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SCRIPT SECRETS: Low-Budget Screenwriting, Part 1

What exactly *is* low budget? Does it mean no explosions? Just a small drama? Definitely not science fiction! And no special effects or spaceship battles! But writing for budget is more complicated than that, and a small drama about a family trying to save their farm might be more expensive than a science-fiction screenplay with a giant spaceship battle.

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"Disappearance of Alice Creed"

"Disappearance of Alice Creed"

Many producers are looking for low-budget screenplays, and even some studio-based producers like Blumhouse and Bazelev Productions (who just made a deal with Universal Studios for a slate of films like their SEARCHING, which cost less than $1 million to make, and made $75 million at the box office). But what exactly *is* low budget? 

People often answer that means no explosions or just a small drama and definitely not science fiction and no special effects or spaceship battles. But writing for budget is much more complicated than that, and a small drama about a family trying to save their farm from foreclosure might be more expensive to make than a science-fiction screenplay with a giant spaceship battle. My silly STAR WARS take off for Roger Corman DROID GUNNER (aka “Cyberzone” currently embarrassing me on TubiTV), has a big spaceship battle and a post-earthquake underwater Los Angeles and was made on a very small budget... but I read a drama about saving the family farm (for a contest a few years ago) that would have been much, much more expensive to make. It’s not the genre that is expensive.

write it film it

But if it’s not spaceship battles and explosions, what *does* make a screenplay expensive to make? How can a small drama be more expensive than a science-fiction film? In my book Write it, Film It on writing a low-budget screenplay either for you to film yourself or to sell to a low-budget genre producer or independent producer, I look at all of the things that *actually* make a film expensive and how you can write a screenplay with maximum production value for minimum cost. The problem with a small drama is that there is a limited audience for films like that, which means the film’s budget might be low... but the film’s box office (or video rentals) will also be low.

You want minimum cost and maximum audience.

Though movies like BLAIR WITCH PROJECT and PARANORMAL ACTIVITY are the extreme examples of this, there are plenty of genre films like SEARCHING and those films you see in Red Box that you have never heard of, that were made on a low budget... but don’t *look* low budget. The way that Blumhouse makes thrillers like THE GIFT and horror flicks like INSIDIOUS (cost under $1m, made $99.5 million) are by following most of these 15 Steps To A Low-Budget Screenplay... broken into three parts. I know that these work, because I have a bunch of produced films where I used these steps when writing the scripts.


Each one of these steps may require that you retrain your brain to think in terms of budget. Though these 15 things are aimed at writing a low-budget screenplay that you can sell, they also work for writing a low- or no-budget screenplay to make yourself. The additional thing to do if you are making your own film is to take an inventory of everything that you have access to—and write a screenplay that takes advantage of those things. On my first produced script, the embarrassing NINJA BUSTERS, the producer gave me a list of every location he had, every car his friends owned, every strange skill that his actors had, even his friend’s pets! And I wrote as many into the screenplay as I could... because each was “free production value.” So, if you know someone who owns a Jaguar (car or cat) put it in the script! When writing a screenplay to sell, think of what’s *easy* for the producer to get. If you write in a Jaguar (car or cat), that’s something that the producer will have to rent—a cost above the “base cost” of making the film! If your story takes place in a luxurious mansion, that’s not going to be easy or cheap to find. But an empty warehouse? A normal suburban house? An out of business business? So, with all of these things, think like a producer.


The first rule of Low-Budget Films: There's never enough money and there's never enough time. Studios can solve problems by throwing money at them, but budget-friendly films have to use ingenuity, imagination, and pre-planning. Low-budget films are made by design, and on set is the last place to discover that your script is too expensive to film on your budget. If you are selling the script to a low-budget producer it will never get to the set—they are not going to buy it in the first place. If you think they could buy it and have it rewritten for budget? Not going to happen! Many screenplays *can not* be rewritten for budget—because the type of story requires too many locations or too large a cast or some other expensive elements—and rewriting the screenplay will kill the story. So, the key is to *create* a script that is both easy and inexpensive to shoot.

