When producing a low budget film effort, it sometimes becomes necessary to find creative ways to stretch your budget. This can sometimes involve making hard decisions about what to spend the money on and what not to spend the money on. Sometimes it can involve asking for donated goods or services. Sometimes it can involve begging, borrowing, or yeah, even stealing.
When you need to somehow find crew to work for less than half what they'd normally get (for example), you have to think about how you and/or your film project is going to appeal to them if you're going to get them to say "OK, I'll do it."
When it comes to budgeting, I always like to start at the top, with the "hard expenses" that you know you'll have to pay. If you absolutely must have 3 key crew who you know will only work for a certain amount, and this creates a major imbalance in your preferred expenditures, then it's time to get creative.
Once you've determined who you really must pay to fill certain positions, then you can start deciding who exactly you can book (for example) as PA's who are capable (and willing) to possibly help out in the art department, wardrobe department, grip/electric department, etc. Then you can start deciding how great the food really needs to be or if you can get food donated. Then you can start looking for any and all ways to cut corners to make up for the dollar amounts you know you have to spend.
Sometimes offering a certain credit can help attract a crucial crew member, even if it's a fake credit. I once asked a Line Producer who wanted me to shoot stills on a feature and had very little to pay if she could get me an "Additional Photography" or "2nd Unit DP" credit because I AM a DP and having a "Still Photographer" credit would do little for me professionally. She was a little shocked and couldn't figure out how it was in any way doable that I'd get a credit for something I didn't do. Because she lacked imagination and initiative, never offered anything beyond the pittance she had, I never worked on the project. Her loss, believe me.
You have to use your head a little and possibly do some research to find out how you can appeal to a potential crew member (or just ask) especially if they work a lot and don't need the low rate you might have to pay.
Actors want to act. Period. They live for it. They want good roles that will allow them to stretch and show themselves off. Anything that can help them get to the next level will always be considered by an actor and/or their agent (or manager). In the absence of pay or enough pay, you have to sell them on the script, the director, the DP, and whatever else you can.
If there's potential for an actor to come away with some great material for their reel regardless of the prospect that the film ever does anything, that's something.
If the actor is interested in exploring new territory with respect to the role, the style of film, the other cast, or even the locations - that's something.
They know there's no guarantee that an Indie will ever be seen by more than a hundred people (if that), so there's gotta be something besides a naive hope that the film will blow up at Sundance. Certainly having a great script can help attract cast members. Having a great director and a great DP can help also, but in the absence of a great script, a great director will only attract potential cast if the director has a good reputation and has finished films in distribution.
Another approach is to have a cast member work on the crew. I shot and produced a feature length film once and we managed to have some of the cast do double duty as cast AND crew and they seemed quite happy about it. This way, in cases where you are paying low rates, you can possibly get certain cast because they're getting paid twice (to act and work as crew). Obviously this wouldn't work that well with principal cast, but it's entirely manageable with talent who act in a handful of scenes, and if they're very into the project - it gets them closer to it.
Remember, your best asset (in all respects) in the absence of cash is - a great script.
You can always ask for a "deal." I know I've mentioned this before, but it's customary for a rental house to give you a cost that is merely a starting point. You can negotiate, always. It's not as if you have nowhere else to go to rent gear (hopefully).
Any way you can "bundle" crew with gear is helpful as it opens the door for more money for the crew if they can rent gear to the project as well as work on it. Always check with crew about what gear they own since as long as you DO need to rent gear, it may as well come from hired crew.
In some instances, it's not out of the question to ask if any of the gear owning crew can include certain pieces of gear. Also, deals can be made with crew that could make their involvement more alluring to them.
On the very first feature length film I shot, I asked for a certain amount to be paid to me plus 2 lenses for my Canon XL1 camera, plus I asked them to hire my gaffer. They met almost all my terms and I walked away with a wide angle lens after the project was through. In that instance it was to the advantage of the project to have this purchased lens anyway, so think about these kinds of arrangements in terms of how it could benefit the film as well as the crew member being negotiated with.
Sometimes a property owner or business owner will be excited just to be part of a film project, sometimes they really won't care one way or the other. You have to keep in mind when approaching these people that their priority is maintaining their property and/or running their business. Your hopes and dreams and aspirations don't figure into their accounting, so you have to (again) think about what would make their involvement alluring to them in the absence of cold hard cashola.
If any member of your above the line team have skills that could be suggested as a benefit to those in control of the location(s) you need, then that's something to consider. If one of you is capable of designing or building websites, has access to potential customers, or in any way has some capability to promote, market, or advertise for these property or business owners, then you have some leverage.
Anytime you can trade even labor for the favor of use of a location for a film, do it. Say an apartment building manager has a bunch of garbage in the storage area and you have access to a truck and 3 or 4 people - there you go. I traded photography once to a friend of mine who let us shoot a feature length film in the newly redone apartment she was trying to rent. It may mean a little time and effort spent on your part (as a producer) and whoever else you can pull into it, but in most cases when you're short on funds, time is something you probably have to spare.
I've always been a little shocked at how easy it's been for some to get food from restaurants for film projects. There are slews of restaurants around (preferably mom and pop operations) and all you have to do is ask. If you can promise a set amount of money for a set amount of food, that's a guarantee of certain income to them. Even if you seek a discount.
One thing that helps is if you are getting press or plan to and you can mention the restaurant on the radio (or TV) whenever possible. Producing films in small cities generally allows for easier access to press who see a film project as something glamorous especially if they normally report on fires, weather, dog shows, or petty crime.
One other approach which may or may not work is to pay a certain amount to each crew member and tell them they're on their own for working meals. On commercial projects sometimes a crew, if in an area that's populated with restaurants or food shops, might be allowed to just walk away and fend for themselves.
Providing working meals to a crew opens up all kinds of logistical considerations that need to be weighed. If your craft service (you DO have craft service, right??!) is very good, then the working meals could be merely some form of sandwich food or some similar takeout food (Chinese, etc.)
Otherwise, catering services can get pricey, but you could try and enlist the help of any person sympathetic to the project who might have some spare time (parent, grand-parent, etc.) to produce decent working meals.
Work any and all connections in order to leverage what little you have to get what you need and use your imagination and some creativity in coming up with alternate ways to gain what you need to get a film made.
©2010 Chris Santucci