Alt Script: Five Good Reasons to Write a No-Low Budget Script

I believe that every screenwriter should have at least one no-low budget script in their portfolio. Even if that writer’s sole ambition is to write for Hollywood.

In this article, I want to lay out five good reasons why any writer should know how to write no-low budget, and also why getting a no-low budget film produced could be a writer’s best shot at the brass ring.

1. Writing scripts for No-Low Budget is harder than any other form of screenwriting

It may seem odd to suggest that something being harder to do, could be one of the primary reasons for doing it. However, in the case of screenwriting, it’s one of the best reasons. Show the industry that you can do something difficult and you prove that you’re valuable.

No-low budget screenwriting is difficult precisely because of what you can’t do, which is to create spectacle by spending money. A huge car chase, you can’t afford it. A gun fight, you can’t afford that either. Period costume or expensive prop builds, not in your price bracket. Basically, the lower the budget, the more the drama has to come from the relationships between the characters… or in other words, the success and failure of the project rests totally on the shoulders of the screenwriter. Not only does the writing have to be compelling to carry the story and to hold the audience, on top of that, the core concept of the movie has to be strong enough to persuade an audience to chose to spend ninety-minutes with you, as opposed to the multi-million dollar movie with the big name actors and the mind numbing stunts.

Let me be straight with you, this is the very definition of difficult.

The good news is, if you can can persuade an audience your film is worth the effort, and then give them a great filmatic experience, without spending vast amounts of money in production, then there is very little in this industry that you aren’t capable of achieving. The creation of a high-quality, compelling no-budget drama is, for me, the holy grail of screenwriting.

2. Showcase your voice and prove its worth

Everything in the movie industry is gauged by its ability to make money. Most people in the industry, including many writers, believe this means there isn’t room for unique voices. They believe that it’s dangerous to write challenging, difficult scripts that step outside of the norm, because the greater the risk, the less likely it is that producers want to make it. So, instead of becoming the best screenwriters they could possibly be, they settle for becoming a safe pair of hands. Their theory is that by showing the industry they know how to play nicely, they will succeed. They also believe that the best way to play nicely, is by providing the industry with a spec script which hits all the standard plot points, which is on trend, and which everyone feels confident in from a business point of view. A confidence they have in the script simply because there isn’t anything in it that can’t be explained by current script theory. Most of the teaching done relating to screenwriting is “safe pair of hands” teaching. Or, in other words, what people teach is largely reverse engineered from previous successful Hollywood projects. There’s nothing wrong with this approach, unless, of course, you were inspired to write movies by the kinds of artists who have always trodden their own and distinctive paths. However, the “safe pair of hands” route isn’t the only way to make your mark in the industry.

What people often forget is that the industry also supports talent, regardless of whether they understand it or not, providing they believe they can make money from it. Basically, the “safe pair of hands” rules only apply to regular folks, not to the cash-cow mavericks. There is nothing the industry respects more than mavericks who make them money, but which they can’t understand or replicate. If you look at talent like: David Lynch, The Coen Brothers, Woody Allen, Quentin Tarantino or even Kevin Smith, these guys colour well outside of the acceptable lines when it come to choice of subject and in some cases the way they approach screenwriting. And yet, in each case, they established themselves as unique voices by making films the way they wanted to and then making money with it. Once you can demonstrate that what you do will make money, the industry doesn’t require you to play nicely, it only requires you to make more money.

What this means, is that for some writers, writers who have a distinctive voice, making a no-low budget movie can be the best way to make that distinctive voice work for you, instead of working against you. If agents and producers are telling you your script isn’t commercial, you have two choices, you can either endlessly rewrite it. Change your risky, distinctive script into something they feel is safe and normal. Or, you can make it yourself and prove its worth.

For a writer with a distinctive vision, making your own films may be your best route into the industry.

3. There is more to life than playing by the industry’s rules

Not everyone is motivated by the idea of catching the industry’s attention. There are other reasons for making films. It’s not all about furthering your career or making money. Some people just want to make the kind of films they want to make, often because they believe the industry’s output is tediously repetitive or just that they have projects they want to put in front of audiences, which the industry won’t tackle. I know this may sound like a radical idea, but commercial viability isn’t the be all and end all of human existence. The idea of art for art’s sake is a very real thing. Not only that, there are audiences for all kinds of films, films that fall well outside of industry norms. So, for instance, there is a small global audience for experimental filmmaking. Not only are there online groups, there are also film festivals which celebrate the innovative and unusual. One of my all time favourite films was shot on 8mm film by a couple of Eastern Europeans. It’s not the kind of film you can see on Netflix, and I was given my copy by the filmmakers themselves, at the Milan film festival. It is a film that is unlikely to be seen outside of European Film Festivals. But, it’s still a great film and the world is a better place for it’s existence.

