How to make movies with $4 or less

How to make movies with $4

If you’re new to making movies, don’t spend thousands

Your first film isn’t gonna be that good. It’s certainly not gonna be as good as the ones you’ll make later. If your first movie is unwatchable, welcome to the club. If your first several tries are unwatchable then umm… welcome to the club.

If you’re wise, or wise enough to take my advice, make $4 the budget of the first thing you film. Do it for fun rather than to impress, and you’ll be well on your way to having just as much fun making all the fancy films that you’ll be making down the road.

Your first film, or first few films, should be made for under $4.

If you really insist, make them for under $400. But that’s tops.

Save the thousands (or millions!) of dollars for after you’ve done a lot of work and are ready to create your professional calling card.

Take the time that you need to learn how to tell stories visually, how to work with actors, how to set up shots, and be sure to edit what you shoot because nothing will teach you more about directing than editing your own work.

My friend, a professional AD, worked on a $3Mil film that looks like a bad student film.

The guy who directed it had his own money to spend, but he hadn’t put the time in to develop his chops. No amount of money will cover up lack of skill and experience.

Don’t be that guy. Develop your skills having a blast with your friends as you make $4 movies. Lots of them!

For inspiration, I’m adding some $4-or-less movies at the bottom of this post. My hope is that you watch these and go: pff, I could do better. And then do better.

Here’s the recipe:

How to make movies with $4 or less? the kind that will lead you to your best work eventually? Here’s the recipe:

A producing partner

Don’t leave home without it. Your first step in getting a film made is getting a friend who will do it with you. This can be a friend who is interested in doing some aspect of the work that you’re less keen on: a writer, an actor, a director.

If you want to do all those things, you can still find a co-producer who will just want to co-produce. Probably best place to find it is among the people you know. Call up your cousin Linda who’s never made a movie either and have fun making thousands of mistakes together. 

You could also try finding one in a local facebook group for filmmakers. But key point is: don’t do anything else until you found that person.

If you have a partner, you won’t get stuck. You’ll keep going despite all obstacles. If you don’t have a partner, even the stupidest little thing will feel insurmountable and you’ll be throwing in the towel before you finish reading this article.

A STORY IDEA

If you’re working with a script, make it under 10 pages and and have it take place in 1 or 2 locations that you have easy access to.

That said, a script isn’t necessary. You can just write the essence of the story: “When… then… until…”. Then let your actors improvise it.

Don’t wait for the best short script ever. Don’t be brilliant. Don’t be original. Don’t be a trailblazer. Don’t be heart-wrenching. Don’t be anything spectacular. Seriously. The effort to be brilliant is the fastest road to nowhere.

Be yourself. Have fun. This is a $4 short. You’ll make more of them. The brilliance will come from practice and experience, and from you being yourself and having fun with your producing partner.

Remember that flowers grow from poop. Go make poop. Just don’t spend more than $4 on it.

ACTORS (or sock puppets!)

Call on your actor friends, or turn your friends into actors – the ones you think could pull it off. If you never made a film before, I strongly recommend starting with one that has only two actors in it.

You could put a posting in Backstage or Actors Access, one of those, but if the posting costs $60 then you’re $56 dollars over budget, so let’s not get crazy. The advantage to actor friends is that you don’t need to hold auditions (though I’m aware auditions can be a fun part of the process.)

If you don’t have actor friends and you want to be making movies, it’s time to put that task on your to-do list. Join a local acting class or directing workshop and starting getting to know these crazy people. They’re fun as hell and you want to be friends with them. They’re also likely to be keen on being your producing partner, if you write their dream roles! 🙂 I’m being serious.

A SHOOT DATE

Your $4 short is a one-day shoot. Pick a Saturday or Sunday. Decide who in your team is indispensable to you. This would be your co-producer (or lead actor, if your co-producer is both). Set a date that would work for both of you and etch it in stone. If anyone else can’t make that date, they get replaced. Stick to your date or it’ll become a moving target.

A CAMERA

These days everybody and their mother has a camera. Or use your phone camera? Why not.

LIGHTING & GRIP EQUIPMENT

Just kidding. If you’re making a $4 you won’t be using grip or lighting equipment because you don’t have the budget for the parking tickets that gear requires. Shoot during the day. Your lighting equipment is the sun!

LOCATION

You don’t have to shoot in just one location on a $4 budget. You can film in your mom’s apartment, the park, the deli, whatever. Since your crew is teeny-tiny, you are mobile. Just don’t go crazy ok? Two or max three locations that are no more than a half hour apart from each other?

SETS, PROPS, COSTUMES

There was this movement of filmmakers called Dogme that insisted on creating films shot with available lighting only (no gear!) and where all props and sets had to be found objects already exist on location. I mean, if you’re the creative type, and obviously you are, how fun is that? If you must: then favors, barters, on-loan, whatever.

Your film should be contemporary and your actors should be grabbing stuff from their own closets, or their friends’ closets, and come to the set wearing what the character would wear cause you don’t have the budget for “holding”. (“Holding” is a space off set where actors can rest, eat, get changed, etc. If you wanna sound all profesh, use the word “holding” in a sentence when discussing locations and people will be super impressed. Also use the word “locations.”)

