Micro-budget methodology

Here are some views to consider for crew:

  • Pay my rate or I don’t help: One Head of Department had an inflexible view to working on low-budget jobs and basically said – ‘no low budget job has ever returned the favour [with future full-budget work]. I always end up the loser.’  In this article, I differ with such a view. I argue that in moderation, it’s good to be involved with special projects. However it is incumbent on the crew member to negotiate and satisfy their own bottom line so to avoid feeling like they are being taken advantage of.
  • Rent equipment to production: The sting of low rates is neutralised by those who can make up the shortfall with equipment rental. Certainly it helps if you get your cameras, lights, grip, sound, stunt props and art supplies gear etc. on board, even if reimbursement is still a fraction of the standard.
  • Sacrifice rates for experiences: One long held view is that sometimes it’s worth sacrificing rates for the experience of working with new genres and shooting styles. For example, if the low budget job has a large green-screen component then that can attract the DoP who is looking to get into larger budget movies that require this skill-set.
  • Assistants get the rear-end of the deal: One DoP I spoke with was aware of the benefits for HODs as in the above point. However he said there is no such benefit for assistants and that they stand to gain much less from the whole transaction. Not all assistants need to ‘step up’. Many are of course very good at what they do and enjoy the assisting positions, rather than have ambitions to climb higher.

One further perspective worth noting is that of Dave Gibson, CEO of the NZFC. He originally made this point for the upcoming NZ Techo magazine and was happy to be quoted here as well:

… if you go back a few years there was definitely some disquiet around the Escalator scheme and I was very aware of that when I came into the job. I think making some of those films at $250,000 was very ambitious and some only got finished because people worked for very low rates and a lot of favours were called in. Although a couple like Fantail and Housebound were successful! That said we have been trying to encourage the scope of the films and the budgeting to be realistic.
     – Dave Gibson

So while there isn’t legislation around it, with the Film Commission advocating for realistic budgeting, it does put the onus squarely on the producer and director to consider ‘what is fair’ rather than ‘how little can we get away with’. 

My stance is that we must accept jobs on their own merits and not rely on promises. There is an interesting dynamic or principle in action behind any person who gives ‘business charity’ (i.e. discounted rate to carefully selected projects) without expecting something in return later down the track (i.e. a promised future full-paid job). This principle means that somehow, through some means you might not expect, you will be repaid for your services.

If you will excuse me sharing a personal example, I have concrete evidence of this:

Ten years ago, I worked on a short film with an established TVC director and producer team. I was offered a nominal rate befitting the NZFC funding it had received. A few years later I was in the running for a totally independent overseas project shooting in NZ. Being an unknown, they were uncertain about me, yet they happened to know the editor of this short film. This association coupled with the short film’s producer verifying that I wasn’t a complete idiot, tipped my fortune to get this job which ended up being worth $20,000. I’m sure you will have your own examples of favourable breaks due to ‘who you know’.

Sound recordist Ande Schurr during Orphans & Kingdoms

Sound recordist Ande Schurr during Orphans & Kingdoms