Updated: Aug 26, 2020
Want to break into Hollywood?
Then you better have at least one low-budget spec script written. If not six!
Before we delve too deep, let me start off by saying this: every writer needs one BIG BUDGET SCRIPT in their portfolio. It’s that one script that they don’t hold back on. The type of story where you’re not limited to a specific budget, location count, and cast size. This is the type of script that propels your career, where you make upwards of six figures, maybe even seven! First-time screenwriter, Diablo Cody, sold her spec JUNO for an ungodly amount of money. It can happen.
My first feature I ever wrote, COLOR BLIND, would require a massive budget. It’s set in Chicago during 2004-2005 (when the White Sox won the World Series). The script was OPTIONED right out of the gate by producer Christian Peschken (Dillinger and Capone, The Spy Within), with a first-look deal at Warner Bros. After a one and a half year option, nothing came of it. The script still sits unproduced. But, it has been helpful as a writing sample.
So, if you haven’t already, write your best story. The sky is your limit, don’t hold back.
Then, put it away.
Before we begin, let’s describe what constitutes as low-budget. American Film Market and Stephen Follows submit to these numbers when defining what constitutes as micro/low-budget:
Micro-Budget in US: UNDER 400K
Low Budget in US: UNDER 2MM
Micro-Budget in UK: UNDER 150K
Low-Budget in UK: UNDER 350K
These numbers are even lower in places like Asia and South America.
After running Screenwriting Staffing, a site that fields screenplay requests on a daily basis, I would side with UK’s numbers as a more accurate figure. I very rarely have an indie producer post with me searching for a low-budget script with a budget of 2MM. If they have 2MM, they would describe their search as "moderate budget".
So during this series, I’m going to subscribe to UK's figures, as I find this to be the most accurate -- and so do many of my colleagues.
OKAY -- so, every screenwriter needs a low-budget script. But not just any low-budget script, I’m talking about a heavily contained screenplay with little to no special effects.
For starters, the script needs to be set in one location (two at the very max). I have spoken on this subject on several screenwriting panels and workshops.
The overwhelming response: it can’t be done.
I then introduce a few 1 LOCATION gems they may be familiar with:
ROPE -- directed by Alfred Hitchcock
12 ANGRY MEN -- nominated for 3 Oscars
DEVIL -- written by M. Night Shyamalan
BURIED -- stars Ryan Reynolds
PANIC ROOM -- directed by David Fincher
REAR WINDOW -- nominated for 4 Oscars
MISERY -- won an Oscar
SAW -- directed by James Wan
HUSH -- directed by Mike Flanagan
BREAKFAST CLUB -- directed by John Hughes
WOMAN IN THE DUNES -- nominated for 2 Oscars
PARANORMAL ACTIVITY -- the most profitable film ever made, based on ROI.
(NOTE: a couple had “2” locations)
These are just 12. There are hundreds, if not thousands, more. These aren’t your run-of-the-mill films, shot by amateur filmmakers. These are films made by some of the finest artists in Cinema history. The Oscars concurred, too.
This concept is not new. Take the movie ROPE. It was released in 1948. That’s over 70 years ago!
There is this myth that one location scripts only work in the horror genre. According to IMDb, only 4 of the 12 films I listed are classified as HORROR.
Breakfast Club is arguably one of the best coming-of-age comedies in the history of cinema.
After I throw out these movies on a panel, I continue the conversation with your low-budget, 1 location script must have a very minimal cast. 10 or under. Preferably 5.
That’s when everyone in the audience starts squirming in their seats.
I then list a few highly-successful films that had an incredibly low cast size (one as low as 2):
MY DINNER WITH ANDRE -- directed by Louis Malle (4 characters)
GRAVITY -- won 7 Oscars (7 characters)
WHO’S AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOOLF -- won 3 Oscars (4 characters)
LOCKE -- stars Tom Hardy (12 characters)
10 CLOVERFIELD LANE -- stars Bradley Cooper (7 characters)
THE QUIET EARTH -- based off of Craig Harrison’s novel (6 characters)
GERRY -- stars Matt Damon (2 characters)
THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT -- won at Cannes Film Festival (10 characters)
SLEUTH (1972) -- nominated for 4 Oscars (6 characters)
GLENGARRY, GLEN ROSS -- nominated for an Oscar (13 characters)
That's ten. There are PLENTY more.
