Money-Saving Screenwriting Tips

By Scott Spears


“The enemy of art is the absence of limitations.”

~Orson Welles


So, you want to make a movie and you’re looking for inexpensive ways to do it?

I tend to thrive when given limitations or a set of conditions. For example, if you say, do anything you can imagine, I may tend to freeze up because there are so many directions that I won’t right away pick an idea or path, however, if you tell me you have a small amount of money, access to a couple of locations, a limited amount of days and know a few actors, that’s when I tend to shine. You have to be a producer and a screenwriter when you work in tiny budget land. There are ways to push finite resources to create an enthralling story that can be made on a microbudget.

First, look at what you have access to:


Who do you know that are willing to work for low to no pay? Whose schedule will work the most people? If you want to shoot in the summer, maybe use college-aged actors as they may be more available. Another tact is to look at an older cast as they could be retired and will have a more open schedule. Finally, look at your friends who you know are dedicated to building their portfolio.

Let’s say you know four or five college-aged actors and one older actor. What can you do? A haunted house movie with college kids going in on a dare but are warned away by the local historian.

For a feature, limit your cast to under six to eight main speaking roles and for a short keep at three to five actors. The more people you have to wrangle while shooting, the harder your life will be. Juggling that many characters and developing them well will also be a tough task.


Don’t write a courtroom drama if you don’t have access to a courtroom. They can be expensive to get and the red tape can be an nightmare. Think about who you know and what kind of buildings they have access to. Do you know somebody who owns a warehouse? If so, you could write a film about criminals on the run hold up in a warehouse and a couple of plucky college kids who stumble upon them and thwart the bad guys evil plans.

If you have a friend who owns a pizza parlor, you can write a romantic comedy set in a pizza place featuring the wacky owner and the hijinks that go on there.

When writing, limit your locations to four to five places. Company moves will kill productivity with people getting lost and time wasted moving gear from place to place.

Tiny Budget:

Unless you’ve got a Rich Uncle Bill or were born with the name Spielberg, most likely as a start-up filmmaker, you’re going to work with a microbudget. Filmmaking is basically problem-solving, so you have to be smart in your choices and not write yourself into a creative failure. Obviously, don’t try to make Star Wars in your backyard on $5 budget. You and the audience will be disappointed.

Classic Examples:

Night of the Living Dead – Primarily set in a farmhouse with a small main cast trapped while zombies try to get in.   Create tension among the survivors and let the pot boil.

Breakfast Club – (Yes, I know it had a known cast but imagine it with a no-name cast.)   Set in a high school with a limited cast of misfits and a mean assistant principal.

Saw – Using a few locations and small cast and trap them in a scary warehouse and you have a thriller.  (I should say, years ago, I toured the backlot they used and the filmmakers used the limited locations to great effect.)

Primer – A very small cast in homes, an office and a storage unit, add some paranoia and a time machine and you have trippy, puzzle.

There are countless other examples but what the writers did is maximize the casts and the locations for the greatest effect.  Don’t let budget limit you.  Let it free to focus on what elements you have that are affordable and put them to work for you.

Scott Spears is an Emmy Award winning Director of Photography with 30 features under his belt.  He’s also written several feature screenplays and teaches screenwriting Ohio State University.  You can learn more about him at