Wednesday, October 25, 2017

How I Made a Microbudget Feature Film, Part 2: The Money

The purpose of this series is to share my experience of making my microbudget feature film, Wait, while being as transparent as possible. This series is specific to my experience only. Please do not take these posts as universal How-Tos. Also know, this series is intended to shed light on the process of making a film, not on the quality of the film itself. 

In Part 1 of this series, I detailed how I narrowed in on the idea to form Wait, and the years-long process it took me to finally sit down and write the damn thing. Part 2 of this series was intended to focus on the overall pre-production of Wait. The first chapter of that post was going to detail how I gathered the money to make my film. But as I started writing, I realized the post needed to stand on its own. So, while I do touch on pre-production below, my full pre-production post will come in a few days. This post is dedicated to following the money. 

The Acquaintance
Money is what makes films. It’s sad but true. All the artistic passion in the world won’t generate a feature film, unless you have a few bucks to stretch. There is no clear path to acquiring money to fund a feature film. You can crowd fund, ask your friends and family, take out a loan, use an inheritance, play the lottery. Everyone has a different way of procuring money for their films, but I can only safely talk about my personal experience. 

When I made my short film, Earrings, in 2012, I used my own money. I literally saved my pennies for a year and a half, and used a week of vacation days from my day job to fly from Virginia to Los Angeles to film the movie. The total budget of Earrings was $5,000. That included lens rentals, salaries, film gear, meals, transportation, and lodging. I already owned my camera (which meant I didn’t have to rent it for a high daily rate), and we stole every location we shot in (which is illegal, but saved me thousands of dollars).
A still from my short film, Earrings (2012)
I cut, mixed, and colored Earrings myself, which saved me money for not having to pay pros to do it. I didn’t submit the film to festivals (no money spent on submissions), and I put it on Vimeo for free (no distribution cost). Earrings came out and garnered several thousand views in its first month, eventually attracting the attention of an acquaintance of mine. (Note: I’m going to be purposefully vague about the identity of this acquaintance, because discretion helps avoid lawsuits.) The acquaintance had recently come into a good amount of money. They were looking to get into the film business and offered to help finance my next film, Wait. When I finished the first draft of Wait, I sent it to the acquaintance, and they quickly agreed to produce it. This was February 2013.

The acquaintance and I talked about budget early, and I felt that to do Wait right, I needed $40,000. The acquaintance brought on a business partner (who was also new to the film game), and together, the three of us agreed to split the production budget three ways, each putting up $15,000 of our own money, for a total budget of $45,000. I put Wait into pre-production (the nuts and bolts of which I’ll discuss in my next post), and in August 2013, I moved to Los Angeles to officially start my feature filmmaking career. In late September 2013, the business partner dropped out. I met with them once and quickly realized they were not ready to make movies. Their demands were laughable (major script changes, casting their friends in key roles, adding gratuitous nudity), so we parted ways. Without missing a beat, the acquaintance offered to take up the business partner’s share of the budget. Now we were splitting the cost of the film with $15,000 of my own money, and $30,000 of the acquaintance’s money.

Stop or Finish
The first day of filming on Wait was Monday November 11, 2013, nearly 10 months to the day that I finished the first draft of the script. By this point, I had footed every bill for pre-production and production. No money had come in from the acquaintance. I was anxious. Thanksgiving 2013 rolled around, and I met with the acquaintance, who tearfully informed me that they had lost all of their money — every red cent. They were being evicted from their apartment and would soon be auctioning their possessions. They told me they didn’t have enough money to pay for the meal we were sharing, let alone enough to help finance a feature film. We were halfway through the filming of Wait, and I had virtually no money to finish the film.

I’ll spare the full details of my emotional state at the time, but needless to say, I was scared, furious, and lost. I deduced that I had two options: One, stop filming and lose thousands of dollars on locations and film gear that I already paid for (not to mention, have less than half of a movie in the can), or Two, find the money, and finish the fuckin’ thing. I went with option Two, and I’m still in debt because of it. This was four years ago, and I’m just now seeing the finish line of clearing my debt. 
Nathan Stayton in Wait. This was the last scene we shot before I was told the money had given out.
I don’t come from money. I’ve been working since I was 15 to support myself, and chip in for my family when I could. But I’ve always been good with saving. I work hard and spend light. Going into Wait, I didn’t have $15,000, but I had a few grand in savings, and I figured I could take out a loan or run up a credit card, and pay them off when I wrapped filming. If I didn’t have $15,000, I obviously didn’t have $45,000, but I opted to stick to the same business model: use my savings for immediate costs (salaries, locations), and charge everything else to a credit card or a loan. That worked, but it made for years of paying off insane credit card and loan interest rates. Paying for everything myself also added to the amount of time it took to release Wait. After we wrapped filming, I immediately got a day job, and could only work on Wait in the evenings and weekends. I also had very little time to socialize in the new, exciting city I lived in. Instead, I spent all day working a day job I disliked, and spent all night working on a movie that cost plenty but paid nothing.

