This used to be known as independent filmmaking, because there used to be a very clear delineation between the Hollywood studio system and those filmmakers operating outside of that system. These days, there is no clear division: the studios have their own low-budget indie system that still provides for multimillion-dollar budgets and star power (Brokeback Mountain, fer instance), and guys like Robert Rodriguez and Quentin Tarantino are still considered to be "indie" filmmakers.
Underneath that, there are truly independednt companies (such as Asylum and Full Moon) that make movies in the million-dollar budget range, and can still have some pretty well-known actors drawing attention. The million-dollar budget is considered "ultra-low" in filmmaking terms.
Below that, there are a couple of divisions yet. They're really pretty unclear, but some pretty decent breakpoints are at the $100,000 level, the $10,000 level, and the $1000 level.
So, just for the sake of argument, let's make some judgements about the types of movies based on their production budgets:
- Level 0: $100 - $999
- Level 1: $1000 - $9999
- Level 2: $10000 - $99999
- Level 3: $100000 - $999999
- Level 4: $1M - $9.9M
- Level 5: $10M - $99.9M
- Level 6: $100M and up
Certainly there is some fudge room, but it's a rough guide anyway. Bear with me here.
What I consider "approachable" movies are those in the level 0 and level 1 categories. These are movies that can be funded by individuals or groups of individuals realistically and without financing. The level 2 and up movies start to get into the territory of needing investors and loans and business plans and the like, and are really starting to get into the professional category where you're actually looking for a return on your investment. For these purposes, I'm limiting to levels 0 and 1 (primarily because I've never been involved in a level 2 or above film in any serious way).
(Yes, there is a "subzero" level of under a hundred bucks. Most of YouTube fits in this category. Most of YouTube is also crap. You make the connection.)
Well, I will say that while it is possible to shoot a feature film on a sub-thousand-dollar budget, it's not bloodly likely that anyone will actually see it but a handful of your friends, and you will probably lose some friends along the way. Most likely you'll be shooting a short film, maybe uploading it to YouTube.
You won't be renting any equipment, and you will be shooting on DV with a borrowed camera, grabbing whatever you can for lighting. You won't be building sets or shooting in studio space, but you might be lucky enough to have a garage or a basement in somebody's apartment building in which you can do some shooting.
I've done a lot of stuff at level 0. It can be a fun place to work. Nobody gets paid, and you will not make money, but the people who really want to do it are fun to be with, if slightly insane. Most of the actors will be friends, some of which may actually have some acting talent if you're lucky.
Again, shooting a feature on under $10k is possible, and it has actually been done quite often. It's still not comfortable by any means, but it does allow you some breathing room. You probably won't be shooting on film, but you may be able to make a jump up from DV to high-def and actually have things like decent lighting and microphones. It will probably be borrowed equipment, or maybe a serious deal from a rental company, but it does help.
You're probably still better off going for a short film (less than 30 minutes) on this budget.
Nobody gets paid, but the food is pretty good, and if there is any traveling necessary, expenses covered.
You still won't have professional actors unless you have one who is a buddy who wants to do it for free, but you can still get pretty decent actors. Doesn't mean that you will, but it's possible.
You might be able to build a set, or some props. You're still gonna be on location for most things.
You might get a few people beyond your immediate group of friends to see the movie on DVD, but a theatrical release is highly unlikely unless you rent a theater and do a premiere.
Something to be aware of: the chances of you actually getting a distribution deal that will make you back your budget is about the same as being hit by lightning while bowling naked. Simply put: you will not make money making a movie at this budget level.
What you can get is recognition, if that's what you're looking for. It's still not easy, and your chances of being recognized are extremely limited, but they're probably a thousand times better than the bowling-naked-lightning thing. And there are some ways of increasing your chances of getting recognized:
1.) Your movie must be exceptional, and not in that my-mom-says-I'm-special way either. It has to be groundbreakingly earth-shatteringly exceptional. It also has to be something that hasn't been done before: nobody gives a rat's ass about your Blair Witch remake done with midgets on crack.
2.) Name actors: A name actor will get you noticed. Good luck with that. (Note here that if you are a name actor reading this, call me, I have this really cool project...)
3.) A genre movie: science fiction and fantasy fanfilms have their own following, as does horror and gore. There is a market there that increases your chance of being seen by people who are sometimes described as rabid. A good review there can really make good things happen for you.
4.) Boobies or Hot chicks in skimpy underwear: Need I remind you of the popularity of Girls Gone Wild which is devoid of any content other than boobies and hot chicks in skimpy underwear?
5.) Explosions and special effects: hard to do on a budget, but if you happen to have a pyrotechnician friend who gets to take his work home on the weekends, you might get lucky. Note though that we're not talking subtle effects here, we're talking some seriously attention-grabbing stuff.
6.) Exploitation title: Hot Lesbian Vampire Chicks in Prison is gonna get you noticed. It's a good idea if your movie actually has some connection to Hot Lesbian Vampire Chicks in Prison, or your rep is gonna get seriously trashed in the process.
7.) Political/religious commentary: it's risky because it gets dated so damn quickly and because political & religious opinion is fickle. You need something that's out there enough to get attention without labeling you as a whacko. This is more the territory of documentary than narrative, but if that's your sheep, then shear it.
9.) Oral sex: Not in the movie, but blowing the people who decide what movies make it into festivals and showings. An alternate version of this is called ass-licking. Same thing, really. Not technically, I know, but it's in the same category.
10.) Networking/pimping: sending your movie to as many people as possible who have anything remotely to do with the movie industry or publications or reviews.
There is probably more, but this is really all I can think of right now.
Note: yeah, I didn't talk about telling a good story, because that is prime for any movie that you make, regardless of budget (unless it's over $100M, then it's all about the marketing).