If you’re planning to produce an independent film based on your screenplay, meaning you don’t have the financial backing and support of a major film studio, you’re going to need some cash. How much cash? We’re going to calculate that below. But even indie productions will likely require more money than you or I have ever had in our bank accounts. At last check, the average independent feature cost around $750,000 to make.
Now, if you’re not planning to recoup the cost of creating your film and you happen to have movie investors who aren’t looking for a return, wow … you’ve got a good deal! It’s unlikely, though, that your funding sources don’t care what happens after the film is made. So, make sure to keep your production budget in mind as you make final tweaks to your script so that your budget is not unreasonable.
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Of course, some films were made on less than the cost of a 3-bedroom/2-bath house (I live in California), and some films were made with no budget at all. The trick is to find the budget that allows you to raise the money, execute production the way you want to, and not run out of cash.
Filmmakers break their budgets down into four parts, Above-the-Line, Production, Post-Production, and Other. Above-the-line costs include pre-production and development costs; Production, which makes up about 50 percent of the budget, includes labor, sets, costumes, equipment, and more; Post-production includes post-production labor, editing, facilities, and more; and the Other category usually includes a reserve budget, and marketing costs (festivals and self-distribution). When you get into bigger productions, marketing and distribution may not be included in the original budget. However, if you’re going this (mostly) alone, you will want a financial plan for what to do after making the dang thing.
For our purposes (assuming you don’t have film budgeting software or a line producer or production manager to do the budget for you), I’d recommend opening up a new Excel spreadsheet to start inputting these numbers. Or, use the template toward the bottom of this blog as a starting place.
How to Build a Budget for Your Film:
1. Complete a Script Breakdown
Go through your screenplay, scene by scene, and detail what it will take to shoot that scene. You’ll want to include location, props, costumes, any specialty makeup or effects, cast, and more. For each scene, complete the following:
Project Title, Scene Number, INT/EXT, DAY/NIGHT, Screenplay Page Number, Scene Name, Location
Stunts or Stand-Ins
Vehicles or other features such as animals
Makeup and Hair
Sound Effects or Music
2. Map your Production Schedule
How many days will it take you to shoot your film? Make a list of day shoots and night shoots, and save time by filming at least one of each, every production day. Typical film shoots last 10-12 hours per day with a one-hour lunch break. Complete your production schedule by filling out the following information for each day and for every scene that you’ll shoot on that day. Each production schedule sheet will cover a full day of shooting, including every scene shot in that day:
Production title, shoot day, crew that needs to be called, estimated wrap time, estimated breakfast, lunch, or dinner time
Time of shoot (there will be many of these call times listed per day of shooting)
Scene shot number
3. Determine Hard Costs
Start by outlining all of the hard costs you know in advance, such as cameras, lighting, location rental, and additional equipment rental. These are all baseline necessities for shooting your film.
4. Assemble Your Cast and Crew
How many actors do you need? How about production staff? How many helpers will you need on hand to get through production, and what can you afford based on the number of shooting days you have? For a general idea of what each crew member will expect to be paid, head to the unions representing these entertainment industry folks, such as the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees or IATSE. You’ll have to start balancing things such as the number of crew, characters, and days you’ll shoot based on the funds you think you can raise at this stage. You may even consider some changes to the screenplay.
5. Consider Post-Production Timing and Costs
Many filmmakers underestimate the amount of time post-production really takes. The general rule of thumb is that every five pages or so of the script will amount to three to five hours in editing, plus more time for refinements. That’s a minimum of 72 hours of editing time for a traditional 120-page feature-length script or almost two weeks of paid editor time. You’ll also need hard drives, music licensing rights, and a space to do all the work.
6. Fill in the Blanks
Now that you have a general idea of timing, crew and cast count, and post-production needs, start filling in what’s left. Cast and crew meals, cast and crew expenses (gas, lodging, travel), costuming, music, alternate locations, production design, makeup and hair, insurance, publicity, and a contingency fund will all need to be considered.
