Budgets: Production Glue

by Norman C. Berns 

I’ve just read that budgeting is dead.  

    Modern-day filmmakers need nothing but a video camera and whatever cash happens to be in their pockets…. Because we now live in the point-and-shoot era of “new media,” we no longer have to put up with tedious budget-making….  

Truth be told, I’m almost tempted. Wouldn’t our jobs be so much easier if we didn’t have to worry about pesky details like money and how to spend it? Alas, we do. If we hope to finish our films or have a chance of seeing profits, we do, we do, we absolutely do. 

Before we even dive into the nitty-gritty of all that, it’s important to understand that owning a video camera doesn’t make anyone a filmmaker. No more than owning
a scalpel can magically turn you into a surgeon. Rearranging electrons on a piece of videotape or memory card is as simple as flipping a switch. But making a movie takes serious craft and a solid understanding of the hundred year history of filmmaking.  

That’s a whole other discussion, fodder for other chapters in other books. For this chapter, I’d like to stick with the business end of things and leave the
aside for the moment.  

Here’s the gist of it, the heart of the problem and the sanest solution. 

The problem. 

Making movies takes money, whether you’re counting in thousands or millions. When you produce a film, you’re not only in charge of the art you hope to deliver, you’re responsible for the cost of getting it on screen, too. If you’re the producer, it’s your job to make the most of every dollar. Maybe even turn a profit.  

The solution. 

To do that, you have to know how much to spend and, most importantly, where to spend it. You’ll need a plan for the cost of things.  

That operating plan for your film is the budget. 

There are (at least) two universes in which money doesn’t matter, in which there’s no reason to bother with a budget. There’s the “I’m rich and don’t give a hoot”
universe in which any expense can be covered. And the “I’m way too cheap to pay for anything, bring your own lunch” world in which exploitation is rampant and every expense is too much.  

Neither is a very good formula for long-term survival, let alone for turning out a viable movie. The task isn’t just to start your film; there’s little
gain in that. The plan has to be to finish your film. And even sell it and maybe turn a profit for all your efforts so you can afford to
make another film.

To do that – to finish your film, to make a profit – you’ll need to know lots of things, but the first of those is the cost of things. 

In our universe, in most sane universes, money actually matters quite a lot. We want to make the most of the money we have. We want to use precisely the right amount of that money, but not a cent too much, so that whatever we make can make more money. (Presumably so we can fund another film. We are, after all, totally
and irrevocably addicted to this amazing business of filmmaking.) 

The newest of new filmmakers, still trying to wrap their heads around the overwhelming complexity of making movies, of turning written words into stirring visuals, sometimes believe that film budgets are little more than a bunch of numbers.  

    Of course they’re that, but only in the same way the Mona Lisa is a bunch of paint. 

Each budget is the blueprint for the film you’re about to make. Budgets show the carefully detailed structure of your production; they explain what’s important to the finished film, what’s worth extra time, who has to do the work, where they’ll do it and for how long. Budgets explain how you might possibly juggle days and nights, the value you place in your crew, the worth of your cast, the importance of your story and stunts and effects…. 

Budgets show the value of
in your entire film. Budgets explain how you plan to move from start to finish, hopefully counting coup all along the way. 

Here’s the crux of it all.  

The SMALLER your budget or the TIGHTER your production must be or the more LIMITED your resources,
the more important it is to get your spending right
. Big or small, high or low, no matter your budget, the odds are good that you won’t have enough money to make many mistakes.  

Fortunately, it won’t take long for you to take command of this information, to own it.
And put it to work for your film. That’s what we’re going to do here – we’re going to learn how a well-made budget actually goes to work for your film, how it makes your whole production run better, smarter, faster, smoother. 

At about this point, I hear The Cry of the Documentarians…. 

    MY show – I make documentaries….

While the structure is different, the process for getting it ready is about the same as any other film. You have a tale to tell, there’s information to convey and a point of view you hope/want/need to share. And, if you’re like most mortals, you have a very limited amount of money to meet all those objectives. 

Your job is not to spend everything on hand, hoping against hope that your moviemaking will end before the bank shuts you out. You need to get the most value out of your money and be sure you have enough for the entire project.  

