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Tiny Budgets Can Lead to Big Breaks

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Tiny Budgets Can Lead to Big Breaks
Photo Source: Robb Rosenfeld

Micro-budget filmmaking is the new actor’s showcase, according to filmmaker Rick Rosenthal.

Whether it’s for an emerging performer or a television actor looking to cross over into film, micro-budget features can be a powerful vehicle. With budgets usually around $1 million or less, filmmakers have more freedom and can take risks with plot and casting.

“What micro-budget filmmaking allows actors to do is say, ‘Hey gang, let’s put on a show,’ ” said Rosenthal, whose new $300,000 feature “Drones” screened at the AFI Fest in Los Angeles. The actors are “getting exposure and they’re getting to do projects they really want to do in roles that they might not be seen in otherwise.”

It also gives actors the experience of a different kind of production. On “Drones,” Rosenthal shot large chunks of the script in a single take. Eloise Mumford, who plays one of two Air Force officers piloting a drone over Afghanistan from a trailer in Nevada, said it was almost like doing a stage play. “We did 20 pages all the way through until the camera ran out,” she said Nov. 9 at an AFI Fest panel discussion at the Roosevelt Hotel in Hollywood. “It was really exhilarating as an actor.”

Rosenthal founded Whitewater Films, which takes that kind of let’s-put-on-a-show approach to its micro-budgeted production slate. The company produced “Drones,” which stars Matt O’Leary alongside Mumford, and “Afternoon Delight,” which had a cast that included Kathryn Hahn, Juno Temple, Jane Lynch, and Josh Radnor.

“I’ve always been surprised that actors who have a certain power don’t use that power,” Rosenthal told Backstage.

He described a television star he knew years before who was exploring career options beyond his day job. “I would talk to him about optioning some books,” Rosenthal recalled.

After some back and forth, he said the actor declined to option John Grisham’s “A Time to Kill.”

“That was the role of a fucking lifetime,” he said of the part that was ultimately played by Matthew McConaughey. “The real power is for an actor to begin to develop material that he or she can then shepherd.”

He pointed to actors such as Brad Pitt and Reese Witherspoon, who have established their own production companies and developed their own pet projects.

To find financing, Rosenthal says he targets investors who are wealthy enough to potentially suffer a loss on their investment.

“If you’re going to put your house up to finance this movie, don’t do that,” he said. “But if you have extra cash lying around that you might have gone to Vegas with or you might have bought some cocaine with, you’re my guy.”

With the advent of crowdfunding and the potential Securities and Exchange Commission rule change that could allow independent films to sell stock, financing is easier—but the rub, according to Rosenthal, is distribution.

“Distribution exists, but it’s harder and harder and harder to find,” he said.

Films that do get distributed tend to punch above their weight.

“A lot of the [micro-budget] movies we’ve seen break through are small movies, but they have really tasty roles,” he said, adding “There are also a lot of shitshows that actors stumble into.”

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