Filmmaker Facts

Film Budgeting – Under-Budgeted and Over-Scheduled

We often hear about feature films going over-budget and over-schedule. The studio in most cases blames the producer, who then passes the blame over to the director, the stars or the cinematographer. There are without question, cases in which these individuals do contribute to the problem, but that doesn’t come close to explaining why most pictures go over-budget and over-schedule.

The truth is that most films are under-budgeted and under-scheduled to begin with. This is easily understood by anyone who has ever attempted to get a film ‘off the ground’ or in other words, financed. If you can convince investors or a studio that you can make a picture for less money, in less time, it will be much easier to finance. Consequently, producers often find themselves in the uncomfortable position of whittling down their budgets unrealistically or rationalizing that they can really do it for less in order to make their project more appealing to potential sources of financing, but they suffer for in the long-run.

The producer who made those budget compromises on paper will do everything in his power to make the production as good as possible and he’ll find himself torn. Either the filmmaking project goes over-budget or the quality deteriorates below the level of excellence that he advertised to the investors. The difficulty of financing films is the principal cause of this painful dilemma.

As a filmmaker, it’s important to remember that every single production element hinges on the movie budget. If you rationalize too optimistically when writing the final film budget breakdown, the problems you will create will haunt you throughout the making of your movie. This is especially true on a modestly budgeted independent film with little protection for over-budget costs.

If you had let’s say, what should be a $500,000 independent film production that you’ve managed to squeeze into a $450,000 budget, and everyone involved does their upmost to stay within budget, even making some painful compromises, your project may still be $25,000 overbudget when you enter the post-production phase. If the production phase of the budget is any indication of how tightly post-production is budgeted, you’re in real trouble.

Where does the money come from? Do you start to cut an already meagre sound effects budget in half and now worry about whether or not your sound effects track will meet European buyers’ strict quality control standards? Do you cut the music budget by a third and go with a cheap soundtrack? Maybe eliminate dialogue looping (ADR)? Well, what if your scenes are missing a few words of dialogue here and there? Do you go to a second-rate mixing facility that doesn’t have surround-sound capability? Maybe go with a cheap title sequence?

You may do all the above and still not fall within your $450,000 budget. Don’t even think about going back to your investors for additional funds as they will tell you that the financing of your film is a done deal – they will never want to produce another film with you. Chances are that you will ultimately spend $500,000 on the picture and will have created an enormous headache for yourself by not facing that reality in the first place.

Remember, if you stick adamantly to an unrealistic film production budget, you will be forced to make compromises, and cutbacks in the quality of any portion of your movie, and drag down the quality of everything else in the film.

As a filmmaker, it’s important to learn the proper, professional steps to creating your script breakdown, which leads to your schedule and properly-determined budget. If one part is wrong, the whole process is thrown off, hence the reason why you should be taught the process by film professionals and instructors that have gone through the process themselves and know what they are talking about. This is important as you must strive for the highest level of quality attainable within your film budget throughout every aspect of production.    

 By Kalman Szegvary, MFA
Department: Head of Film and Television Production & Post-Production, Entertainment Management
Trebas Institute - Toronto

 The photo attached is a production stripboard (from one of my feature films) used in creating a film schedule and in turn, a film budget.

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