Writers On The Web: Pre-Production – Film Budgeting in Reverse

Don't step in it!

The Money Trap – don’t step in it!

Today we’re going to talk about everyone’s favorite subject: film budgeting!  (I can sense your excitement.)  I know, budgeting can be boring, not to mention tedious, and ultimately, traditional budgeting can also leave you disappointed once you get to the bottom line. It can be rather disheartening to realize you don’t have nearly the amount of money you need to produce your project.

But how about we literally turn that scenario on its head and budget in reverse?  I first learned about Reverse Budgeting in the amazing book From Reel to Deal by Dov S-S Simens.

The theory behind it is simple.  Normally, you would add up all of your expenses line item by line item, and then calculate a total at the end (usually ends up being way more than you can afford). With Reverse Budgeting, however, you start at the bottom and put the total at the top.

What’s the total? However much money you have in your bank account or shoved under your mattress right now to spend on your project.  (And I’m not talking about how much credit you have available on a credit card.  I do not advocate financing your projects with debt. I will have an article about this out later.)

You have $100? $440? 1000? 2200? 10,000?  Great. That’s your budget.

A very simple, pared down example of an ultra low web series budget might look like this:

Talent  $500
Wardrobe/Props  $250
Makeup $250
Locations  $500
Crew  $500
Equipment  $500
Food  $500
Editing/Post  $300
Contingency  $200
TOTAL: $3,500

But let’s say you only have $1,500 in cash actually available. You aren’t able to produce your project, right?

Enter Reverse Budgeting.

TOTAL:  $1500

It's time to start cutting...

It’s time to start cutting…

We’ll start with the total, and we’ll make a promise to ourselves that we will not go over this amount no matter what.

Why do we do this? Because once you start spending money on every little thing it’s easy to fall into the money trap, where costs escalate and you are suddenly refinancing your house and opening credit cards to pay for your project.

Let’s avoid this by being creative and axing what we can do without.

TALENT

Do we really need $500 for talent?  How about hiring actor friends who will volunteer to act in exchange for meals and a digital copy of their webisodes for their demo reel?
If you don’t know any actors, you can hold casting sessions and find solid performers who just want to practice their craft, and are willing to work on projects they believe in for free or reduced cost. This is where top-notch writing comes in–you inspire people with your words on the page.  Money talks but the quality of your script will scream from the rooftops. (I will go over how to hold casting sessions in a later article.)

If all else fails, cast your family! In his book Rebel Without a Crew,  Robert Rodriguez talks about casting his brothers and sisters in his short films when he was first starting out, and it certainly didn’t hurt his career any to have done so.

Let’s say for this example we allocate $100 for casting space rental (for auditions and callbacks) and supplies (script copying, paper, ink, etc.)   Now we’ve saved $400 from our original $3,500 budget.

What else can we do without?

MAKEUP

Do you really need makeup on your low-budget shoot?  It’s not that I don’t respect the craft of makeup artistry, but when you have no money, not only is makeup expensive, but it’s also time-consuming. When you’re working on a low fixed budget, you don’t have time to wait for each actor to sit through 45 minutes of makeup before you start your day of shooting. You have to be able to work quickly to get as much out of each day on set as possible.

No one who has watched any of my work has complained about lack of makeup artist. If your story is good, most people will not care about that stuff. (Unless, of course, your web series is a horror or another genre that requires special effects makeup.)

The women can do their own makeup, and you can have a member of the crew brush a little powder on the men for shine.

Now we’ve saved $250.  Okay, $240 after spending $10 on a brush and powder for shine.

WARDROBE AND PROPS

Oh, the treasures you'll find...

Oh, the treasures you’ll find…

Unless you need specific costume pieces, your actors can supply most of their wardrobe.  They’ll likely look better and feel more comfortable in their own clothes anyway. If you need to supply some pieces that your actors don’t already have, Goodwill is your best friend.  Most Goodwill stores have a half-price day in the week where you can save even more dinero, and a have a 7-day return period where you can return what you don’t use.

A simple way to control costs with props is to avoid writing anything fancy in your script.  As the writer, you are in control of this.  Save yourself money, time, and hassle, and write in props that you can find around the house or at a friend or relative’s place.  For anything you don’t have on hand, again, Goodwill is again your best friend.

Let’s say we only spend $50 on wardrobe and props.  We’ve saved $200.

Let’s keep it going.

