Thursday, 22 April 2010

The Real World of No Budget Films

In pure, that is to say, realistic terms, a ‘no-budget film’ is a myth. Leave no- budget-film to rich kids. And over-hyped websites.

For the rest of us, having a plan, and having a budget are essentials, not just media hype.

I’m tired of reading no-budget sites that begin the words  ‘whether your budget is $2000 or $100,000’ – that looks to me like a budget. 

It would be more accurate to speak about low-budget, non-commercial or volunteer-led film-making, rather than ‘no-budget’ film-making.

Let's also admit that a film can be made for next-to-nothing if you are living in an affluent country.

Let’s concede also that there are many ways to reduce costs, save money, and cut corners. Vision, versatility and sheer doggedness will get you a long way. But many of the 'costs' are simply transferred elsewhere:
  • by borrowing equipment from a government/ community organization, or from an individual, or a private, a charity or an NGO;
  • by sharing skills from those who have been taught or had the time to teach themselves;
  • by employing the time and commitment of volunteers.
It's social capital and social networks that provide opportunities for reducing the cost of film and allowing your film to get made. Also notice how important is the role of public institutions.

That said, 10 seconds of footage of human rights abuse, or a tsunami, or just an interesting POV - point of view, podcast or sound bite/ action shot on your mobile phone could have a significant impact and be sold by auction to a network, if you are in the right place at the right time. 

You can shoot 2 hours on a flip camera for $120 - but that's six months' wages in the poorest parts of the world, and you still need a means to share it, such as computer access for upload, or a suitable TV for a local screening. Cheap but not free.

Is there an ideology behind no-budget film? I don't think that any school pf philosophy has an ideological monopoly on people’s film, indy media, or low cost film – whatever you want to call it. Indy or independent films have a long tradition of showing the life of 'ordinary' people, but they are often director or auteur led rather than being community-driven productions. Globally the population with easiest and widest access to production equipment, post-production software and distribution platforms (dvd/internet) is in the United States and Western Europe. It’s material and media inequality on a vast scale.

It is also true that film-making is inherently collaborative but that doesn't stop it also being hierarchical. Even well-meaning community productions can end up being exclusive or selective at the post-production stage. Often it’s a case of time, skills and resources under pressure. So we have to think hard and realistically about participation and engagement. Are your volunteers just unpaid labour, or are they securing some kind of in-kind benefit from taking part? Are volunteers ‘extras’ or are they welcomed creative contributors and even co-creators?

Low-cost film-making is also about pragmatism and experimentation, about teaching and learning strategies. So just having a cheap camera and a 'philosophy' falls short of what I understand by community film as a participatory process. In this sense 'no-budget' may be a challenge, but isn't it also an insult, or a deception - concealing the actual costs? or failing to value the time and commitment of everyone involved.

(Maybe it's possible to be more eclectic and inter-disciplinary? I'm interested in deconstruction, postcolonial theory, pedagogic theory (Freire), (auto)ethnography, cultural materialism, situationism, performance theory (theatre in education), social policy, the grotesque, cybernetics ... )

For any low-cost community film-maker will be handling a toolkit of multiple theories and practical approaches. It takes time and thought to develop a conceptual toolkit; let's not forget that it is a precious resource.

But let’s just say this: the ability to make media such as film should be a human right, it's freedom of expression.

For participatory group work we often use the $120 flip camera - it's portable and convenient. Add a tripod for best results. It's ok for people and close up, but will not really give great sound or panoramic shots and has very limited zoom. I also like the Sony Handycams which use tapes and are about $200. An old one survived humid jungles on a 30,000 mile trip. For professional work I'd want to use the Canon XM2 and XL1, using dv tapes. These are about $2000 second-hand, or $80 a day to hire.

You can edit a film on a basic level in your camera or phone, bit it's a bit trick and clumsy. You can edit online on some sites when you have uploaded your clips if you have computer access. There's free software with MS Windows such as Moviemaker. That's very easy to use. For longer more complex films I'd use Adobe Premiere Pro for PC or Final Cut Pro for Mac. But these are very expensive so you would need a volunteer editor.

A decent tripod is essential - then there is basic sound and light equipment...

(Try working with a NGO/charity or a college/university to gain access to edit suites or to borrow equipment; maybe you can find a private business partner or sponsor?)

The distribution of non-commercial or low-budget films has flourished. Youtube is an obvious example. But how much of YouTube represents the interests of white middle-class Americans - in production and consumption? The specialist sites are much more interesting - see attached list of websites.

Many cinemas can now project dvds so that is having an impact on 'live' screenings too. What's more important is the distribution context - critical discussion and debate. I’m also very interested in cross-over activities e.g. a music concert or festival showing community films as part of their offering - it widens the variety or spectators and creates a new community of interest.

I was asked recently about going to Hollywood. Fat Chance. Yet your no budget sites appear to offer that horizon of opportunity for you. I just can't imagine what I would do in Hollywood, it has nothing to offer me. It's a bad dream factory and that's all it is. And I don't think that the alternative scene such as Sundance is accessible or really that relevant either. Are they really poor kids engaged in the transformation of their local community? For them community participation means buying the merchandise and brands associated with their work.