[Script Extra: You Sold Your Script - Now What? The Anatomy of Screenplay Development]

Most of my films have been for cable networks like HBO and Showtime, and I frequently get studio meetings on screenplays—so I have a stockpile of more expensive screenplays... that are still written to give maximum production value for minimum cost. A producer once optioned a script that was written to shoot in a luxury hotel in a tropical country... because several had large financial incentives for productions that shot there. This producer tried to set this script up at a studio, but his last film had bombed, and he found financing on a much-reduced budget... and wanted to shoot the film in a large house that he had access to. Um, no way that would work without scrapping the whole story! I offered him some scripts that might work in that location, but he wanted this screenplay. He could never figure out a way to make it work at his budget, and the option expired. Because the concept itself was for a film larger than his budget. Low-budget screenplays are *written* to be low-budget screenplays. You can’t usually rewrite a script to work. So, that scheme you have of “just shooting the script yourself”? Might not work, because it wasn’t written for you to shoot yourself.


Every new location means a crew move. The producer has to pay the crew to pack all of the equipment into the truck, drive to the new location, and unpack the truck. That is wasted money that doesn’t show up on the screen. A low-budget producer needs every single dollar to be on screen! So, the fewer crew moves in your script the better... the fewer locations the better.

You want to avoid “traveling story” ideas—where characters go from place to place. Most action movies have the Hero going from location to location to catch the Villain or prevent them from carrying out their evil plan. You may think I’m talking about globe-trotting films like the MISSION IMPOSSIBLE movies, but even a typical cop film goes from location to location all over a city. That’s a “traveling story,” and due to all of those crew moves, is expensive to make before we even add the car chases and explosions. We don’t want that kind of concept, we want a story that has a Central Location where most of the story takes place. More like DIE HARD, or better yet—the original ASSAULT ON PRECINCT 13. Instead of the rogue cop living on the edge going to different places and encountering the action, the action comes to her at the central location. This requires that you come up with a story concept that is *centered around a location*. And you can find those ideas for every single genre—except maybe the road movie. Romantic comedy? Find a place where a couple can meet—a resort, a book club that meets at the same location, a wedding destination for mutual friends. There are a million places that could be the *anchor location* for your romantic comedy.

And not all of the scenes need to be at that “anchor location”; in fact, it’s best to have one primary location and maybe three to six secondary locations to give the story some variety and remove any claustrophobia. If you watch any of the Blumhouse movies like THE GIFT or INSIDIOUS or even HAPPY DEATH DAY they all have that central location where most of the story takes place, with a few secondary locations to break it up. HAPPY DEATH DAY is an amazing idea because, like RUN LOLA RUN, it reuses the same locations again and again as part of the story concept—that means that they can film all of the scenes in the dorm room at the same time, all of the scenes in the grassy area between buildings at the same time, etc. And all of those are on the campus where the story takes place! But even on a film without a time loop, your story will be visiting the same handful of locations again and again.


If you or the production company that you sell the screenplay to is going to be filming half of the screenplay at that “anchor location,” you need to find a place where drama and conflict can take place... and that is also interesting to look at. So, when you are brainstorming a few dozen possible places that can be an “anchor location” for your action or romantic comedy or horror or thriller or drama screenplay, look for the most interesting ones. Places that will be easily available for the production company to rent, but still add a little personality. There was a time when every super low-budget action flick took place in a warehouse—because they were easy to find no matter what part of the world you filmed in. For someone (like me) who watched stacks of low-budget action films, that got old fast!

Use your imagination and find a place that will be easy and cheap to film in... and different. I look for types of businesses in decline that will be inexpensive to set dress. Sure, there are a lot of department store buildings like Sears that are empty right now, but think of all of the merchandise you will need to make it look like a real store! Too expensive! Unless your story has it as a closed department store. There are always restaurants going out of business, so that might be a good choice. My TREACHEROUS (1993, 20th Century Fox) screenplay was about an off-season resort hotel. I have an unproduced screenplay that takes place in a ski resort off-season—though that’s a pretty specific place, there are several near Los Angeles. My SHOOTER ON THE SIDE screenplay (made, unreleased) took place in a bar... because you can usually find one to film in. I saw a science-fiction flick at the Portland Film Festival TIME LAPSE (2014) that takes place in an older apartment building... because the writer knew there were often buildings closed due to back taxes and available to film in. The great thriller DISAPPEARANCE OF ALICE CREED takes place in a standard 2 room apartment—though it may have been a set, they could easily have rented it for a month to shoot in. There are often vacant office buildings.

