Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Budgeting your movie

Lots of people are considering making their own independent movies. Or at least putting together financing. With High-Def cameras relatively cheap and editing that can be done on your MacBook Pro – suddenly feature films are way more affordable.  And there's Kickstarter if you don't mind competing with the Mamet sisters.  This prompted a Friday Question that is worthy of a full post. It’s from Liggie:

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):

Me: Why?

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.


Richard Rothrock said...

It all depends on what kind of film you are making and how cheap everyone is willing to work. The original PARANORMAL ACTIVITY cost $15,000 and the largest item in the budget was pizza.

Carol said...

Have you seen/heard of the movie Birdemic? (see also: Riftrax)

It's sort of a masterclass on how not to do a film; almost as if he read your advice posted here and did the exact opposite.

It's rather brilliant in its badness. Kind of a Manos, Hands of Fate for the new millenium.

Joe Menta said...

I recently saw the science-fiction thriller "Moon" on Netflix, and really enjoyed it. It was dark, moody, with very ambitious sets and effects (both seen in great variety, too). I mean, it didn't have a "Prometheus" or "Transformers" level of lavishness, but it definitely looked like a solid, professional $80 million dollar movie. I was flabbergasted to see in the special features part of the DVD that the movie cost $5 million. Amazing! So, it IS possible to make "big" loking movies for a reasonable amount of money.

Verna said...

There isn't one cell in my body that wants to go through any of that! I just want to write'em, walk away, letting the chips fall where they may (after getting paid, of course, and a reasonable percentage). I only have so many brain cells . . . I can't burn'em up on 'fog'.

Johnny Walker said...

I've heard rumours that so-called ultra-low-budget films usually have much bigger budgets than are reported, but then again, maybe they're just being spread by line producers like the one above.

I would guess there's three main tiers when it comes to budgets: Everyone works for free. Everyone works for cheap. Everyone works for their normal price.

I take it the film never found the right budget, Ken?

Joseph Scarbrough said...

Hi-Def is a myth. I want 35mm film to make a comeback.

And catering? I'd tell my people to bring their own lunches.

Harvey the Invisible Rabbit said...

Here's another thing. Everybody talks about the PARANORMALs, the BLAIR WITCH PROJECTs, the early KEVIN SMITH films, but what they DON'T mention is that the films WE saw aren't the films that were made first (except for maybe Robert Rodriguez's $7500 dollar film and even that wasn't true)... WE saw the film AFTER it got a bigger budget, etc. We seen it after somebody had a PR machine and a true believer got involved in the film...

A cheap film will be a cheap film unless somebody decides its worth investing in so to improve the look and feel of it.

Johnny Walker said...

Harvey is right. I forgot that Smith put the original cut of CLERKS. on the tenth anniversary DVD -- and while it was mostly the same, there was some terrible bits (the original ending for one).

They didn't have any sound effects or rights to use the music they'd peppered throughout the film, that only came after they got money. Plus, without advertising, nobody would have known about it.

Yet another reason that Kickstarter is paradigm shifting, I guess: You can make a movie, get it to everyone who wants to see it, and never fall into the red.

Frank Paradise said...

Would have been cheaper to supply free weed and get a team of eager stoner volunteers to exhale around the camera instead of those expensive fog machines.

Jeff H 52 said...

Jeff Hirsch
Or get 230 million budget like my brother in law and have Disney down your throat expecting a billion in box

Dan Ball said...

School projects are great ways to make cheap films. Unfortunately, they're not that great because you're still learning how to make them that way.

We were able to get the Marriott lobby for free because we were willing to shoot on a Sunday afternoon/evening in between check-ins. Plus, we used fellow students and school equipment. The only budget we needed was for the gas to get across town and cookies.

D. McEwan said...

Free way to do "Fog": drill a hole into the line producer's skull and let the fog inside it seep out and then use that for free.

I have always been baffled by budgeting. I can't budget a month on my income, let alone a movie. It's something I couldn't do in a million years.

In college, I made a 20-minute student film (The Sensuous Vampire. I sill have it. kinda fun in a rank-amateur way) for a total of $60. (1970 dollars.) It was never budgeted, but after I was done, I went back and toted up what I'd spent on it, as it came entirely from my pocket. $60. Of course, I was shooting in 8mm, not even Super 8, regular 8mm.

Mark said...

For no-budget sci-fi, check out the old British show Sapphire and Steel (particularly the first two arcs) the creatures are done with lighting changes, disembodied sound effects and actors who look ordinary but somehow out of place.

That and lots of ominous dialogue -- call it sci-fi Pinter.

cadavra said...

Yeah, it's those unknown costs that kill ya. When I got the permit to shoot in Burbank, I wasn't aware--until it was too late--that you're required to have a cop there at $90 an hour with a four-hour minimum.

Storm said...

@Joe Menta: You beat me to it. The entire time I was reading this, I was thinking about how "MOON" was the last sci-fi film I really enjoyed, and that Jones made it for peanuts (in Hollywood money). Further proof that it's about the story, dialogue, and CHARACTERS, not the effects. Love that movie (and would even if it wasn't directed by Zowie-- I mean Duncan Jones ;)

@cadavra: You made me think of one of my favourite bits in one of my favourie movies, "ED WOOD", when they're filming "Glen or Glenda?" on the street in broad daylight:

Cameraman Bill: Eddie, it's the cops!

Ed Wood: We don't have a permit... RUN!

Cheers, thanks a lot,


Eric said...

Great post (as always.) As someone from Central California though, I've got to point out it is Tule Fog not Tulie Fog. Sorry for being "that guy."

JB Bruno said...

As a line producer who budgets a lot of low budgets, the guy who budgeted you film missed many rules of budgeting, but certainly the first one: "what budget are you aiming for".

Most scripts that are done on lower budgets could certainly be made for much more, so I always start with what range they are looking at. If the person says they don't know, I at least start with the SAG Indie contract levels as guides: "$200K? $650K? $1.5M? $2M?

Of course, sometimes you get a script that MUST be more money, but if a first-time writer/director with a side job asks me to budget, I assume he does not have access to $10M.