That’s the same task every filmmaker faces. 

Of course, many documentary films are based on concepts instead of scripts. Most work of necessity from general (and often vague) plans instead of specific shot lists. Far too many come from a “shoot till the money runs out” attitude toward finances.  

If you hope to get your film funded and shot, finished and shone, you need a better plan. Budgets provide that plan. 

Not only do you have to know what you’re going to do and when you’re going to do it, you’ll also need to understand how your film will make a profit. 

    MY show – I don’t make profits. I’m a documentarian….

Filmmakers know (or should know) that not all “profits” are counted in dollars. Instead, there can be significant (if non-monetary) returns like impact, outreach, community involvement, education, training, empowerment…. They’re among the myriad ways your backers might hope to extract some kind of benefit – some kind of profit – from your project. 

If you plan to get funding – even from Federal funders like the National Endowment for the Arts or the National Science Foundation – you’ll need to understand (and
explain) how your film will impact society. How it will “turn a profit” as it were. If you can’t share a substantial awareness of the value of your film, few investors will bother to support your work. 

(Of course, if your documentary
is being made for profit, if your investors expect a return on their investment, then all the other rules here apply.) 

If your show falls into under the wide umbrella of not-for-profit documentaries, you may not have a structured script. Fix that. Not only is that “script” an essential step in securing your funding, the process of creating it will help you understand the innermost corners of your film.  

Because this is YOUR project, you already know a great deal about your film. You probably have a solid grasp of the subject, the talent and even most of the action. (If you’re not at that stage yet, you’ll need to backtrack until you’re ready.) Your next task is to fill in all the blanks and connect every one of the dots from your concept, through production to the finished film. 

Documentaries are often like news stories. They evolve slowly as you learn more. No one would expect a reporter to write the story before rushing out to cover the fire. But that’s exactly what filmmakers are expected to do. Write the script long before the full story has been unearthed…. 

What can you do…?  

You’re going to invent that script. Fortunately, you won’t have to build it out of whole cloth at all.  

You’re going to gather all the things you DO know. Based on your research so far, let’s say you already know you’ll need to film (at least) four ordinary people and
(no fewer than) two experts. Let’s say the odds are good that you’ll have to film in three different cities and spend at least a week at each of those locations. And, from all that research, you have a very good idea what all these people will talk about. 


While it may be far too early to know WHO you want on camera and you couldn’t possibly predict exactly WHAT might be said (or you still have no idea WHERE), you know the subject of your film and you know (approximately) what people will tell you or do. That’s all you need to get started. 

    We are on the main street of a small Midwestern town. Mary Jones walks past local shops.  


            When I first moved to this community…. 

      She will continue in that vein, explaining that…. 

You’ve set the scene. The script now identifies your on-camera talent and explains how your story will develop.  

Essential to your plans and costs, you’ve learned that you need a small town for filming. You now have to do some location scouting. You’ll need local extras.
Maybe you’ll have to add an assistant or two for the day. Get talent releases. Make plans for extra lunches. Don’t forget traffic control if you’re out on
the street. Better see if you’ll need a film permit. Contact local police.

Of course, you might film Joe instead of Mary. The town may be even smaller. Or larger. Maybe it’s in the West instead of the Midwest. But those are all small details you can fill in later.  

You’ve uncovered a long list of facts you’ll need to plan your show and make your budget. In this quick scenario, you know you are going to film some PERSON in that person’s HOMETOWN. You’ll need to get to and from an airport. Make arrangements for local crews. Find a place to stay. A place to eat.  

While the specifics are hugely important to your story, they won’t affect your schedule or your budget. Flights to THIS town or THAT will be about the same.  

There are caveats, of course. Specific names may not be of any concern right now, but general costs are. Big towns are usually more expensive than little towns, travel to exotic (or distant) places will cost more than ordinary (or nearby) places. But most people already know that. If not, one quick search will teach it to you. 

As you build your “script,” you’ll learn more and more about the structure of your story. You’ll be forced to think about transitions and the number of people you’ll need each day. Even which scenes should be scheduled on consecutive days. 

And you’ll finally be able to make a realistic budget. Not perfect, not exact, but realistic enough to approach investors and/or funders. Not only will you know how much you have to spend to make your film, you’ll have a solid, defensible plan for your production. 