Examples of film budgets:
The following breakdowns are bucketed into line items that can (and should) be broken down even further once you have an idea of precisely what and who you will need to get the project done. Take a look at the real-life examples beneath each budget breakdown to see how other filmmakers got more specific.
$40,000 Film Budget
- Talent = $7,000
- Art Direction = $3,000
- Camera = $3,000
- Electric = $3,000
- Grip = $1,000
- Sound = $3,000
- Set Operations = $3,000
- Costuming = $4,000
- Makeup & Hair = $1,000
- Editing, music = $5,000
- Contingency Fund = $4,000
Here’s a PDF of a real ~$40,000 film budget for the movie “Audie & The Wolf,” prepared by Brooklyn Reptyle Films as a worst-case scenario.
$200,000 Film Budget
- Talent = $15,000
Other (writer, producer, director, cinematographer) = $3,000
- Talent = $15,000
- Camera = $20,000
- Art Direction = $12,000
- Production crew = $12,000
- Electric = $10,000
- Grip = $7,000
- Sound = $10,000
- Set Operations = $10,000
- Costuming = $10,000
- Hair & Makeup = $8,000
- Editing = $20,000
- Sound design = $20,000
- Music rights / composer = $10,000
- Publicity = $8,000
- Insurance = $3,500
- Legal = $1,500
- Contingency Fund = $20,000
Here’s a PDF of a real ~$200,000 film budget for the movie “Audie & The Wolf,” prepared by Brooklyn Reptyle Films as a best-case scenario.
Film Budget Template:
Copy and paste these line items into an Excel spreadsheet or other document, and fill in the blanks. Remove any line items that are irrelevant to your production. Be as thorough as you can, even if it seems ridiculous. You’ll thank yourself later for writing “toothpicks” into the prop budget for your lone ranger character.
- Screenplay / Screenwriter Cost
- Screenwriter Daily Rate (if using on set) x # of shooting days = cost
- Producer daily rate x # of shooting days = cost
- Director daily rate x # of shooting days = cost
- Director of photography daily rate x # of shooting days = cost
- Cast daily rate x # of shooting days = cost
- Camera daily rate x # of shooting days = cost
- Continuity daily rate x # of shooting days = cost
- Costuming daily rate x # of shooting days = cost
- Costume and props costs
- Production staff x # of crew needed x daily rate = cost
- Grip daily rate x # of shooting days = cost
- Lighting daily rate x # of shooting days = cost
- Makeup artist daily rate x # of shooting days = cost
- Hairstylist daily rate x # of shooting days = cost
- Sound daily rate x # of shooting days = cost
- Transport daily rate x # of shooting days = cost
- Other production crew x number of crew x # of shooting days = cost
- Accommodations x number of crew x # of shooting days = cost
- Catering x # of shooting days = cost
- Other travel expenses (for example, meals, gas) x # of cast and crew x # of shooting days = cost
- Equipment rentals x # of shooting days = cost
- Colorist daily rate x # of days = cost
- Composer daily rate x # of days = cost
- Editor and editing assistants daily rate x # of days = cost
- Music rights
- Office costs x # of days = cost
- Sound design daily rate x # of days = cost
- Hard drives and other equipment
- Cast rehearsal time
- Cast rehearsal space
- Pre-production costs such as production design
You may also choose to include a contingency budget; ten percent of the overall budget is an excellent figure to keep in reserve. This category should also include advertising and marketing, film festival entries and associated costs, a public relations team if you’re going big, and a sales agent.
Don’t sell yourself short. You’ve come this far, so make the movie you want to make by putting together a realistic budget. If you can’t find the funding right now, set the script aside and pick up a lower-budget option instead. Or, create two versions of budgets for your film – a low, worst-case scenario budget and a high, best-case scenario budget. That way, you have a plan going into the project either way. You (and I) want to be so stoked on the outcome of your final film, so plan ahead and do things right.
It’s dollars and sense,