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Arts & Entertainment

Spike Lee’s 6 Tips for Budgeting an Indie Film

Written by MasterClass

Last updated: Jul 16, 2020 • 3 min read

Spike Lee is perhaps best known as the filmmaking master behind iconic films such as Do the Right Thing, Malcolm X, Inside Man, BlacKkKlansman, and Da 5 Bloods. Ever since Spike taught himself the ins and outs of film budgeting while producing his first indie film, he's gained insight that is indispensable to young filmmakers.

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Spike Lee Teaches Independent FilmmakingSpike Lee Teaches Independent Filmmaking

Academy Award–winning filmmaker Spike Lee teaches his approach to directing, writing, and producing.

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Spike Lee’s 6 Tips for Budgeting an Indie Film

Creating an accurate film budget is an essential part of the preproduction process for independent filmmakers. If you’re a filmmaker or line producer working on your film's budget, Spike Lee has some useful tips to ensure that you use your finances wisely.

  1. Set realistic expectations. Spike's first feature film script coming out of film school was School Daze, but he knew that movie would cost at least $4 million to make. "At that point as a filmmaker, I was not going to get the money, so I had to put it on the shelf," Spike says. Instead he made the low-budget film She's Gotta Have It for $175,0000, and afterwards he used his new Hollywood credibility to raise the $4 million needed to make School Daze. The lesson? If you write a script that you can’t realistically shoot at this moment, shelve it until you can raise the money needed to make it. Or, be ready to make compromises that will allow you to make the film for a realistic amount of money. For example, if your film requires expensive visual effects, you could reduce your postproduction budget by thinking of cheap, creative ways to use practical special effects instead.
  2. Study films with similar budgets. "Young filmmakers really don't have the money to have someone do a budget for them. A lot of stuff you've just gotta learn on your own," Spike says. To figure out your film production costs, he recommends seeking out copies of budget breakdowns from other directors who have made movies for an amount of money similar to what you can raise.
  3. Consider asking cast and crew to work on deferred payments. "As a young filmmaker, the biggest way to cut costs is to pay people on deferments,” Spike says. “It's not something that I like to do when I start out, but if you have little money, you have to try to put the money on the screen." Spike does acknowledge that this type of agreement requires a great deal of trust between parties. If you’re working with people who know you, they may be willing to take a leap of faith on a project they believe in. Just make sure to put everything in writing.
  4. Provide meals and craft services. "Try not to skimp on the craft services,” Spike says. “It can be a considerable cost, but it will keep your crew happy." It’s essential to feed everyone lunch and dinner during long shoot days, with snacks in between. A little bit of attentive effort on your part can go a long way in making people feel their work is appreciated.
  5. Have weather-resistant alternate locations available. "You have to always keep some locations in your back pocket so if it rains, you can go indoors,” Spike says. Losing a shooting day due to inclement weather is a big blow to an independent film budget. Instead, be prepared with a cover set, which is essentially an alternate location. Extra places to film in case of unforeseen circumstances can save your day and keep your shooting schedule and your budget on track.
  6. Embrace crowdfunding. When making Malcolm X, Spike knew he wasn’t going to have the money to finish the film. When the crew inevitably ran out of funds and the studio stopped production, Spike asked prominent, wealthy members of the Black community for donations to help him get the film made. Early screenings of the film, combined with the heavily publicized financial support, convinced Warner Brothers to restart production. Spike even put his fee for making the film back into the budget. Spike’s experience is a reminder that no matter how established you are, or how big of a studio is funding your film, you may still have to pound the pavement to raise more money. Crowdfunding is not only a revenue source, but it also puts your film on the radar of sales agents and investors, and it serves as a proof of concept to potential buyers.

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