Because documentary “scripts” have to be created with many blanks left unresolved, they’re generally much shorter than their dramatic brethren. The length depends solely on how much room you need to tell your story and explore the variables you’ll face in production. 

Now, script in hand, it’s time to begin the budgeting process. 

Before we dive into the technique of budgeting (where do all those numbers come from), let’s explore one basic example to show the value behind counting first and shooting later. Let’s say our script has a scene that begins like this…. 

    The bridge

Now that’s a nicely understated bit of stage direction, isn’t it…?  

Before you grab the camera and blow up that bridge, your first job is to figure out the value
of that imploding structure. Is the bridge only background happenstance or is it central to the plotline? Is it the MOST important piece of your film? Or only one more little piece in the overall puzzle you’re weaving? 

And the scene continues. 

    A booming noise. The air is filled with choking dust. John runs into the field. 


      What happened?


        The bridge gave way; I got across…. 

So does that cover it all? The bridge is gone and the only impact on production would be the sweeping up of dust and debris. Maybe a bit of concrete and a few flying beams if you want to get extra fancy about it. 

Of course, the demise of that bridge could be handled in many other ways, too.  

For every one of those variations, you have to know if this is our only “bridge collapses” scene. You need to know if John will be crossing the bridge before it comes down. Or as it comes down. If you need to see John climbing over rubble after the bridge is gone? Or if you’ll be perfectly happy with John running into town covered with dust…? 

What if John’s crossing the bridge just at the moment it gives way? What if the bridge’s demise comes during morning rush hour? For those options, you’d have to add
stunts and effects and a long, long day with a half-dozen cameras to cover all the action. 

Of course, falling bridges are really sexy and look great on camera. If you’re a charter member of the shoot-first-count-later school of filmmaking, you might be tempted to blow that bridge first, to get The Big Scene in the can while you can.  

Alas, without careful planning you’re likely to blow up your budget as well as the bridge. 

Your cost to film that collapsing bridge can be little more than an ordinary day with extra dust in the air. Or it could soar all the way to long-term prep, serious stunts, massive crews and multiple cameras. Which of those you plan to use depends on THE VALUE of that falling bridge to your film. And, of course, the depth of your pockets.  

“But,” you say, “there’s a script. That tells me exactly what’s supposed to happen.”  

Not even close. That’s YOUR job. Of course you’re going to do that along with directors and cinematographers, actors and editors. While there will be many other voices, the ultimate decision about what gets shoot is your job. 

Even if the script says, “John makes his way across the falling bridge” it’s your job to interpret that scene based on your vision of the finished film and the amount of money you think you can raise. 

That’s important enough to repeat. 

You’re in charge of your film. It’s YOUR film. You control the money and the vision. And, for better or worse, you’re going to own the results, too.  

Your job has never been to blindly follow the script, but to shape it to your needs, to look at every scene and ask “how can this scene be filmed within my budget, from my point of view, with the talent I’ve assembled, in the time I have….” 

Even if you wrote the script – maybe especially if you wrote the script – it’s essential to switch jobs and view the script as your guide to
making the film you can afford.  

I said GUIDE. Not ball and chain.  

The budget, that ultimate tally of time and cost, is the framework for everything that comes after, all the way through the final mix. Film budgets explain what you can afford and what you can’t. They tell you whether you need to shoot everything before week’s end or you can extend your shoot for a few extra days.  

separate the fantasy of film from the reality of filmmaking.

    Production is a pitched, three-way battle between the script you own, the story you want to tell and the movie you can afford to make.  

Despite all your best intentions, not every film can be made for any budget. The pair – the script and the budget – has to be a perfect match for each other. Every project has to begin with a serious discussion between your story and your wallet. When you get good at it, you may be able to give your script a quick read and determine that vague money ballpark.  

    I don’t mean you can make a budget by riffling through the pages of a script. I mean you’ll eventually get facile enough to have a very general number in mind. “That’s easy,” “that’s expensive,” “I can make that for about….” 

    You know lots of that already. It doesn’t take a seasoned movie maven to read Avatar and know it’ll be expensive to film. Or understand that The King’s Speech shouldn’t cost a kingdom to produce. 