If you wanna get into it, tell your actors to bring a duffel bag with a few different choices so you can pick and choose, but ask them if they’re cool to change outfits in the car.

How to make movies with no money
"Clamor: A Silent Film About Making Noise" Dir Ela Thier

Sound

Ok, so sound is a can of worms but we gotta open that one. So here goes:

If you wanna up your budget from $4 to $254, then spend those $250 on a sound person with gear. It’ll take some time and doing to find someone who knows what they’re doing for that rate, but if they like you and are free that day they might hook you up. (Hello facebook groups for local filmmakers.)

When it comes to on-location sound recording, reels and such are useless because sounds get fixed up in post-production so you have no picture of what they actually recorded. Only way to choose a sound person is by recommendations, or references if you’re lucky enough to find a stranger who’s up for the job.

Two things that I’ve done on my $4 movies – and if you scroll below you’ll see an example of each:

Sound hack 1)
Use the camera mic but shoot only indoors and not from too far away.

You’ll see an example of that below. It won’t get an Oscar for sound design, but it works well enough to tell the story.

Sound hack 2)
Make a silent movie and lay in the music later.

The still above is from one of my $4 movies titled Clamor: A Silent Film About Making Noise. The story of the magic guitar and its goofy owner unfolds entirely to music.

Don’t snub films made without dialogue and entirely to music. Charlie Chaplin made hundreds of them and he’s way famous.

Confession: This $4 movie cost me $250. So yeah… That happens.  Another confession: I never finished it. So yeah… that happens too. Hence my recommendation that your first film not be made for thousands of dollars or more. I’m ok blowing $250 on a great learning experience and a movie still that I like 😉

I have an example of the “silent film” method below as well. The one below I did complete and it was made for $0. So there. I redeem myself.

Any filmmakers out there wanna chime in with sound hacks that you tried, worked, and would fit on a $4 budget? Leave your comments below to let me/us know, thanks!

CREW

You or your co-producer will operate the camera and make sure the mic on the camera is on. That’s all you need.

Ok fine, that one friend who really wants to help out can come too.

FOOD AND TRANSPORTATION

…are not in your budget. Everyone transports and feeds themselves. You all benefit by contributing just a little, and getting the experience and the film credit.

If you wanna up your budget to $24 you can include a pizza.

EDITING

It’s good practice to cut your own first several shorts. Or better yet, cut it with your producing partner. I’ve been using Premiere these days.

DISTRIBUTION

When the film is done, upload it online, post it on youtube, and share it with everyone you know.

If the film is unwatchable, have a fun laugh with your producing partner as you discuss the ate of your next shoot.

Unless you have some experience and know what you’re doing, don’t waste your money sending a $4 short to big name festivals where submissions are expensive. Remember: small, local, unpretentious. Deal? Deal.

A DEADLINE

Take ONE WEEK to make your $4 short from beginning to end.

If it’s your very very very first time making a film, I give you four weeks – MAX. Three of them should be spent editing. If you don’t finish it in four weeks then you have the wrong producing partner, or you took my advice too lightly and proceeded to do this without a partner. Ouchies!

Oh yeah: FOUR DOLLARS

…Unless, of course, you come in under budget and spend less than that. What do you need $4 dollars for? I have no idea. Maybe you need a coffee cup as a prop?

YOU’RE GOOD TO GO!

Filmmaking is like cooking or plumbing: the more you do it, the better you get at it. Remember that having fun and doing your best go hand-in-hand. There’s just nothing more fun than doing your absolute best.

You can, and should take, your work seriously, even if you’re making a $4 short. Fun stuff is serious business. Anything important ever made, was made joyfully.

Developing your techniques, as a writer, as a director learning to work with actors, and even in working with a camera, can be mastered with four-dollar films. You don’t need to lay down a fancy dolly track to see what kinds of possibilities open up as you move a camera across the set rather than keeping it stationary. The beauty of $4 shorts is that the stakes are low and you can experiment and learn, learn, learn. There is SO much to learn!

Make several $4 short films until you feel ready to turn to relatives and friends, raise $5,000, and invest in your calling card.

If you want to make movies, you don’t need to be a slave to money.

Your greatest asset, your only real asset, are the friendships you build with other people who want to make movies too.

See you at the movies! Ela

Not to brag but My $4 movies had a budget of $0

Evan goes dancing

This one is a memoir piece about my marriage. Evan might disagree with my perspective on it but hey, he’s not here to say so. The power of being a filmmaker…

The game of the name

I made this one for all immigrants and everyone in my family. This is our life at literally every single social gathering. Not that I’m complaining. Ok… maybe I’m a little bit complaining 😉

Oh, and if you’re wondering how to pronounce my name, click here for my instructional video on how to pronounce Ela Thier 🙂

Visit my store for more of my films; ones I’ve made with more than $4 (though not much more truth be told…)

Join my free membership to receive courtesy trainings for screenwriters and filmmakers.

1 thought on “How to make movies with $4 or less”

  1. Love it! I’m planning on shooting my first short in less than two weeks. Two locations, shooting it in black and white on my G7. Planning on putting it on YouTube and sharing. Thanks so much. I know I’m on the right track now. 🙂

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