It’s called Slow Mirror, here’s the trailer for it.

Personally, I believe one of the best reasons to make a no-low budget film is put aside the shackles of conventional thinking and to imagine what it would be like if you could write without constantly worrying about whether what you are doing conforms to the set of rules that only really exist for spec script writing. It is entirely possible to write exactly what you want to write, exactly the way you want to write it. Even if it is your intention to concentrate on commercial projects afterwards. There is a lot to be said for giving yourself permission to be unfettered and free in your creative life. Just do it. Make a film for the hell of it and make it exactly the way you want to do it. I guarantee that there will be some people who like what you want to make.

4. Learn What’s Possible

No-low budget script writing is all about figuring out what is and isn’t possible. It means absorbing into your writing skills an understanding of what can be achieved well in production, cheaply, and what can’t. In many respects it’s the opposite of spec script writing, where you imagine something and then go out to find the resources to make your vision possible. In practical terms, this may mean that your entire project is constructed around one particular resource. Say for instance you just happen to have access to an abandoned, ex-military nuclear fallout bunker… or perhaps you are friends with a particular actor. Writing to make the most of your resources is a completely different skill-set than writing to spec.

Photo courtesy of filmindustrynetwork.biz

What this kind of writing and filmmaking teaches you, is a working knowledge of production and what things cost. On top of that, it’s also an exercise in hiding your lack of budget from your audience. In my experience, one of the best ways to make your no-low budget movie look like you’ve spent a fortune, is to base your story in an exceptionally filmatic and free to use location. When you think about it, this is a fairly obvious way to approach screenwriting. Find somewhere real, that your story would naturally inhabit, and write about what happens in that specific place. This idea of setting my story in real, visually interesting places, is something I learned through micro-budget filmmaking, but which I now apply to my spec scripts as well. Trust me, it a great way to work. Actually, don’t trust me, try it for yourself and make your own mind up.

Understanding what things cost, how to work around the expensive stuff, whilst retaining a movie’s cinematic integrity are all skills that producers appreciate. Being able to save a producer’s budget, by applying budget saving tricks you’ve learned in micro-budget filmmaking, is a very marketable skill for a writer to have.

5. Find Your Own Audience

In the film industry, the second you delegate one part of the process to someone else, you are giving them control not just of your current project but of future projects as well. Let me explain that, because it’s a difficult idea to take on board if you’ve spent your entire career being told the opposite.

Imagine you decide that you are only going to write scripts and therefore you are going to let your agent sell your scripts for you. You have just made a decision to delegate the sales process. You write an incredible script, which your agent uses to open a lot of doors. Your agent does a lot of preliminary meetings and adds ten or fifteen really useful producers and commissioning editors to her Rolodex. However, just as everything is going well with your project, Guy Ritchie announces the release date of his new project, which just happens to be very similar to your project. Suddenly, your great script has gone from being hot to being untouchable (This happens all the time, by the way). As a result of this turn around of fortunes, you and your agent have a massive spat. She stops returning your calls. You are effectively without representation again. Now, because you delegated responsibility for finding sales to your agent, your agent now has ten/fifteen useful new contacts. You don’t. Your project opened doors, but this hasn’t helped your career one single iota, because when you delegated the process of networking to your agent, your agent gained all the benefits.

If you understand the above process, you should understand the importance of being independent.

Fundamentally, the same phenomenon applies to any step in the process between writer and audience. So, if you find your own producer, but then delegate the sale of the film to the producer, you then fail to make your own relationships with those distributors, which means your fate will always be controlled by that producer.

The important thing to learn from all of this is that you do have a choice at every single point in the process. Some writers don’t want to sell their own work, because they don’t have the people skills, so for them an agent is a must. Some writers don’t want to learn how the business side of sales works, therefore it makes sense for them to work with producers who will do that for them. Some writers can’t imagine self-distributing their own movie and forming a direct relationship with their audience… so, they will always rely on a distributor to do that for them.

It’s all about choices. But at least we should know that those choices are there to make.

Conclusions

I genuinely believe that any writer who is serious about their craft should have at least one no-low budget script in their slate. I believe this because no-low budget script writing offers writers a perspective on screenwriting that isn’t given in any of the current tomes on “how to” write for film. It’s not taught anywhere, simply because the “how to” industry still sees writers as servants to the industry, as opposed to artists in their own rights. So, it teaches writers to be a safe pair of hands, rather than to be bold and innovative. On top of that there are a whole heap of useful, pragmatic skills to be acquired. Every producer loves a writer who can write to a specific budget.