    Now, of course, there’s a huge difference between “a lot” or “a little.” You have to pay this tab and it better be exactly detailed. 

When you first read a script, when you first try to wrap your head around the problems that may lie ahead, you want to think SPLATS.  

Props. Locations.

Action. Talent.

      STARS are wonderful to have. Their names can be a great asset to any business plan, their talents can add to any film. But they come with a price tag, sometimes far exceeding their value to the show. Of course there are exceptions, but if you’re booking a star for your show, be sure
to add enough money to cover unscripted perks like travel, personal make up, private attendants, over-scale per diems, even visiting family or housing for an entire entourage. Perks can add up quickly. 

      PROPS generally fit into your home-free calculations, easy to figure and low in cost. Unless those props need to be handmade, or if they’re large or difficult to use. Unless they shoot or explode or take an entire crew to operate. The more specific or complex your props, the more they’ll cost. (It’s easy and cheap to find a used car; it’s a lot harder to rent a cherry-red ’57 Chevy Bel Aire convertible with a continental kit.) The more props you have in your show, the more crew you’ll need to buy, bring, clean, prep, log, fix, store and return them.  

      LOCATIONS cost time and money to get, hold, fix, clean and use. Where there are only a few, even the lowest of low budget films can easily stay on budget. But as you add more locations, the budget (and time) will start to soar. Every extra location means packing up, moving out, moving in, unpacking, relighting, resetting, repropping and tweaking for sound. You might be able to make that move without adding extra crew, but you won’t be able to avoid burning through a lot of time that could have been spent filming your movie.  

can get out of hand quickly. Too little and your movie may stall; too much and there’s little time left to shoot anything very well. When planning a day, you’ll have to leave time for rehearsals and resetting as well as the actual filming. Be on the lookout for complex scenes, even when they’re buried in simple script directions. “And then they fought the war,” “Everyone was there” and “The mob attacked” are all quick to read, but far from simple to film. Or to reset for Take-2. 

      TALENT is at the heart of any film; from cast to crew, you job is to assemble the best possible talent you can afford. Until your script calls for too much special talent. Whatever their role in your show, it takes extra planning, time and money to bring in specialists, whether they’re mountain climbers or stunt pilots, ice skaters or weapon armorers, Steadicam shooters or crane operators. Everything outside your normal workflow means more work for you, more money to be spent, less time filming. 


are the structure of your filming, the big tent that holds your whole production. They tell you which day you’ll be in Room A and when you’ll need Actor B. The cost of things depends on how well you build your schedule. You’ll face very different costs (in terms of time, money and effort) if you need someone (or thing) for five consecutive days or one day each week for the next five weeks. Careful planning can mean huge savings. And more time for filming instead of recovering.  

Beyond the surface of each of these items – stars, props, locations, action, talent and schedules – it’s vital to stay focused on one key concern.  

Every element needs a support system.  

Actors don’t arrive without baggage, both literal and figurative. Props won’t show up because you want them on set. Locations can be hard to find and harder to clean on the way out. Action has to be planned and rehearsed before it’s filmed, then started all over again. Special talents need extra time (and often helpers) to work their magic. Schedules keep productions running if they’re right or grind them to a halt when wrong. 

The crux of all that is time.
And lost time, especially on a movie set, is money that can never show up on screen. The hardest job making your movie is apportioning your time. 

    You have to be sure that you waste as little time as possible. You want most of your time, money and effort to show up on screen, effortlessly, not in travel vouchers or location fees. 

    No matter how essential that falling bridge, if you spend more time than you can afford, other scenes will suffer. Spend too little and your whole movie may collapse. 

In a typical twelve-hour day, the first hour or two (and often more) is taken up arriving, unpacking, setting up, putting out coffee, organizing props, setting the set, unpacking wardrobe and getting actors into (and out of) make-up and onto the set. 

When talent finally arrives on set, you’ll probably want to rehearse for the next hour. Actors need time for run-throughs, of course, but your DP and DIT need that time, too. Ditto your sound recordist and dolly grip, art director and set dresser.  

Even after you have that shot in the can, every new setup means everything on set will have to be reset, adjusted, moved, tweaked, fixed. 

