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Monday, November 02, 2009  

Cheap Flick

This is kind of embarrassing to admit, but I entered the Project Greenlight contest years ago. Not once, not twice, but three times. As you may or may not recall, the goal was to write a screenplay that could be produced for a million dollars or less. Back then I didn't understand how such a thing was even possible. But having recently seen Paranormal Activity, I've been thinking about how big movies with a five-figure budget come about, and what I know now that I didn't know then.

Make people multitask. Professional camera operators are expensive. Professional movie actors are even more expensive. Even an amateur actor and an amateur camera operator can eat up a small production budget in a hurry. But if you can make one guy be both the leading man and the cinematographer, you've more than slashed your budget; you've disemboweled it. And it's not like you're asking anyone to do anything you wouldn't do, because if you're directing a movie like this, you're probably also the producer, editor, writer, and caterer.

Have a small, no-name cast. Paranormal Activity and its spiritual predecessor, The Blair Witch Project, each had a total cast of about four or five people. Even their characters were no names; they had to go by their real names on camera. I don't know how that saves money, but obviously it does. I may have even read somewhere that this was how they were able to afford some additional special effects in Being John Malkovich.

Don't show anything. Obviously everyone knows that crashes and explosions are expensive, and even the cheapest CGI gets spendy when Geek Squad charges by the hour. But you'd be surprised at the kind of other things that can run up the tab. Any kind of violence whatsoever, for instance. Which is why neither The Blair Witch Project nor Paranormal Activity ever let us see any actual killing. Even Kevin Smith's Clerks, which I think came in at about $17,000 despite breaking most of these other rules, abandoned the original ending in which Dante gets shot in a random hold-up. Sure, he filmed it, because I've seen it, but actually distributing it with the original release would have somehow cost an extra half-million.

Shoot in sequence. Most big productions shoot out of sequence, to make the most of the availability of actors and locations. If the movie has an aircraft carrier at the beginning and at the end, they film the beginning and the end at the same time rather than renting the U.S.S. Abraham Lincoln twice and doubling the chances of losing their security deposits. But word has it that both Blair Witch and Paranormal Activity were shot in sequence, and that couldn't have run up the tab too much. Although maybe if they'd "saved money" the way the big studios do, they would have cost six figures instead of five.

Minimal locations. Blair Witch just went out into the woods to shoot, and I'm sure the production didn't cover nearly as much ground as the characters did, if you know what I mean. Paranormal Activity didn't even go that far, trapping the cast inside the director's house as though the camera were plugged into the wall. Sources disagree on whether the final budget for the film was $10,000 or $15,000, but either way I'm sure most of that went into renovating the house.

So the issue then is how to translate these lessons to other genres. I've been brainstorming cheap screenplays all week, and now I just have to decide whether my next project will be a romantic comedy without kissing, a spy movie cobbled together from security camera footage, or a Western shot by the side of a freeway, or an historical epic that's about people who have the same names as my friends. I'll keep you posted.

posted by M. Giant 8:41 PM 1 comments


You are correct about clerks. Did most of it using credit cards and filmed in the store he worked at. I'm a bit of a Kevin Smith nerd....Ok Ok a huge nerd for him

By Blogger Unknown, at November 3, 2009 at 1:11 PM  

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