.

Off-Seasons: If you absolutely must (and you have the budget for it) you can put everyone up in a hotel, but the best time for this (and the cheapest) is to schedule your shoot around the Off-Season for the hotel.  Prices are significantly cheaper and often you can get a group rate.  Do your research before hand to save as much money in the future.

One thing to always remember: Never be afraid of your budget.  Making a film is as much a numbers game as it is a creative one so a strong business savvy is absolutely necessary to help guarantee success in the endeavor.  The more knowledge you have about the process as a whole, the more hats you can wear creatively and the more money you can save.  Taking tips from other professionals can also help.  Robert Rodriguez and Clint Eastwood are well known for composing their own scores and music, saving on costs.  Rodriguez also has been known to grip, light, run sound, set build, and even cook on his sets to save money.

The easiest way to trim is to start small and work your way up.  Over time, you’ll develop the contacts, negotiation skills, and business etiquette to really lay down the law when it comes to saving money.  Every dollar you save in Pre-Production, you can spend in Production.  Every dollar you save in Production, you can spend in Post.  And every dollar you save in Post… well you won’t have any left after Post!

Good luck on your own film and if you have some ways to save money or experiences to share on how you made an expensive situation not-so-much, share it with us! 

-Jarod