The more you move around, the less time you have to shoot. 

    You have a fixed amount of time to make your movie. Usually somewhere between 15 and 30 days (maybe half that time for many, maybe double if you’re exceptionally well-funded). If you try to fill all those days with complex stunts or extra locations, you won’t have much time to shoot your movie.  

    Keep your schedule simple and you’ll be able to give your story the coverage it deserves. 

So with all that background information and cautionary tales, how much will your movie cost…?  

Your first step is to break your script down to its most granular level, the smallest possible chunks of information. You want everything that’s mentioned, everything that’s implied or logical or essential. Some of that is right in the script, but much of it won’t be there at all. Making your schedule is as much about reading between the lines as finding what’s on the page. That’s like writing a script for documentaries.  

Here’s a scene I like to use in my classes…. 

    The tall ones entered the room, emptied their pockets and sat. 

That’s it. The whole scene. About as simple as it can get, right…? Not even close.  

Who are the tall ones…?
Presumably they’re characters in your film and you can find information about them somewhere in the script. If one’s a man and the other’s a woman, you’ll need separate dressing rooms; if one’s a child you’ll need a tutor; if they’re stars you’ll want to get them wrapped quickly.  

How many tall ones…?
Everything has to be counted. Have two people entered the room or is it two hundred? The answer is probably somewhere else in the script; it’s obviously not in this scene. If it’s not in the script at all (and it may not be), ask. Since this is YOUR film, you won’t want to schedule more people than your budget can afford, no matter what the script or your director may say. 

Where did they enter from…? Have they been running? Is this the end of a chase sequence? Are they covered in brambles? Do you have to be concerned
about wardrobe continuity? Do they talk? Why are they here? And where do they go next?  

Where are those pockets…?
What kind of clothes are those pockets in? If we never hear from these folks again, it’s not terrible important to know exactly what they’re wearing for the moment. But if they tie all their clothes together to escape from an upper window, you’ll definitely need to make note of it.  

What was in their pockets…?
If it’s change and a couple of movie stubs, don’t worry; if it’s a handgun with a few extra clips, you’ll need to add an armorer and enough extra time for caution. And whatever is in them, where do they put what they take out of those pockets? Must be a table or bench or something here somewhere.  

Sat on what…?

Is it a sofa or chair or pine box? You’ll have to be sure, especially if someone else uses this room or if that furniture is important to the story. Whatever it may be, someone will have to bring it to the
set and take it away when you’re done. 

This entire scene has eleven words delivered in one declarative sentence. The words explain exactly what’s happening, but raise an almost endless sea of troubling questions about everything in front of the camera – the talent, their action, the location, sets, wardrobe, props…. Probably more, but I’m sure you get the idea. 

Everything that’s mentioned, everything that’s implied, everything that’s logical, everything that’s essential. 

To make a schedule, you’ll need to work your way through the entire script like this, line by line, scene by scene, finding every one of the bits and pieces you’ll need to make your movie. Much like gathering and joining the bits of a puzzle. 

If the information isn’t in the script and you can’t figure it out, ask the writer. If you can’t find the writer, talk to the DP or the Art Director. Someone has to know what you’ll see on screen.  

Each of the elements you find – props, wardrobes, sets, whatever – has to be tracked through the entire script. If an item is used once, it should be easy to rent and return. But if it shows up throughout the film, you’ll need a longer rental, careful cataloging and storage when it’s not on set. 

The schedule begins with a reckoning of everything you see on screen. Who bought it, who brought it to the set, who’ll look after it, who’ll fix it and who will take it back when you’re done. Even generic, easy-to-come-by items, still have to be bought and logged and brought to the set on the right days. More complicated one-of-a-kind specials need extra care (and skills) to acquire and sometimes look after. 

You can’t afford to have your entire cast and crew waiting impatiently while someone races back and forth pleading “anyone know where we put the whatchamacallit…? 

Now that you finally know the WHAT, it’s time to figure out the WHEN.  

For that, you’ll have to enter into serious mental negotiations with yourself. Here’s the kind of problem that has to be resolved on paper, long before your crew is standing by, waiting to learn what’s next. 

