By Christopher McKittrick
Budget is always an issue for film students, so finding ways to stretch your limited funds on your student films is just as important of a skill as basic camera techniques. It’s not just about finding money to spend—it’s also about spending the money you do have wisely.
One way to learn how to effectively manage a low-budget film project is to take a look at how an amateur-turned-professional filmmaker put those skills into practice. Filmmaker Oren Peli may be the only person in film history who can claim that he shot a blockbuster movie—2007’s Paranormal Activity—entirely in his own house for a fraction of what a Hollywood production spends on catering.
The resulting film was so effectively made that, although DreamWorks initially hired Peli to remake the film with a larger budget, a successful test screening of the original version proved that remaking the film wasn’t necessary. The final release is largely Peli’s original film with some re-edits and a reshot ending.
When released in theatres in 2009, Paranormal Activity grossed nearly $200 million worldwide against a production budget of just $15,000, making it one of the most profitable movies ever released.
What can you learn from Peli’s success?
1. Use Your Environment
Securing a place to shoot your project can run into problems when the owner of that location expects payment for the use of his or her location. Furthermore, permit issues might prevent you from shooting in cities. These can be avoided entirely if you work with locations that you know you can use for free.
The house seen in Paranormal Activity was Peli’s home—and he specifically redecorated it over the course of several months to make it appear spookier on camera. Because he shot on his own property, he also didn’t have to worry about moving or storing the equipment elsewhere between shooting days.
2. Don’t Overthink the Camera
Paranormal Activity is a found footage film shot with a digital camera to mimic home videos made by the two main characters. Peli (who served as both director and director of photography) kept the camera movements simple to reflect that it was supposedly shot by amateurs. Most of the shots are done from a simple camera tripod setup. Trying to shoot the movie otherwise might have pulled viewers out of the reality of the film and also would’ve taken longer to shoot it.
3. Actors Matter
A common mistake made by student and low-budget filmmakers is thinking that just about anyone can pull off a “good enough” acting performance. After all, if you’re using your friends you’ll probably only have to pay them in pizza.
Despite his low budget, Peli did not simply cast untrained actors or people willing to work for free. He took the time to audition many actors and ensured they had chemistry before casting Katie Featherston and Micah Sloat as the leads. To ensure professionalism, he also paid them.
Working with experienced actors also paid off because Peli didn’t have a complete script. Working with Peli’s descriptions of scenes, Featherston and Sloat ad-libbed much of the film. It’s unlikely inexperienced friends fueled by the desire for free food would be able to pull off such a performance.
4. Keep a Tight Schedule
Despite shooting Paranormal Activity in his own home, Peli didn’t give himself the luxury of an open-ended shoot. Most of the work—shooting and editing—was done in a single week. This cut down on potential cost overruns in paying the actors and crew and prevented the project from dragging out uncompleted over months.
By focusing on finishing your low-budget film on a strict schedule, you’re more likely to see the results you want.
5. Find Your Audience
Once Peli completed the re-edited version of Paranormal Activity, he and the producers—including Blumhouse Productions founder Jason Blum—used unconventional tactics to market the film. To begin the hype, the initial release featured 12 screenings with low-priced tickets in college towns in the United States. To bring the film to new markets, they utilized the events website Eventful to promote screenings in other cities to discover where the demand to see the film was greatest.
The tremendous success of these screenings and explosive demand to see the film resulted in the film’s release in over 2700 theatres in the United States.
While your student or low-budget film likely won’t screen across the country, you can still learn from Peli’s example. Shooting is more accessible than before—Sundance darling Tangerine (2015) was shot with an iPhone 5S. As for marketing, Blumhouse found the population most likely to enjoy Peli’s film (college-aged students) on the internet and began the whisper campaign there. With social media blossoming since the first Paranormal Activity, you have even greater resources to find potential viewers in a target audience and to share your work with the world.
Or check out Little Budget, Big Impact: Creating an Affordable & Enticing Story for tips on writing the perfect script for a low-budget film.