These aren’t films being made by some high school kids shooting in their grandmother’s basement. These films feature mega stars like AL PACINO, GEORGE CLOONEY, and SANDRA BULLOCK.
Still, people think that only limited cast films work in the horror genre.
According to IMDb, only 1 of the 10 scripts is a horror.
Now that I have your attention (hopefully), allow me to explain why it’s so important as a screenwriter in today’s market to have at least 1 low-budget, single location, tiny cast screenplay.
Studios are no longer buying spec scripts the way they used to.
In 1993, over 170 spec scripts were bought by major studios. In 1990, 14 of the spec scripts bought by major studies sold for over 1MM.
According to Scott Myers with GO INTO THE STORY, just a little over 60 spec scripts were purchased by major studios in 2017. According to NO FILM SCHOOL, only 40 were sold in 2018. According to GO INTO THE STORY, only 32 were sold in 2019. I'd be surprised if there's a total of 15 sold in 2020, especially if you consider what COVID-19 is doing to the industry right now.
Hollywood is making less movies than ever before. There’s no arguing that. All you have to do is pick up the LA TIMES, VANITY FAIR, or VARIETY to see that Hollywood is not the Hollywood we once loved.
However, there has never been a time in history where more films are being produced.
Every college under the sun now has a film program. Getting access to film equipment has never been easier. Some of the greatest tax incentives are outside of California -- such as Georgia, Louisiana, Ohio, Kentucky, New Mexico, and West Virginia. Film commissions have spread like wildfire, opening so many doors for aspiring filmmakers and writers. Refer to TOP CITIES TO WORK AS A SCREENWRITER.
But the major influx of films is due to the internet. Producers can now connect with investors, build a business plan, then cast and crew their films all from their computer. Same goes with purchasing screenplays.
So why is this not reflected in the numbers calculated by tracking sites?
Simple. They are only tracking major sales from major companies -- mainly in Hollywood!
Hollywood has a love affair with adapting books, creating sequels, remakes, and anything with franchise power. They are investing less and less of their money into new material and newer writers, and spending more and more on material where there's a built-in audience.
have a built-in audience.
What’s worse, when it comes time to pen this recycled material, they are only hiring “proven” screenwriters. It’s a world gone mad. Hence, why Hollywood fails to get anyone into theaters Refer to CHINA IS THE FUTURE OF CINEMA.
So where are all of these “produced” films coming from?
In short, EVERYWHERE.
Film is universal. It always has been.
There was a time where foreign filmmakers would only produce projects from local writers. Those days are over. Foreign producers are now searching all over the world for writers -- especially those based in North America.
Allow me to quickly share a story as an example:
While the sale was for only four figures (much less than WGA minimum), I sold a horror feature film to a German production company back in 2018. They are translating the entire script to German, swapping the male lead with a female lead (since they have a “known” German actress attached), and shooting the entire film in Germany (which was actually set in the Midwest). Oh, and as a side note, the script takes place in one location (house), all interior shots, with only 7 characters.
Producers who were once producing films in the 20-50MM range back in the 90’s started downgrading around 2010 to the 1-2MM budget films. Now, they are only seeking material that can be made for under a million.
What does this mean?
Films are still being made.... and specs are still being sold all the time.
Go on sites like mine. Look through the success stories, and you will see spec scripts are being optioned and purchased monthly, if not weekly. Same with similar competitor sites (although, be sure to look at their IMDb Pro, as some sites struggle to facilitate real sales).
Go to any film festival across the globe. Notice how many films are being screened? A lot. Scroll through IMDb Pro, and look at all the films currently in production.
Read the trades. I’m not talking about the ones that only cover the “big” sales (THR, Deadline, Variety), but your indie film magazines. They are constantly featuring new and upcoming movies, parlayed with interviews from the producers and screenwriters behind them.
