How to Make a Movie in Your 20s Without Going Broke

ByDaniel Lefferts

Pursuing a career in the arts has become next to financially untenable for millennials. As PolicyMic's own Elena Sheppard recently pointed out in an essay in the New York Times, "To support a career in the arts in 2013 requires a cocktail of connections, financial support, talent and tremendous luck — and many of us just starting our professional lives are choosing more stable paths."

Every creative pursuit — be it music, art, writing — poses a significant financial challenge for 20-somethings who must pay for their own materials and work to support themselves. But the costs associated with making a movie are often prohibitively steep. Even tiny, "no budget" films can cost tens of thousands dollars to make, and those lie on the absurdly cheap end of the spectrum. As of 2007, the average budget for a studio production was $65 million. For 20-somethings without the funds to pay for equipment, staff salaries, set construction, and other production costs — or without a Rolodex of potential investors — making a movie may seem like a pipe dream and little else.

But there are a handful of shrewd and tenacious young filmmakers who have managed the seemingly impossible. Indie cinema demigod Shane Carruth famously made his 2004 debut film Primer for only $7,000 when he was in his early 30s. More recently, a slate of 20-something filmmakers have followed in his stead, proving that financial and operational challenges associated with movies are not insurmountable for young filmmakers.

1. Ryan Coogler: 'Fruitvale Station'

What is it? Ryan Coolger's debut film — about the real-life police shooting of a 22 year-old African-American man, Oscar Grant III, in Hayward, California — went to both this year's Sundance festival, where it won the Grand Jury Prize, and to Cannes, where it won the award for Best First Film. Coogler, who is just 27, came up with the idea for the film while he was a graduate student at USC's School of Cinematic Arts.

How did it get made? The budget for Fruitvale came mostly from grants, as well as celebrity endorsement. The Butler star Forest Whitaker, The Help author Kathryn Stockett, and Oscar winner (and Fruitvale star) Octavia Spencer all supported or helped Coogler find support for the film.

This may seem like a story of strong connections and good luck, but it's also one of sheer talent: Coolger might not have been able to draw attention to the project were it not for the success his earlier short film, Fig. According to Filmmaker magazine, Fig "won both the DGA and HBO’s Student Filmmaker Awards," after which "Coogler’s screenplay Fruitvale made its way to the Sundance Screenwriter’s Lab. Appropriately, the film was fully shot in Oakland and San Francisco, and majorly supported by the San Francisco Film Society’s production and post-production grants."

2. Walter Woodman and Patrick Cederberg: 'Noah'

What is it? Walter Woodman and Patrick Cederberg's Noah made waves at this year's Toronto Film Festival before becoming an internet sensation in its own right. The 17-minute film (which you can watch online for free, though it's NSFW) takes place entirely on a computer screen. It tracks the dissolution of a relationship and the subsequent isolation of its protagonist, Noah, as he descends through the various circles of internet hell: YouPorn, Facebook hacking, conversations with cucumber-dildo-equipped Chat Roulette strangers, etc. The plot may sound quotidian, but as a viewing experience "Noah" delivers the kind of shock-of-the-real that only truly contemporary movies make possible.

How did it get made? Woodman and Cederberg, who are 22 and 23, respectively, made Noah for a paltry $300. And that money, Woodman told, was spent mainly on food for actors.

3. Alison Klayman: 'Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry'

What is it? Klayman's documentary portrays the life of Chinese artist Ai Weiwei, and the censorship and punishments the oppressive Chinese government has subjected him to. It won Sundance's Special Jury Prize in 2012, and earned Alison Klayman a spot on the New York Times' recent list of 20 young directors to watch out for. At 29, Klayman was the youngest director, and only 20-something, to appear on the list. (In filmmaking, as in publishing, "young" means under 50.)

How did it get made? Klayman first met Ai Weiwei when she went to China to work on various film-related projects after graduating from Brown. The documentary sprang from some freelance work Klayman was doing that involved making short videos to accompany Weiwei's shows. Because she already had a camera and shot most of the film herself, Klayman told Movie City News that "that side of it was very low-cost." Travel, she said, "was really almost the only expense that we had." To help fund her commutes, Klayman sought assistance from The Hazen Polsky Foundation in New York. "But I was pretty much off the radar before I came back to New York, and started meeting people," she said. "And then all of a sudden Weiwei was detained, and it became a very large story."