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Every Screenwriter Should Know How to Write for Low Budget Movies

In some cases a screenplay can get passed over or not sell to a particular buyer because it’s written as an expensive over-the-top blockbuster. Despite how many summer and holiday blockbusters we may see, don’t be fooled into thinking that those expensive sets with hundreds of visual effect shots are what buyers (aka distribution companies) are always looking for.

In fact, you could probably count on one or two hands how many studios or distribution companies are producing a hundred million dollar movie these days. The vast majority of distributors out there are looking for great stories that can be done with realistic production budgets and not the types of budgets that could immediately put their company out of business if the movie flops.

Depending on the story you’re telling, as writers, we should try and keep budget in mind, but at the same time not be so concerned with it that it hampers the writing process. So what’s the best way to write a screenplay that is at least somewhat budget conscious?

Limit Your Cast

You know all those cool characters you added into the screenplay that may not have a name? Some of those scenes that require large scores of people to witness a certain event? Once in production, all those people will be considered extras and will need to be paid.

As you’re writing that scene where your main character is in an intense police chase on foot and jumps into traffic somewhere in downtown Manhattan while jumping off the hood of every car he sees — just keep in mind all the people needed in that scene to make it look realistic even if you didn’t write them in.

Again, don’t let these types of things hamper your creativity, but if your intention is to keep the budget modest just challenge yourself to see if the scene could be written in a more clever or economical way.

Night Time Exterior Scenes

If you’re writing a contained thriller or an indie film you plan to maybe raise funds for, then understand shooting outdoors at night time could potentially require more resources depending on what’s in your scene. Night time shots still require a good amount of lighting and if your location takes place in the middle of nowhere then those lights will need to be powered by things like generators since there’s no power sources nearby.

Whether filming in the day or night, when the scene is an exterior shot the film crew will have a ticking clock to get that scene done — the sun setting or the sun rising. If your exterior night scene(s) can’t be setup and filmed before the sun rises or sets, then the crew will have to wait for the next day to pick things back up.

Be Mindful of Stunts

It should go without saying that you should limit the car crashes, explosions, extended fight scenes, shootouts and anything that typically would require stunt doubles. If you’re writing an indie, then avoid all of that completely.

A good way to think about it is that if you know someone could possibly get hurt then just be mindful with how far you go into executing that scene. Again, depending on what kind of movie you’re writing, it’s just something to keep in mind.

Avoid Period Pieces

Period pieces usually require additional production design, set building and more makeup as well as wardrobe for the most part. To really make the story feel like a specific time period there has to be an acute attention to detail in every scene which could get costly.

When’s the last time you’ve seen a telephone booth in the city? Well, if your story takes place in a time where that was common then consider that an extra cost. Imagine how much work goes into something shot in the 1950’s or 1920’s when the world looked like an extremely different place.

This may sound repetitive, but it’s worth stressing after every point — this is not a hard and fastened rule that you need to avoid period pieces, but only to be aware so you can make an informed decision based on your goals for the screenplay.

Limited Locations

If you’ve got 52 to 70 scenes in your screenplay, go back and see how many locations you’ve included. Keep in mind that for every location, the film production has to setup there as well as break down in order to get to the next location within a certain amount of days.

Those days they have to shoot is based on things like the overall budget for the movie and above the line talent’s availability. Also, the types of locations can have an impact on your movie’s budget as well. If your story takes place in The White House or prominent places most people recognize then a set will either have to be created or the production will have to travel to that location to film.

While all this is dependent on what kinds of locations you have written into the story, the main take away is to just realize that a lot of various locations will add to the budget and take away from the amount of time the filmmakers have to shoot.

Does your story really need to open in Antartica with multiple arial shots and include scenes that take place in Hawaii, downtown L.A., the international airport and the Taj Mahal?

With technology these days, a lot of what gets filmed in your screenplay and its execution will come down to the experience of the filmmakers. The producers, director, director of photography as well as others will all have ideas on how to fake certain things for the big screen, but being aware of the things mentioned above will at least help you to make that job easier.

This way you can understand where they’re coming from once you begin to go down that deep rabbit hole of rewrites because you wrote a script with three hundred actors and fifty night scenes that takes place in seven different countries ?

Check out this list of movies that were filmed in a single or limited locations.

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Jay Carver

Jay Carver is a screenwriter, director and producer. Through his production company J-Style Films, he has done work for companies such as Turner Broadcasting. In the past, he has worked with Hollywood actor Omari Hardwick and won several film festivals including "Best Director".

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