How I Made My First Feature Film
CHAPTER FOUR - The Budget Crises
In the past, budgets were never a problem for me. When you’re making documentaries and shorts for $2,500 or less you really don’t have a “budget.” But a feature film would be much more complicated to deal with, not to mention expensive. All said and done, the completed, “delivered” cost of my first feature was about $224,000.00. I had hoped to spend about 350K, but that never happened.
So, I started making a budget for the re-titled “Tin Man.” I’d only seen one feature film budget in my life when a friend-of-a-friend at Warner Bros. let me borrow a copy of the budget for one of the “Planet of the Apes” movies. What an eye-opener! Jeeze, they budgeted for labor unions, location fees, legal costs and most surprising of all, catering! I didn’t know I had to feed the crew! Did I have to do their laundry and burp them after dinner too?
As it turned out, the “Apes” budget was a good model since, by Hollywood standards, these films had very low budgets. There were no computerized budgets - everything was done by hand using a #2 pencil, these pre-printed, 14 inch, 35 page forms everyone bought at Enterprise Stationers in Hollywood. The forms hadn’t been changed since the early 1930’s and had account lines for extinct items like camera sound blimps. I soon discovered that when compared to any typical business budget, movie budgets were very strange animals. What made them so peculiar was the number of costs which were not fixed, but percentage-based. Take the completion bond for instance (please!). If your budget is a hundred dollars, at 6% the bond fee would be six dollars. But if your budget was $112.36 the fee would be $6.75. Every time you add the cost of one donut or cup of coffee the bond fee and the budget total would go up every-so-slightly. Make a small change on one page and you need to revise hundreds of numbers all over the place. I’d sometimes erase holes through the paper and have to start all over again. I resolved then, at the dawn of the personal computer age, that I’d do something about this problem. This was the beginning of Easy Budget, but that’s another story I won’t bore you with.
Struggling through a budget is not only necessary, but an important learning exercise. You must always use a good “template,” or some kind of fill-in-the-blanks format because you can never remember all the things you’ll need. The account lines not only provide a space to budget for something, but most importantly they prompt you to consider whether you’ll need this or that. You may not have thought about a Steadi-Cam, but maybe there’s a scene that could use one? Perhaps you didn’t even consider taking publicity stills on the set, but you’ll wish you had later.
I was astounded by the amount of detail required in a feature film budget. But after a few films it didn’t seem to be enough! Gradually, I started to learn what I really needed and what I could do without. (With the amount I was planning to spend, I had to do without a lot!) What eventually grew into Easy Budget was based on this experience. Not everyone has 50 million to spend. In my gut I felt there just had to be a way to budget and make a film for very little money. I proved you can, but it’s very difficult to pull off. You have to train yourself to look at budget estimation in a whole new way.
In my case, I felt that a quarter million dollars was something I could raise. I felt the amount was small enough to attract investors to roll the dice if I could convince them I could really deliver an actual feature film with reasonable production values. I started with the basic things first (from the bottom, up): raw stock, cameras and all the absolutely necessary material and equipment. 75,000 feet of raw stock (a measly 8:1 shooting ratio), was about 40K...almost a fifth of my budget! An aging Arri BL-2 package with some lenses would set me back about 20K for the four week shoot. Throw in some lights and a cheap dolly and almost half of my budget was already spent. Needless-to-say, I was dispirited. Making the film seemed impossible - the price of admission to the world of feature filmmaking was too high for me. But this is what a budget is supposed to do: force you to look at the truth. At this point, I was dead in the water and my little boat was leaking badly. I was borrowing money from friends just to keep the phones on. I couldn’t afford the parking lot so I parked on the street and kept moving my car every two hours to avoid a ticket. It was that bad. Other so-called friends started making jokes about me...really beating me down and telling me how irresponsible I was. My crazy desire to make a feature was stressing my marriage (and ultimately ruined it). I stopped working on the budget.
When the rubber meets the road like this, most intelligent folks give up. Everyone has a comfort level they don’t want to drop below, myself included. Making a feature film, especially your first one, requires a major life-decision. Are you willing to give up everything for your dream? I mean, really? You could destroy your life and all your important relationships in the process. Are you prepared to fight for your film as if it were the life of your own child? You’ll fight battles you never expected with distasteful people you’ve never met. Believe me, YOU are the one who’ll make all the real sacrifices. Ultimately, you’re all alone. You must feel this passionate desire deep inside and be willing to make the commitment - otherwise I guarantee you’ll fail.
Looking back now, I don’t have much respect for all those “friends” who put me down. They wanted me to be like them: sad and unhappy people with simple goals and aspirations. They clung to their pensions and a good dental plan while I was willing to risk it all. But I never forgot what I learned while standing in the unemployment line many years earlier. Most of the people around me had been laid off from large companies with good pension and dental plans like Warner Bros. and Fox! So, to me at least, their security was an illusion.
It was a big mistake, but I changed into my Butterfly McQueen mode and began to ignore all those things I couldn’t afford like actors and editing. My irresponsible attitude led to a dangerous “cross that bridge when I come to it” mentality. But what else could I do? What I needed was a break...something big and dramatic that would get investors interested in what I wanted to do. What I needed was a star! Although I had no money, a BIG star would be even better.
As usual, I went outside and started looking for a matchbook. I imagined a young, smiling Marlon Brando driving the big rig this time (an easy transition from a Harley). He’d be waving, saying, “I’m not doing anything, call me!” You’re gonna laugh at this, but I found my star out there...in my own backyard almost. It wasn’t Brando, but pretty damn good anyhow.
Next Article: How I Made My First Feature Film - Chapter Five (Trolling for Stars)
Buy the book now