  • ACTOR-A works for ten days on SET-1and six days on SET-3


  • ACTOR-B works for six days on SET-1 and ten days on SET-2


It won’t be easy (or inexpensive) to return to a set once it’s been left. But actors can be even more difficult (and expensive) to keep on hold. So what to do…? 

  • Should you finish SET-1 before moving on to SET-2? Or would it be better to finish ACTOR-A before wrapping ACTOR-B?


  • If you move from SET-1 to SET-3, you can wrap ACTOR-A. But if you want to wrap ACTOR-B, you’ll have to put ACTOR-A (and maybe the set, too) on hold.


  • You could shoot SET-3 first, but you’ll have to see if that creates conflicts with other actors in those scenes.


Of course you’ll have to factor in a lot of other variables, too. Which days the two actors work together. Which other cast members are involved and when. Special props, rented wardrobe. Everything is at play.  

Which is best…? That depends entirely on YOUR show. There are lots guidelines here, but nothing could possibly cover every eventuality. There are no canned budgets or schedules, no one-size-fits-all solutions.  

Ultimately, the schedule you make, your ideal schedule, will be based on your knowledge of the script and the cost, time and availability of everything in it. Even at that, you’ll need contingencies, too – the best of schedules can be thrown into a tizzy by an actor rushing to make a theatre matinee.  

With a solid grasp of the
and the WHEN, your next task is determining the HOW.
That usually involves working with your Director or Director of Photography or Production Designer (or if you’re lucky, all three). 

Your overarching questions are how each scene will be filmed and the amount of coverage you’ll need. This is complex enough that you may want to bring in a Storyboard Artist to sketch key scenes so everyone understands exactly how you want them to look. Those graphics will help you understand the requirements of
each scene and they can guide the rest of the crew once you’re in pre-production. 

Making a schedule means a tug-of-war between the possible and the preferred, between the wonderful and the essential, Schedules are magnificent balance boards, the fulcrum holding your entire production on one end and the budget on the other. 

Unless your show is unusually limited in scope, you’ll need help gathering and then manipulating all the information you extract from a screenplay.  

There are many options, but Entertainment Partners’ Movie Magic, Media Services’ Showbiz Scheduling, scenechronize and Jungle Software’s Gorilla garner the lion’s share of productions, both union and non. Other options include the free, Excel-based Crombie Scheduling and ShowStarter,
an online service that lets users build the schedule and budget simultaneously. 

After all that effort – it takes about a week even after you’ve gotten really good at it – you’re finally ready to make a budget. After all your work getting
everything ready, making the actual budget is the easiest part.  

To get to this point, you’ve aligned the script with your requirements. You’ve determined what you need and when and where you’ll need those things. Now all that’s necessary is jotting down the cost of things. And adding it all up. 

If you’re not certain which items to include in your budget, start by asking your department heads. That would be your Director, Director of Photography (DP), Production Designer (or Art Director), Sound Recordist and Editor. Depending on the size of your production, you might want to expand the list to include your Post Production Supervisor and the Producer of Marketing & Distribution (PMD). 

    (If other chapters in
    this book don’t give you enough detail about those last two roles, email
    with your questions.)  

These various department heads make up your core team. They’re responsible for the look and feel of your movie. And they’re your primary source of information about how you can achieve the right look and feel for your show.  

Through this entire process, you have to stay in charge, maintaining control. Odds are good that it won’t be easy. 

While your DP will likely be a far better photographer, you are now the only person who knows the full constraints of your budget and the amount of time you can afford to spend on each scene. You now have to guide everyone’s creativity and input. It’s an exhilarating realization. 

Heady responsibility, isn’t it?  

Early pre-production is marked by a long string of serious negotiations with department heads. You already know what needs to be done and how much time you can allocate to the work; your core team knows how to do those things. Now you need to do a lot of horse-trading to get the necessary balance between great ideas and the film you can afford to make. 

That sense of push and pull, give and take, horse-trading if you will, starts now and goes on all through production. The director may need extra takes today or even added scenes. Your job is to figure out how you can pay for that extra work.  

You have to know what can be swapped tomorrow to pay for the excesses of today. 

  • Your Director
    provides information about how action and scene specifics will be handled.


