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Small Budget, Big Dreams: Landing the Perfect Location for Less

Tips for getting the most out of your filming location and preserving precious production budget.
March 19, 2024
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A production’s location is more than just a backdrop – it’s pivotal to conveying key messages, like time, mood and atmosphere, as well as any historical, geographical or cultural context.

Clearly, location is important. But when you’re working to a small budget, how can you ensure your location does your script justice?

Don’t panic! Although budget constraints might limit your options, creative thinking, negotiation and resourcefulness can help you to find the perfect location for your production.

Plan ahead

While your script shouldn’t be dominated by location, it’s worth thinking far enough ahead to consider how much your envisioned setting could impact your budget. Considering location when you’re writing your script–or selecting the script you want to film–can have a considerable impact on the cost and practicality of bringing your vision to life.

Futuristic or far-flung settings can make great films, but they’re expensive to build, dress or travel to. Conversely, many low-budget or indie films are based on stories with roots in the real world. If budget is one of your main considerations, start thinking about what’s achievable for your story at the planning stage, while the project is still flexible enough to be adapted.

If a Locations Manager is in your budget, they can be integral to the success of your project. By examining the various elements of the script, they can help determine what’s going to require a location vs. what can be shot on a sound stage. They can also help you maximize dollars by researching locations that could potentially double for the exact location that the script calls for. If you can’t bring on a dedicated person to handle location scouting, you can rely on the support of film commissions – many of which have websites filled with reference photos. Tools like EP’s Incentives Map and jurisdiction comparison tool can also help you calculate what the optimal filming location or locations may be by identifying the best possible tax incentives.

Think creatively

The right location is essential to giving a story credibility, depth and context. For example, a dark, mystical forest can reflect the fantastical elements of a story—and the emotional turmoil of the main character—while a plain suburban setting can reflect monotony or malaise within the characters' lives. While these settings may be crucial for the script, there will be flexibility in how you create them.

Choosing a location that offers a variety of terrain, architecture styles, or combinations of urban and rural sites can go a long way—and save you major bucks. Getting creative with your cinematography can also stretch the milage of your location.

Close mid-shot tracking shots can be an indie filmmaker’s best friend, as they capture only a small part of your location on film. This allows you to make do with partial backdrops (like a patch of woods, rather than a whole forest), conveying the same feeling for a fraction of the cost. Close-up shots can also be your friend as they can limit what’s appearing on screen and heighten the emotional connection and empathy the audience feels for the characters in the scene.

Be practical

Travel and accommodation can eat up a significant portion of your budget, so thinking practically about your location is crucial. Selecting a location that can act as several settings within the film (e.g., a building with multiple rooms which can multi-task as a home, a school and an office), or better yet, limiting the shoot to a single location could be a great way to conserve funds. This may seem like an obstacle but consider how the singular locations of iconic films like Alfred Hitchcock’s ‘Rear Window’, David Fincher’s ‘Panic Room’, or John Hughes’ ‘The Breakfast Club’ helped to enhance the mood or build tension in the story.

The-Breakfast-Club-Hallway Chase.jpeg
'The Breakfast Club' / Universal

Managing a shoot in a single location also simplifies logistics and can save you time and money. Consider that in a single location you won’t have to move people or equipment between multiple points, and setup and breakdown times can be drastically reduced allowing for more efficient use of crew time. It’s also worth considering that insurance policies for film production can be impacted by the number of locations. Fewer locations reduces the risks of accidents, damage, or liabilities at multiple sites, lowering your coverage costs. 

Which leads us to our final tip…

Don’t get caught out

Filming at a particular location is far more complicated than just turning up and shooting. It’s important to be aware of the complexities before you begin so you can factor the costs – and schedules – into your budget. The last thing you want is to incur a crippling fine that derails your project, so do your research thoroughly.

There are also legal considerations and paperwork to weigh when booking a location. For example, a Location Agreement (also called a Location Permit), which outlines the terms and conditions of using a location for filming may be required. This should include the shooting schedule, fees, insurance requirements, liability and any special conditions set by the owner of the property. And at the conclusion of filming and wrap at the location, best practices would have you enter into a Location Release Agreement with the property owner in which the property owner acknowledges that the property has been surrendered in good condition and without damage.

Depending on your location, you might need additional permits and licenses, especially if it’s a public place or requires road closures. You might also require a drone or crane license. If you’re filming in a crowded public place, you should budget for security and crowd marshals and possibly traffic management staff. This can require additional permits and agreements with local authorities.

You'll also need to think about a waste disposal or clean-up plan so that you leave your location in the same state as you found it.

Creating your ideal filming location is more challenging on a small budget, but don’t let that deter you. Finding the right setting on a low budget may require more effort and creativity, but with persistence and resourcefulness, it’s absolutely achievable. And when you see your efforts reflected on the big screen, all the paperwork and creative thinking will be worth it.

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