Want £120,000 to make a British science-fiction film? [UPDATE]

English: Eraserhead poster Français : Affiche ...

David Lynch’s hallucinatory sci-fi feature Eraserhead cost an estimated $20,000 to make: around $60-150,000 in today’s money. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Film London wants to make a low-budget science-fiction film through its Microwave film fund.

Last week I attended a filmmaking event run by ShowFilmFirst. The day included a talk by Mia Bays, the creative producer of Film London‘s Microwave film fund.

During the presentation, Bays mentioned that she wants to see more science-fictions scripts submitted to Microwave.

What is Microwave

Microwave funds feature films with production budgets under £250,000 £120,000. Since starting in 2006, it has completed seven features (release dates in brackets):

Out of these films, the two most well-known are Shifty and Ill Manors. The latter, by writer-director and rapper Plan B, came out last month has met with wide critical acclaim.

Partly due to this, partly due to the budget restrictions a micro-budget feature faces, Bays mentioned that most of the scripts submitted to Microwave are gritty urban dramas.

She went on to say that as science-fiction is the only genre not represented in Microwave’s resume, so they are very interested in making one.

But finding a good sci-fi script is proving difficult, as the ones they see can’t be shot for £250,000 £120,000.

Low-budget science-fiction is possible

The challenge science-fiction films presents to micro-budget filmmakers is that science-fiction films are usually set in worlds that do not resemble our reality.

Like a period drama, a sci-fi film about the future – even one set within the next few years – could need a great deal of design to make it believable. This doesn’t have to apply to high-tech futures: recreating 1984‘s grungy dystopia could easily demand a huge investment.

However, that doesn’t mean writing low-budget science-fiction is impossible. (After all, Eraserhead cost a relative pittance.) But there are great pieces of low-budget sci-fi cinema:

At least two of those films could have been eligible for Microwave funding, if they had been shot in London): Primer’s budget was $7,000 and took in $425,000 (source: Box Office Mojo) while Darren Aronofsky‘s Pi took in $3.22 million (source: Box Office Mojo) on an estimated $60,000 budget (source: Wikipedia) (roughly $82,000 today).

Both of these films were also major commercial successes: Primer took in six times its production budget, while Pi managed to earn nearly 54 times its budget back.

So not only is it possible to do science-fiction on a tiny budget, they can also be massive commercial successes.

Film poster for the Soviet film "R.U.R.&q...

R.U.R. – a classic work of sci-fi – was first a stage play written by Karel Capek. (Picture: Wikipedia)

Writing a sci-fi micro-budget movie

One of the best scripts I’ve seen in years is a micro-budget science-fiction thriller.

Its writer has created an imaginative, gripping and disturbing film using two locations – a farmhouse and its garden – and three characters, who are in constant life-threatening danger from each other.

So if you think that a science-fiction film cannot be shot on a micro-budget, keep the following in mind:

You can find inspiration for a science-fiction script in the news. Read Science NewsNew Scientist, Focus and The Ecologist for scientific advances, and then chew over how one – or more – might affect three people who spend time together – flatmates, a family or workmates.

The Microwave scheme

For full, and current, details on how to get on the Microwave scheme, visit Film London’s Microwave microsite.

UPDATE: The deadline for submitting to this year’s Microwave fund has passed. In earlier years, the submission deadline was in early May. So you’ve got nine months to write a script, and find your producer and director, to enable you to enter 2013’s scheme.  

In earlier years, Microwave would only fund films with production budgets up to £120,000. That level is now could be raised to £250,000 in 2013 in the future. (EDIT: I am waiting for confirmation from Film London about this. I may have mis-heard Bays during her talk)

UPDATE 2: Film London have confirmed that Microwave’s budget limit will be £120,000 for the foreseeable future. 

Microwave only part-funds films. Previous years it would It will only cover £60,000 of the production costs – teams had to source the rest of the money elsewhere.

You will also get mentoring and help developing your script.

Any screenwriter in the UK can apply for the Microwave scheme. However, they need to team up with a director and a producer based in London.

The good news is that you don’t have to shoot the film in London. Film London prefers its films are shot in London as “it’s cheaper and easier”, according to its rep. I assume this is due to Film London’s existing relationships with London’s councils, communities, businesses and filmmaking community.

Writer-directors can apply to the scheme. Bays advised that people do not apply as writer-producers, unless another producer would be working with them – the writer-producer’s workload would be too much.

Also, Microwave will only accept a complete script. You can not submit a treatment, outline, short film, or multimedia presentation. You have to treat this submission as you would submitting a script to a studio or a production company.

Film London mentioned that there is a similar fund to Microwave called iFeatures. The differences are that iFeatures aims to fund films that made in the UK’s regions – basically, everywhere that isn’t London – and that it supports budgets of up to £350,000. As with Microwave, submission close in early May. So get writing, to get yours ready for 2013’s call.

Recruiting producers and directors

Finding a good producer and director is tough – finding the former is nearly impossible – but there are sites to help you, such as:

Shooting People and Raindance also arrange monthly networking nights where you can meet a potential producer. And you can always try one of the many film schools in London to see if any recent graduates would be interested in your project.

You can also leverage social media sites in your search.

Many people in the film industry have profiles on LinkedIn and are members of filmmaking groups. The same goes for Facebook.

Filmmakers are also addicted to Twitter. You can find them discussing filmmaking under the #filmchat, #filmmaking and #scriptchat hashtags. (You can also find me there: @rcosgrove.)

My personal advice is that if you are considering working with a producer, get to know them. You not only have to trust this person and feel sure they will do a good job, but you also have to like them on a personal level. Making a feature film is a stressful business, which is slightly easier if you like those you’re working with.

Now, get on with writing those micro-budget features for submitting to next year’s Microwave or iFeatures programs. (And if you’ve got one ready, you know where to come for feedback.)

If you would like to pass on your own advice to others working on micro-budget films, please leave a comment below.

Thanks for reading.

UPDATES: I received an email from Film London, asking that I clarify and correct some of the points in this post. Additions I’ve made at Film London’s request are in italics, and errors are striked through.


3 Comments on “Want £120,000 to make a British science-fiction film? [UPDATE]”

  1. they might want sci fi scripts to be submitted, I would be very surprised if they ever selected one for actual greenlight.

    • rcosgrove says:

      If someone were to write a science-fiction film that could be made within Microwave’s budget restrictions, I don’t see any strong reason why it would be rejected on submission.
      Like horror films, science-fiction features have a niche audience. So it’s likely easier – and cheaper – for a sci-fi feature to find an audience than a drama feature.
      Of course, if a sci-fi script gets through the first stage of Microwave’s submission process, that’s not a green light. Microwave selects a slate of films each year to develop, and whittle them down until they find one.
      But taking part in this development process would be invaluable experience for rejected films’ writers, producers and directors. Potentially they could use the knowledge they gained from it to get another film fully funded and made.

  2. [...] my post on writing a microbudget science-fiction films, I received a link from K D Barker – the director of a low-budget sci-fi feature On the [...]

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