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Making a movie doesn’t require millions of dollars or even thousands of dollars. For next to nothing, you can make a movie, although the first thing you have to do is resign yourself to the fact you will have no major name actors in your movie to help sell it. It is also important to understand where you shoot your movie, because some states make it impossible to make a movie without a lot of money (such as California). There are a number of shortcuts you can look at to make sure to not only shoot your movie for free but also finish it and get it seen.
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The first thing you must secure to shoot a no-budget movie is equipment. If you are just starting out, that requires finding someone who owns equipment that you can bring aboard to help you make your movie. On my first short film, we found someone at my school who owned a nice camera (Canon XL-1) and offered him the chance to be our director of photography. I needed lights, so I found someone I had met in the local film scene and offered him the chance to be a production adviser and, as a result, he brought his lights for us to use. By offering people the chance to take active roles in our movies, they produced the equipment we needed at no charge.
A few years later, I was able to purchase my own camera and lights and, while it was an out of pocket expenditure, it meant that all movies shot after this could be my chance of making no-budget films whenever I wanted. What made this great is that I could hire whoever I wanted from this point on because I was not relying on using other people’s equipment.
When shooting a feature length movie, this is also possible. While the movie was not a no-budget film, someone I know shot a movie for $85,000 which gave them little money for anything special on the shoot. However, they met someone in the past and they called him to see if he was interested in being the director of photography for their movie. He asked what kind of camera they wanted to shoot with and they joked that they would love to use the Red digital video camera. They knew there was little chance of using this camera thanks to its $25,000-plus price tag. However, it just so happened the director of photography had a friend who owned a Red and, by hiring his friend as an assistant, they had access to a Red for free and were able to shoot their movie with the same camera David Fincher used in "The Social Network." The moral to this story is that it helps to network and it never hurts to ask others for help.
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The next step in making no-budget films is finding your cast. This is actually the easiest part of the process. There are hundreds, maybe thousands, of actors and actresses looking for work. First, you cannot get a SAG actor or anyone from the television world to be in your film. Their union membership requires that you receive permission to cast them in your movie and there is a minimum wage you must pay them, even on a micro-budget film, that will keep some budget minded independent filmmakers from making their movies. You also must pay the other actors in the movie if you have one SAG member as well.
This means you need to look in other places for your talent. First, check local schools. Most schools have bulletin boards in their acting department with open casting calls. Find a local actor by offering a casting call through fliers in schools, book stores, coffee houses and more. Plaster your casting call fliers everywhere and hope for the best. Make sure you are clear on the casting call that you are making no-budget films and there is only credit to be offered. It is also possible to list casting calls online, through sites for actors and local filmmakers as well as on classified sites like Craigslist.
When you have the casting call, make sure to cast the right people for the roles but also beware of attitudes that might arise. The last thing a no-budget filmmaker needs on set is someone who thinks they are bigger than the project. An actor may have success in television commercials or stage plays but, if they come in with an attitude problem, they will cause your production to crash down around you.
Make sure every actor signs a contract to be in the movie so no one will come back later and try to sue you for their appearance.
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The final thing you need to think about is where you shoot your movie. If you shoot in a state like California or New York, you will need to apply for permits and these can run you money. Also, in states like California, most locations will expect you to pay for the right to shoot there. However, if you shoot in locations like Oklahoma or smaller states, it is often easy to find locations allowing you to shoot there for free as long as you show the business in a positive light. Also, in Oklahoma there is no need to get permits to shoot anywhere that is public property. With those restrictions lifted, the final step for making no-budget films is out of the way.
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Article from author's personal experience.
Image of Canon from company website and other photo from author's personal collection.