Screenwriting and Production Budget

A well executed production begins with a film budget. A budget is typically divided into four sections: above-the-line (creative talent), below-the-line (direct production costs), post-production (editing, visual effects, etc), and other (insurance, legal fees, etc).

The framework of your film budget should list all commitments to your cast, crew, equipment, props, wardrobe, permits, etc. Your budget should detail the total amount of funds available for each category as well as list the individual costs per commitment. The commitments are the agreements that you make with each cast and crew for their services. Never generalized a budget or make commitments that you cannot keep; this will likely lead to budget overrun or worse, a failed production.

A film budget should list all assumed cost responsibilities during pre-production, production and post-production. Never leave any cost to question. In a nutshell, you’ll want to drill down to the amount of funds available for your production and establish whether your budget yields a deficit or a surplus of funds.

A film budget should always be considered when writing a screenplay. Upon developing your story you’ll need to think budget from scene to scene. This may sound like a clinical mathematical process that will interrupt your creative vision, however, if you want to write a script that can be produced at a “reasonable” budget; you’ll always want to consider cost in your writing process.

Building a budget requires a great depth of experience in film production and a general sense of “what things cost”. It also requires exceptional forethought and the ability to conceptualize future costs based on particular events or scenarios. You’ll want to determine how long it will take for your series of events to occur and how much it will cost to create something from nothing.

Rule of thumb for screenwriters just starting out, keep special FX to a minimum or not at all. No CGI’s, no gun fights and definitely no explosions. Don’t write a screenplay that requires a lot of green screen. A little digital effect in post production may be okay, but not recommended if you’re writing a screenplay to produce yourself. Write your script with that fewest possible locations in mind. It helps to have many of the locations in your immediate area.

You’ll want to have complete control over any sound (pedestrians, traffic, planes, air conditioning, cell phones, etc.). Huge consideration in the audio levels in each environment will save you from post production hell. You’ll also want to consider electrical issues for the lighting of your environment for each scene. If you can’t control the light and sound for each environment don’t write that particular location into the script.

Each and every script is unique and will ultimately rely on the writer’s vision and attention to cost. No matter how well your research and plan, when finalizing your budget it’s a good idea calculate a contingency at a reasonable percent. I would recommend thirty percent as the standard contingency for all production budgets. All low-budget films have constraints. It’s much better to work around them in the story stage than attempt to deal with them in production.

Sample short film budget: ShortFilmBudget.xls

The secret of success is to know something nobody else knows. – Aristotle Onassis

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