Feature Q+A : The Micro Budget Film Lab Movement
We've made a friend!
We spoke to the Micro Budget Film Lab, a great movement who are doing some fantastic things. And you should definitely know more about them.
Check out their webpage here:
Their Blog here:
And their FaceBook page here:
We spoke to Shawn Whitney and this is what he had to say:
TF) Can you explain what the Micro Budget Film Lab is?
MBFL: Well, there’s what it is and what I’d love to see it become. At the moment it’s a small source of info, training and materials for filmmakers who don’t want to follow the “normal” channels of climbing the career ladder step-by-step or wait for a big producer to discover them and make their movie. Instead they have a powerful vision that they intend to realize come hell or high water. And I want to help them do that and in the process build a community.
The second part of what I want to do is rooted in my conception of art in general and film in particular. I view all great art as being a collective product of movements of artists who keenly feel the pressing questions of the historic moment. These pressing questions include content but also form – from the script level, to production and through to post-production. We live in a moment of great upheaval and uncertainty. Lots of people know something is wrong with the world; it isn’t delivering on its promises for the vast majority and there’s a very real chance that we could destroy ourselves and our planet. That crisis also exists in how people experience their personal stories, their notion of their history, everything. So, I’m not suggesting that all film needs to be like a Ken Loach movie, kind of social realist stuff (as much as I love Ken Loach’s work). But it must speak to the current crisis in ways that give new answers, new viewpoints, new voices. And I think that’s not only an artistic imperative, I also believe that is the only way to make microbudget films viable and relevant.
TF) How did it start, and what is your involvement?
MBFL: Ha, it really started with the idea that I could put the skills I’ve learned being a writer, filmmaker and development exec to use as a way to make a little extra money, to diversify my income sources. So, I founded this website with the idea of charging for training – which I have been doing, though still no windfall. But as I began to connect with filmmakers internationally and get tons of emails from people, it sort of evolved. I mean, I always wanted it to be a real resource, not just a way to scam money. But my vision of it has expanded to conceiving of it as a way to create a hub of filmmakers internationally who are trying to not just make money, get famous and drive fancy cars but to really tell relevant stories. And it also evolved my sense of what a filmmaking movement would have to look like: for instance I’m no convinced that it has to be an international movement because the crisis we face is international and, increasingly, the enemies of progress (like Donald Trump or UKIP or Marine Le Pen’s FN) want to push us into nationalist boxes and violently exclude the voices of those most affected by the international crises we face.
TF) What movements from the past have been an inspiration and why?
MBFL: Well, lots, I suppose. In university I read a lot of Trotsky’s writings on art and revolution and was really moved by that and by the writing of one of his allies in the debates inside the USSR as it was deteriorating, a publisher and artist named Aleksandr Voronsky. Trotsky also co-wrote a Manifesto for a Free Revolutionary Art, along with Diego Rivera and the surrealist poet Andre Breton that really connected with me. But then I’ve also been impressed by the DOGME movement, French New Wave, the American films of the late 60s and early 70s that were so influenced by the radicalization of the time. And also mumblecore. I’m not a huge fan of most of these films but I am impressed by their spirit, their entrepreneurialism, if you will. They just had this can-do attitude that didn’t rely on public money (which is almost non-existent in the USA) or patrons. They just created a community and made movies, some of which sucked and some of which were wonderful. But they just kept on making them.
TF) How do you think Micro Budgets Features can help emerging talent?
MBFL: I work in the conventional film industry as a development executive and as a writer. I see all the time how film is shaped by the demands of recoupment. You want to make a thirty million dollar movie? You better be able to show that you can sell enough to cover that budget. That kind of pressure has an impact. Not just in terms of the vanities and avarice of financiers, though I can tell stories about those. More insidiously it means that all the edges are taken off, experiment is feared and snuffed out, controversy is avoided – because there’s big financial stakes at play. Producers want to make their money back so they don’t want to take chances. And, because nobody really knows what will work and what won’t it leads to superstitions that are rooted in some of the more backward ideas: like that films with female or black leads can’t be successful internationally (even though box office numbers don’t bear this out).
Microbudget films don’t face these pressures to the same degree. You only have to recoup ten or twenty thousand dollars – or less. It means you can experiment, be true to your vision, etc. Microbudget films can be and should be the canary in the coal mine, if you will. Or the gadfly. That’s one reason why I find it disheartening to see so many micrbudget filmmakers just trying to make smaller versions of Hollywood action films and thrillers.
TF) Could this have happened 10 years ago?
MBFL: Well, it did happen ten years ago with mumblecore. And it has always happened to some extent. Salt of the Earth was a kind of microbudget film by leftist US filmmakers who had been blacklisted, way back in the 50s. But it’s definitely a lot easier now – you can get great quality for very little money. And the problem of distribution has been solved with all sorts of self-distribution platforms, etc. The real problem that we haven’t solved, as microbudget filmmakers, is marketing. You can make your film available all over the world but it doesn’t matter if nobody goes and rents it or views it. That’s part of the reason also why we need a film movement. It’s a marketing tool – in the good sense. By having filmmakers bond together with some kind of common “brand” they can amplify their impact and the awareness of their films. “Branding” has a bad name because it’s used to sell us shit. But branding, at its core, is about creating awareness of something and associating values to that thing so that people know what to expect. That’s why Hollywood pays so much for A-list talent, for instance. We often think, “geez, why do they pay Brad Pitt $20 million to act in a movie?” It’s because Brad Pitt isn’t just a person, he’s also a brand and a brand needs a corporate infrastructure of publicists, managers, lawyers (to protect the brand from debasement), etc. They aren’t paying Brad Pitt personally (of course, he is getting rich too), they’re paying to license the brand and the machine behind that brand. We also need a recognizable “brand” but one built out of artistic, aesthetic and social principles. So when people see “An X Movement Film” they know what they’re getting; they can search for it and find it, etc.
