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A man holds up a wad of money.
Spend money on morale, and focus on story, by far the most important element to filmmaking. Canadian comedy icon Kevin McDonald stars in Michael Stasko’s ‘Boys vs. Girls.’ (Jesse Hebert), Author provided

4 ways independent filmmakers can make the most of small budgets for big results

“Here are your handcuffs. Now, how would you like to wear them?”

Each time I embark on a new low-budget independent film, this is the mantra that begins to play on a loop in my head. In the summer of 2018 when I set out on my fifth feature film, Boys vs. Girls, about a 1990 summer camp that goes co-ed for the first time in its 70-year history, I wore the mantra as a flag.

Sure, the so-called “handcuffs” of a small budget are constraining. But realistically and creatively assessing how to make the most of what you have is where your opportunities begin. Here are my four takeaways about meaningful ways to embrace small budgets.

1. Think globally, act locally

We’ve heard this as it applies to environmental and social justice causes, but with advances in digital technology, indie filmmaking has benefited too.

Financiers, distributors and exhibitors still call big cities like Los Angeles, New York and Toronto home, but it doesn’t mean your shoot has to take place in such cost-prohibitive cities.

I shoot most of my projects in my home town of Windsor, Ont., and this has provided me with numerous economic and production advantages. Renting out all locations — hotel rooms, production offices and cast trailers — would normally eat the lion’s share of a budget. But on Boys vs. Girls, we rented an off-season summer camp that acted as all three for a fraction of the price.

Usually, I’ll advise my students to not think about the practicalities of filming while constructing the story. However, if you know in advance what kind of budget you’ll be dealing with, look around your hometown. What built-in production values exist in your own backyard?

‘Boys vs. Girls’ trailer.

2. Engage enthusiasm

Being enthusiastic about how much you love singing might not give you Adele’s voice, however, in filmmaking, this is pure fuel. If you can fill up your set with cast and crew who want to be there regardless of their financial stake, at the start of each day you can flick on the proverbial “film generator” and know that it will run until wrap.

On all my film sets, regardless if some people are being paid big bucks, small bucks, doing an internship or volunteering, I keep track of everyone’s total hours. On the Boys vs. Girls set, that included 30 film students enrolled at the University of Windsor.

My approach is to divide everyone’s hours by the group’s final total, and give everyone “ownership” in the film. This means you could have been the production assistant (PA) and walked away with a certificate that entitles you to “0.4 per cent of the producer’s net equity.” In the years following the film’s release, and as the film begins to turn a profit, a cheque for a couple hundred bucks could show up in your mailbox as a dividend of sorts. I call this co-op filmmaking, and I find it keeps everyone engaged and pulling in the same direction.

(A crowd outside in front of 'Sunshine Point' sign.
Cast and crew of ‘Boys vs. Girls.’ (Jesse Hebert), Author provided

3. Spend money on morale

A film professor at Columbia University explained to me how spending the extra few pennies on Coke instead of no-name cola not only paid for itself, but was far-reaching. Meaning: a crew that worked a long six hours and are heading to a well-deserved lunch will have a slight unconscious boost in morale, knowing they are sipping “the real thing” versus “I don’t care about you too much; our budget is killing us.”

The other place this can pay dividends for itself is in getting a few “recognizable” actors on the set for cameo roles. For Boys vs. Girls, I was able to secure the comedic talents of Colin Mochrie (Whose Line Is It Anyway?) to play the camp director, Roger, and Kevin McDonald (The Kids In The Hall) to play the camp caretaker, Coffee.

As soon as these comedy icons showed up, the rest of the cast and crew immediately felt the rush of “this is the real deal” and everyone’s game stepped up. These actors were only on set for three days out of the 16-day shoot, but their scenes are spread out throughout the entire film, so to a viewer it really raises the perceived production value of the entire project.

A man doing a thumbs up.
Colin Mochrie plays Roger, the camp director. (Jesse Hebert), Author provided

4. Throw time at your story

Fast, good or cheap? Pick two. This famous project management triangle also applies to filmmaking. By definition, an independent film is already nestled in the realm of “inexpensive,” and no doubt you’re looking for “good” (if not great). So, throw time at your project. Concede early on to the fact that you won’t be able to compete with mainstream Hollywood productions when it comes to production values like special effects or star power.

But here’s the good news: 15 years into my filmmaking career, I can assure you that story is by far the most important element to filmmaking; and it just happens to be the one thing you can compete with. When a friend recommends a movie, rarely will they say “You have to see it! The gaffer perfectly flagged some spill from the key light during the dance scene.” Or: “The sound editor beautifully cleaned room tone in the factory chase sequence.” No, they trumpet the story: “You have to see it! This happens, then this happens, then … well, I don’t want to spoil it, just go see it!” Every cast and crew member’s job is important, but they are all there to service the story, to ensure they’ve collectively engaged the audience. So, my biggest advice would be don’t spend days or weeks outlining your story: spend months or years.

Boys vs. Girls went on to a successful 2019-20 film festival run, including being named Best Canadian Feature Film at the Canadian International Comedy Film Festival and Best Feature Film as well as the Audience Choice award at the Chicago Comedy Film Festival. The film also won awards for Best Ensemble Cast and Best Writer, Feature Film at the Florida Comedy Film Festival.

‘Boys vs. Girls’ has its video on demand and DVD release on Dec. 22.

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