According to STEPHEN FOLLOWS, 736 films were released in US cinemas in 2017. That’s twice as much as it was in 200 -- and many believe 2000 was one of the greatest times in cinema history (Gladiator, Cast Away, American Psycho, Memento, Remember the Titans, Erin Brockovich, The Perfect Storm, The Patriot, & Miss Congeniality).
Most of these “tracking” sites don’t cover streaming services. Streaming giants are the lifeline of the industry. They are buying up new material, original material, every single day.
You will find a plethora of producers online (using all sorts of platforms, forums, and social media outlets) looking to connect with screenwriters. Why do they use these sites? Because they have been shunned by Hollywood, and are now searching desperately for new writers and scripts.
Ask anyone who has been in this business for a long time. They will tell you specs still sell, just not the way they used to.
The truth is, producers are actively searching for material all the time. But here’s the catch: money is dry. Investors are weary to fork over millions of dollars to producers -- even ones with good track records. They know the industry is shaky, and the chances of recouping their money are slim.
Think about it. Most of the money came from box office and DVD sales. Those days are long gone. The only way to really see a profit is getting your movie on Amazon Prime, Google Play, iTunes, Vudu, Tubi TV, and Vimeo On Demand -- or, if you are lucky, Netflix, or Hulu (that's where the real money is).
So what’s the surest way to guarantee a profit? Low-budget films. But not 2MM low-budget. Ultra low budget. Projects that can be made for under 250K, even 100K -- and yes, I’m going to say it, 50K!
So how does one go about writing a contained, low-budget screenplay?
First, before we break that down, let’s talk about why one should write a low-budget script (minus the obvious):
-- you will instantly get your script read. Even if the query letter isn’t as catchy as others; just stating upfront that your script can be made for UNDER 100K, has 5 characters, takes place in 1 location, will pique the producer’s interest enough to request a read.
-- it will act as an amazing calling card. Think about it, anyone can write a 200MM film, but it takes a real creative to tell the same story in 1 location. When sending writing samples to producers, this is a surefire way to blow them away.
-- because low-budget scripts are constantly getting produced. This is a great way for someone who’s never been produced to become relevant. Once you have a feature film produced, you will be amazed by how many doors open up for you.
-- it will make you a better writer. Truly, it will. Playwrights have been doing this for centuries. When writing a one location script, you really have to dig deep, there’s no room for laziness. Your creative juices must be flowing. This is a chance to flex your creative muscles. This is what separates the professionals from the amateurs.
-- your portfolio will be that much stronger. The days of writers only writing for one market or genre are long gone. Look at all the writers jumping from film to TV, and those from TV to web-series. Times are changing. And writers must be able to write for every medium and every style. Set yourself from the pack when applying for screenwriting leads by showing them a diverse portfolio.
-- I have a way of tracking how many writers are actively pursuing the leads I post. For instance, when someone is seeking a ROMCOM that can be made for a budget of 10MM, everyone and their mother submits. When someone requests a thriller-drama script that can be made for under 200K, no extras, with 1-2 locations, less than 50% of my writers submit. If it’s as low as 100K, not even 25% submit. Having a script to submit to these producers already puts you ahead of the competition.
Let’s quickly discuss how to write a successful low budget script.
The script should not exceed 100 pages. In fact, be safe and keep it at 90. If you’ve ever worked on a micro-budget production, you know that indie crews go through about 7 pages a day. So at 100 pages, you are looking at a 14 day shoot, plus 2 days off. So keep it around the 90 page mark. Don’t get caught up with all the noise about a script having to be at least 90 pages. Slow West (Sundance winner) was 76 pages. Annabelle (distributed by Warner Bros) was 86 pages.
Choose locations that are easy to access, like a home, church, office, diner, or an abandoned field. Choosing a location like a sports stadium, ship, college campus, or Times Square is counterintuitive. The goal is to choose a location that is 1) easy and cheap to film, and 2) where you have more control over noise and people interrupting your set. Half the time spent on set is moving equipment and cast to a new location. Make the producer’s life easy... keep everyone at one spot when possible.
