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Film Budget Breakdown: Top Sheet with FREE Template

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For decades, film budgets were created with hand-cranked adding machines, pencils, paper, and a great many erasers. Since the 1980s, we’ve been blessed with the arrival of modern personal computers, spreadsheet software, and even specialized film budgeting software. Computers have taken what was once a long and tedious process and reduced it to a fraction of the time.

Now that we have the technology to create a film production budget at our fingertips let’s take a look at how to do it using one of the most popular spreadsheet software programs: Google Sheets. We’ll also provide a free film budget template download in Microsoft Excel format for those who prefer to work in that application. Likewise, the information we offer here will be equally applicable to any budgeting software.

Budgeting Software vs. a Spreadsheet

When should you use specialized film budgeting software vs. a spreadsheet application such as Microsoft Excel or Google Docs? The answer depends on three factors: your budget range, if you will be working with union cast and crew, or if you have a distribution/financing deal already in place.

When to Use Special Budgeting Software

  • Your budget is over $20,000
  • You’ll be working with a union cast & crew
  • You’re working with a financer, studio, or distributor that expects a particular format.

If your budget is over $20,000 or you know that you’ll be working with a union cast or crew, such as SAG actors working under the low-budget agreement. Then, you’ll want to spend the extra money to utilize purpose-built film budgeting software.

While a spreadsheet can technically do all of the calculations that the budgeting software does, it will be harder to manage and set up in a spreadsheet. This is especially true for items such as fringe benefits and payroll taxes, which are often required for union workers. The time saved in this area alone will likely pay for the software.

Likewise, if you know that you’ll be working with a particular financer, studio, or distributor, they might have the expectation that you’ll deliver your budget in a particular format. If that is the case, you’ll want to use whatever software they require and deliver the budget forms in the format they are expecting.

We have an entire post dedicated to the best film budgeting software options; be sure to check that out if you’re interested in learning more.

Regardless of if you use a spreadsheet or a software package, you’ll want to start with a production budget template. There’s no reason to start with a blank page where there are tons of options available.

General Notes

Before we begin, there are a few general notes to keep in mind when creating a film production budget. These are important items that are often overlooked by first-time filmmakers:

Account Numbers

The account numbers are largely arbitrary unless you are working for a studio. Each studio will have its own set of immutable account numbers that you will need to follow. All film budgeting software will include templates for the major studios, so when starting your project, you simply choose the correct template and then don’t change any of the account numbers after that.

For our example, we’ve used the account numbers recommended by Robert J. Koster in his book “The Budget Book for Film and Television”. These same account numbers are also available in Movie Magic Budgeting under the template SuperBudget EP 2006.

However, if you are making a budget for your own independent film, then feel free to change the numbers to whatever you like.

Duplicates

Some accounts will have duplicate entries. This is done for maximum flexibility. For example, some producers might want to include the line item for a Sound Editor under the Editorial department alongside the other editors, while others might want to budget that crew member under Post-Production Sound.

You can budget those duplicate line items wherever you like, but just don’t accidentally budget them twice.

Account Level Detail

The level of detail for each account will vary depending on the project. For example, if you are making a low-budget film with a non-union crew, then having a single line item for various elements will do just fine. Conversely, on a larger project, having dedicated budgeting software will allow for finer-grained detail over each line item and sub-line items that make up that account.

For example, in Movie Magic Budgeting, you could have one line item for “Actors” and then multiple sub-line items inside that item for each individual role.


Top Sheet

film budget top sheet

Once you have your software (or spreadsheet) open and ready to go, it’s time to start creating your budget. The first step is to create what is called the top sheet.

This is a high-level view of all the major categories in your film budget. Think of the top sheet as a summary or an overview of the entire budget.

Using our template as a guide, we’re going to fill in the following information at the top of the page:

Title: The title of the project (film, TV show, etc.)

Runtime: The estimated runtime based on the script

Format: Is this going to be shot on film? If so, 16mm or 35mm. If digital video, what resolution, 2k, 4k 8k?

Company: The name of the production company

Producer: The name of the producer of the project

Director: The name of the director (if known)

Date: The current date when this budget was prepared

Prepared By: Your name

Shoot Dates: The proposed shoot dates

Union: Is this a union project (yes or no)

Studio Days: How many days of principal photography will be filmed on a studio sound stage or backlot?

Location Days: How many days of principal photography will take place on location?

Summary of Accounts

The next four sections are for the summaries of accounts. We’re not going to edit or change any of these summary sections. They will be populated and updated for us automatically when we make changes to the account tables.

budget account tables as spreadsheet tabs

The account tables are available via the tabs at the bottom of the spreadsheet.

Above the Line

Above the Line Summary

The Above the Line accounts are for all the expenses related to the above-the-line cast and crew. Many of these accounts and their entries are related to development and pre-production.

Production

Top sheet production summary

As expected, the Production accounts relate to the production phase of the filmmaking process.

Post-Production

Top sheet post-production summary

Post-production, as the name implies, is for accounts related to post-production expenses.

Other Expenses

Top sheet other summary

This last group of accounts is to cover all other expenses that do not fall under the other accounts.

Now, turn your attention to the bottom of the page and the section titled contractual.

Contractuals

Top sheet contractuals

If you have or know that you will have any of these contractual obligations, you can enter their percentage here in this section.

For example, it is common for studios to require a 20% overhead attached to the budget. This is where you can add in that calculation.

Contingency

Contingency is a line item that really should be included in every budget. It is important to include some amount of contingency in order to account for any unforeseen costs that might come up during production.

The standard amount of contingency to include in a film budget is 15%. This means that for every $100 you have in your budget, you should set aside $15 in contingency.

The rest of the top sheet we will leave untouched for now. As we complete the account line items, the totals will populate in these cells.

Now that we have the basic information entered into our top sheet, it’s time to start breaking down the individual account line items that make up our film budget.

Up Next: Part 2 – Above the Line

In the next part, we’ll explore the above-the-line expenses.

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