The documentary scene is much more radical and more interesting. I'm also really interested in how participatory video and (auto)ethnographic could be developed alongside the praxis of community development and engagement. It's also about watching and critiquing films as much as making them - you really can't separate these elements - they are folded into each other.

Film can have a big impact at negligible cost if they become popular online. But we also need to think contexts - associated blogs, discussion, debate, virals, search terms, facebook, twitter etc. Your film can enter a dialogue much more easily now, so someone with a drug problem in Los Angeles and speak to someone in Mumbai. And maybe do a deal too.

See also

Wednesday, 14 April 2010

Film, technology, games and canapes

Lord Puttnam in Birmingham.
Screen WM Event at the Birmingham Hippodrome.
10th June 2009

It was reassuring to hear Lord Puttnam speak. What an asset he is for the industry and for those who care about film.

In particular, I enjoyed his emphasis on the social role of film. It's so easy to fall in with the prophets of technological progress, innovation, and digital skills, as though these are a worthy end in themselves; as though we could eliminate poverty through digital equality and having more gadgets.

(Across most of Africa 97% of the population is not online.)

Lord Puttnam reminded us of need for a prior engagement with community and citizenship which might be supported by the dream of improved communications; social connection rather than fascist exclusion.

Also resonant for me in his speech was the notion of global dialogues and environmental issues. He was looking to the new, younger generations to raise awareness and understanding. He appeared to be critical of the lack of adequate rewards for filmmakers and the poor system for distribution beyond the mainstream. Cheaper technologies offered astonishing opportunities, but we still need to learn the craft. It's one thing to give people literacy, another thing learning how to use it for social profit. Again, it's not just having technology, its the context in which it is materialised that matters.

He welcomed the 'gaming' community but appeared to question whether they had so far discovered a founding genius who would take them to another level.

The gaming panel explored also the social and educational aspects of gaming and opportunities that may exist for innovative collaboration. I feel that there is still a great wall here for non-youth non-specialists whose perception of gaming is boys and violence and bad role models and short attention spans and repetitive strain injury and ....

It was particularly helpful to hear about some of C4's 14-19 projects as a useful corrective against the demonisation of gaming. The evening concluded with credit crunch wine, canapes and networking.

The Oxygen of Free Publicity

Time to turn up the volume and press record. Let's communicate. Getting your message out may not be as difficult as you think. When we started our community film festival in Northampton we had few difficulties gaining the attention of local, regional and national media. The BBC spent a whole day with us; we had several radio appearances and multiple pages of coverage in the newspapers.
If we had paid for our publicity as advertisement we would have needed tens of thousands of dollars. As a small non-profit venture our project needed the oxygen of free publicity to make it a success.

In these cash-strapped times a well-crafted press release is an excellent source of free publicity and not as difficult as you may think. In our rush to digital we often forget the reach, coverage and the value of the existing traditional media.

In fact, local media are hungry for news items to fill their columns. National media and regional TV, however, tend to cover larger events of ‘national’ and topical significance. But they will lend and open ear, as we found, to worth causes and innovative projects.

(If you want to copy this item into your own newsletter please credit my name and blog
Community Media - Interactive World 

Here are some tips and golden rules for writing effective press releases:

Stick to one page of A4.

Less than 200 words is good and 50 words is even better.

Use short sentences and paragraphs. You are not writing an academic thesis.

Provide ALL the information that the editor may need.

A useful reminder is to interrogate your story or event with the SIX Ws:

“Who, What, When, Where, Why, hoW”

Who and What should be covered in the first paragraph; the other four Ws must be covered elsewhere in the story.

The first paragraph should catch the journalist’s attention.

After the six Ws, consider the ‘So What’ factor. What makes your event special or unique? have you invited a local celebrity to appear, or to endorse your event? Local politicians or celebrities will often send a message of support underlining the importance of your work to the community.

It’s advantageous to provide short quotations from people: staff, volunteers, and service users.

Local media are often more interested in the personal or individual angle of a story rather than an abstract issue or concept.

To write your own headline make it pithy, witty and short. Think of a keyword that sums up what you are trying to do; use less than 6 words.

Ideally you should ask someone else to read your press release - community is an activity.

Always use a spell check before submitting your work.

Your press release begins with a publication date or


and uses


and ---ENDS---

before and after the text that you want published.

Also include


additional information about your group. The Editor may use the notes supplied if they have more space available on the day.

Finally include a section called

--- CONTACT ---

and supply all contact details an editor to follow up.

Ensure that the contact person will be available. Many stories do not appear because the journalist was unable to contact anyone after 5pm.

If you have a Communications Strategy you may be writing a Press Release once a month or more.

Sadly, many Press Releases are just sent out at the end of a project. Aim for a least three news stories for any projects. It’s more effective to build your local media relationships by involving the public in your story as it develops. Just think - all projects have a beginning, a middle and an end point - as well as challenges and setbacks that you can use to your advantage.

Use local surveys and face to face interviews to increase dialogue and interactivity. If you are using digital social media these functions will be easy and inexpensive to build into your work.

Announce successes but also appeal for help when you face challenges. Look out for milestones such as volunteering targets met, funding awarded, service user achievements, awards and endorsements.

After sending your news follow up with a phone call - voices build media relationships.

Dr Ian McCormick is Director of The International Community Film Forum and Festival, and works as a social media activist.