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Budgetary Considerations in Development

So what is your project’s budget? The short answer is: whatever anyone is willing to pay. But again, you’re being realistic here. If you still want to make that big budget action/sci-fi franchise, then go crazy in the creative process while you get to know a lot of studio heads, veteran producers and billionaire financiers (who all will undoubtedly have complete respect for and deference to your artistic autonomy). However, if you’re more likely to max out your credit cards while begging friends, family and strangers on the internet for money, then you’ll want to think about what resources are available for next to nothing, if not outright favors and good will. Whether it’s the level of performers, the use of locations and sets or even the choice of music, figure out now what you can actually get. This will save you from a whole lot of sacrifice, headaches and heartbreak down the line.

Photo: Ken Teegardin

Creativity vs. Reality

Working with little to no money, there are real technical challenges you’ll have to face. Say you want a sweeping shot of Brad Pitt on top of a moving vehicle. Well, you’ll be lucky to have the car, and chances are, it’s also your primary mode of transportation off screen. Oh, you probably also will have to shoot at exactly the right time of day if you don’t have professional lighting. On the plus side, you basically can do anything else you want…within the realm of affordability. So if you’re envisioning a certain scene, ask yourself how you might actually film it. Do you have the right actors, locations and equipment on hand? And if you’re not sure whether a scene is feasible, then either find someone who knows the technical side or innovate a solution within the scene. Of course, if you absolutely have to have that shot of Brad Pitt clinging to the roof of a Ferrari, then you’ll need to go through investors, producers and equity-shareholders. In addition to all the networking, salesmanship and self-promotion this route demands, it also carries the risk of losing your project’s creative freedom.

Union vs. Non-Union

Assuming you’re still not using that winning Powerball ticket to finance your project, cast and talent consideration will be crucial. Of course, even with hundreds of millions of dollars and a crew the size of Jamaica, these are still concerns. Nothing kills a project like a bad performance. The first question is whether to use union or non-union actors. Union actors have the plus side of experience, though that’s never a guarantee of talent or range. To cast these performers, you’ll likely need to have an Ultra-Low Budget Agreement or New Media Agreement through SAG-AFTRA, aka those folks who give out acting awards between the Golden Globes and the Oscars. And if you want to make sure your actors aren’t electrocuted on set, you also might have to reach a similar agreement on the crew side with IATSE, the technical union. In all these cases, union productions cost a little bit more, with the benefits of experience and safe working conditions. On the other hand, if there’s no way you can afford this and eat three meals a day, then non-union is still an option. There are a lot of SAG eligible actors out there, maybe even some people you know who are waiting for a vehicle to showcase their talents. And if they’re willing to work for high fives and milkshakes, all the better! Of course, depending on the size of the contribution, it’s more likely you’ll resort to some creative payments like equity points or free rent in your spare bedroom for the next six months. Still, before you decide, figure out how much you can realistically offer to get the best work out of your cast and crew.

Budget with Your Pen

Once you have a realistic idea of your budget, you can plan ahead. No, this doesn’t necessarily mean signing a bunch of loans and creating a lot of spreadsheets. As you’re writing your story, ask yourself some basic questions related to the budget. Is the location of your scene somewhere you can actually film or a set you can reliably construct? Sometimes, even the most common places can prove extremely hard to film. For example, despite the fact that we’ve all probably been on an airplane, these sets cost a ton of money. So unless you want to buy your actors tickets on a real plane and have them secretly film their scenes with phone cameras, that’s a location you might want to avoid. Also consider the number of people each scene needs. Will you have not only the actors, but also the extras available when you go to film (keeping in mind that most of them will be sitting around literally doing nothing for hours with zero compensation)? So if you think a scene has to be set in a crowded restaurant, take the extra time to carefully consider why this is so important. Are all 50 people involved in the scene to the extent that the narrative and emotional arc falls to pieces with 20 or 30 extras instead…or even two or three? Maybe there’s a way to revise this scene you haven’t considered that actually makes it more interesting. While it can be frustrating to think in terms of limitations, the most creative ideas sometimes come out of working around these issues. And once you’ve finished your carefully crafted script, find a line producer who can break down the costs for you, or learn the art yourself.

For more on how to break down your script for the budget, click here.

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