Even with the central location being around half of your screenplay, you don’t want to use a bunch of different rooms inside the central location - because even though you don’t have to pack all of the equipment into a truck, you still need to tear down all of the lights and move it to another room. So focus on maybe 3 or 4 rooms within the central location. The fewer the better.

[Script Extra: 20 Screenwriting Myths]


When we come to the three to six other locations in your screenplay—you want to focus on only *one* room in each. Remember to build contrast between your locations. If your central location is indoors, make sure some of your secondary locations are outdoors. We don't want a claustrophobic script! Again, look for visually interesting locations that are fairly easy to find. If your central location is a suburban home, you don’t want a suburban home for one of your other locations—everything needs to be *visually* different. You also want to avoid locations that require extras—crowds. *One* of your locations can have extras, but you want to pick locations that aren’t going to be expensive to rent or to “furnish”—even when furnishing people.

One of my tricks is to take a ruled 3 x 5 index card, number it from 1 to 7. Every time you type a new slug line, write it down. When you've filled the card, no more slug lines: you have to choose someplace already on the card. This is a great tool no matter what the budget because it forces you to “return to the scene of the crime”—which is interesting at any budget!


A great high concept will automatically lower your budget—because the *idea* is the special effect. In the Write It Film It book, one of the no-budget films that I look at is COHERENCE (2013) from the writer of the animated film RANGO, made for $50,000. It’s about a tear in whatever separates our world and all of the parallel versions of our world during a blackout caused by a comet flying very close to Earth... and a dinner party among close friends that turns into chaos when alternate versions of them crash the party... not acting a bit like themselves. The *idea* has a character going outside... and returning... different. How this is shown visually is they have a bunch of blue glowsticks leftover from some concert and they give them to the people who go outside (there’s a power outage)... and when they come in they have *green* glowsticks or maybe red ones. And nobody notices this for a while. The whole film is a mind-bender that makes you question who *you* are and how well you now your close friends. Wild science fiction with alternate dimensions... the cost of the science fiction? Actors play multiple roles and different colored glow sticks.

TIME LAPSE is about a couple and their loser friend who is crashing on their apartment’s couch, who find the crazy inventor who lives across the courtyard dead... and his latest invention—a camera that takes pictures 24 hours into the future. The camera is aimed at their apartment front window... and shows what will happen to them a day from now. Each comes up with a scheme to use the camera for their own gain, with the loser friend doing some sports betting that gets some gangsters curious about how he keeps winning... and lots of twists and violence results. Cost of this science fiction? The writer-director had to practically write it backwards to know what would happen next. Oh, and this big prop machine that was probably made of scrap parts from a junkyard (it looked like an old movie projector).

[Script Extra: Cracking the High-Concept Code]

In the book, I suggest you look at old episodes of TWILIGHT ZONE and OUTER LIMITS and maybe BLACK MIRROR for inspiration, and HITCHCOCK PRESENTS and THRILLER as well. The old TV shows were made on cheap TV budgets, so the ideas were often the main special effect. Movies like THE TERMINATOR are similar to a (cheap to make) stalk and slash horror flick, in that it’s a killer chasing the “final girl,” except there is time travel and an “I’m my own grandpa” twist in the story with Kyle Reese being the father of his mentor. Most of the film is just an actor chasing people and being indestructible... there’s that one great scene where he does some eyeball repairs that requires special effects, but almost everything else is just an actor—that we believe is a robot from the future disguised as a human. The idea!

Blumhouse’s UPGRADE is like DEATH WISH with a twist—a man and his wife are mugged by thugs, the wife killed and the man paralyzed from the neck down. But a scientist has an experimental implant that can give the man the use of his body... and an upgrade that gives him super-strength... which he uses to track down the thugs who killed his wife. So *he’s* almost like a Terminator. And the big special effect? A scar when he takes off his shirt! The idea is the special effect! Come up with a great idea, and you automatically raise the production value and lower the budget!

In part 2, we will look at the importance of Genre, how Interesting Structures can elevate your story, Limiting Cast, Confined Cameos, and all of those danged Uncontrollables that you should avoid in your story!

[Editor's Note: Check out Bill's entire screenwriting book series on Amazon!]

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