Interview with Norman C. Berns, budgeting consultant, from:
The Budgeting Group
Budgeting Information and Extensive Resources
Norman, would you give us an understanding on what a budget is?
I have a 6 part series of articles that will appear in BTL News, about what a budget is. Eventually, those may grow up to be a book. The series started out as a short document – my crib notes – for a seminar I was doing at the DGA and it just kept growing.
The whole series will be printed in BTL News, one at a time, over the next few months. As soon as the articles are out, I’ll add them to the files in The Budgeting Group.
You are known to many as the “Guru” of budgeting, how did you choose this one area of filmmaking that frightens most of us?
I am an organization type guy and, besides, I think it chose me. Budgeting is vital and when I produce or production manage, I understand that the budget isn’t just a set of numbers – it’s the blueprint for how a film is made.
If I tell you that you have a million dollars to make your movie, it’s really meaningless information. What really counts is how that money gets divided up.
Making the budget is a series of negotiations with yourself, your director, your DP, your art director. You’re constantly figuring out how you build your film. If your director wants 20 helicopters, where do you get that money? What else do you have to give up? Maybe you just have to talk your director out of those 20 helicopters and get it down to two people who can move really fast.
When you’re budgeting, you’re pre-building your film; that’s what is so appealing to me.
I joined your budgeting group at movies.groups.yahoo.com/group/FilmBudgeting/ and I found it a fascinating place for people at all levels of budgeting.
Yes, people who have never done a budget can join our group; in fact, about 25% of our members have never made a budget. It’s a great place to get started and anyone who wants to make a budget is welcome to join.
There is a lot of information on the site; we have made the files very accessible so people can find out what budgets are. And what they’re for. All the articles I write for BTL News get archived in the group. My budgeting software reviews are on the site. There are also lots of templates and budgeting information from a lot of very smart people who have done this much longer than I have. They’ve worked on a variety of projects and they’re amazingly generous with their advice.
Can we learn about budgets by just jumping into the group and reading, is that a good way to begin?
Sure. Some people learn by reading and some by making a budget. I have a lot of people who contact me saying, “I started to make a budget and I have a mess on my hands. What do I do now?” It happens all the time and they can get a lot of guidance from group members.
The important thing to know is that a budget starts by making a schedule. This requires that you break down every single element of the film.
Before you make a film, you have to envision what every person on the set is doing. You need to see where the camera is, where all the people are standing, what they’re wearing, how they got there and where they’re going afterwards. That’s the only way to know how to cover the action and how long to schedule for the scene.
You have to make the movie in your head before you ever begin. That’s why I like it. Fortunately, there is some wonderful software to help do the job.
Movie Magic Scheduling is the standard, used by most Hollywood studios. The software was bought by Entertainment Partners a while back. They released a new version called EP Scheduling. Of course, there are many other programs, too. Company Move is a great one that links with Showbiz Budgeting. There’s Axium Scheduling (which links with their budgeting program) and Sunfrog. Gorilla includes a full scheduling module, too.
Lester Cromby, an Australian producer, built a surprisingly good program in Excel. And it’s free; he just gives it away. It’s in the Budgeting Group and anyone is welcome to look at it. Or take it and use it.
To make a schedule, you start by looking at every single scene in the script and make a list of everything that’s in it. If you want to make a budget from this information, you have to ask, how did everything get where it is, who made it, when, where and how did it get delivered to the set. And once it’s on the set, who moves it around? All of these questions end up in different categories. You may find that you have a big set to move, so you’ll need more people to move it. Every bit of this information goes into making your budget.
Do you sit down with your director and your script to know what goes into the budget?
In the best of all worlds, you schedule a meeting with your director and your producer and perhaps a story board artist. Ideally your AD and Art Director are there, too. Then you fight your way through the film, scene by scene, shot by shot.
For example, if a scene has a big dolly move, you have to know you’ll need grips to lay track and gaffers to light a bigger set; you’ll need a dolly grip to move the camera and the art department to dress everything you see. Everything you do on set adds time, crew and money.
The biggest foible of first-time directors is trying to do too much, mostly because they don’t understand how complex things can be. That’s where a good AD and production manager come in. And the budget. They’re all a dose of reality.
Who does the budgeting, the line producer or the producer?
It will be the producer or the line producer or the production manager, one of these and perhaps all of them.
I often talk to filmmakers who want to fund their scripts and when I say, ‘What’s your budget?’ They say, “I don’t know.” When I ask, ‘How can you get your funding if you don’t know how much you need?’ Often times they will just throw out a figure and say “well, I think I can do it for under 3 million.”
That’s one of the great disconnects. Film schools generally don’t teach budgeting. They don’t teach it anywhere as far as I know. It’s amazing. They teach you how to shoot and direct but not how to make schedules or budgets. That’s a huge shame – schedules and budgets are the underpinning, the groundwork of a production.
