How embracing the micro-budget feature film can open new opportunities for the emerging screenwriter

 

Micro-budget films offer screenwriters an opportunity to find filmmakers to collaborate with or try their hand at directing an original screen idea outside the traditional confines of the industry. No longer a niche form, the micro-budget feature film is an increasingly popular mode of filmmaking that makes a virtue out of its financial constraints and limitations. It has enabled filmmakers to explore screen ideas with greater creative freedom and make films that often go against the grain of mainstream cinema.

This essay explores how the micro budget feature film can be used as a way of developing skills and experimenting within the production environment of a feature length project. Using existing interviews with writers and directors, this essay will look at the Duplass Brothers’ micro-budget feature The Puffy Chair, as an example of using this method of filmmaking. The work of other writers and filmmakers will also be considered in order to highlight the benefits of this potential pathway towards making a career as a screenwriter within the film industry.

Mark and Jay Duplass’s film about two brothers who embark on a road trip with an old recliner from Brooklyn to Atlanta with their girlfriends, The Puffy Chair (2005), is an example of how the micro-budget feature film can be used as a successful pathway into the film industry. The film helped launch not only Netflix’s original content programming, but also established the Duplass Brothers as successful indie filmmakers (Zakarin, 2015). Made with a budget of $15,000, using then emerging digital production equipment, and with friends and girlfriends recruited as cast, The Puffy Chair is about as micro-budget an ‘indie’ as you can get. For the Duplass Brothers, adopting a straightforward filmmaking process was a creative decision, because as Mark Duplass says, “we knew we could make it for cheap. So we never once considered going the financing route or trying to cast big names or make it that way” (Kuhn, 2006). Doing this allowed them to circumvent the lengthy development process associated with producing studio feature films, make the film over a shorter period of time, and go on to forge their own system of low budget independent film production (Zakarin, 2015). A Sundance Official Selection, The Puffy Chair went on to screen at South by Southwest, where it won the Audience Award. The film demonstrates a quality highlighted by Dave Itzkoff in his review of the Duplass Brothers’ memoir Like Brothers. Itzkoff says: “they represent a style of storytelling that’s naturalistic and unapologetically earnest, along with a supportive, if-we-can-do-it-you-can-too spirit of creativity’ (Itzkoff, 2018). The inherent DIY creativity within the micro-budget model is taken further by Mike S. Ryan in Filmaker Magazine, in which he states: “let’s view microbudget not as a curse or a steppingstone but as a portal toward personal cinematic freedom” (Ryan, 2020), demonstrating that the micro-budget filmmaking pathway is not just a calling-card into the industry, it is also a viable creative alternative to mainstream film production for the screenwriter.

The term ‘micro-budget’ suggests a particular type of production model defined by creative and financial constraints and limitations. As a process, it embraces a grassroots ‘indie’ approach favoured by writers and directors seeking to develop their filmmaking skills. The Duplass Brothers knew that in The Puffy Chair they wanted to tell a story about twenty-something relationships and wrote the script specifically for their actors. As Mark explains, “it’s always tough to match someone to your imagination, so why not just write for someone ahead of time? You know what you’re going to get and you can play to their strengths and weaknesses” (Kuhn, 2006). Realising that they needed to strategically design a film that would be affordable to produce, they took the relationship drama and wrote the story based on the locations, people and props they had access to (Wagner, 2021). With no financial backing, they used their ‘available materials’, and limited themselves to a set number of characters, scenes, locations, and other elements that would impact upon the budget, with the bulk of the $15,000 going towards the cost of materials, transportation and the cast and crew fees (Otto, 2009). “Our goal coming into this was less about how we make the most original feature film and more about how we make a feature film that works”, Mark says in an interview with the Austin Chronicle. Adding that everything was used “to our advantage to make something that works” (Badgley, 2005). It could be argued that the reason The Puffy Chair did so well as a film in its own right, and as a pathway into the film industry for the Duplass brothers, is because they embraced the micro-budget ‘indie’ process and made it work as a production model.

