A Production Junket: A Guide to Budgeting and Financing your Short Film
A film budget — it’s the large grizzly bouncer with the lousy reputation standing in the way of your talent getting beyond that golden door of opportunity where stories are made and told and, if you’re luckier than a ladybug rolling sevens, distributed. As filmmakers, we all come face to face with this very same dilemma, though it’s no trade secret that there are more stories desperately banging on the walls to be let in than not.
That’s because while film encompasses just about any medium that can be considered art, it’s built an arduous moat of business around accessibility. Not to say there isn’t an art to budgeting or that some people aren’t more successful at maneuvering this nefarious gatekeeping obstacle than others, but It isn’t art. In the world of independent filmmaking, it’s the deciding factor of whether or not the art will simply be. For example, The Indignation of Michael Busby (2020) – a dark comedic short film I’m currently in post-production with – almost never materialized beyond the confinement of a worn-out script. That very script now lies on a shelf in my office along with its predecessors, bound to the coffee-stained production paperwork that footnote the many trials, errors, and ultimate successes responsible for Busby reaching final cut status. More importantly, on a certain document, among this fusion of printed sheets and scribbled notes is a typed number, rather an amount — $21,780. And I crossed it out.
How does $5,000 sound? To us, and in comparison, it sounded pretty good — good enough to greenlight our project anyway. If I have any goal here, it’s to encourage up and coming filmmakers they can do the same. Please, don’t take this as a one-click answer to achieving production status. There are far too many variables with an endless array of hurdles specific to every script. But if you read along, you might find the shared experience an assistance in guiding your story idea around financing’s proclivity to hold a project captive on the backburner, or at the very least, informative. I’m a firm believer that there’s a way around every budgeting problem you might face as an indie filmmaker. You just have to remain in a creative state.
Who’s Funding This Thing?
You are. Before we implement our creative solutions, it’s essential to fully understand the overlying problem we as independent filmmakers face at the start. Generally, short films don’t make any money. It’s going to be very tough to convince your dentist to invest in your art outside of an incremental crowdfunding donation without the promise of return. Lacking the proof of revenue that might come with a feature film on a more experienced level, the short circuit can sometimes feel like a dog chasing its own tail on a merry-go-round. So why even bother? Personally, I view the art of the short film as a type of resume encapsulating all of your skill sets and acquired experience in order for you to get the job. The festival is your interview. The feature film is the position you’re seeking. There’s no getting the job without the resume. The very best advice I can give right off the bat is to begin saving for at least the core portion of your budget before any decision is made between INT or EXT in that very first scene header. I’m not saying to rule out the potential of crowd-funding, but it’s easier to give a project solidarity and especially gain needed crew if you can block off their schedule with a pre-existing and certain financial base as opposed to a roll-of-the-dice campaign (You can always use this method later to increase your budget. In fact, you might find you’ll receive more in donations if people feel like your project is happening with or without them).
How Much Money Do I Need?
Here’s what I like to call the “Yes Man” phase. Before you consider keeping costs down, I recommend first budgeting expenses to the fullest amount imaginable. Then, add a cushion to that. Go big. Pretend you’re any studio from the ’80s throwing money at a script involving skis. Treat everything you might possibly need in order to bring your script to life as an absolute necessity before you even think about cutting corners on down the road. The objective here isn’t to waste your time coming up with a list of out of reach options, but to give you a clear view of what will ideally bring your vision to life. For the majority of the pre-production phase of Echoes (2020), a crane accompanied by a drone sat comfortably in my list of production costs for a UFO abduction scene’s opening shot, only to be traded last minute for a simple lift option. A military vehicle would later become a friend’s Dodge Ram pickup truck. This leads us to the second phase of budgeting, the “Plan B” phase. Once you have a budget top sheet listing all above the line expenditures and production expenses, then you may begin substituting costs. Keep in mind that you’re not yet eliminating line items, but figuring out potentially cheaper options available to you in order to reach the same (or as similar as possible) result.
