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How to Finance Micro-budget Films

Premiered at the 2014 New Zealand International Film Festival, Orphans & Kingdoms will make its return to theatres on 5 April with a special screening in Auckland’s Civic, followed by a wider release from 14 April.

This feature, among the last to emerge from the Film Commission’s now expired Escalator scheme may yet join the ranks of its successful cousins Housebound and Fantail. These two films stand out in the way they won audiences, awards and critical reviews, and were even able to return money to crew and cast.

In this case of Orphans and Kingdoms, the hands-on producer team of Fraser Brown and Leela Menon with director Paolo Rotondo, secured sponsorship and further investment, involved the community and created an atmosphere of ‘mucking in together’ – and it certainly helped having gaffer James ‘Boof’ Young hosting boil-ups after wrap! We were all aware the day we passed 100 pledges on the Crowdfunding mission.

However, let’s be clear – more important than return on investment, this scheme was an experiment. By lowering the budget, easing off the pressure yet fixing a definite shooting window, could the producers still create a highly watchable, well-received film?

This colourful diagram explains the methodology behind Orphans & Kingdoms for how it would attract more investment and share profit.

As an aside, the Peter Jackson and David Court 2010 ‘Review of the New Zealand Film Commission’ gives an excellent critical analysis of the Escalator scheme (p.39) when it was first conceived. (NB: the report was published before any Escalator titles had been released.)

Coinciding with the theatrical release of Orphans and Kingdoms, it seems highly topical to discuss crew attitudes to micro-budget productions. It’s all very well to have our producers and directors embrace the concept, the rewards are big if they succeed – and at the least they get their vision realised – but what of the actual workers who have to work for a fraction of their rates?

Here are some views to consider for crew:

Pay my rate or I don’t help: 

One Head of Department had an inflexible view to working on low-budget jobs and basically said – ‘no low budget job has ever returned the favour [with future full-budget work]. I always end up the loser.’  In this article, I differ with such a view. I argue that in moderation, it’s good to be involved with special projects. However it is incumbent on the crew member to negotiate and satisfy their own bottom line so to avoid feeling like they are being taken advantage of.

Rent equipment to production: 

The sting of low rates is neutralised by those who can make up the shortfall with equipment rental. Certainly it helps if you get your cameras, lights, grip, sound, stunt props and art supplies gear etc. on board, even if reimbursement is still a fraction of the standard.

Sacrifice rates for experiences:

 One long held view is that sometimes it’s worth sacrificing rates for the experience of working with new genres and shooting styles. For example, if the low budget job has a large green-screen component then that can attract the DoP who is looking to get into larger budget movies that require this skill-set.

Assistants get the rear-end of the deal: One DoP I spoke with was aware of the benefits for HODs as in the above point. However he said there is no such benefit for assistants and that they stand to gain much less from the whole transaction. Not all assistants need to ‘step up’. Many are of course very good at what they do and enjoy the assisting positions, rather than have ambitions to climb higher.

One further perspective worth noting is that of Dave Gibson, CEO of the NZFC. He originally made this point for the upcoming NZ Techo magazine and was happy to be quoted here as well:

… if you go back a few years there was definitely some disquiet around the Escalator scheme and I was very aware of that when I came into the job. I think making some of those films at $250,000 was very ambitious and some only got finished because people worked for very low rates and a lot of favours were called in. Although a couple like Fantail and Housebound were successful! That said we have been trying to encourage the scope of the films and the budgeting to be realistic. ~ Dave Gibson, CEO of NZ Film Commission

So while there isn’t legislation around it, with the Film Commission advocating for realistic budgeting, it does put the onus squarely on the producer and director to consider ‘what is fair’ rather than ‘how little can we get away with’.

My stance is that we must accept jobs on their own merits and not rely on promises. There is an interesting dynamic or principle in action behind any person who gives ‘business charity’ (i.e. discounted rate to carefully selected projects) without expecting something in return later down the track (i.e. a promised future full-paid job). This principle means that somehow, through some means you might not expect, you will be repaid for your services.

If you will excuse me sharing a personal example, I have concrete evidence of this:

Ten years ago, I worked on a short film with an established TVC director and producer team. I was offered a nominal rate befitting the NZFC funding it had received. A few years later I was in the running for a totally independent overseas project shooting in NZ. Being an unknown, they were uncertain about me, yet they happened to know the editor of this short film. This association coupled with the short film’s producer verifying that I wasn’t a complete idiot, tipped my fortune to get this job which ended up being worth $20,000. I’m sure you will have your own examples of favourable breaks due to ‘who you know’.

When I was doing this short film all those years ago, I had no such thought of holding the director or the production accountable to ‘repaying the favour’. I’d be nothing more than a bloated buffoon on-set and plain bitter afterwards if I went around with this attitude of entitlement on special projects.

Everything must be balanced however. Crew can smell when they’re being treated unfairly and it makes everything stink. Even if it’s a personal project, the payment must be fair.

This point speaks more to those financing their own feature films, I would expect a serious personal investment of their own money into the project rather than relying too much on good-will. A poor film-school graduate can rely more on good will but certainly not a successful TVC producer or director. That is decency and respect.

For an industry to flourish, it needs the willingness of its workers to compromise at the appropriate times, and then most others times, enjoy the fruits of jobs with normal budgets that pay standard rates.

If we see the whole system we can’t get upset. It’s only when we think we are being taken advantage of that our experience becomes negative. 

Hence: Do due diligence on the job in question: What is their funding, does it seem reasonable what they are offering given all the variables? If you doubt their integrity or sense you’re about to be used and abused, then move on.

Don’t expect the producer/director to be able to repay any favour: That may come at a later date from a source you least expect. Bare in mind that compensation comes in many forms, not just financially.

What I have discussed here is not in any way implying we lower our rates for standard jobs. It is referring specifically to special jobs that fall loosely under the term ‘start up’.

When we adjust our attitude and embrace the special circumstances of the job, that’s where producer and crew can work together. The crew member chooses just a few special jobs each year, negotiates enough rate or other benefits to satisfy their bottom line – and gains positive feelings. The producer gets to realise their vision within budget with a professional crew that are happy and not upset at being taken advantage of.

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