LOCATIONS

Set a general rule for yourself that you won’t pay for any locations, or if you do, you don’t pay much.  Again, as the writer, you have control over this.  Don’t write an Aircraft Carrier location in your script when you have pennies in your bank account.

This is a good time to introduce my favorite budgeting game, “If Not This, Then What?” For purposes of this exercise, let’s say we need an outdoor café for our location.

If not this, then what?

If not this, then what?

We go around town and ask every outdoor café if we can shoot there for free (or very, very cheap) and they all say no.  Does the scene have to take place in an outdoor café? If not a café, then what? A picnic in a park? How about the beach? A local 24-hour diner that we can shoot at later at night when it’s empty, perhaps for no charge?  Can we construct an outdoor café in the back yard, renting a few tables from a party supply company for cheap, and spending very few dollars on production design to make it look like a café?  A healthy dose of creativity and flexibility is needed when finding locations for free or cheap, but it can certainly be done.

Let’s say we find free locations but have to spend some money on production design. We’ll allocate $100 for this.

CREW

How many crew members do you truly need?  Although it’s nice to have a larger crew with a script supervisor, 1st and 2nd AD, multiple grips and camera assistants, etc. when you have little money, that’s probably unrealistic. This is the time to inspire others with your fantastic script and try to recruit crew that are passionate about your project and will work for meals.  However, if you are unable to recruit free labor, you may have to work with a paid skeleton (tiny) crew.

We worked with a very low budget for my web series, Split.  We did not pay for any locations. Our crew was limited at any one time to our cinematographer, a camera assistant, a gaffer, a sound recordist, and a couple of production assistants who graciously volunteered their time. I was the casting director and director, and my co-producer, Gabrielle, handled multiple duties, including actors’ paperwork, craft services, grip work, and even makeup on set (powdering for shine).  For one scene, we had a stunt coordinator come out to choreograph it, and for another scene, we had a special effects makeup artist come out to do one effect.   So we had a total of 4 ongoing crew members that we paid for the entire shoot, along with the SFX makeup artist and stunt coordinator for a half day each.  That’s it.

Even though you may be able to get some crew members for free, I would recommend offering to pay at least a little something.  If nothing else, it will help increase the chances that they will show up on time and do a good job for you.  A general rule of thumb is $100/day, and more if they are bringing their own equipment.  However, if your crew is composed of friends, you may be able to get away with $50/day or less or even just copy, credit, and meals.

For argument’s sake, let’s say we have four crew members and spend $100/day on each, and everyone is bringing their own equipment.

For a weekend shoot (let’s assume we’re shooting 6 short webisodes total–three 2-minute webisodes per day), that’s $400 for crew.

Which brings us to…

EQUIPMENT RENTALS

Renting equipment is often prohibitively expensive and most rental houses require a sizable deposit.  For a short film I produced a few years back, I rented a lower-end boom mic and pole from a rental house in Hollywood.  The entire replacement cost was about $700 total.  The rental house required a $4,000 deposit for $700 worth of equipment.  That means I had to have $4,000 free on my credit card (which I didn’t, my dad stepped up to provide his number so I could rent the equipment. Otherwise the whole shoot would have been a bust.)  And if the equipment came back a minute late or with a single scratch, I was going to get charged for it.

To remedy this, hire crew members that have their own equipment.  Many indie cinematographers have their own camera(s).  We shot Split on our DP’s Canon 7D DSLR camera. Our sound recordists brought their own boom mic, pole, and mixer.  For the trailer we shot, our camera assistant brought her own AC kit.  Another generous camera assistant knew a guy and got us a great light kit rental for $150 total and no deposit.  Renting those lights from a rental house would have cost several hundreds of dollars with a huge deposit.

For homemade lighting, you can use work lights from Home Depot, China balls (Chinese paper lanterns that can be found for cheap at IKEA) and bounceboards to help direct the light while on set.

No one is going to expect your lighting and picture to be perfect on a low budget webseries.  Make it the best it can be with the money you have. Story trumps everything and that’s what’s going to give your web series legs, not a perfect-looking picture.

Let’s allocate $150 for absolutely necessary rentals and lighting supplies from IKEA and Home Depot.

FOOD

Don’t skimp here.  That doesn’t mean you should sell the farm to feed everyone.  But don’t put out a bag of M&M’s, a loaf of bread, and a jar of peanut butter and expect that to satisfy your cast and crew (yes, that actually happened on a ‘professional’ set I was on. They didn’t even have plates, only paper towels for us to eat off of.) Don’t do this.