Ultimately, no-low budget screenwriting is about a writer deciding to make the films they really want to make, regardless of whether they make money or whether they will appeal to mass audiences. There is something deeply satisfying about having a direct and honest relationship between what you want to write, as an artist, and what is presented to audiences. And, the truth of the matter is, the only way you’ll ever be given the opportunity to develop a unique voice in this industry is if you are able to prove that your unique way of working has commercial value. A writer who can create their own Blood Simple, their own Reservoir Dogs, their own Eraserhead, or even their own Clerks, can pretty much write their own ticket. Writers like that get a lot more freedom to make the films they want to make, than any writer who has crawled their way through the spec script system. Distinct voices in the industry earned those freedoms, by taking the risks themselves and creating their own audiences.

Related Articles:

Tools to Help:

Be Sociable, Share!

19 thoughts on “Alt Script: Five Good Reasons to Write a No-Low Budget Script

  1. Clive Davies-Frayne

    All I can suggest is you read Rebel Without a Crew by Robert Rodriguez, which is one of the best descriptions of the relationship between intelligent alt-cinema writing/production… and how the industry reacted to that. It’s a remarkable story… and he’s a talented guy. Which is the point. If you have the talent, it’s possible to think big, whilst working at achievable budget levels for an outsider.
    Something to think about, at the very least.

  2. RZapata87ramon Z

    I want to be bold, but my ideas are not low budget. I think this article is cool but people have to be able to think big. The guys who made it this way thought big, they didn’t have no budget projects. It is not true that a serious writer should slap a no low budget project just because you think it makes them better. What if my heart is not into. Low budget product? What if I don’t have any access to cool locAtions? Anyway, thanks.

  3. Tom Grisham

    The folks that do not understand this are all young over-acedemically oriented neophites. They come from a writing decipline that has nothing to do with studying at the feet of the masters. It’s like pop music today. They grew up listening to crap, so now they play crap.

    This is a wonderful article, speaking to the essesnce of why audiances buy tickets. To experience emotion via a compelling story and well crafted characters to support it.

    These mind numbed academics are the same indocrinated zombies that will gladly give up second ammendments rights because some UCLA Professor told them that “it was the thing to do.”

    What has happend culturally in the country is sad, and movies today are a big reflection of this damage.

    When was the last time you heard a movie audiance laugh at anything above the level of a “fart” gag, or some other cheap lowest common denominator approach to audiance inellect?

    Great article and observations.

    Tom Grisham

  4. Clive Davies-Frayne

    Hem – Yes, all the mavericks I mentioned also directed their movies, but what makes them distinctive is their writing.

    But if you’re looking for an genuine maverick alt-filmmaker who is solely a writer, then the person to watch at the moment is Alan Moore (the graphic novel writer of V for Vendetta and Watchmen). He’s now also an indie filmmaker, having completed a film called “Jimmy’s World.” You can find it on Youtube. He doesn’t direct… at least not yet.

    Jeffrey – You’re right, I didn’t mention how to write to a low budget in this article, because this is just one of series of articles on this subject. The rest can be found here:

    http://www.scriptmag.com/author/clivefrayne/

    The subject of how to control your budget is one of the things I am planning to write about in the next article… and, I think you may be surprised by what I suggest, because it’s although restricting locations and cast is one method, it’s not the only or even the best way. But that’s for next time (in about two weeks)

  5. Jeffrey Gallen

    Spec writers expecting to make a sale should write low budget scripts, regardless of whether they’re the quirky or “safe pair of hands” variety. The author is correct to advise against writing anything requiring effects, stunts or spectacle of any kind. He neglects, however, to advise the writer of the best ways to limit a film’s budget: limit the number of characters and locations!

  6. Hem

    A lot of good advice here about developing a unique voice, though it’s worth bearing in mind that all of the “mavericks” mentioned are also directors.

  7. Mark Dark

    sorry, 2nd of above comments the correct one. Also, you said:

    “Personally, I’m at the point in my life where I find mindless car chases, gun fights and explosions tedious. In fact, I’ll often fast forward through those sections of a movie in order to get to the next piece of story. I know that I’m not the only person who does that.”

    AGREED! Look at the end of Bourne legacy – superb bike chase at the end of the movie – what did it achieve ? Nothing because we had no idea who the character was, just ‘an assassin’ brought in in act 3 whom we had no emotional investment in. Chase for the sake of a chase. Personally I expected more from Tony Gilroy’s team. The Bond chase was equally as thrilling and this time for once, BOND outshone BOURNE as far as character sympathy and arc goes. I’m not surprised Matt Damon has opted out. And what was all the pill popping about in the Bourne. Ranting now. Great article. THANKS ! I’m writing a lo-no script now and am thinking seriously on this article. Maybe time to buy a camera!

  8. Mark Dark

    Yes, you’re right, urgency, tension and suspense. Watch SEXY BEAST. Nobody has to be doing anything, as the four ex-pats sit around the table knowing the Ben Kingsley character is on the way is enough to create huge, terrifying tension, and the urgency with which they have to come up with a plan. Or watch Homeland – the Season 2 episode where Brodie is interrogated first by Quinn and then by Carrie, and the suicide video is played back to him – hardly any action or movement, but there is urgency, tension and suspense.