I think the budget is one of the most important things to secure your funding, you must have a solid budget that it is believable and reliable, don’t you agree?
Yes, when you go to a funder you have to have solid figures. When you say, “It costs $3 million” my question is, ‘Why? There are only three people in a room talking? Why is this a three million dollar film?’ You have to have an answer. There are 10,000 possible answers, but they have to be real.
Do you make the first budget with everything in it and then begin to negotiate and say, “Well, I could do without this or perhaps even that?”
Absolutely, yes. Invariably the first budget will be huge – much more than what you plan to make the film for. After all, it’s very difficult to take something away before you put it down! You fill in all the blanks like a wish-list of endless possibilities. Then you say “well, OK, if I can’t do it for this number, what can I do it for? What can I do without?” That’s why I stress negotiating. If you have a director you negotiate with him. If not, you’re left to negotiate with yourself!
If your director says, “I want my big dolly move now” and you say, “I’m sorry, we can’t afford it.” You better be right. Because when you get to the end of the film and there’s $200,000 left over, you’ll have a furious director and an outraged producer because you missed an opportunity to make the film better. The director has to trust you. When you say, “We can’t afford it,” he has to believe you. And you have to be right.
After all, the budget is never meant to deflate creativity. It’s there to set the boundaries, to show what’s possible for the money you have. To paraphrase Robert Frost, working without a budget would be like playing tennis without a net….
Could a beginning filmmaker go on your web site, read your information on budgeting and actually begin to budget a script?
Sure. Budgets were historically made with pencil and paper. It worked for 50 years and it still can be done that way. About 25% of my group members budget in a spreadsheet. I don’t like using spreadsheets because they leave out ten thousand things, but they work. They add up the numbers. And spreadsheets come free with every computer. Or you can easily get a program for free.
Most budgeting programs are fairly expensive – somewhere between $100 and $600. Fortunately, all of them offer either a 30 day free trial or 15 free uses. There is no excuse not to get a piece of software and see if you can work with it.
What is the difference in budgeting a feature and a short? Is it just the number of days you are shooting?
Yes, that’s part of it. With a short, there’s very little chance for profit, so you usually have very limited amounts of money. You may get it screened or even get it aired, but the odds of making a profit on it are very slim. So money is tight and you have to budget carefully. Generally, you have to look for more deals on a short than you might on a feature. You have to be very careful and you have to be very clever.
I am a major advocate of paying people who work on films. This is an argument that frequently pops up on the Budgeting group – some people actually want to know where they can find free labor. I don’t think anyone should work for free. If you can’t raise a few thousand dollars to pay the people who work on your film you shouldn’t be making the film.
I agree. There is something about a film unit, its one group working together with the same vision that brings your film from an idea to this physical reality. Even the most miniscule amount of money bodes a good atmosphere on the crew.
Absolutely. People should be paid for their effort. People should be fed well. Even if you’re paying your grip $100 a day, you’ve got to remember that you’re getting a major favor. So the least you can do is to feed them. And you can make sure they don’t have to work 18 hours a day for that lousy $100. You want to take their creative input. Every single person on the crew will have creative input. The grip will talk to you about how to set a flag or adding a wonderful dolly move. A new director can use a lot of those ideas and should always be appreciative of the information.
This is important Norman, not to overlook the thousands of hours of experience that your crew has because they can often show you how to save money and time.
If I tell people ‘I have no money; but please come work on my film,’ there are only a limited number of people I can get. And most of them won’t have worked on a film before, other than something they may have done at school. If I have money for them, even something minimal like a few hundred dollars, I can actually go to some very good people and ask them to work with me. With some acknowledgement that they’re putting in a good, honest day – and a good lunch – I can get good people to work. I may have to work around their schedules and it may not be easy to do, but it’s the best way to make a film.
What about budgeting for documentary filmmakers? Many times once they start filming they don’t know where the film will take them, they may end up with foreign travel or more days of interviews than originally planned. What advice can you give them?
The advice comes in 2 parts. I actually budget a lot of documentaries and I produce and direct them, too. I just finished a three part series on the history of writing, called The Writing Code. It’s slated to air on PBS later this year. We went to Iran and Egypt and England, all over the United States, too, New York, California and everywhere between. The films even look at the precursor of writing which goes back about 8000 years, when people were shaping little bits of clay. We go from there all the way to the digital revolution and the quantum changes it’s brought to the way we view writing. Writing is unquestionably the single greatest invention in the history of the world.
I talked to Tim Berners-Lee who invented the internet. And even he was as astonished as almost everyone else about how quickly the internet and digital communication how grown and how significant it has become. This new form of writing is going to change everything.
To budget a documentary – after you’ve done all your research – extensive research – you have to write a detailed script, then budget for that script. And then – this is the important part – throw that script away because it is garbage.
