On July 19, 2013, I met with Robert, who had worked at our local Community Television station for several years and was experienced at independent film making.
You may wonder why I am being so specific about the date. Why not just say “July” or even “sometime in 2013?” The answer is that what followed that meeting was a crazy journey through five weeks of speed film making. We went from “nothing” on July 13 to completion of major filming on August 24th. Yes, the same year!
That had not been the plan. Our July 19th meeting was to discuss generalities such as:
- Should we make a trailer or short comedy about community television for use in raising the money to make the full-length version?
- How much would it cost to make the short film?
- How should we proceed?
We concluded that we should make the short film, that I would write a draft screenplay and that Robert would approach our community television station about using their facilities for our set.
A few days later we learned that the community television studios were about to be sold. That’s right, our “lovely” station, inspiration for the full-length film and coveted for our set, was down-sizing. Having lost funding, it could no longer support those editing bays and production facilities and the studio and cameras, etc., etc.
The fire sale was scheduled for early August. We begged for a reprieve and were granted access to the facilities until August 24th, the day of an open house during which major equipment would be sold and the place emptied out.
Could we make our short film in 5 weeks on the paltry $6,000 available for our project? Move over Roger Corman!
Robert and I met to create a budget and develop a project plan. Having done a lot of project planning and budgeting in my various careers, I knew the questions to ask and Robert, having been through many independent filmmaking projects, knew the answers.
For purposes of budgeting we assumed three days of filming.
I began with “actors.” Having once tried professional acting I was certain actors would be the most expensive budget item.
“You don’t need to pay actors,” Robert said.
Really? Actors would work for free?
Apparently so. When I insisted that I would be paying my actors, at least a token something, Robert got a funny look on his face. I thought he was thinking that paying actors would bring a curse down on our film or perhaps destroy the entire independent film-making industry. But he didn’t say it, so maybe I was imagining things.
“Usually they work for the experience, film credits and food,” he said, “especially for food.”
That made sense to me. I remember how hungry I was when doing summer stock, when we had to choose between food and booze due to lack of money. Guess which we chose?
I budgeted $550 for actors.
Crew was another matter. Some crew, such as the director, cinematographer, grips (for sound and lighting expertise), the script supervisor and make-up person typically got paid. Others, who fell into the category of production assistants (PAs), did not. The PAs worked for the educational experience. They were the ones who moved stuff around and fetched things and taped marks on the floor and, if they were lucky, got to do some grip work (for the educational experience).
Budget for crew: $1,600
Editing: $1,500 (negotiated with director/editor)
Locations: $400 I was told that one normally could talk owners into letting you film on their premises for free, assuming they got a film credit (which was like advertising should anyone ever see the film). The $400 budgeted was for payment to the community television station to use their facilities. We were paying them for use of their studios because they were broke, because they were postponing their fire sale just for us and because we really, really needed that location as our set.
Equipment rental: $200 The cinematographer and director had their own cameras and equipment but we probably would need to rent some lights and some sound equipment if we couldn’t borrow it for free.
Miscellaneous supplies: $200 Filming essentials such as gaffers tape, plastic sheeting, batteries and other unknowns.
Props and costumes: $200 A totally off-the-wall guess.
Food and Drink: $400 This was the category we debated the most. Robert kept warning me that I was budgeting it too low, but I just couldn’t imagine spending more than that on a few donuts and coffee. Little did I know.
Initial total budget = $5,050.
Spoiler alert: We spent more than budgeted. But our budget was not bad being essentially a guess (like most budgets).
After all, at this point we did not have a cast, a crew or even a script. We had no idea what we could borrow for free and what we would need to buy and rent as the project unfolded.
The categories in which we spent way over budget were supplies, equipment rental, post-production-related costs such as more editing and additional B-roll shoots and unanticipated costs such as car rental and replacement of damaged equipment.
Oh, and food and drink for the actors and crew. Spending in that category went 300% over budget (It cost $1,280.70 instead of the budgeted $400). I had been warned..
Still, some other categories came in under budget so overall, two years later, the film was only 30% over budget. Having done a lot of budgeting in various business situations I can tell you that’s not bad!
As the final movie was about 9 minutes long, that translates into $730 per minute. My feeling is that we got off lightly due to a lot of donated effort, equipment, locations, expertise, etc.. I think for anyone planning to make a short film, budget at $1,000-$2,000 per minute.
I know, I know, many of you indy film makers out there can do it more cheaply than that but remember, I not only paid my actors and crew, I FED THEM!