This post is not meant to scare. It is simply in accurate representation of my burdensome financial experience of making Wait. If you want to make movies, then you have to make movies. Money is the biggest obstacle, but sadly, it is just one obstacle of many. In being fully transparent, my hope is that filmmakers become aware of what they are getting themselves into when making a microbudget feature film. There is no clear-cut way to finance any film. Just know that it isn’t going to be easy. As I mentioned in Part 1, when you set out to make a movie, you have to be in love with it, because it will stick with you for literal years. On Friday, my post will dive fully into pre-production, thereby explaining where most of that $45,000 went.

Main Takeaways from Part 2: The Money
—There is no one clear way to finance a microbudget feature. Explore all options tirelessly.
—Financing your film yourself will present a massive, years-long burden. Know that and be ready for it.
—If you go the credit card/loan route, for the love of God, find something with low interest rates.

Primary Costs for Part 2: Money
—It doesn’t cost much to find money, but it sure as hell isn’t easy

Emotions to Expect for Part 2: The Money
Panic that you’ll never find the money
Excitement when you find the money
Panic when you have to spend the money




  1. I recently watched a documentary on Steven Spielberg as he talked about his experiences in dealing with budgets as it related to Jaws, Close Encounters, and 1941 and how it nearly made him a pariah with studios because those films went over-budget. He does reveal that making those films were learning experiences in how to spend money which he was able to do with Raiders of the Lost Ark as he and George Lucas were given $20 million to make the film but they had to make sure they didn't go a dollar more.

    I think one of the scary things about filmmaking is money. You have to find out what you need and what you don't need. I think limitations in a budget can help as I remember Guillermo del Toro stated that having limitations can help you improvise and find something else.

    I like what you're doing as you're giving us an education into the highs & lows of low-budget filmmaking.

    1. Thanks so much my friend. I'm glad you are liking the posts. I liked that lesson in the Spielberg documentary as well. Having less really does force you to get more creative. A very valuable lesson to know there. And it's so true, because many of my favorite films from popular filmmakers are ones they made for modest budgets.

      I hope you enjoy the rest of the posts in this series as well!

  2. That's brutal your co-funder ran out of money, especially when already halfway through filming. Proud of you for finishing Wait with such an obstacle to overcome.
    When you mention a day job and working on the movie at night, I'm reminded of David Lynch's paper route to finance Eraserhead. Sounds like you have the same never-say-die attitude!

    1. Thanks so much Chris, I really appreciate that. And man, I would've loved to NOT have a day job while I edited WAIT, but that just wasn't in the cards. It was a tough time for sure, but I'm glad the movie got made all the same!

  3. What an absolute nightmare, can only imagine the emotional and financial burden that must have been for you. Really pleased that it has paid off with the success of WAIT. This is a great insight into the kind of dedication, integrity, and commitment you have to have to see a project like this through. Do you think you would choose to make another microbudget feature if you had to fully finance it like you did with WAIT? Hopefully that's not a situation you ever find yourself in again.

    1. Yeah man, it certainly wasn't fun haha. The hardest part was playing pretend on set, acting like everything was okay. But hey, we all saw it through and I like the film better now for it.

      I will never make a movie this way again. I wouldn't be opposed to using my own money, but I wouldn't start production unless I had the full budget to spend. Four years to pay this thing off... couldn't put myself through that again, you know?

  4. This post stresses me out. Money is the one thing that is almost guaranteed to make me lose sleep over. Like you, I don't come from it, I just try to save it as best I can. I'm not sure how I would've handled the situation you faced. Like you said, this is an important thing to talk about though. I hope everything goes smoother for you when you make your next film. You deserve it.

    1. It stressed me out to write it! Just reliving it for a few minutes made me all anxious. Ugh. But thank you so much for reading and commenting, it really means a lot to me. And thanks for the kind words! I certainly hope the next one is easier than this!

  5. I feel inspired after having read this. I admire your tenacity despite all of the setbacks and difficulties you faced along the way.
    If I may, there's one thing I'd recommend: don't rely on family bonds or friends of friends simply because they have the money to fund your dreams. I understand that funding for a film may be next to impossible to come by, but if you compromise your finances to the point of bankruptcy, you may never be able to make another film.
    I'd encourage you to select your financial sources in a professional manner, and not simply because you choose to trust someone. Lastly, do not work for free. I work as an architect and the best advice I can give anyone is to try NOT to commit substantial dollars ahead of time if there's no legal contract or obligation from a partner or a financier to pay you and/or to cover expenses. I realize this may seem like a daunting prospect, but financing must be approached in the same manner you approach any other part of getting a film made, even if it's the least enjoyable.
    Congratulations again!

    PS. Sorry if I overstepped with my advice. It may be completely unrealistic.

    1. Oh no, you didn't overstep at all. In fact, when filmmakers ask me for movie finance advice today, my sentiments damn near mirror yours. You have to find outside money, it simply makes everything so much less confusing. And while I do think there is initial benefit in working for free (depending on the gig), you have to know when to cut that off, and hold firm with demanding some sort of compensation.

      Thanks for another great comment.