Keep the cast size low. Do not add pointless scenes that would require extras. For example, two people check into a motel room, they go to the front desk, an employee ask for their name, programs their key card, and sends them off to their room. First, this is all very boring. Second, cut the whole check-in scene. Just have them opening their room’s door while holding luggage. You have now taken out 1 location and 1 character. Each character you write will 1) have to be paid 2) will have to be fed, and 3) will have to go through make-up. Do not add senseless characters into your story. Only characters that absolutely push the story forward.
Limited location scripts rely on character-development and dialogue. Write characters that have a distinguished voice. Not ones that rely on action to prove their worth.
INTERIOR VS EXTERIOR
A rule of thumb is to keep the camera indoors. When outdoors, you have to have a generator for lights, deal with weather conditions, stop shooting for planes passing and barking dogs, and keep the craft service table from blowing away.
When production remains inside, they have more control over light and sound. They can also keep equipment in a locked environment overnight. Otherwise, they have to tear down at night, and set it back up in the morning.
To play devil's’ advocate real quick, there was one time where shooting outdoors made sense. I was a script supervisor on a feature film called IN THE WOODS. It was a thriller-horror shot entirely at Los Angeles National Forest, which, by the way, is not cheap and requires a lot of insurance and permits. Luckily, the script only had 4 characters. Anyhow, we shot entirely outside using reflectors, mirrors, flags, diffusers, and umbrellas. We shot during the daylight to take advantage of the natural light -- and seeing it was in Los Angeles, you knew it wasn’t going to rain. Nothing needed to be plugged in. We had full control of the area, and did not have to worry about people walking in and out of our shot.
So, if you do choose exterior scenes, try to use locations like corn fields, farms, deserts, forests -- anything that’s not overly-congested.
Trust me, as soon as you start thinking like a producer, producers will take notice of your work. That's why every screenwriter should work on-set at least once. Refer to Part 3 of our Series.
It’s proven that horror is the one genre that can get away with cheap production quality as long as there are enough scares. Horror is probably the best genre when exploring the one location, limited cast screenplay.
But as my list of films confirmed, every genre works in a limited location. If you chose comedy, you better damn well make sure it’s funny. No one will want to be trapped in a single room for 90 minutes where the humor is stale and boring.
You’d be wise to stay away from action movies. You won’t have the space to really give just to the genre.
Some of the best low-budget scripts in the festival circuit are about social issues. In fact, that’s about all the major festivals accept anymore. Love it or hate it, it’s the cold truth. Audiences will be more lenient with low production quality if your story is progressive and moving mankind forward.
DON’T SKIMP ON THE ENDING
Single location scripts are not the place to experiment with open for interpretation, major cliffhangers, or “to be continued” endings. We have stayed with you for the last 90 minutes in one location. When the film is done, we expect an answer. Give us an ending, and give us an ending that satisfies us. It doesn’t mean that the ending cant be deep. In fact, it needs to be. But please, please don’t give an audience a giant middle finger at the end.
EVERYONE GETS ONE
Every low budget film has one scene or sequence that gives off the illusion that the film was made on a larger budget. This could be a car chase scene, an explosion, a gun fight, flood, fire, anything -- but you only get one.
Use this at the start of the script. If the film were to be made, this is the scene you want the audience to see first. Lead them to believe that this film had a nice-sized budget. Once the story gets going, they will quickly forget that they are in a confined location for the rest of the story.
LIMIT SPECIAL EFFECTS
This sounds obvious, but writers for some reason still miss this. There is a reason why a producer is seeking a one location script -- their budget is tight. So don’t insult them by writing in scenes that would take a 100-person crew to pull it off. Stay away from earthquakes, oceans, forest fires, military scenes with heavy artillery -- pretty much stay away from anything Michael Bay does. All of this would require a green screen or a lot of money in post -- neither of which the producer has.
I interviewed Emmy award-winner Eugene P. Rizzardi on my Screenwriting Staffing blog, who was a visual effects artist on projects such as BAD TEACHER, CHARLIE WILSON’S WAR, & HENRY DANGER. Gene said, “Many shots take weeks to months to prepare in post”, but once the film is completed, the sequence is over in “milliseconds”, he says. When asked what a competent special effects tech would cost, he said: “Over $38 per hour, 10-12 hours a day.” That’s over $450/day.