  • The Director of Photography (DP) details shooting requirements, optimal equipment and the makeup of the crew. (Your DP may want you to consult with the
    Gaffer, Key Grip, Camera Operator or Digital Imaging Tech (DIT) for more specifics.)


  • The Production Designer translates your vision of the film into the realities of design, materials and manpower. You may not know a greensman from a gofer, but your designer will.


  • The Sound Recordist or Production Sound Mixer) will outline the best way to record key scenes (especially at difficult locations) and deliver audio that shapes the quality of your movie. (If you don’t think audio is one of your film’s essentials, watch your favorite movie with the sound turned off.)


  • Your editor is the gatekeeper between everything that comes from the set and everything that ends up on the screen. Bring in your editor early and you’ll
    have a better understanding of what has to be delivered. And when. And how long you’ll need for post.


Depending on the needs of YOUR film, you may want to talk with your music supervisor
or composer, a stunt coordinator, casting director, prop master, armorer, construction coordinator, special effects supervisor, location manager and visual effects supervisor, too. During these early stages of prep, you are trying to gather as much information as possible from all the experts who may add value of your film.  

Some questions will be very general (with this camera, who should be on the crew) and can be answered easily. Others are more complex (how could this stunt be staged or more frequently how could this stunt be staged for less money) and may take extra time and even payment.  

Information you get now may change your location (what production incentives are available in your state) or even the makeup of your crew (can I afford to shoot union)…. 

Because of all the work you’ve done to this point, you already know all the WHAT and the WHEN and once you get enough input, most of
the HOW.  

Your last task is determining the COST of things. 

Your safest (and sanest) starting point is using a budget template, a fill-in-the-blanks list with most of the items you’ll need to include in your cost analysis. Major budgeting programs (like Gorilla, Showbiz or Movie Magic), include templates used by the various studios and major production companies. Sites like reelgrok provide sample budgets for different types of shows, from low-cost documentaries to big budget features. 

If your show is very simple you might even get by using a spreadsheet or the back of a napkin, though neither is recommended.  

Neither templates nor detailed sample budgets know a thing about YOUR film. Your film is one of a kind, unlike anything that’s gone before. There are no shortcuts to an accurate budget.  

Budgets can become excruciatingly complex. Even the most basic budget includes salaries (that’s the easy part) plus markups for added fees and markdowns for state tax incentives. They can include overtime and holiday pay, housing and per diems, taxes and union fringes. They’ll let you budget for 25 12-hour days, then change that (in seconds) to 20 15-hour days and automatically update overtime and turnaround. You can calculate your costs in dollars, then pay in pesos (or the reverse). The best of them track the amounts you’ve spent (your “actuals”) and show offsets for production incentives or added income. 

Professional budgeting programs are financial management tools.  

Spreadsheets have exactly that kind of functionality, too, though it would take serious programming to put it all to work. It can be done, of course, if you’re determined enough. It might also be possible to climb Mt. Everest in your socks, but I wouldn’t recommend that either. 

Top budgeting programs cost about $400. That’s may be serious money, but it’s only a small percentage of your total film budget. The program is a tool that you’ll continue to use throughout your career. Even better, if your show gets picked up by a major, your budget will speak the same language they understand. 

Let’s use one category to see how your budget will be built. Let’s look at the CAMERA department as an example.  

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Along the left are numbered rows that might prove handy for reference, though they’re rarely used. Next to it are the account numbers and those are used by everyone from department heads to your accountants.  

Our major category here is 4700 – CAMERA. Below that are the account number, 02, 03 and so on. It’s okay to slip extra numbers into the column, but existing numbers should be left intact – they’ll be used by the accounting department to allocate costs to the correct account. And they’re the language studios speak. (This one uses Disney’s Chart of Accounts). 

For example, you might want to create Account 4708 and insert it for your DIT. 

There’s elegance to the numbering system and it’s definitely worth keeping intact. In this template, every number ending with 85 is for Rentals, 90 covers Purchases, 95 is Materials & Supplies. No matter what category you’re in – Props, Sets, Locations – 85 is always rentals, 90 is

always Purchases…. While many studios use different templates with different numbers, every one of them makes use of the same, consistent numbering system. 

