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Low Budget Screenplays - From Blank Screen to Silver Screen

It may be a cliché, but it's nonetheless true, that the mother of invention is necessity. Tight parameters sharpen the creative process and the most fundamental parameter of all, is having no money. That is the situation for most would-be filmmakers as they sit down to write a screenplay that can be shot on a budget of good will and a small loan. Typical examples of this kind of writing are 'El Mariachi,' 'Clerks,' 'The Blair Witch Project,' 'London to Brighton' and 'Scenes of a Sexual Nature'. It is reported that 'Clerks' had a budget of $28,000 (1994) and 'Blair Witch' had a budget of about $60,000 (1999). Of course, this is the point when fact becomes fiction. It may be that everyone working on 'Blair Witch' gave their services for nothing, but that is still a cost. It is also, I believe, true, that to make 'Blair Witch' fit for the silver screen, the distributor invested about $250,000 in post-production costs. The figures may or may not be exactly correct but, despite good intentions all round, if a movie is going to stand any chance at all in the market, there are fixed costs for which a budget has to be found and they are grading and conforming the image and getting the sound right, including the music.

In my opinion and experience, the minimum budget for a movie that has a superb script and can work in just a few locations is £300k / $500k. With that level of budget, it is possible to produce a film that has professional production values and will have a genuine chance in the market - but only if the script is good. The script, at that budget level, is more important than for a film with a budget of $50M because it has to be a compelling story without special effects, car crashes, explosions and genuine stars. Ironically, it is only when writing a screenplay for a budget of $500k that the screenwriter has the satisfaction of seeing most of what he or she wrote make it to the big screen, especially if the writer is also the director. That rarely happens with studio pictures. Most screenplays, even when commissioned, rarely see the light of a projector lamp. There are writers in Hollywood who earn a very good living rewriting other writers' screenplays, which permanently remain "in development". As much fun as it is to earn good money tapping away on a laptop, many Hollywood writers secretly yearn to make their own low budget movie where the words they put in the mouths of their characters actually get to the final cut.

Once you have decided to write a brilliant, low budget screenplay, there are some techniques that can really stack the odds a little more in your favour. Deciding the genre of your script is key and this is where most low budget filmmakers go wrong. Audiences are quite happy to see a low budget independent film if it says something different to the studios. To some extent the studios have trespassed into the indy mind-set and have produced studio movies that have a strong independent feel but, on the whole, it is wisest to choose a genre that is not mainstream. In other words, do not try to make an action/adventure film on a shoestring, or an ultra low budget romantic comedy. Those genres are Hollywood staples and should not be challenged. The most profitable area for an independent movie is horror or suspense thriller. Hollywood movies in those genres that could have been made for $500k include 'The Others' and 'The Strangers'. Although very different i.e. 'The Others' is a scary ghost story and 'The Strangers' is a suspense horror/thriller, both films take place in remote locations, have small casts and are perfect examples of the kind of movie that can be both ultra low budget and effective.

There are many writers who have enjoyed a certain amount of success writing screenplay commissions but get frustrated when their screenplays never make it into production. Several years ago, I wrote a screenplay that is set in a girls' boarding school in a remote part of the English countryside. I decided to create a story that takes place during the half term holiday so that all the students would be away from the school. My genre was suspense thriller and my principal characters were women. Everyone I showed the screenplay to could immediately see its appeal: a big, deserted, scary building; a beautiful 18-year-old girl in peril and some very sinister goings-on, complemented by a few surprising plot twists. The eventual film, 'Out of Bounds' cost $800k and came onto the market without any fanfare or promotion but it has done well. Why? I think it's because the location of the remote boarding school immediately gives the story atmosphere; the characters are strong and well-drawn and, most important of all, the acting is superb (Sophia Myles).

Without quality, professional acting, a low budget film will remain a vanity project. But, get the script right, a good location and a gifted cast, the funding will come and the market will buy as long as the story grips.

ABOUT THIS AUTHOR:
Merlin Ward (http://www.merlinward.com) is an experienced screenwriter and has been commissioned to write scripts for all budget levels. A recent project was writing an episode of the hit TV animation series, 'Chuggington' which is currently airing on the BBC's CBeebies. Merlin's latest projects are a ghost story set in a remote neo-gothic Victorian mansion (‘The Widow’ – screenplay sold) and a suspense thriller (‘Rising Tide’) set in a remote rural location. Both stories have one principal location and small casts. For more details, visit  http://www.merlinward.com

Written by: Merlin Ward
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