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How to Create Your First Film Budget: The Ultimate Guide

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To properly finance your film, you’ll need to understand how to create a budget. This guide will show you how to build a budget for your first film production.

As an aspiring filmmaker, you’re probably thinking, “Create a budget? That sounds boring,” but at minimum, understanding how to read a budget is one of the most important skills that you can learn as a filmmaker.

Making a budget will allow you to understand better the size and scope of your project. Going through your project scene by scene, listing out all of the locations, cast, and crew required, and assigning a dollar figure to each will allow a level of understanding and clarity that you previously did not realize.

Additionally, a movie budget breakdown is essential for ensuring that your film stays on track financially. By understanding how to allocate your resources properly, you can avoid going over budget and ensure that your film is completed on time and within its allotted budget.

First Draft of the Budget

For the first draft of the budget, you’ll want to include everything possible. This means planning for worst-case scenarios in all aspects of the budget. Don’t leave off a category just because you think that you’ll be able to borrow some equipment or get free labor from a friend or relative.

Plan to pay for everything, and then make adjustments to the budget as the film progresses further into pre-production or later. It’s always better to have money left over than to run out of money in the middle of a production.

Preliminary Film Budget vs Final Film Budget

The biggest difference between the preliminary budget and the final budget is that when making the preliminary budget, we won’t have the shooting schedule as well as all of the rates of our cast and crew. We’ll fill in the rates that we know and use placeholder data (industry standard rates) for the others.

Then, once all of this information becomes available, we can rework the budget into a final film budget that properly accounts for the shooting schedule and all of the exact rates of our cast crew and equipment rentals.

1. Break Down the Script

Before actually initiating the budget you’ll need to break down the script into breakdown sheets. The data gathered in these breakdown sheets will be utilized to create the budget.

The first step in creating a budget is to determine the scope of your project. How many locations will you be filming in? How many cast and crew members will you need? What type of equipment will you need to rent? Answering these questions will give you a better idea of the overall cost of your project.

2. Tally All the Numbers

Now that you have the breakdown sheets, you have your script broken down into individual pieces, and now we need to count those pieces.

How long will the shoot be?

One of the first things to figure out is the length of your principal photography. To find this, we start by asking, how long is the script?

The general rule is that an independent film can shoot four to six pages per day. So if our script is 95 pages we can assume a shooting schedule in the range of 16-24 days.

Additionally, you’ll need to break down those shoot days into studio shoot days and location shoot days. This means the number of days you plan to shoot on a set built in a studio vs. the number of days you plan to shoot at preexisting locations.

How large is the cast?

The size of your cast will dictate a tremendous amount of your budget. The more cast members you have, the more money you will need to pay them. And not just the principal cast, but also any extras or day players that might be required.

What crew members do you need?

The crew of a $500,000 and $5,000,000 film will probably look very similar. There will be a few extra crew members here and there, but largely they will be the same, that extra budget will probably go to the actors and above-the-line credits.

However, in terms of crew size, the difference between a $10,000 budget and a $100,000 budget will be substantial. The former will feel like a student project (and it might be) and the latter will feel like a small Hollywood film.

The point here is that your overall budget range will likely inform how large a crew you can afford. That said, there are several departments that every film should have, even if that department is comprised of just one person.

  • Camera
  • Grip / Electric
  • Sound
  • Art

Build sets or location shoots?

Most low-budget filmmakers opt to film on location, utilizing the production value they can gain from choosing interesting real-world locations.

However, some locations don’t exist in the real world, or they are impossible to film in, so they require a set to be built. Likewise, building a set offers a level of control that is impossible to achieve at real locations.

Either way, you’ll need to understand how many shoot days you’ll have on location and how many on a sound stage.

Travel and transportation?

If shooting on location, do these locations exist within city limits or within a reasonable driving distance?

If you’re asking your crew to drive more than 30 minutes to a location, you’ll need to account for that time in your schedule. If you’re going to have the entire production stay out of town, you’ll likely need to arrange for transportation, including vans for the cast, crew, and equipment.

Additionally, you’ll be responsible for providing a place to stay for the cast and crew while out of town, either via a hotel or AirBnB or via some other arrangement.

Catering & craft services

Keeping your cast and crew well-fed is a relatively cheap way to keep morale high throughout the production.

You’ll need to determine how many meals you’ll need to provide each day as well as craft services. This will be a function of the number of crew and cast members as well as the number of shoot days.

As a rule of thumb, expect to spend around $25 per person, per day on food. So if you have a cast and crew of 30 people, shooting for 20 days, you’ll need to budget $15,000 just for food.

Props, Costume, art costs?

This will be a function of the size and scope of your production. Do you need to rent or build any props, set designs, or costumes?

Post-Production costs?

As a general rule of thumb, you should expect to spend around 20-25% of your overall budget on post-production.

Post-production is a broad category with a lot of different aspects, but the four main areas you’ll need to consider are editing, sound, visual effects, and color grading.

Editing

Thanks to advancements in NLE software, editing can be done on virtually any computer these days. But that doesn’t mean that it’s free.

Sound

Like editing, audio software is more advanced and ubiquitous than ever. But if you want to do it right, you’re going to need to hire a sound editor and/or mixer.

