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Money Talks: Film Budgets

Following a comments thread over at Michelle’s about budgets and then Potdoll’s about Commercial vs. Mainstream film recently, I thought I’d give my thoughts on money stuff in film an airing. I should mention first it’s not something I’ve ever been specifically taught; more picked up on from various conversations, meetings, articles and books I’ve read, talks I’ve attended. Also, on many script reports including Scottish Screen’s, they will ask about budgetary considerations/restraints, so it’s something I’ve had to learn a little about “on the job” so to speak, but I’m certainly no expert. As with all things scriptwriting and filmmaking however, it should be remembered there are no hard and fast rules.
There apparently once was a time a million pound budget was considered quite low, even for Brit film. Now it appears you’re a bit of a hotshot if you can get this much: £300 – £500K seems *about* the maximum you can bid for through funding initiatives, especially if you’re a first time filmmaker. In addition to this, these funding agencies will often want you to already have half the funding before they will commit to you. So for example: you need £500K and want to bid for £250K? The agency you go to may well want evidence you have secured that other £250K before granting you funding. Sometimes they want it in cold, hard cash – other times, they will settle for that £250K being “in kind” – equipment, people’s skills, labour, etc; more often than not apparently they will want both. (I suspect this is why the amount of filmmakers appealing for people to put small stakes in their film has exploded on the internet thanks to Facebook and the like).

However, if you find yourself a nice Sugar Daddy to just give you a million quid to fund your masterpiece, the problems don’t end there: even a lot of money like that does not stretch as far as you might think. Whilst crew members, actors and even writers (!) *can* be found for free (whether they should or not is a debate for another time, thanks), there are all sorts of other budgetary considerations.

Permits. If you want to film in a public place, there are all sorts of legal hoops you need to jump through. By “public place”, I don’t necessarily mean reconisable landmarks like Leicester Square or Tower Bridge either – but just in the actual street. There’s also the point filmmakers are *supposed* to obtain the permission of each and every person who passes through their shot too. This isn’t always possible, particularly in crowd scenes, but if you end up seeing yourself (especially close up) in a film where they haven’t asked your permission, apparently this can lead to trouble legally. On top of that, obtaining permits can take ages – and time is money. I know of at least one filmmaker whose funding has fallen through on the back of a single permit not going through at the right time. Noooooo!

Children. Got a kid in your script? TAKE IT OUT if you want to keep your script ultra low budget. In contrast to adults, child actors MUST be paid and are only allowed to work certain hours a day and everyone on set under 16 needs a dedicated chaperone. On top of that, what hours they can work depends on the council of the area where you’re filming: some councils very helpfully assert children under 7 cannot work when it is dark for example. Plus the more kids you have in your script, the more complicated it gets. To put this in perspective, Hollyoaks only places their original child actor for the character Tom in nine scenes maximum. Not nine minutes – NINE SCENES. Hollyoaks goes out five nights a week, so this is a tiny amount. It’s no accident that since they’ve introduced a new child actor, the character Holly, Tom appears to have taken a backseat. Of course, this is a problem a writer can usually solve very easily: make your child character a teenager, preferably around fifteen or sixteen in the script – and have someone over eighteen play them: there are lots of baby-faced actors around and they of course don’t need a chaperone and have no limit to their working hours outside of the usual union requirements. Here is some interesting legal facts about children in film, plus other elements.

Animals. Another problem for the low budget filmmaker. Like children, animals must be accompanied by their trainer (thus doubling costs like the chaperone) and dependent on how dangerous they are, must be kept away from other cast members. Dogs are used most frequently in film apparently, followed by birds of prey. There are also rules that animals shouldn’t be scared unneccessarily – in contrast, I have been able to find nothing online of this privilege being extended to children as well, though I could be wrong. Certainly a decent filmmaker would never scare a child on purpose, which can make children in horror a bit of a hassle. But ever notice Newt never looks once at the creatures in Aliens? There’s that one that comes up behind her in the water and when the Alien Queen is chasing her under the floor and pulling up the grilles, we only ever see a hand, not the whole creature. Getting a kid into a horror without frightening the life out of it is a case of “thinking outside the box”, perhaps – and careful planning and shot construction.