TF) Can you give any examples of success – in the many ways which that can be defined - of the projects associated with the Micro Budget Film Lab?
MBFL: MBFL is still pretty new, not yet even a year old. I’m about halfway through running my first screenwriting coaching program with a couple of dozen filmmakers. There’s some great story ideas being developed in that program but as of yet nobody has made a movie. I get a lot of emails thanking me for help with specific things – marketing, crowd funding, ideas about screenwriting – but as of yet no one has, I don’t know, thanked me in their credits. lol
Q) What is the first step for anyone considering making a micro budget feature film?
The first thing is to have a fresh, relevant idea and then to turn that into a great script. During that process you also need to create a great team who will hopefully stick with you through multiple film projects. These things are always a collective venture and live or die based upon how good the team is that you create. There’s all sorts of tricks and tactics you can use to get great material for very little money but these are secondary to those first two things.
TF) What advice or do's and don't can you offer anyone considering making a feature like this?
MBFL: Don’t go so far into debt that you’ll lose your house or never be able to make a second film. You have to approach this in a way that’s sustainable. Because you can’t see this like buying a lottery ticket: “Oh, I’ll make this great, breakout film like Gareth Edwards did with Monsters and then Hollywood will come calling and I’ll make the next Star Wars.” It’s not going to happen. Of course it does happen but it is like winning the lottery, it’s that rare. Most people make their first or second or third film and it gets watched by a few hundred people. You have to play the long game and understand that it’s about building a body of work, building an audience over the long haul, developing networks of support and community, etc. For 999,999 out of a million people there is no “breakout” moment.
Q) How do you see the mainstream industry re-acting to movements such as this?
Like they always do – they ignore new movements unless they see them as having profit potential. Then they co-opt them into the Hollywood machine and neuter them. That’s not meant to sound like a conspiracy against art or something diabolical. It’s just the logic of Hollywood or corporate, conventional film. As I said above, it needs to make a profit so it always tries to recreate what worked, minus anything that might cost it viewers and ticket sales.
TF) What sort of reaction have you had from trying to get this message across? Negative and positive.
MBFL:Overall I have gotten really positive feedback from a lot of people. Sometimes – because I’m selling courses and my book to try and fund all my overhead – I do get people who are, like: “I wanted to learn about making movies, stop trying to sell me things.” I think sometimes people want stuff free, even if it cost you money to deliver it to them. Most of the people with that kind of attitude probably won’t make a movie because if they think my $8.99 course/book/producers’ kit is unreasonable, wait till they have to shoot even a microbudget film – it will be a lot more than that, just for coffee for the crew. The other negative I see is from curmudgeonly crew – guys (it’s almost always men) who have made a career out of working on crews and they are outraged at the idea of making a movie and not paying anyone. I get that: people want to feed themselves and their families and the industry is always trying to squeeze workers. But microbudget filmmakers are not the source or the cause of a decline in conditions and wages, etc. By definition they don’t have the power or money to do so and they don’t compel crew to work for free. Most of the time the crew on these kinds of films are newer and younger and looking to get experience or get the opportunity to do more than brew coffee on set – they want to DP or grip or be the key make-up artist. But if people don’t want to do that, they shouldn’t. Finally, the last kind are the people who have a naive faith in the market to produce quality material. They will leave trolling kind of comments: “all microbudgets are shit.” Stuff like that. It’s a pretty self-defeating attitude for a filmmaker to have but what can you do. Mostly what I get are really generous and warm emails and people thanking me. If it was just the negative I’d stop.
If people are being negative, why do you think that is?
TF) What are your hope for the future of filmmaking in general.
MBFL:Well, to sound like a broken record: I’d like to see the emergence of true filmmaking movements. I think that there will be need to be more than one because there is no one correct answer to how to represent the current moment in history through films and stories. And that plurality will be necessary to create debate, dialogue, inter-pollination of ideas, etc. Right now there are individuals doing different things, experimenting – Stephen Soderbergh comes to mind, Raoul Peck (who has just released I Am Not Your Negro and The Young Karl Marx) – but it doesn’t feel like there is that kind of vital, collective conversation and experimentation – but perhaps I’m missing it and it’s out there.
TF) Do you really think this can open up the door to new filmmakers?
MBFL: I think that it’s the only route for the vast majority of new filmmakers. Every year 100,000 feature screenplays are registered with the Writers Guild of America registry (to protect copyright). There’s probably that many again that aren’t registered. Last year Hollywood bought less than a hundred of those spec scripts. That’s a statistically insignificant number. The vast, vast majority of those scripts don’t even get opened. With those sorts of odds, how are filmmakers going to get their stories and visions out there (especially if they are black or female or in the developing world, etc.)
TF) Is there any negativity or reaction from the mainstream industry which you've heard or felt?
MBFL: No, not really. I do wonder what my filmmaker friends who are trying to make it in the conventional industry think when they see one of my ads on Facebook. lol
TF) What are your immediate plans for the scheme?
MBFL: I want to complete this screenplay coaching program, which has been an enormous amount of work. It also includes a $2500 production investment to the best script. So, I hope to see a great movie get made. And I have all sorts of other ideas that I want to work on but haven’t decided what next: a marketing for filmmakers master class; a membership website that will act as a hub/lab for the gestation of film movements. I’m also working on a new film here in Spain, where I’m living with my family at the moment; I may serialize that process so people can see it unfold in real time. Maybe some other idea that I haven’t even considered yet will pop-up. If you have any ideas...