How Much It Costs to Make an Indie Movie

Video Source: Youtube

Most filmmakers’ ideal movie would be backed by an unlimited budget and full-fledged crew. However, a skilled filmmaker can use the tools at their disposal to create a beautiful film, even with little—or no—money. To illustrate the point, filmmaker Gray Kotze put together this insightful video that analyzes three films with three drastically different budgets—low-budget, indie, and big-budget—to showcase the major differences at each level and share tips for shooting depending on your financial resources. Keep reading for more information about these movie budget differences and indie film shooting costs and possibilities.


What’s the difference between studio, indie, and low-budget films?

'The Lighthouse' Courtesy A24“The Lighthouse” Courtesy A24

  • Studio: An industry film is one whose budget allows filmmakers to buy or rent all desired technical gear, build sets, pay a full crew and take the time to carefully plan and craft shots. Kotze references 2019’s “The Lighthouse” as an example of a film that had a budget to source advanced gear—including custom filters and large, powerful light sources—to create a cohesive “textured, weathered, orthochromatic look” fitting of the time period and mood of the film. He also suggests that those with an industry budget use grip rigs like technocranes and dollies that a crew can operate to create smooth camera movements—something that’s not possible with a lower budget.
  • Indie: An indie film’s budget allows the filmmaker to spend on basic gear, access locations, and pay actors and crew. Kotze still recommends finding natural light where possible, and using the extra money to supplement it with sources like LEDs, light pads, and practicals. For example, 2016’s “Blue Jay” used string lights to create a soft glow in some scenes. The additional light sources prevent the background from looking flat, especially in an indoor space with one natural light source. An indie budget may also allow for the use of at least two cameras: one for intimate close-ups, another for wide shots. Dual cameras can make an indie film’s shooting process faster and capture more diverse options for shots of the same moment.
  • Low budget: A low-budget film is shot with little-to-no external funding. When it comes to low- or no-budget films, Kotze uses his own work, “Relics,” to show how he used a single piece of equipment (a handheld DSLR camera with video capabilities) to shoot the entire thing, giving the film a documentary feel. Though limited in technical capabilities, the small camera meant that the crew could easily and subtly shoot in public spaces they wouldn’t have gotten into with a big load of equipment. He also suggests shooting in ample natural light, like outdoors or in front of a window, or indoors with flattering or practical light sources, since there will likely be no money for specific lighting equipment. Even with monetary and technical limitations, low- and no-budget filmmakers can control their framing, shot selection, and basic camera movements.

The bottom line, however, is that money doesn’t equate to a good film. It needs to be spent wisely by a skilled Director of Photography and/or director with a clear vision. And of course, a good DP can create a gorgeous film on even the scantest of budgets.

RELATED: How to Write Your Own Script

How much does an indie film cost to make?

'The Worst Person in the World' Courtesy Neon“The Worst Person in the World” Courtesy Neon

Typically, an indie film costs less than $2 million to make, though that may vary depending on location, cinematography, and cast. For example, to be eligible for the Film Independent Spirit Awards, the preeminent awards for independent film, the film’s budget must come in under $22.5 million.

Most indie films fall within the low-budget range—but not all low-budget films are indie. Mainstream studio films can also be made using a low budget, and indie films are sometimes (albeit rarely) made with a high budget. The defining element of an indie film isn’t its budget, but rather the lack of financial backing or support from a major studio.

Most new filmmakers start with a budget of between $10,000 and $25,000, which comprises both above- and below-the-line costs, as well as postproduction and other costs.

  • Above-the-line: actors, directors, producers, and writers
  • Below-the-line: production crew, equipment, location, and materials
  • Postproduction: editing and visual effects
  • Other: insurance, licensing, marketing, and distribution

How do indies compare to an average movie budget?

Mass“Mass” Courtesy Bleecker Street

The average cost for a major studio movie is around $65 million, not including distribution and marketing—quite a bit more than the usual $2 million cap for indie films. Major costs incur when booking top-name stars, paying all cast and crew minimum union rates, using CGI and SFX, and securing marketing.

Indie film budget examples and what each could cover

'Clerks' Courtesy Miramax“Clerks” Courtesy Miramax

Generally, indie film budgets range from thousands of dollars to millions. Here’s what you can expect and examples of movies made using each budget range.

  • Less than $25,000: With this budget, you need to write your own script or use a friend’s for free. You will have to direct the shoot yourself, and it will take place in one free location. You’ll likely need to hire nonunion cast and crew to stay within budget. For example, “Primer” was written, directed, and produced by Shane Carruth, who also starred in the film, on a budget of $7,000—or less than $12,000 today. It picked up the Grand Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival in 2004. 
  • Less than $100,000: This budget allows you to hire union cast and crew, even some established actors. You will still direct the film yourself, but you can rent higher-quality equipment. You will likely still need to use your own or a free script. Kevin Smith’s “Clerks,” shot in black and white because color film is more expensive, was made with a budget of $27,575. Today, that’s the equivalent of approximately $55,000.
  • Less than $1 million: At this budget, you can hire a director—even a casting director to finagle SAG-AFTRA contracts. Although you won’t be able to do much in the realm of special effects, you can hire a video editor and cinematographer. The 2004 cult classic “Napoleon Dynamite” was produced with a budget of $400,000—about $640,000 today.

Does a film’s production budget include marketing?

'Watcher' Courtesy of IFC Midnight“Watcher” Courtesy of IFC Midnight

A film’s production budget does not include marketing. The marketing budget is spent on outdoor advertising such as movie posters and billboards in public spaces or online; press advertising in newspaper and magazines; radio and podcast advertising; and online marketing through social media and movie trailers—currently the largest portion of the movie marketing budget. 

A film’s production budget also does not include fees for film festival submissions or transportation to attend those festivals should your film be accepted, so be sure to leave some budget aside for that possibility. 

Now you’re ready to get creative and make the film of your dreams regardless of budgetary constraints.

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