My Executive Producer on my Writing documentary says, “You don’t tell a reporter how to write the story before covering a fire.” In the same way, documentaries discover the facts as they’re shot.
Based on that “starter script,” it’s possible to figure our many things, like the size of the crew you need, the number of days you will shoot. You’ll know that you want to talk to 10 or 12 people and you can assume that research will add other things and other people. And that some people will be located in unplanned cities, maybe New York or Brussels. Just based on your research and your guesstimate, you have a way of calculating where you may go and how much it might cost.
You have to write out this script, inventing it as you go. As you interview people, let them tell you whatever they may, and you make up the script to contain that information. If you have done your research, you’re now ready to write the script and make the budget.
Once you know the facts, all you have to do is cost out your script. The difference between shooting in Paris or shooting in Brussels is negligible. The main variable is an airplane ticket. You still need a hotel room; you still need a crew, a camera and stock. You add a few days, you add up your contingencies, your post production is easy to calculate and you can end up with a very good working budget.
Norman this sounds sensible to write the vision of your film as a script and use it to make your budget.
As long as you throw it away! You can never believe what you wrote down because it isn’t true. The instant you talk to someone, every detail you wrote down will change, but you still know that you are going to shoot for 17 days in 6 different cities. If you were careful in the script you invented, your numbers will be very close. In our documentary we filmed for more days than budgeted, but we were able to go with a smaller crew than planned and production ended up being very close to the original budget.
Norman, the future for all of us who love to teach in this business will be to teach on the web and you are creating an online teaching system now. Would we be able to go online with you and ask questions on budgeting while we are reading your information?
The way online seminars are set up now is over an internet connection. Everyone dials into a central phone number or uses Voice Over IP, speaking through the computer. One way or another the seminar is live. It’s a great concept – better than a class. If someone is disruptive online, I can literally take their voice away. The software is incredible. If I want everyone to listen, not talk, I can cut out any chat, even prevent people from posting messages until I’m ready to open the session to messages.’ It’s actually better than a real class room. And the educational impact is just as good.
The newest webinar software – I hate that word –is very interactive, anyone can interject and ask questions. Specific data can be highlighted and circled and echoed back to the entire group of students. This software has become very sophisticated. It’s like a live class. Watch our site to see when it’s available. It should be fairly soon.
I’m planning a whole series of online classes – everything from the basics of budgeting all the way to using the advanced features of budgeting programs. We’ll start slowly and grow, hopefully responding to whatever the filmmakers need.
What advice can you give to allay our fears of budgeting?
- It’s wonderful
- It’s exciting
- It is as close as you can get to your movie without actually making your movie.
The hard part for people is getting the numbers. There is invariably someone who sends a message to the Budgeting Group saying, “I am about to make my film, can someone give me a budget for it?” Well, NO, we can’t do that. We spend forever trying to impress on people that every film is different. That whatever numbers I might have negotiated will never be the same as you can negotiate. When you put grip equipment in your budget you actually have to call a grip and discuss your specific movie so you can find out what equipment you need and what it will cost.
You have to make these calls. It can be very time consuming making your first budget and building a knowledge base. It is not fair cribbing it from someone else’s budget because their requirements are different than yours.
It is hard to do a budget. It takes about 7 days to do the break down and schedule and it takes 3 to 5 days after this to do the budget.
So filmmakers should allow three weeks, right?
I would think so. I’ve done this for a long time and it still takes me about 2 weeks to do a complete breakdown and budget. If I am in a new field that I don’t know or a new city, then I have to make all those phone calls.
Norman, do you work as a consultant?
Yes. Of course, I make a lot of budgets. But beyond that, I review a lot of existing budgets. I read scripts and advise producers how to proceed. I lay out promotional campaigns (I spent years in advertising – I hated it, but the experience was invaluable) and I lecture and teach.
Lots of times people will call to say, “I started my budget and I have a mess, what can I do?” I normally work out an hourly rate or a flat rate for them.
When I started in the business I was very lucky. I found some good people who helped me and they provided astonishing information and they were very free with it. I got on the film “The Hospital” as an observer and I spent my days hanging around with Paddy Chayefsky and George C. Scott. Arthur Hiller was the director and Pete Scoppa was the A.D., and every single one of these people was incredibly generous with me. I was a 20 year old punk and so green, but they invited me into their private meetings and explained whatever they were talking about after their meetings. I don’t know if they knew it, but they cemented my career.
As I have gotten older, I feel that’s how this business should work; we all have to be mentors to each other. It is the only way this business continues.
That’s right, we are fortunate to have gained so much knowledge from incredible mentors.
It is in part what you are doing. You are providing guidance to people; you are connecting them to resources. It is hard to make films in a vacuum! We need each other.