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Captivating the audience with Micro-Budget Films

Fade in. Close-up of a young woman. Determined.

Standing in front of a closed, rusty metal door.

She reaches her hand -

Good stories make us forget they are not real. They take over our senses from within. Suspense, thriller and horror stories do that by connecting with our deepest desires and fears, embodied in fictional characters and worlds. Captivating a wide audience of different ages and backgrounds is not an easy task. That being said, the solution is hardly ever related to the amount of money or resources filmmakers have.

Since MiLa Media announced our open submission platform and the ambitious goal of producing 12 horror films, we received hundreds of screenplays. Our team is still hard at work sifting through the many worlds you’ve created. We’ve also received many questions about our selection process which combines both market intelligence (assessed via our network of world-wide partners) and quality measures. The latter, while subjective, is still measurable. Keeping in mind that there will be minimal resources and money, it is paramount that we crack the question of quality.

So what makes a GOOD horror film? Is it the amount of blood spilled? Is it the jump-scares? The extremity of the evil force? What separates those films which have it from those which do not?

There is no simple answer. However there are still tried and tested methods to increase the storytelling efficacy. Many screenplays submitted to us have an excellent foundation, a fascinating world and even a structure that captivates the audience. But limitations dictate micro-budget films. Single locations become repetitive. Unknown actors fail to attract audiences. Visual ‘fireworks’ are beyond reach. The list goes on and on. For a micro-budget film it is simply not enough to be good, we need to blow it out of the water.

To help writers achieve this elusive goal, we’ve decided to share some traits we identified in our most successful screenplays:

  1. Extraordinary things happen to ordinary people. A character is relatable not because of the superficial details of his/her life (job, family, pets, house) represents the average person’s life but also because his/her desires resonate with the audience. These desires and flaws cannot be abstract or remote but must be the driving force behind the action. A mother will go to great lengths to protect her children in Bird Box, A Quiet Place and The Shining, for example.

  2. Audiences crave transgressions. We want to do what we are not allowed to do, and the closest thing is to live it through a fictional character we identify with. Whether the story confirms the rules (by punishing the characters) or the characters (by rewarding them) is less important than bringing taboo elements to light for characters to grapple with. In Flatliners a group of medical students embark on a series of dangerously forbidden experiments, for example.

  3. Clear and simple actionable objectives. What the character wants must be crystal clear to the audience. The character must be able to do something in order to achieve it. After all, the conflict created to prevent her from achieving it leans heavily on our understanding of the objective. Wanting to survive may be more than enough in the climactic scene where the monster attacks, but it will not carry the rest of the film. Each scene in the film should have such an objective, and for each of the main characters. A Quiet Place opens with a scene in which the family is looking for medicine for one of the children. The objective of the parents does not entirely align with that of the kids who want to play.

  4. Psychological depth with super-objective. Actionable objectives should not be confused with a super-objective. In Every Time I Die Sam is in love with Mia and wants to be with her. This goal, however, translates into many of his actions as he pursues smaller, specific objectives (keeping Mia from leaving in a morning scene is an example for such a smaller objective). A super-objective dictates a character’s overall strategy. In The Babadook Amelia is struggling as a single mother trying to make ends meet, for example.

  5. Even deeper, establish a need. Characters are not real people, and therefore it is not necessary to create multifaceted psychological profiles for them. They do need to trick us in believing they are real, though. To achieve that a shallower profile can be created in the form of a need that the character itself may not be aware of. A conventional outcome for a film is that the character has failed in getting what it was after, but instead revealed what it really needed all along. 

  6. A twist on the familiar. An every-day super market becomes a beacon of hope in every post apocalyptic story. This principle is especially useful for micro-budget films which must use accessible and familiar props and locations. Paranormal Activity famously used low resolution security camera footage as an integral part of the story. Pick your location and introduce a twist that can only happen there.

  7. Lose the exposition. Do not tell the audience about the characters. Instead let the characters speak for themselves with their actions. Introduction by conflict is a concept used by many filmmakers. It allows the characters to express their objectives and what holds them back immediately, while establishing the setting and the tone. It Follows starts with a young woman running away from an unseen pursuer. Zodiac starts with a scene between two lovers who are brutally murdered.

While it may seem a lot, many filmmakers not only strive to achieve all of the above - they do so right in the beginning of the film!

  • It (2017) opens with a young boy running in the rain after a paper boat. The first words in the film, spoken by his brother: Be careful. One minute into the film and the paper boat falls into the drain. The boy wants his boat back. 15 seconds later he is already negotiating with a monster to get it back.

  • Bird Box opens with a woman telling her kids about the journey they are about to take. The words are harsh, almost as if talking with an army squad before a raid. But the tone leaves no room for mistake - it’s kids, and there are life or death stakes. The contras is stark. One minute into the film and we are starting the journey with them.

  • It Follows opens with a sleepy suburban street. A young woman runs out of a house. It is clear she is afraid for her life. By the one minute mark she has refused help from a neighbor and her father. Shortly after she grabs the keys and takes off in a car. We know almost nothing, other than what this character is experiencing right now.

  • A Quiet Place does take a moment to expose the world with an empty street and fallen street-light. However 25 seconds in, and we are with the family in the grocery story looking for medicine. A minute later the medicine is found and more details start emerging as the characters interact.

Many successful films distract the audience with conflict to deliver crucial information to the audience. That distraction has a name: suspension of disbelief. And it is the micro-budget filmmaker’s best friend. In order to distract the audience from the single location, lack of visual effects and no-name actors you need a good story, high stakes and characters the audience identifies with. We hope that these ideas will help you in the process of realizing your story!

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