Putting dreams on film – cheap

Got $20,000? Even $5,000? You can make a movie on a shoestring budget

For years, Tampa, Fla., truck driver and movie buff Joe Casey dreamed of stepping out of his 18-wheeler and behind a camera, and yelling "action!"

In his spare time, he says, he would troll film conventions and pitch screenplay ideas to anyone who would listen: roadside diner waitresses, other drivers – or his confidant and pet dog, Rags.

"I'll write wherever I am – whether it's at McDonald's or Hooters," Mr. Casey says.

His vision came to fruition last February when he took a week off, hired a cast of local actors, and shot his self-financed $5,000 sci-fi opus, "We're Coming To Help." A cross between "12 Angry Men" and "Close Encounters," it was filmed in a hotel conference roomover a hectic three days.

Despite the enormous setbacks novice filmmakers face, Casey and countless others are finding that it's never been easier – or more affordable – to make a movie. Thanks to inexpensive digital-video technology and Internet access, more would-be Spike Lees are writing scripts, then shooting and promoting their films directly to the public online or through networking.

"It's power to the people," proclaims veteran screenwriter- director Mark Malone, who has worked in the independent and Hollywood studio systems. "Anyone with an Apple G-4 [computer and a digital video camera] can make a movie. You can edit on a home computer."

To be sure, few of these novice attempts ever get widely distributed or turn a profit. For instance, at the Sundance Film Festival, a premier promoter of independent films, only 200 movies of 4,000 submitted for screening are shown to potential American distributors. Getting viewed at less-prestigious festivals is also a big challenge.

In addition, without the major motion-picture budgets in the tens of millions of dollars, first-time filmmakers face hurdles such as finding people to work for little pay, creating special effects, and promoting their films with little cash and no star power.

Yet many find working within a small budget challenges their creativity and places a greater emphasis on good writing and storytelling. For some, just seeing their screenplays come alive is realizing a dream.

"I have no interest in being the next James Cameron. I'm interested in making low-budget videos," Casey says. He is now viewing the footage from his film at rest stops while on the road. Casey says he wants to use his convention contacts to find a distributor and sell his film to the Science Fiction Channel.

Former insurance salesman and amateur filmmaker Pete Jones has had an easier time getting his movie distributed.

Miramax agreed to spend $1.8 million to shoot his screenplay "Stolen Summer," released nationally a few weeks ago, after he beat some 10,000 aspiring filmmakers in a screenplay writing contest. The movie chronicles the friendship between a Roman Catholic boy and a Jewish boy who are determined to make their way to heaven through acts of goodwill.

Part of the deal was that Mr. Jones agree to be filmed for a HBO documentary as he made his flick in his native Chicago for Project Greenlight, a contest set up by actors Ben Affleck and Matt Damon to encourage creative, independent filmmaking.

But even with Miramax's backing, Jones, who had written but never sold his screenplays, dealt with child actors who couldn't swim and "Survivor"-esque power struggles on the set. He says all involved groused about the budget.

New York University senior Jim Mickle also faced a few hurdles when shooting his first feature, "The Underdogs." (It's "The Night of The Living Dead" with dogs, he says.)

While he had the support of his family and friends, his neighbors in Redding, Pa., were not as kind. Moments before a scene was to be shot on a 19th-century covered bridge, a local resident drove his truck onto the landmark in protest and refused to move. The production continued only after a hastily called town meeting.

Mr. Mickle has spent $20,000 on an impressive 30-minute version of his film, shot on leftover 35 millimeter film to cut costs. He also used free music he found on the Internet, he says.

Despite meager circumstances, entertainment writer Jon Keeyes and his novice film crew turned out a polished product – one that's caught the eye of some studios.

His $75,000 horror flick "American Nightmare" was shot in his hometown of Fort Worth, Texas. Because Mr. Keeyes used costly 16-mm film, he had to convince his crew to work for little or no pay. Without a major star, studios hesitated to pick it up.But fortunately for Keeyes, he sold the video rights to distributor Monarch Home Video for $30,000. Monarch managed to get "AN" onto Blockbuster Video shelves and sold it to chain stores Best Buy and Suncoast.

Without a celebrity name or big production-company backing, these are the most realistic options for independent filmmakers. Keeyes is hoping to recoup the rest of his money in overseas rights and television.

But regardless of whether he makes money, Keeyes says the effort is worth it. "Every morning I wake up and know that I made a movie. Even with all the long hours, if I had to do it all over again I'd do it in a heartbeat."

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