Behold the bounty...

Get to your crew’s heart through their stomachs.

You don’t have to have fully catered meals, but you can feed everyone well and save money by ordering catered box lunches from places like Subway or Corner Bakery, to-go lunches from Trader Joe’s, or sandwich platters from a local grocery store deli.  A small craft services table with some healthy snacks, coffee, tea, juice, soda, and water goes a long way towards keeping the morale of your cast and crew up during long shoot days.

$150 to $200 per day should cover it if you have a skeleton crew and small cast.  For our example, let’s say we have 6 crew members and 4 actors.  We should be able to feed everyone and have simple craft services for $150/day.

For our theoretical weekend shoot, let’s allocate $300 total for food.

EDITING/POST-PRODUCTION

A great way to save money on your project is to learn how to edit.  Editing your own work also gives you more creative control over your story and allows you to experience the joy of watching the project you’ve worked so hard on come together.

To my knowledge, every Mac computer comes with iMovie (as part of iLife) and Windows computers come with Windows Movie Maker (or it can be downloaded for free from the Microsoft website.)

Adobe Premiere, Avid, Final Cut Pro, and Sony Vegas are paid options for editing software but for most web series, iMovie or Windows Movie Maker will satisfy your needs. There are hundreds of tutorials on YouTube that can show you how to get started with editing on these platforms.

However, you may still experience issues with post-production sound and color correction that can’t be remedied yourself, so you may need to find someone with more experience to fix them.

A smart idea is to take the $300 we set aside in the $3,500 budget and hire a grad student from a film school with access to equipment to help you.  You may also be able to hire a small indie post house to work with you for that price.  A smarter idea would be to get the best picture and sound you can possibly get on set so that you don’t need much in the way of post-production help.

For our purposes, let’s assume we edit the web series ourselves and set aside $300 for possible post work.

CONTINGENCY

Having a contingency fund just in case of emergency is always advised.  You never know what unexpected expenses will pop up. We actually had to use our contingency when filming Split.

Ten to twenty percent of the budget is advisable; since we’re working with such low numbers here, somewhere around $100 would probably fit the bill.

Let’s add everything up.

TOTAL $1,500
Casting $100
Makeup $10
Wardrobe and props $50
Crew $400
Production Design $100
Equipment $150
Food $300
Post $300
Contingency $90
BOTTOM LINE  $0

Your reverse budget should end with $0.  Not only have we saved $2,000 from our original budget, but we’ve planned where every dollar will be spent and assured ourselves that we’ll be able to make our series with the money we already have.

There’s one large line item I left out, and it’s one of the most important parts of your budget.

FILM/WEB FESTIVALS AND MARKETING

Yes, YouTube is free, along with many other sites that showcase web series.  But if your project comes out well, you’ll want to enter film and web festivals in order to network and have the chance to win awards and accolades. You don’t just want to be a writer/director/producer, you want to be an award-winning writer/director/producer.  You want people to take notice of your talent and approach you. You want resume pitching points. You also want to meet other content creators who you can become friends with and work with in the future.  Film and web festivals are a great way to accomplish this.

Let’s say you’ve financed your series with the money you already have.  After filming, it would be a great time to cut together a trailer and run a small crowdfunding campaign specifically for film/web festivals and marketing materials like posters, DVDs, postcards, etc.  (I’ll have an article focusing on crowdfunding early next year.) Raising even a small amount like $500 can still finance a halfway decent film festival run.

You might be wondering, why don’t I run a crowdfunding campaign to finance my series and keep my own money in my bank account?  You can certainly do that.  However, not all crowdfunding campaigns are successful. For every project that gets funded there are dozens that do not.  If you can avoid tying your hopes of making your web series to whether or not people donate money, I advise it.  Plus, it is easier to raise money on sites like Kickstarter and IndieGoGo when you already have video content created that you can showcase on your campaign site.  With video content posted online and an audience already behind you, you can more easily fund a full festival run and get your work out there. If you have your cast, crew, and YouTube subscribers and fans spreading the word with you, you have a much better chance of reaching or exceeding your fundraising goals.

Build an audience of fans first before crowdfunding

Build an audience of fans first before crowdfunding

If you only take one thing away from this article, please remember to avoid the money trap and let your creativity solve budget issues for you.

Budgeting isn’t so bad when you look at it this way, and it can even be—dare I say—fun.

And isn’t that the whole point?

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