IndiVision: A Pathway for Low Budget Filmmakers

First published in Metro Magazine. All headshots in the article were taken by Monique.

As this article is still being sold online by Metro Magazine, please contact Monique for the pdf version.

It is encouraging to see IndiVision, an initiative of the Australian Film Commission, tackling the huge problem of competing with overseas blockbuster movies. This does not imply that we can compete with the overall profits of such films, but rather we can still make excellent films that people want to see.

IndiVision accepts that budgets are generally small in Australia and has decided to focus on the very low end of budget filmmaking. If you’re fairly new on the feature film scene, then you can expect your budget to fall in this category. (Why would someone invest large sums of money in you when you haven’t proved your mettle?) They have also realized that low-budget filmmaking is here to stay in Australia. Thus, it follows that we need to become experts in this field: experts in a consistent, pragmatic and yet visionary way.

Into the lab: a holistic program

Pathway for budget filmmakers by monique hohnberg

The week-long project ‘laboratory’ held by IndiVision is one of their main initiatives. Generally, six to eight film project teams attend the workshop, which is held in Sydney and is free. Being accepted by the lab opens up wonderful opportunities for your film. Megan Simpson Huberman, director of the IndiVision Project Lab says:

Rather then spreading our resources amongst all the projects, which we do with the rest of our slate, we [pick] a few to give a big push behind because we think they’re going to be great. We give them all these other opportunities once they have attended the lab.

In addition to the lab, team members receive money for up to two further drafts of the script, opportunities for overseas travel grants, and to attend marketing and pitching workshops. Teams are also eligible to apply for production funding of their project.

IndiVision is unusual in that the entire project, not just the script, is evaluated and challenged. This means that the director, writer and producer must all attend the lab. Script development occurs with local and international advisors. Directors work closely with a visual consultant to work on the visual language of the film. They also get an opportunity to rehearse and shoot some scenes with experienced actors and edit them. Producers must provide a draft budget. This budget and producers’ production strategies are then evaluated and challenged by advisors. Past advisors include producers Julie Ryan (Ten Canoes [Rolf de Heer, 2006]), Lynda House (Muriel’s Wedding, [P.J. Hogan, 1994]), John Maynard (The Boys [Rowan Woods, 1998]), director Steven Vidler (Blackrock [Steven Vidler, 1997]), and writers Andrew Bovell (Lantana [Ray Lawrence, 2001]) and concept designer Rowan Cassidy (Moulin Rouge [Baz Luhrmann, 2001]).

International advisors are brought in to give an international perspective. Award-winning producer Paul Mezey was one of the consultants this year. Based in New York, Paul has made films such as Maria Full of Grace (Joshua Marston, 2004), Everyday People (Jim McKay, 2004) and Half Nelson (Ryan Fleck, 2006). Variety magazine selected him as one of the ‘Ten Producers to Watch’ in 2004. The other international advisor was Mogens Rukov, one of Europe’s most respected screenwriters. Mogens co-wrote the award-winning feature Festen (Thomas Vinterberg, 1998) and wrote numerous other features. He was also the script consultant for Dogma works – The Idiots (Lars von Trier, 1998) and Mifune (Søren Kragh-Jacobsen, 1999) – and other Lars von Trier films.

Budgets: economies of scale

IndiVision works towards ensuring that your film can be profitable. The size of the budget, the audience potential and the ability to make a profit are all interrelated. When approaching the project in this fashion, it is possible to work towards a sustainable outcome. Megan advises that:

‘People have got into the habit of thinking that if I made a $4 million film, then my next budget needs to be $7 million, and the next, $12 million. But really, what the rest of the world and we are saying is the budget for the film relates to the audience potential of the film. So if you’re doing something that is really distinctive and unusual, but has a smaller audience potential, then it needs a smaller budget. So we really want to encourage even very experienced people to develop low budget films.

As a first-time feature-film director, Michael Bennett had never really considered the budget and audience potential in his thinking. Michael went unwillingly to a session with Rolf de Heer’s producer, Julie Ryan. ‘It was absolutely fantastic. Rolf has made moderately high budget productions, but has chosen to go back to a model of low budgets. Julie spoke about what makes a low budget possible: size of the cast, number of locations, size of crew and more. It has impacted enormously. I didn’t want to have these kinds of conversations and I wasn’t interested in that side of things. If I am realistically talking about a low budget film, reality has to intrude at some point …’

Finding the distinctive angle

Furthermore, IndiVision focuses on using the low budget to your advantage. If you have a low-budget film, then you need a strategy. If, for example, performance is the most important thing then you have to prioritize. You need to make sure you have the right actors and are shooting it in a way to bring the performance out. This may include a smaller crew, appropriate frame composition and time for rehearsals. This then gives the film its essence. Megan says: ‘Once you start to choose it actually gives the film a personality. Working on a small budget is more stimulating.’
This approach can be used in other ways: for example, if one of the characters in the film is the city, then the number and type of locations and choice of film stock become particularly important. It all depends on what you decide is the most important thing in your film. Small budgets don’t allow you to have everything and this then creates the need for a strategy.
An overall general advantage that low budget films offer is the performance. Megan advises that ‘a low budget feature can offer an intimacy of emotions and vividness of performance, which can sometimes be lost in a larger film’.

