3 Lessons from Making a Feature Film with Zero Budget

This is a guest blog post by Joe Avella, indie filmmaker, writer and actor.

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I studied graphic design in college. One time our instructor pretended to be a client and gave us an assignment that mirrored what it was like in the professional world. I was given an ugly logo with the instruction to make it the final design’s main focus.

Like a typical design student, I placed the terrible logo off to the side, designed something I though was really hip, and stuck the logo somewhere out-of-the-way.

When I presented my design the professor came right out the gate with:

“Why isn’t the logo the focal point like I asked?”

I began to mutter, “Oh well I-”

“I hate it.” He snapped. “Start over.”

I was clearly upset, as to which he gave me a very important piece of advice:

“You’ll always have limits and restriction in your work. You’d better learn to take those weaknesses and make them your strengths.”

Lesson 1: Your weaknesses must become your strengths

Fast forward to the beginning stages of my first feature film, Master of Inventions. I wanted to make a film for a while, but had a long list of weaknesses for why I couldn’t:

  • No money: Films require millions to make.
  • No time: I’d have to focus full-time on the film. Can’t have a day job.
  • No equipment or a big crew: you must have experts with the latest equipment.
  • Knowledge: Why would the crew work for/listen to me if I know less than them?
  • Luck: Even with the above things, I’d have to get the movie into a big film festival and sell it or suffer a horrible financial fate.

I looked at all these weaknesses and thought: How can I make them work for me?

  • Money: Write a script using the free resources I had.
  • Time: Work on it during nights and weekends, around my current life, and let it take as long as it takes.
  • Equipment/crew: Make it with borrowed equipment; whatever I could get my hands on. Ask friends to help out, sparingly, as to not burn them out. Same with the cast: write a script with several small parts so I would only need them for a few hours.
  • Knowledge: I would figure it out as I went. Earn while you learn.
  • Luck: If I make it for free, I won’t have to worry about selling it, and could share it online in a way traditional filmmakers tied to debt could not.
MOI-actor-crewmember
In this picture actor Rick also doubles as the sound guy.

Suddenly I had no excuse to not make a film. But I knew it would take a while, so to keep my enthusiasm up and stick with it, another lesson I learned was…

Lesson 2: Market While Making

Start marketing your project when you start the project. A fan base takes forever to build and the initial core will be your friends and family (who are just being nice).

I found letting people know I was serious about making it happen piqued their interest and kept me invested. Marketing on social media and email gave the project stakes. If I quit, people would know, and I would be labeled a quitter.

This associated pain with giving up which kept me going though the hard times. But what did I use to market this film before it was finished, you ask…

Lesson 3: Make your film a content generating machine

Over the 3 years of making Master of Inventions, I periodically released finished scenes and out takes from the film. I purposely wrote a script with sketch-like scenes which could be lifted out and stand alone as funny videos. Here’s an example scene:

We also had plenty of ‘outtakes’:

MOI-free-dolly
Office chair = free dolly

I also blogged extensively about the making of the film. Every day was a learning experience, so why not share what I learned? Releasing this content gave me something to share and an excuse to interact with a growing fan base. Before I knew it I was getting emails and comments asking for filmmaking advice, giving me plenty to write about between the shooting and editing days.

Also, since lots of people were involved in the cast and crew, every time I released a scene it was with a new set of actors who shared the content with their friends and family, greatly expanding our reach.

Please note: if writing or releasing content of the film isn’t your bag, you can do lots of different stuff to generate more content. Perhaps start a podcast about the film. Take the time to interview anyone of significance in the film or on the crew. People love talking about themselves, which will lead to them sending the interview to everyone they know.

Final thoughts: Think past the obvious

If you’re reading this then you’re probably not a professional filmmaker with endless time and resources. Perhaps you’ve come up with your own methods for seeing a big project through. Comment below; I’d love to hear them. If not, I strongly urge you to give it a shot! Focus on making the production process part of the film will make it way more enjoyable to make.

Below is the first 5 minutes of the film:

If you like what you see, watch the entire film for free at www.masterofinventions.com

joe-avellaJoe Avella is a filmmaker, writer, actor and sometimes hot jam creator. Some of his shorts have appeared on the IFC, Spike TV, and WTTW’s Image Union. He’s also had his work screened at several festivals including the SXSW Film Festival. Learn more at joeavella.com

2 thoughts on “3 Lessons from Making a Feature Film with Zero Budget

  1. I get what Joe is speaking about. I just got my GH3, but I realize the lens I bought was not ideal for narrative stuff. Then, I got a Tascam, but I realized I need a mic. There’s always something more to get, AND, at the same time, that kind of thing is always an excuse.

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