BUDGET TOP SHEET
It’s important to note that any attempt at cutting cost is futile unless you’re willing to be meticulous in documenting as well as organizing your budget information. Be neat but fierce in detail. An affordable budget does absolutely no good if your film gets hit with surprise costs at every turn of the production stage. Too often, indie projects find themselves in an unexpected hiatus or outright collapse because of a producer’s failure to accurately prepare for any and all possible monetary needs. You should be comprising your budget top sheet into four essential parts:
1. Above The Line
If maneuvered correctly via outside thinking, networking, and communication, this section as well as the following (Below the Line) will make up both the bulk strength of your production and also the area of greatest potential in shaving costs — the balance lies somewhere between the two, and I can’t stress enough the delicacy of that line. You must walk it carefully by yourself in regard to your own unique situation, but I’ll also share where we dropped cost in relation to Busby in hopes of beneficiary comparison.
The items that should comprise this first section are any and all executive positions and fees involving your production, i.e. director, producer(s), story costs, and actors. If self-funding and you have the luxury of creating your own story (writer/director), you can gleefully ride zeros from the start of estimated costs up onto the listing of your actors. In the case of TIOMB, the benefit of no-cost made an extended long-jump into cast expenditures due to myself taking on the starring role of Michael Busby. It was my fourth time to implement this three-hat formula into a production, and fortunately, it went over without a hitch, but if you’re comfortable enough to try this method, be prepared to put much more extensive work than you normally would into pre-production — especially in terms of rehearsals with your cinematographer, actors, and core camera crew. If you can direct the brunt of the scenes beforehand, this will allow you to focus equally on the character you’ll be playing in front of the lens come time to roll.
Remember, when I mentioned this film almost didn’t happen? That’s because in the beginning, and with the original budget estimation in hand, the film was splitting costs between myself and another production company. I even had another actor in mind to play the starring role. I wasn’t comfortable putting forth this price out of pocket, however, and so with the previously mentioned substitutions in mind, I rerouted the above the line figures in order to keep the picture at home between my production partner and me at Nimbus Pictures. The ending financial result was us paying less than half of my share of the primary budget plan while the film still managed to hit a bullseye on our intended outcome. If you haven’t yet discovered a network of individuals who might step up and help carry your project along for the sake of mutually beneficial art, don’t fret. We all start at the bottom of the hill. Focus on the quality of your script. That’s going to be your best glue for getting responses, and eventually, people on your team.
Still, don’t be afraid to ask for favors from peers who share similar levels of set experience in order to keep the cost down while mutually benefiting networking resumes. My production partner is also the cinematographer who lensed the camera for Busby. With Nimbus Pictures now attached to the title role and my partner taking his usual rate deferred, the figures for this section began with the other actors on a SAG Short Film Agreement. We could now begin recruiting the best people from our combined network for the positions in cast and crew.
2. Below The Line
This section is a continuation of all remaining expenses in the filming stage, the bulkiest addition to your estimated total undoubtedly residing in three core departments: camera, sound, and lighting, as well as the equipment and labor fees that come with each. This is your trinity — the other knights at the round table. They make up the magnitude of generally crucial team members responsible for not only the deciding factor of whether or not your project can weather the storm of the coming days that lead to post-production, but also the base quality of the end result.
Below the line also includes, but is not limited to: wardrobe, hair, and makeup, set construction, set design, locations, transportation, set operations and staff, picture vehicles, props, and catering. The kicker is that each one of these included factors can be absolutely vital to day-to-day set operation depending on any given call sheet. Also, their combined expenses, in addition to scheduling, possess the brisk ability to roll downhill along with your storytelling hopes and dreams quicker than the amount of time it takes for an actor to ask for a bottle of water on set. For this reason, you must decide which and how many crew members are essential to support the demands of your script. Once again, your strongest advantage to shaving costs here will stem from the gathering of help and also items from the network you’ve built previously, or at least your ability to selectively determine key components over non-essential. Choosing against ideal budget items is no easy task and, in abundance, will assuredly lead to depletion of quality, possibly even a mistranslation of the adaptation of the story you’re attempting to tell. You’ll want to be careful here. Again, one of the very best weapons in your arsenal of enlisting essential crew members is your script. To dilute it to a point would be a waste of everyone’s time, hard work, and the foundation of why they’re there to begin with.