Costuming and Makeup. Many very low budget films will simply ask their actors to wear their own clothes, but of course if part of the script is their clothes are made wet, ripped, covered in paint or slime or whatever, understandably an actor won’t be very keen on this idea – especially if receiving low or no pay for the part in the first place. Even buying clothes on eBay or charity shops can add significantly to your budget. If you have a specific costuming element to your script – ie. vampires, werewolves, monsters; characters wear fancy dress to a party or have specific makeup requirements; a character needs a ballgown or this is a period drama, suddenly costs can totally SHOOT up.

Catering. Whilst it’s often accepted that crew and actors won’t get any pay for their efforts, try and get them to bring their own sarnies too and you might just have a full-on mutiny! There are ways of doing catering cheaply however – one filmmaker I heard of has his wife producing giant cauldrons of soup! But it is another cost to write up, regardless of how you do it.

Music and copyright. Use any track and you HAVE to pay for it – unless you’re using something that’s out of copyright, of course. Classical such as Mozart, Beethoven, Bach etc are up for grabs; Fatboy Slim et al are not. Similarly, by all means use poems and extracts from Shakespeare, Chaucer, Austen or Dickens but for God’s sake leave “Happy Birthday” alone: the two sisters who wrote that rake it in. Similarly, using newspaper banners or magazine covers for products that exist is problematic; as are photos of celebrities or websites like Google or Facebook – hence so many characters in film using search engines or social networking sites that don’t exist, unless they’ve been prepared to cough up.

Locations. Shooting on location is apparently nearly always less expensive than building a set, though this can depend. Some stately home owners make a very comfortable living hiring out their homes for films. Churches and cathedrals too often ask for donations when filmmakers shoot there. There are also places where filming just is not permitted, making a set the only possibility. Other times, certain places are happy to allow filmmakers the run of their town if it means good publicity or will help their economy by bring people into the area to actually make the film: tourist areas are particularly receptive for this. I was hired as a writer on a film about three years ago (never actually made, unfortunately) that was going to allow the filmmakers to do this (even though it was a hardcore horror!), because the town, like many seaside resorts, is all but closed down in the winter.

Stunt choreography. By stunts, I don’t even mean jumping off roofs Jason Bourne-style either: just running up and down stairs very fast can be considered a hazard, so a stunt co-ordinator may need to be called in to ensure actors don’t hurt themselves. Similarly, anything that involves driving or roads needs consideration via a risk assessment too, especially moments where cars have to do an emergency stop. I learnt this when a producer friend of mine looked at my “low budget” screenplay and whacked a MODERATE on risk assessment for these very reasons!

Explosives, fire, guns. Just because you’re low budget doesn’t mean your characters *can’t* be tooled up. BIG explosions are just about off the low budget scale, but dependant on what you need, there are such things as “distraction devices” that produce lots of smoke and fake debris and “sound” like they’re blowing up. These are still expensive, but can produce some good-looking action if you just wanted a small explosion that’s not in close up. Fires are about over, full stop: even a lone petrol bomb will send your budget considerations sky high, particularly with reference to health and safety and risk assessment. As for guns you can always use replicas that don’t fire and add the sound later – HOWEVER it is worth remembering that if you’re using these in a public place you could end up in HUGE TROUBLE with the police if you don’t clear it with them first – and then we’re back at permit-trouble again. Also, it’s still expensive to use guns with firing packs – ie. the ones with triggers that set off those blood/explosive bags on the actors the bullet is supposed to hit. Using such things can also be dangerous, since it was a similar malfunctioning explosive that killed Brandon Lee in the filming of The Crow, meaning health and safety is again once an issue for the filmmaker – thus putting up the budget.

End of the day, OF COURSE story should be king – you shouldn’t be thinking about ANY of this whilst writing your spec. Do it whichever way the story demands.

However, if you find yourself lucky enough to be optioned and made, don’t be surprised if you’re asked to rewrite an element or even a huge chunk, directly because of something on this list. Money talks.

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2 thoughts on “Money Talks: Film Budgets”

  1. this is brilliant> my first short is being shot in january< so now i won@t sound like a complete plonker> maybe i@ll make the soup or something>>> (and sorry about these inappropriate symbols popping into my text< don@t know what the hell@s going on>>>)


  2. You’re welcome, Louise – it’s funny actually, I’m making a short at the moment and JUST THIS WEEK the director’s asked me to rewrite a certain part of it because of health and safety! A case of “life imitating blog” perhaps?

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