Developing the creative producer

During the week, IndiVision introduced participants to different models of producing, often providing a challenge to the traditional role of the individual producer in Australia. These international models are all aimed at making your film sustainable and profitable. First, the Danish use a production company model that employs approximately fifty people including eight to ten producers. Each producer works with a couple of projects and their directors. It is estimated that two out of ten films make a return, so the production companies try to make approximately ten films a year. This gives them critical mass and a chance of success. Furthermore, because the budgets are generally low, they have a greater chance of return. In Australia, producers tend to work by themselves or with partners, and make a film every few years. This can be difficult to sustain.

Secondly, IndiVision is challenging the traditional role of the individual producer in Australia. In other countries, independent producers play a far more creative role in the film. They are heavily involved in the creative process from the very beginning of script development. They work closely with the scriptwriter, editor and director on all aspects of the production.

One of the participants, Jamie Hilton, producer of The Waiting City, says that: [IndiVision has] also introduced the idea of a creative producer … having a creative harness to the very internal practical things that a writer goes through when they are writing a screenplay. We have seen examples of creative producers from Europe and America. The AFC is trying to introduce that here. I think it is a really positive thing.

A unified vision: scripts, shooting, teamwork

IndiVision accepts projects that range from those being in early development through to those that are close to script lockdown. They expect a certain hallmark of quality from the project and the teams. The teams must all have at least a short film credit and that includes the writer. If applicants have only made a short film then it must be distinctive and of high quality. The teams can have a wide range of experience, however, Megan warns:

I would be reluctant to accept a project that is in early development and with a very inexperienced team. In this situation, the teams are not experienced at getting feedback and don’t know their project very well. They can think every idea is a good idea and get blown from pillar to post.

The budget for the film relates to the audience potential of the film. So if you’re doing something that is really distinctive and unusual, but has a smaller audience potential, then it needs a smaller budget.

Film projects of any genre are able to apply to IndiVision. The projects at the February 2007 IndiVision lab ranged from sci-fi/horror to drama and arthouse. Gary’s House, a screenplay by Debra Oswald, was originally written as a play. It was shortlisted for the NS W Premier’s Literary Award and is on the high school syllabus in New South Wales. Even though the play is a highly polished piece of work and Debra has worked extensively on her screenplay, she still found IndiVision had much to offer. Debra says:

When a script has been around for a while it can get a bit calcified. [The IndiVision lab] has all been about removing that. I actually feel incredibly invigorated and excited again in a way that I never thought was possible. We have improved the rhythm and sweep of the film, changed the pacing, and are following the character a little more closely.

Other projects were at a very different stage of development and focused on other aspects of the film. Director Claire McCarthy is working on her new feature, The Waiting City. The rehearsal, shooting and editing process at the lab specifically allows team members to work on a scene from the script that they are unsure about. Claire used this sequence to explore some vital elements of the film. Claire says:

It was one of those scenes that are a big turning point for both characters and I wanted to crack open the pathology of the relationships. I wanted to see what would happen if I changed a few given circumstances and explored where they were at emotionally. We had a great time and it opened up a whole lot of questions that I need to think about.

Advances in digital technology have opened up many new opportunities for low-budget filmmakers. About five years ago, the Australian Film Commission responded to the needs of the industry, recognizing that there was a lack of information and guidance about the particular characteristics of low-budget filmmaking. Many script-only workshops were running in Australia, but what emerged was the need for low-budget filmmakers to develop all aspects of the project simultaneously. Megan says:

When you develop a low-budget feature, more than any other kind, you need to develop the whole project. All those parts feed into each other. You shouldn’t just develop the script and then, when it is locked off and perfect, think about how you are going to make it … I looked at script-only workshops where the director and writer were held apart the whole week. A gap of information results. Also, one of the most important things we emphasize is the team-building, because with a low budget you need to be incredibly united about the vision.

IndiVision: a range of services

The first lab was held in 2005 and has been running with great success since that time. As well as the project lab, IndiVision offers a range of other services: they provide access to low-budget, big-film advice through seminars, screenings with extensive Q&A sessions and a comprehensive newsletter. The services help disseminate practical information to the low-budget filmmaker. There is also a production fund, which invests in films able to be made for less than $2 million. All film teams are able to apply, not just those who attend the lab.

IndiVision began in 2004 and ten features have been funded in this time. Of the ten, three were from the project lab. One of the projects from the lab, Black Water (Andrew Traucki and David Nerlich, 2007) has sold to eleven territories worldwide whilst still in post-production.
The project lab is run once a year and is open to feature film projects of all genres. The films must be able to be made for less than $2 million. All teams need a project in order to apply. Applications can close up to five months before the lab occurs so planning is essential. The next round of applications is currently scheduled to open in October 2007.

Monique Hohnberg has worked as a digital media specialist for NSWFTO and WIFT Australia. Monique now works as professional writer and actor. Her writing includes plays, films, poetry, reviews and feature articles. 

First published in Metro Magazine.