Visual Effects

Visual effects can range from simple green screen composites to full-blown CG environments and characters. The cost of visual effects will be directly related to the scope and complexity of the effects you need.

Color Grading

There are a number of cheap and even free options when it comes to color grading. But to be done correctly, it should be performed by a professional on calibrated equipment capable of displaying the full-color range of your project and giving you a true representation of how your film will look when projected in a cinema.

Titles

Simple titles can be done in the NLE or via easy-to-use plug-ins. However, if you plan to have animated (complex) titles, you should budget for that here.

Music?

Are you going to hire a composer? Perhaps work with a student? What about licensing preexisting music? There are also options, such as stock music websites, to consider.

3. Fill out the Topsheet

Using the data you’ve collected from the first two steps, it’s now time to start entering that data into the budget form. This can come in the form of specialized software such as Movie Magic Budgeting or Gorilla Budgeting, or you could be using a spreadsheet.

If you’re making anything less than a feature film (short film, music video, etc), using a spreadsheet is probably sufficient for your project. If you’re making a feature film or want to learn more about specialized budgeting software, then, you’ll want to go that route instead.

Starting with the topsheet, we need to enter all the data we can about the project; this includes:

Date: This will allow you to keep track of this budget with respect to others created at different times.

Title/Runtime: Title and total running time of the project.

Union/Non-Union: Identify if the project is to be a union or non-union project.

Studio shoot days: The total number of days that you plan to shoot on a sound stage.

Location shoot days: The total number of days that you plan to shoot on location.

Format: Film or video, 2k or 4k, etc.

Director: Name of director, if known.

Producer: Probably your name.

Director of Photography: Name of cinematographer, if known.

Editor: Name of the picture editor, if known.

Shoot dates: The dates of the shoot if known, if not known enter a proposed date in the future.

The Top Sheet will also contain totals from each category – a summary section. Whether using specialized budgeting software or a production budget template (spreadsheet), this section should be tabulated for you as you complete the other budget sections, so leave it empty for now.

The bottom of the topsheet is an area for any comments or notes that should be included.

4. Fill out the Account Line Items

Now that we have completed the topsheet, we can move on to the account-level line items. Here, you can begin to enter itemized expenses.

The easiest way is to simply work your way through each account and enter any costs that are appropriate for your film, and if it doesn’t apply, simply leave it blank. For example, if your shoot will take place completely on location, you can leave blank any lines relating to sound stages or studio rental.

Finding Rates

Some of the rates you might already know from your negotiations, but in other cases, you might be starting from scratch. To get an idea of what to charge for each line item, there are a few different avenues you can explore:

Check with your local film office: They should have a rate card with the going rates for various production services in your area.

Call around and ask: Don’t hesitate to call the offices of vendors that you find online, even if they aren’t in your area you can inquire about their rates.

Use Gorilla Ratebook: The Gorilla Ratebook is a list of over 10,000 verified labor rates covering 154 union agreements. It isn’t free, but at $39 it isn’t expensive and the time you save could make it worth the investment.

Once you have a good idea of what you’ll pay for each line item, it’s time to start filling in the blanks.

As you fill out each account, don’t forget to include any discounts that you negotiated as well as the total number of days for that particular account. For example, if your shoot is 20 days but you’re renting a special camera for just 3 days, be sure to enter 3 in the “amount” column.

Be sure to include a line item for miscellaneous expenses, as there are always unexpected costs that arise during production.

Wrapping Up

After you have itemized all of your expenses, it’s time to start looking for ways to save money. One way to do this is to see if you can get discounts on any of your expenses. For example, many equipment rental companies offer discounts to student filmmakers. You can also save money by casting local actors and crew members, as they will likely be willing to work for lower rates than their out-of-town counterparts.

Once you have a complete film production budget, it’s important to review it with your team and make sure that everyone is on the same page. By doing this, you can avoid any surprises down the road and ensure that your film stays on budget.

Creating a film budget may seem like an intimidating task, but it’s worth it as it is an essential part of making sure your film is successful. By taking the time to understand how to properly allocate your resources, you can avoid going over budget and ensure that your film is completed on time and within its allotted budget. So get out there and start budgeting for your next film!

Next up, with a budget in hand, we’ll take a look at financing your film!

FAQs

What is a film budget topsheet?

A film budget topsheet is a document that outlines the major expenses for a film production. It includes items such as cast and crew salaries, equipment rentals, and location fees. The topsheet also has a section for comments and notes.

What are some ways to save money on a film budget?

Some ways to save money on a film budget include getting discounts on equipment rentals and cast/crew salaries, casting local actors and crew members, and avoiding unexpected expenses.

What are some common mistakes people make when creating a film budget?

Some common mistakes people make when creating a film budget include underestimating the cost of cast and crew salaries, not including all potential expenses, and overspending on unnecessary items.

How do you calculate a film budget?

To calculate a film budget, you need to estimate the cost of all major expenses, including cast and crew salaries, equipment rentals, and location fees. This is usually performed with the help of specialized film budgeting software or a film budget template such as an Excel spreadsheet.

What is the preliminary budget for film?

The preliminary budget is the first step in creating a film budget. It is generally created with the intention of seeking financing for the project. The preliminary budget includes high-level estimates for all major expenses and is often subject to change as the project progresses.

Who makes a film budget?

The film budget is usually created by the producer, line producer, or production manager.

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