“NICE SCRIPT. WHERE’S THE BUDGET?”
by John G. Thomas
Good news: “Yeah, I like how the nerdy guy gets the pretty girl in the end.”
Bad news: “Let me see your budget.”
You’ve tagged first base and you’re heading for second when suddenly you find yourself caught in a cinematic squeeze play. “Damn, I knew I forgot something!”
Your budget is a key element in your “package.” In the early stages of development it’s just as important as a great story, director and talent. But what is a budget supposed to look like and how does it complete a producer’s package of marketable elements?
The head of acquisitions at a major studio once told me that if they really liked a project, the budget could be written on a paper napkin. Indeed, major movie deals have been signed on the table cloth at the Carlton Hotel in Cannes. The suggestion that a budget must be presented in a specific template to suit a particular studio, network or distributor is hogwash.
These days, it’s rare that the creative elements of a movie package are so compelling and attractive from a marketing standpoint that the production cost is of minor importance. Independent producers must have a solid, reliable estimate before approaching today’s risk-averse, creatively-challenged studio execs and fidgety investors.
This is what a good budget should do:
- Prove that the movie can be made for a certain price.
- Describe the creative allocation of funds.
- Show how you’ll deliver maximum production value.
- Make an investor or distributor feel confident.
- Provide for the unexpected setbacks of production.
- Be honest, concise, easy-to-read and understand.
- Be adequate for what the story requires.
- Clearly provide for areas of production concern.
- Pass critical analysis by production experts.
- Make you look good, (i.e., professional).
This is what a good budget should not do:
- Be a precise estimate of every single cost.
- Budget for specific production equipment/materials.
- Be unrealistic about costly story requirements.
- Make assumptions about “name” cast compensation.
- Be an accounting system, (i.e., handle AP/AR, etc).
- Ignore the cost of potential production delays.
- Be too long and contain dozens of nearly-blank pages.
- Neglect adding notes to describe budget assumptions.
- Overwhelm the reader with too much detail.
- Not address the obvious challenges to this production.
A good budget is NOT an accounting. It’s an estimate. A very good guess about what you think it will cost to make your next epic as you sit in front of your computer a thousand miles away from the location and a year away from your start date.
It’s an absolute waste of time, (and very amateurish) to estimate for every cup of coffee and donut. Even how much film or video you’re going to need! Unless you can see the future you can’t possibly know. All you can do is make an educated guess and hope you’re right. Unfortunately, the very best educated guesses only come from experience.
It’s not until you’ve screwed something up that you learn how long it really takes to complete a particular production process. The good news is that these same painful lessons also show you how to streamline a process, conserve financial resources and lower a budget.
Assuming for a moment that you know everything anyone ever needs to know about production(!), what does a good budget look like?
The Top Sheet summarizes everything on one piece of paper. Many people only want to see your Top Sheet and stop right there. (“Just send me the Top Sheet.”) A seasoned producer, A.D. or P.M. can look at the Top Sheet and quickly see how much you’ve allocated for Above and Below-the-Line costs: the balance between the costs for the stars, writer and director as compared to everything else. Is it 80/20 or 70/30 like most studio pictures, or is it more like 20/80 for an independent without name stars? More than even the bottom line, the balance between ATL and BTL tells you so much about a project.
Don’t forget that these days the important person looking at your budget might know nothing about production. So, your budget needs to be very clear and make sense to someone who’s never heard of a gobo arm or a DI. Your budget needs to be organized logically and contain just enough detail to show that you’ve considered every area of expense, yet not burden the reader with endless pages of trivial data.
So, a good budget is a financial template or a general plan about how you will allocate the money. It says, “I’m fairly confident that I can make this movie for this much money.” Using some super-expensive budgeting program to create your budget is pointless because your budget must define a financial structure and business plan, not appear as an accounting. Budgeting is simply the creative allocation of money for a particular production requirement. But you’re also stating that this amount is all you’ll ever spend for it. Why?
Because once you start shooting and you rob Peter to pay Paul your budget will be forever out-of-balance. And out-of-balance is an absolute guarantee that you will go over budget. You’ll instantly lose credibility and your movie may be mortally wounded as well. In the end, it’s all about the precise balance between accounts.
You’ve succeeded when they put the budget down and think to themselves, “This person has really covered all the bases,” or “This kid has got his act together.”
Producing a film is all about perception and self-confidence. If you really think you can do it and you can convince everyone else too, you will get that movie made.