One of the key benefits of the micro-budget model is its ability to empower filmmakers with greater creative freedom. Hannah Wagner writes that it was through the success of The Puffy Chair that the Duplass Brothers discovered a way of making films “that both secured the integrity of their work and their creative freedom [and] allowed them to actually make movies instead of waiting around for someone else to give them permission” (Wagner, 2021). Filmmaker Talia Lugacy highlights the financial benefit of the micro-budget model, saying that “when it comes to smaller, more personal projects, more money can mean less creative freedom” (Lugacy, 2021). Noam Kroll, another advocate of the micro-budget method of making feature films, argues that creative freedom is a unique strength which gives the micro-budget feature film its competitive edge over mainstream studio films, adding that the micro-budget model is about “taking creative risks and crafting stories that aren’t derivative, but rather are wholly unique and break new ground in some way, shape or form” (Kroll, 2020), clearly suggesting that the micro-budget film can leave a mark on both its audience and the industry.

The critical success of two recent films, Lady Macbeth (2016) and The Levelling (2016), each made for under £500,000 through Creative England’s iFeatures micro-budget filmmaking scheme, suggests that the stigma associated with micro-budget filmmaking may be disappearing (Macnab, 2016). Although schemes such as iFeatures place heavy demands on filmmakers to shoot their features within three to four weeks, they do allow for greater creative freedom, as the writer-director of The Levelling, Hope Dickson Leach, says: “it meant you didn’t have the commercial constraints and expectations on the project. It could be more personal” (Macnab, 2016). For William Oldroyd, the challenges of making Lady Macbeth within the constraints of a micro-budget provided unexpected creative opportunities: “So many of the things you might say were compromises in terms of limitations became advantages to us because it played into our ambition, an aesthetic that we had, for the period drama we wanted to make” (Wise, 2018). Both films demonstrate the growing value that is now being placed on micro-budget feature films, the BAFTA success of Lady Macbeth in particular, suggesting that the micro-budget film can compete on a level playing field with mainstream studio films.

One of the challenges facing filmmakers when adopting the micro-budget model is distribution. In a report on low and micro-budget filmmaking in the UK, the UK Film Council suggests that somewhere in the region of 15% of low and micro-budget films fail to achieve their full potential in distribution or exhibition. Reasons for this include a lack of awareness of film sales, distribution, and marketing; difficulties in getting attention for micro-budget films in film festivals; and the particular circumstances of the UK exhibition marketplace (UK Film Council, 2008a). Though, interestingly, the report also states, “from the distributor’s point of view, budget is not the most important issue” (BFI, 2008) in selecting films, adding that distributors find it difficult to find space for smaller titles without the pull of star names or higher advertising budgets. A point echoed by Mark Duplass, whose experience of distributing The Puffy Chair “was a long road, it took a year to sell the film. Everyone loved it, but apparently it’s a little difficult to market an indie film with no recognisable ‘stars’” (Hernandez, 2006). The pathway to distribution was slow, taking over a year on the festival circuit before the Duplass Brothers eventually struck a deal with Netflix, enabling The Puffy Chair to get a short theatrical run and go on DVD sale (Zakarin, 2015), grossing $195,254 in box office sales (The Numbers). In many ways, The Puffy Chair predated and predicted the indie-film distribution ecosystem we are familiar with today (Zakarin, 2015).

The Dupless Brothers’ case demonstrates that the micro-budget approach to making a feature film is not just a steppingstone into the film industry but that it is also a viable financial and creative alternative to mainstream film production. The micro-budget feature film enables filmmakers to circumvent the lengthy development process associated with big-budget studio films and explore screen ideas with greater creative freedom. Embracing the constraints and limitations of the micro-budget film not only expands the screenwriter’s knowledge of the filmmaking process, but it also enables them to hone their skills and experiment within a production environment based on creative freedom, allowing them to develop their own unique vision as cinematic storytellers.

 

References

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This work is derived from an assignment written as part of the MA in Writing for Script and Screen, Falmouth University.