Cinema School: Lesson 7 – No-budget Screenwriting

You have no money. You have limited locations. You have very little equipment. How in the world can you make a movie?

First and foremost, you have to be realistic about what you can actually do. If you don’t know many people, have limited resources, and the only gear you have is that old phone you found that only stays charged about 15 minutes at a time, then it may be a little difficult to produce that epic Space Drama you have been dreaming of since you were 10 years old.

The Location: You keep it simple. You keep it fun. Write about what you need and nothing more.

The Crew: You keep it small. You only use people you NEED, and plan everything as something you can do without any help at all.

The Talent: You keep the cast small. You only use dependable people. You only write scenes involving a couple of actors at a time. Anything extravagant should be left off the page.

The Edit: You have to consider the software you have and what you can do with it. It makes no sense to write a scene involving complex animation and special effects if you do not have the means to create it yourself.

Brainstorming with purpose

With all of this in mind, it is time to come up with as many ideas you can that fit within the guidelines you have proposed. After you have ideas you should look at each one and ask yourself:
What can I shoot that is fast-paced (3-5 minutes) and to the point?

Why fast-paced and to the point?

The internet has trained audiences to view short stories with condensed settings and information. If you are an established filmmaker or you are in a medium where viewers will patiently wait for you to slowly unfurl an epic quest, then, by all means, carry on.

Your job is to create content your audience wants while staying within the parameters of how they want to receive it.

Character-driven vs. Information driven

Are you creating a situational comedy, an action-adventure showcase, a horror movie, or an educational program?

Your answer will dictate what you do within your script, and what type of content you will provide. It will also determine how you shoot the video, who helps you, how long it takes, what locations are used, and what materials are needed.

Informational programs with one actor, one location, and limited crew are typically the easiest shows to produce.

Basic Story Structure and Set-up

Working title: This will be what your story is initially called.

Opening/Teaser: This is the first set of images your audience will see. It should be fast-paced and straight to the point. You want to draw your viewer into your content’s message or your character’s world as quickly as possible.

They don’t want to wait for it. They want it as soon as they begin watching. So don’t delay. Give them what they seek. Give them rapid access to the content.

The Setup: Establish the meat of the story as quickly as possible. Nobody wants to wait on your 5-minute long establishing shot.

It’s beautiful, yes, but the majority of people don’t care. They want the story and they want it pronto, so set up the problem as soon as you can. That’s right. Set up a problem that needs to be solved as soon as possible.

Provide conflict: Your viewers need to see the main character struggle against something or someone. They need a LOGICAL reason why this person cannot get what he wants.

After that, they need to see her overcome the problem or be overwhelmed by it. Good or bad, success or failure, audiences need something to happen, and it better be big.

When you are setting up the problem you need to know where you are going and what you are doing.
You need to know what questions will be answered, and what will be shown during the process of getting these answers.

Tag/Wrap up: Audiences want you to end things in a way they can accept. It does not matter if it ends in a cliffhanger as long as the average viewer can relate to it and understand it. Hardly anyone wants to see a vague ending. Outside of professional movie viewers and self-professed intellectuals, hardly any one thinks it is clever when you give something an open ending or double meaning. People don’t want to take I.Q tests. They want clarity.

You should always complete the process you started during the setup and end with a tag that ties everything together. Any cliffhangers should ask a new question, rather than continue the old.

For example: If your main character sets out to save his kidnapped girlfriend he should accomplish this during the episode. If you want to create a cliffhanger to lead into the next episode it is far better to have the fleeing couple run into a new obstacle than to end the episode with both people in a different version of the same scenario.