You already know how long you
to shoot. You’ve consulted with department heads to determine the crew makeup and you’ve determined how much time you need for preproduction. Your editor has told you how long (and who) you’ll need in post.  

Now your task is to enter that information, including extra lines for overtime, taxes, union pension, stunt adjustments and any other costs. Line by line, person by person.  

Unless you’re an old hand at ordering equipment, ask your key crew for the cost of items like “Rentals” and “Purchases.” As early as you can, start a relationship with your rental house, going over options and the costs involved. They want your business, they’ll be happy to take your call. 

    We tend to think we’re intruding on rental houses and post facilities when we ask them to review costs. In reality, they’re working to get our business and are generally more than pleased to help. Of course, you’ll need to be as organized and professional as possible so you can be gentle with their time. 

Odds are very good that your first pass at the budget will be obscenely over-budget. Happens to the best of us and it’s exactly what you want.  

With your newfound perspective, you can start trimming. That sometimes means cutting extra people in the cast or crew, but more often takes the careful paring of unessential scenes and locations, extras and effects. When even your most egregious cuts aren’t quite enough to bring your budget back to reality, you’ll have to trim the number (and length) of your shooting and prep days. 

If you do all this work upfront – long before the cast and crew join you – you’ll have a markedly better chance of extracting your movie from the script and getting it safely (and sanely) to the screen. Of course there are a world of compromises ahead of you, but you can’t know what to give up until you know what you can afford to keep. 

Now you know. Your most important job will continue to be aligning your script and your budget with the reality of your show. There would be no point in scheduling more than you can shoot. Or budgeting more than you can afford.  

There are two other steps you’ll need to make before you’re done with your budget and ready to raise funds for your film.  

  1. Every budget needs a contingency and 10% is the industry standard. Add it. Running a film set is filled with an endless array of variables, everything from clouds intruding on a sunny exterior to a road crew making emergency repairs outside your window. You can’t anticipate everything that might happen, but you can be prepared for them.


  1. When looking for funding, the amount you need to make your movie is an exact number. Your budget can never be between this and that. There is no surer way to lose a backer than losing control of your costs. Find the number you need to raise and stick to it. ONE number, never a range.


This entire process – from breakdown to budget – may seem daunting, especially when you’re still new to it. It’s difficult for even seasoned pros, but obviously
far from impossible. Even if you’re not the person making the final schedule and budget – those tasks normally fall to your Production Manager (budget) and the First Assistant Director (schedule) – every new producer should go through these steps to better understand all the production requirements. And know why it seems so expensive for such a simple job…. 

Aside from the details here, there are a few takeaways. 

  • You’re in charge.
    While your total dollars may be finite, there’s no end to the ways you can spend them. If you really, really, really must see that bridge blow up, start by incorporating the knowhow of the experts around you. Somehow, you’ll have to pay for that explosion – it might be with dollars or by cutting other scenes or…. I don’t know, it’s
    show, you tell me….


  • The
    script and budget have to match.
    There isn’t much worse than running out of money during production. Or shooting so fast that you can’t get the quality or the coverage you need. This is the time to align your vision with reality. Don’t be such a slave to the script that you don’t leave enough time to shoot the best possible movie.


  • Film
    is a collaborative art.
    Start early to build your entire production team. And learn to listen to them. Making a movie takes a roomful of smart, talented people who have agreed to work together, to respect each other’s talents. If it turns out that you’re the smartest person in the room, bring in better people or find a better room.


Now that you’ve gone through all these steps, detail by excruciation detail, you know more about your show than any other person around you. Congratulations. That’s
the first, essential step toward being a real producer.

Much of the budgeting and scheduling software is available at deep discount on the film website, reelgrok.

– http://sn.im/grokshopsoftware.

Software can also be bought directly from the companies. 

      Movie Magic – http://entertainmentpartners.com

      Showbiz – http://

– https://

– http://showstarterplus.com 

Files and forms, how-to discussions and sample budgets are on reelgrok. 

– http://reelgrok.com/documents.cfm  

Norman C. Berns is a producer, director, teacher and facilitator.

He’s the go-to guy for films that need the wherewithal & knowhow

to get going, to get better or to get back on track.