Some thoughts on ‘low-budget’ filmmaking

In the Dec/Jan ’09 issue of the BECTU journal ‘Stage, Screen, & Radio’ there was an editorial printed with the headline “Ultralow budget films pointless”. Anyone who knows me, and my history in the film industry knows how I feel about the low-budget film world. I owe a fantastic career to my roots there. As much as the ads I see on sites like Mandy.com and ‘Shooting People’ upset me, I know at heart that for the most part these are people that only want to express themselves using the medium of film. The balance I have (or imbalance?) is that I have been a proud member of the union IATSE since 1995, and BECTU since 2006. Quite often the two worlds clash either in my mind, or in reality. But I think my letter pretty much expresses how I felt in 2009, how I felt in 1989 when I first started in this game, and how I feel now.

Here’s the the Bectu ‘editorial’ commenting on low/micro budget films:

Ultralow budget films pointless

A useful survey of low and micro budget film production was published earlier this year by the Uk Film Council. Northern Alliance, who produce the report for the UKFC, reckon around 100 low/micro budget films are produced each year.

They defined ‘low/micro budget” as anything up to £1-million, but in practice most of the films they surveyed came in under £50,000. About a quarter attract some public money from regional screen agencies or the like, but 75% are financed entirely from private sources – which covers anything from commercial investment to a loan from Mum & Dad.

The report found that a majority of these films – 58% – deferred pay for the crew/cast. In our experience “deferred pay” usual constitutes a breach of the National Minimum Wage Act. In other words, most of the low/micro budget film production sector operates illegally as a matter of course. And – again from our experience – films which fail to pay their crew are also unlikely to have proper health & safety arrangements in place, or proper insurance cover.

Finally, the report found that 82% of low/micro budget films never achieve theatrical distribution, and less than half manage to get onto DVD/video. In other words, most of these films are never seen.

So why do they get made in the first place? There have always been plenty of wannabe film producers ever since the dawn of the film industry. However until recently, the cost of kit plus the cost of the skills set a pretty hight entry threshold. Now, digital cameras are on sale on every high street and there are editing packages designed to be used on laptops at home. Result: today’s generation of wannabe producers can rush into production without all the boring and inconvenient hassle of actually doing their job and raising a proper budget. The fact that they are (probably) breaking the law, and that their film will (probably) never be seen is apparently of little concern. you couldn’t make it up.

December/January 09 Stage Screen & Radio

Here’s my response:

Low budget films are a training ground for the next generation

This letter is in response to the article Ultralow budget films pointless (December/January).

I am a member of the lighting technician’s brand. I am a member of good standing with IATSE local 52 since 1995 and Bectu since 2006. I started out in the industry working on student films (for free) and low budget features (for low rates).

On each job I met people, learned skills, and progressively upped my game and income.

I find it sad that Bectu, instead of looking to the future is choosing to bury its head in the sand. These “pointless” films that you speak of, are where young actors learn to find their marks, not block the other performer’s light, and how to take direction. It’s where the cameramen learn to compose a frame, deal with a crew, and relate to a director. It’s where a director learns to communicate with actors, deal with writers, and maybe the producers, (even if they are their own parents.)

You see the advent of cheap cameras and editing systems as being the end of proper filmmaking. When in reality it’s the future of filmmaking. Eventually the internet will be an even greater source of entertainment and the content will no doubt be the products of these “wannabe producers”.

So instead of condemning this sub-industry I put it forward to Bectu to embrace it, and nurture it.

Suppose some of the young people that are training  to be electricians and grips can work on these jobs as part of their apprenticeship. That would ensure a level of health and safety.

Bectu should come up with ways to teach these young people what filmmaking is about, including how to raise funds.

As far as these films being “seen’, other than possibly the internet or festivals, these films are used as calling cards to let possible investors see if indeed, they want to invest in future projects.

I challenge Bectu to avoid making the same mistake the record industry made in not plotting the future of their industry and now having to play catch up.

February/March 09 Stage Screen & Radio

An editorial in the Dec/Jan ’09 issue of the BECTU journal ‘Stage, Screen, & Radio’, and my response published in the Feb/March issue

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