  9. Mark Dark

    Yes, you’re right, urgency, tension and suspense. Watch SEXY BEAST. Nobody has to be doing anything, as the four ex-pats sit around the table knowing the Ben Kingsley character is on the way is enough to create huge, terrifying tension, and the urgency with which they have to come up with a plan. Or watch Homeland – the Season 2 episode where Brodie is interrogated first by Quinn and then by Carrie, and the suicide video is played back to him – hardly any action or movement, urgency, tension and suspense.

  10. Clive Davies-Frayne

    Thanks for the nice comments and the discussion. A lot of interesting points here.

    My take has always been that emotional engagement is the DNA of cinema. Action provides one kind of emotional engagement and action as an emotional engagement works well for some audiences. However, there are other ways to do it. Personally, I’m at the point in my life where I find mindless car chases, gun fights and explosions tedious. They don’t engage me emotionally, therefore they are not good cinema. In fact, I’ll often fast forward through those sections of a movie in order to get to the next piece of story. I know that I’m not the only person who does that.

    That’s not to say there isn’t a place for action or for action based movies. There is.

    James makes a good point, there is also more to action than just expensive car chases and gun fights. The film I often go back to, to explain lo-no philosophy is Reservoir Dogs. I would argue that the ear cutting scene is exactly what cinema is about: tension, emotional engagement, drama… and yet, all it is, is one guy tied to a chair, whilst another guy does a little dance.
    This is why lo-no screenwriting is such a good teacher, because it teaches writers to make epic cinema out of two guys in a bare room, one tied to a chair, the other doing a little dance…. the ability to do that, that well, that is the real DNA of cinema.

  11. John

    It’s not necessarily action that keeps an audience interested, but a sense of “urgency” in the scene (something that constantly pushing the story forward). Action sequences constantly have this by their very nature, but it is not limited only to car chases, shoot outs and helicopter crashes.

    You can have a scene with people pacing between the cubicles of an office aisle, handing papers to each other and talking about the company, and you can create the same sense of urgency to keep the audience intrigued, and it doesn’t cost that much.

  12. James Anderson

    Of course, Ralph has a point when is says less dialog and more action is what tv/film/video are all about. But does more dialog or less action make a film bad? I watch a film for characters, relationships, emotion and story. It’s harder to make a good film with no budget, no doubt. Only a genius can really pull it off.

    I loved “El Mariachi.” I loved “Buried.” I loved “Sorry, Wrong Number.” There are some very good movies out there that were produced on very small budgets.

  13. Cameron Young

    Great article. I did a short film recently and had to rewrite to accommodate a low budget and that made it better. As to the “drama” critique, that’s hooey. Film by its very nature, via editing and sound and emphasis on the visual, always opens up more possibilities than the stage. Watch the beginning of “Point blank” with Lee Marvin stomping through LAX. Can’t do that on the stage. Pure cinema doesn’t require big budget. Just imagination. Watch “Timecrime” if you need more proof.

  14. Ron Brassfield

    Clive, this is one of the best articles for writers (at least, for writers who are already well-familiar with all the usual advice) that I’ve seen for a long while. It’s quite well thought-out and a great reference. I’m going to Twitter this! Thanks!

  15. Clive Davies-Frayne

    That’s certainly one way to go… but if everyone did that we would never have had “Colin.”

    “Colin” cost $70 to produce.

    http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1278322/

    In my opinion that was $70 well spent.

    What’s remarkable about Colin, is not that Marc Price made a movie for $70, but that he made a very good, watchable, commercially successful and original movie for that money.
    Personally I don’t see what he or we as an audience would have gained by him putting that $70 into the development of a larger budget project.

    Sometimes it’s about having the imagination to think smaller.

  16. Ralph Aldori

    While the above has a lot of truth in it re today’s Maraket status, “good, very good & unique” is not good enough anymore and stories or business packages must be outrageously unique to make their ways towards the upper publishing and/or Film/TV echelon!

    Yes, simple 4-walls / 1-2 cameras drama is good for TV possibly, but not for a feature film wheby the location is a second “character” contributing to the drama. True, several films done abroad from India, E.Europe, L. America and even Asia that were made +/-US$1-2 MIL have risen an eyebrow, but not sufficienly rewarding distribution-wise for obvious reasons which professional veterans shouod alert the newcomers with. Rather than spending/risking such low-budget invest, better use the money for serious development/packaging thus minimizing the risks while enhancing the invest return and profit! That is if the reason for making the film is making money. Let’s not forget that Film’s dynamics is not THEATRE! Less dialogue & plenty of moving action is the DNA of what film/TV/video are all about!

COMMENT