The Indie Chronicles: The Really Hard Part — Making Your Film Budget Apr30

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The Indie Chronicles: The Really Hard Part — Making Your Film Budget


a blogumn by R.B. Ripley
Lego Art by Thijs van Exel

Lego Art by Thijs van Exel

There are few things that strike fear into my heart as quickly and deeply as math.

My childhood was one long, unending math-based humiliation. To this day, I still refuse to balance my checkbook. It’s irrational, I know, but there’s little I can do. I was first scarred in 4th grade by Mrs. Norma MacKenzie (a hateful old crone who, I am certain, spent her evenings gleefully pulling wings off of defenseless butterflies) when she made me do multiplication tables in front of the class every day for over three months until I got them correct. If that wasn’t bad enough, my 7th grade teacher (I’ve repressed his name – I only remember that his belly was the size of a VW bug and he had more hair growing out of his ears than I had on my entire 13 year-old body) made me stand in front of the class and explain why I’d failed the test on completing the federal income tax. Oh that @!#$ing Schedule C…

And yes, I have an accountant do my taxes.

So imagine my horror when I came to the realization that I was going to have to develop a budget for this short film project. There were two immediate problems. First was what I would create the actual physical budget with, and the second was figuring out what the hell numbers to plug in.

If there’s one thing I’ve learned that’s the biggest problem with problems, its figuring out where to begin. So I started making some phone calls to people I know in the biz (who do balance their checkbooks). Now, the problem in this industry is that no one ever shares real financial information. If it’s not dictated by union’s schedule fees, it’s a mystery (except to the agents and I just didn’t have the time or energy for that). So, surprise, surprise, no one was willing to share a complete budget with me. The only tip I got was “try EP Budgeting software.”


I downloaded a free trial of EP budgeting and noodled with it long enough to learn that, like most industry software it’s basically a database and spreadsheets. EP seems to be a solid program, but for this project, I just didn’t need all of the bells and whistles. So I called up Excel and starting building a very simple, no frills template that would perform all the calculations for me. One issue solved.

The bigger issue was money, specifically figuring out how much to pay people. I bought a few books on producing independent film. They all suggested different things and none of them provided the data behind numbers used in their example budgets.

One night, I found myself complaining over the phone to a good friend of mine who’s a successful entrepreneur who lives in New York. Or he was a successful entrepreneur. He retired last year. The jerk-face is 39. But I trust him when it comes to numbers. After about ten minutes of my self-pity, he couldn’t take anymore and asked me a very profound question: How much are you making off of this project?

“Nothing,” I said.

“But you want to pay everyone else?”

“Well, they’re working,” I said. “They should be compensated.”

“So should you.”

“That’s different,” I said. As I started to justify my thinking on the topic, he cut me off.

“Rip,” he said. “You’re a great guy to work with. Anyone would be lucky to work with you. But if you don’t stop worrying about offending anyone because you can’t pay them a union salary, you’re not going to make this movie. The people you want to work with will either do it if they can and want to or won’t because they can’t. And that really doesn’t change much, no matter how many zeroes are on a paycheck.”

Something clicked in the back of my brain. As an entrepreneur, my friend’s entire career had been made up as he went. Everything he did started as a guess.

“I should just make things up as I go, shouldn’t I?” I said.

“Huh,” he said. “Maybe you will get the movie made.” And then he hung up.

So I did make things up. Sort of. I talked with people I knew – costume designers, production designers, and more – about their past projects, the shoot length, number of characters and their department’s budget for those projects. Eventually, I’d pieced together a respectable budget and worked it and reworked it until I had the magic number of $15,000.

Now, I know there are actors whose hair or makeup people are paid more than that per day, but I was pleased that I’d managed to not only learn how to develop a film budget, but also produce one. And by this point, I was proud to ask someone to work for a measly $50 a day on my project. Well, maybe not proud, but certainly not hesitant to do so anymore.

Now, if I can just find some money…

I don’t think its possible for anyone to build a film budget and then look at a script the same way ever again. The ability to understand what you’ve written in basic financial terms is a great skill for writers to have.

The joy of pre-production.