For Busby, our cinematographer pulled joint roles between cinematography and lighting for the majority of production days. Independent of any rental fees by means of personal equipment, we were able to extend the schedule in order to make up for the additional setup time. In fact, there were several days in the schedule where the entire crew consisted of just us two. Since the lengthy opening along with a handful of other shots and sequences were considered “wild” (consisting of no audio), we were able to group the sound department into a separate portion of the schedule, thus cutting back on unnecessary budget waste. This method was implemented successfully by means of capturing each take with a portable recorder and then adding sound design to these template audio layers in post. During development for Echoes, I gained access to each set location along with a housing situation for the entire cast and crew through reaching out and gaining support from family and friends. This allowed me to substitute those costs with the ability to hire non-local cast and crew working on SAG contracts and requested daily rates. Also, the catering consisted of home-cooked meals by …my mother. Look, people, we’ve got to take help where we can, right?
3. Post Production
This portion of your budget should include everything after production: editing, scoring, data management, color correction, foley, and sound design, to name a few more than a few. My best advice here is to roll up your sleeves and get to work. That includes researching and learning as much as entirely possible in order for you to bear the weight of as many roles as you comfortably and artistically can. In this informational age, the learning tools are at your disposal to advance your level of artistry beyond any barrier set by none other than yourself.
I’d like to be clear that I’m not proposing this method of action from any place of ego or desire for total creative control, but as a means of necessity in order to sometimes diminish costs. It will only work as long as you don’t diminish the integrity of your art, but I want to stress that it absolutely can be done. It’s possible, and it’s an option for you. I began editing well before attending film school at the University of Memphis. I also have a specific style of directing with the edit already in mind as opposed to crafting scenes in a more organic sense. So for me, this isn’t only beneficial when financing a project, but imperative to bring the story home. I understand not everyone works the same way and that universally, film is more of a team sport. But as independent filmmakers with minimal funds, we often only have the luxury of a goal and a one-on-one situation type of play.
After filming Bluff (2016), the movie sat in post-production limbo for two years while I tried to learn CGI for a shot involving a close-up of a bullet falling from the sky. Unfortunately, I couldn’t afford the rates for the visual effects artists I inquired about, so I put it on my shoulders during the creation of our budget before entering production. In post, I repeatedly tried to come up with the finished graphics myself. The end result was horrific, to say the least. I eventually had to bite the bullet (sorry) and save up the money to get it created professionally and as originally intended. The lesson is you can’t expect to do everything, and an unrealistic budget is as harmful to your project as no budget at all. This short has yet to be released, but will be very soon…
It’s as vague as it sounds. Hidden variables will come homing in on your wallet’s position the very moment you decide to go for it. A mistake made by many independent filmmakers is to overlook or, even worse, downplay the potential for things to go wrong. Every item on your budget should, at the very best, have a contingency plan. Typically, I add 10-20% of my funding to the total estimated cost in this section.
What Else Can You Do?
Get out in front of your project and hustle to the very best of your ability, but be professional. Everyone has their own individual levels of strength as far as their potential for acquiring crew and materials goes. The two things you should be able to rely on are your story and yourself. Before attempting to gather funds, whether from a private investor or local production company, create a digital prospectus that can summarize your proposal and production goals. During the development of my first short film, Space Licorice (2014), I sent this material along with my script to just about every filmmaker in Memphis who I knew of but didn’t know at the time. I got zero investments from this and many more no-replies than not. So why am I advising you to try it out? The few individuals who did reply chose to meet with me because of the introduction and story. To this day, they remain collaborators and peers who I continue to learn from and grow with. In closing, never ever forget to pay it back. The independent scene might consist of a great deal of bartering for favors, but you should always try to pay to the fullest when applicable. If a favor is received, don’t wait to be asked for repayment of said kindness, but rather seek it out by offering your time and contribution wherever applicable. You might be surprised to find that when you put your back under another filmmaker’s project, the act will often and simultaneously lift your own. That’s the community at work.
Author: Nathan Ross Murphy
I’m Nathan and I’m a video tech here at Lensrentals.com as well as an independent filmmaker. If not busy with a project, I’m likely outdoors with my two Aussiedoodles, Albus and Link.