Plain and simple, without a strong story, there is no hope for success. Big budget films can still recoup profits when the story is terrible. They have A-list talent and large marketing budgets. Low-budget filmmakers only have story.
I also interviewed award-winning indie director Michael Matteo Rossi (Misogynist, Sable, Chase) on my Screenwriting Staffing blog, who knows firsthand what it takes to complete (and sell) lower budget films. “Without a compelling story, you truly have nothing else to leverage when making low-budget projects.” Couldn't say it better myself.
Writing for the low-budget market is not always glamorous, so here are a few things to expect:
-- do not expect WGA payment. There are exceptions, but if the budget is any lower than about 250K, don't expect payments in the upper 5 figures.
-- expect a lot of re-writes. When working with a smaller budget, things change all the time... an actress drops out, they can’t afford one location and move to another, or they need to move around scenes to fit an actor’s doctor’s appointment.
-- remember, writing a low-budget script (and selling it) is an investment. The end goal is to have a solid produced film under your belt. So expect an option agreement first, may only last 6-months, could last a year.
-- lastly, be open to the idea of getting only a little money up front, but being added on as a producer and making a percentage on the back-end.
I’m not asking you to fall in love with the idea of writing contained scripts. All I’m asking is for you to consider it. There’s nothing wrong with shooting for the stars. There are still those stories where an unknown writer sells their spec script for millions. It can happen.
But in the meantime, after you’ve written your blockbuster film, I challenge you to write a script for the indie market. A script that can be made on a shoestring budget, but with enough pizzazz and story arcs to win tons of awards and gain distribution.
Everyone has their own way of breaking in. But from personal experience, tracking all the sales and options through my site, working at over a dozen different film festivals across the globe, talking with industry professionals on a daily basis, and attending an ungodly amount of networking and mixer events, I have learned that if you want to maintain a career in screenwriting (at least until the spec comes back) you must write for the indie world, period.
P.S. If writing a 90-page script in one location seems too daunting at the moment, try starting with a 10-page script in one location, get the feel for it. Once you successfully do this, you may find that writing a contained feature is not so hard. Hell, I wrote a short screenplay, FROM GRINGO TO GRAVE, (60% takes place in a car), shot entirely on a Samsung Galaxy S10+, in just 2 days. It already won an award in New York City.
Need your low-budget screenplay translated? We can help: www.screenwritingstaffing.com/screenplay-translation
Here are 3 places I recommend tracking spec sales:
Learn about investing, gaining credits, or joining our team on DE GRINGO A LA TUMBA [www.screenwritingstaffing.com/gringo].
Search screenwriting jobs and screenplay requests on our job/script search board: www.screenwritingstaffing.com/screenwriting-jobs-script-searches
If you are you an industry professional or buyer searching for your next screenwriter or screenplay, you can post here for free: www.screenwritingstaffing.com/industry-professionals
In need of query letter assistance? We can help: www.screenwritingstaffing.com/query-letter-assistance
For the full interview with Gene Rizzardi:
For the full interview With Michael Matteo Rossi: https://thebackstoryscreenwritingstaffing.wordpress.com/2016/06/14/writing-the-low-budget-screenplay-screenwriting-staffing-interviews-michael-matteo-rossi
Article was written by Jacob N. Stuart.
Jacob N. Stuart is the Founder of Screenwriting Staffing, an online community that connects screenwriters and screenplays with film and television entertainment professionals. Since 2013, Jacob has helped facilitate over 250 success stories (sales, options, hires, and representation), most notably a Christmas movie produced by Hallmark in 2017. Here is a small list: www.imdb.com/search/title/?companies=co0524287
Jacob is also an award-winning and produced screenwriter, with over a decade of film experience. His films have been screened at theaters across the globe, as well as distributed traditionally through dvd/blu-ray. He currently has 3 films (2 features, 1 short) on VOD, including the award-winning film AN ADDICTING PICTURE. He holds a Bachelors in both Film and Entertainment Business from The Los Angeles Film School. He has also written for other top industry publications, including Final Draft, Creative Screenwriting Magazine, and MovieMaker Magazine.
For more on Jacob:
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