On various screenwriting forums, I've seen people's pitches include an estimated budget (say, $4 million). How the heck do they come up with these figures? I figure an average sci-fi script would cost more than a rom-com due to special effects, costumes and the like. But wouldn't there be a lot of other variables that throw estimates off track?
There are a gazillion variables. Your first step is to enlist someone to draft a budget who knows what the hell he’s doing. In other words, someone who’s done it before. If he’s any good (and that’s always a big IF) he’ll know what’s needed, what’s not needed, and where to get/rent/borrow/steal what you need. These are the line producers. Good ones know tricks, how to cut corners, when you can shoot without a permit and not get arrested.
And then whatever their projected budget is – add to it. There are always items you don’t figure in – like covering bail.
I once wrote an independent feature set in Bakersfield. I hired a line producer to come up with a budget. I almost passed out when I saw the final number. $10 million dollars. I was hoping for something like $40 thousand.
So I went through it line-by-line and saw that he approached this as if it were AVATAR. There were thousands allotted for plane flights… between Los Angeles and Bakersfield. First class yet. It’s an eleven-minute flight! Thousands were set aside for gifts. Towncars on stand-by, separate hair, make-up, and wardrobe people for each star.
And this was my favorite: There’s a half-page scene where a character comes out of a club at night following someone and discovers it’s so foggy he can’t see his hand in front of his face, and of course he loses the person. (Thick Tulie Fog is a Central California staple in the spring.) Again, a half page scene. The producer had it budgeted for $1 million. This was the conversation (almost verbatim):
Producer: Are you kidding? Do you know the amount of fog machines I would have to rent to make fog that thick in an open area… and sustain it? Not to mention renting them from LA and hauling them up here and hiring extra personnel to man them. This is a huge undertaking. I hope I can do it for just a million.
Me: Uh huh. Okay, fine. But let me ask you, is there possibly any other way? Can you think of any other options for doing this scene?
Producer: No. Not really.
Me: (exploding) It’s FOG! We can’t SEE anything! Shoot it in the corner of a sound stage with one fog machine! Do it optically and don’t film anything! It’s FOG. At NIGHT.
Needless to say, I did not use his budget.
But getting back to you, let’s discuss some of the variables. The genre is certainly a big factor. Sci-Fi movies generally will be more expensive than rom-coms. Doing scenes in weightlessness will require more than a young couple on the couch at your parents’ house.
The big question is how many days will you need to shoot the film? Each day is costly. You want the minimum number, but you don’t want to be so rushed that it’s either impossible to finish in that time frame or you have to compromise to the point where you ruin your movie. How experienced is the director? How experienced are your actors? How experienced is your crew? Are there a lot of set-ups? Or stunts? When you’re doing the scene where the astronauts are weightless are you going to need to have an apple floating in space? Fruit takes time. Do you have scenes that must be shot at daybreak? Is weather a factor?
You get the idea.
There are also details you may not be considering but also must be addressed. Restroom facilities. Catering. If you’re using actors and crew people who are working for scale or even gratis, you have an obligation to make them as comfortable and appreciated as possible. Are you shooting outdoors in the cold? You better provide a warm haven and lots of hot chocolate. Do you know any hookers who would give blowjobs for an on-screen title of "Executive Producer?"
On the one hand you want to get as many pages done a day as possible, but especially if your people are providing their services for free (and you haven't hired the hookers), it’s not really fair to work them like galley slaves.
What about re-shoots? It’s generally a good idea to have a day or two of those figured in. But that’s expensive – you have to reassemble everybody (and the actors may no longer be available depending on when the reshoots are). You have to decide going in whether reshoots are a necessity or luxury.
How much are you planning to spend on music? Will you commission original music or try to get clearances for existing songs? The Mamet sisters can't be cheap if you want to use one of their classic tunes. And who tracks down those clearances?
Sounds complicated, doesn’t it? And yet, you hear stories of people who make full-length feature films that look gorgeous and have sweeping battle scenes and cost $19. I don’t know how they do it, but they do. Ultimately, the key is getting the right person to do your budget and signing up for as many credit cards as you possibly can. And not spending your entire budget on fog.