It doesn’t matter if you are creating your movie out of scenes you created with your improv group, if you are buying off of Simply Scripts or if you are inspired with an entire vision of a story entirely in your mind. Before you put pen to paper (or fingers to keyboard) you have to give some consideration to the budget of your movie if you intend to shoot it yourself. If you are Sony Pictures then you may have some budget flexibility, but if you are aiming for a micro-budget film there are some things to consider before you even go into pre-production.
The truth is that your movie script can make or break your budget before you even get into pre-production. This is true for both short movies and feature films. The least expensive movies are ones with a lot of dialogue and simple camera movements with locations that are easy and inexpensive for you to attain.
But let’s dive deeper… Here are some specific characteristics of your script to ponder before you start writing your screenplay.
You want a script that does not cost much to shoot. There are lots of ways a script can get expensive, more ways than I can outline here, but here are some basics.
The longer the script, the more expensive the shoot. Therefore, keep the script short.
A shorter script usually (not always) means less shooting days and when you are paying every day for your equipment, meals, locations and possibly salaries, there is an advantage to keeping the number of shooting days as conservative as possible while still getting good footage.
Independent productions (NOT Sony) shoot as little as 3 pages per day to as much as 10 pages per day, but shooting too many pages in a day can get a bit sloppy in terms of final results.
The expense comes because each day you have to pay for equipment, food, location, etc, the costs can add up.
When you’re starting off, try to keep your project to a day or two, and leave the longer projects to when you get better and when you are more apt to sell your project.
A Lot Of Locations
Lots of locations might mean lots of money if you have to pay for them, but even if you get your locations for free, the hidden cost of multiple locations is the time it takes to move the cast and crew from one location to the other.
This can get expensive on features, but on a short, you feel it even more because time is limited as it is.
I like picking scripts with one or two locations, and as I am picking the script, I try to already have an idea of where I could shoot the project, or if there are a couple of locations, what locations I could select that are close to each other that could minimize the transportation time.
This is an obvious one, but if you write a script that is set in a huge fancy mansion that location is going to cost you big-time unless you live or have access to a fancy mansion.
If you are really in love with the story that is set in your fancy mansion, a good question to ask yourself is, “Does this have to be shot in a fancy mansion?” “Could I adjust the script or the story to set it in my own house? A friend’s house? An apartment?”
Hidden expenses will include anything that is a pain in the butt for you to get to.
For example, for me, Brooklyn and the boroughs of New York are out except for Manhattan for many of my shoots because I have to cross two expensive bridges to get there and most of my cast that is driving a car would have to go over at least one. Add into that the likelihood of having to pay for parking for my crew and cast and it is unlikely that the lower budget productions I produce for would be able to swing that.
Additionally, if you are doing a 12-hour turn around (giving twelve hours between the end of one shoot day and the beginning of the next), you are cutting into the crew and cast’s rest time if they have a 2-hour commute each way because the nature of the city is just congestion 24-7. That is not directly expensive, but a sleepy crew making mistakes is another indirect expense.
Anything involving fire, blood, car chases, explosions, etc are going to cost money.
Greenscreen is inexpensive to do poorly, but expensive to do well (unless you are the one doing the keying in post-production and know what you are doing).
Complicated computer-generated effects are also expensive unless you know how to generate them yourself and will be the one at the computer doing the work.
Stay away from stunts because in feature films with full budgets there is always a stunt coordinator making sure everyone knows how to do everything safely.
Stunt coordinators are expensive and you definitely need one if there is anything risky in the script.
Also, your insurance payments for the movie go up for scripts with stunts.
Unless you can create the effect with black and white in post-production and you have all the set pieces, location, and the wardrobe that you need in order to create the desired time period, you might want to stay away from period pieces.
If you already have a script that is a period piece, is there a way you can modernize the story to today’s time?
First of all, it’s hard enough to get together a few actors and your crew for a day, even when everyone is available and enthusiastic, but when you have a large cast, it’s like herding cats!
Think about it: if you are doing an ensemble movie with 10 actors who are constantly booking other things and having auditions and other gigs come up, do you think that will be easy to schedule.
This is especially challenging if you are not paying them much and if the shoot is short.
What could and often does happen is you find a perfect actor or actress for one of your characters and they agree to do your three day shoot, but then they continue to go on auditions (of course) and they get cast in a 2 week shoot that pays double the daily rate that you are paying and conflicts with your shoot dates.
Which one do you think they will pick?
And yes, yes, they committed to you, but we all know what is likely to happen and acting (like most freelancing for that matter) is challenging when it comes to commitment versus personal economics. Sometimes the actor must do that longer gig because they need the money, so try not to judge them too harshly as long as you have a backup and as long as the actor gives you enough time to book that backup (so calling the night before is NOT OK).
That being said, can you imagine trying to schedule a huge ensemble cast for your movie? I haven’t had too many instances where an actor had to back out, but I have heard plenty of stories from other producers and director and it can really be a problem.
Going back to why this makes a script expensive, you may have to pay your actors more than you would like to secure them and the more actors you have, the more people to pay.
Additionally, on set, you have to feed everyone and make sure there is a place to hold the actors between shooting scenes. Also, you may need an additional makeup person, and often productions pay actors for incidentals related to the production like gas and parking.
This is true with background actors, too. As much as we would all like to shoot epic scenes like those in Gone With The Wind, it is very expensive and time-consuming (and can often be done in post-production if you or someone you know has the skills!)
It’s not worth it and it makes your job, as the producer a lot tougher.
Better to stick with a small cast.
As a side note, a small crew might or might now help you. Having the appropriately sized crew
People will volunteer on projects that have good material. People will ask for compensation on projects with material they feel is sub-par. So find a great script.
Great material will persuade the best people to work for free because they think the project might actually go somewhere big (like win awards) which will reflect positively on them and better their career.
The reason why all of those independent features from the film festivals are very talky is because that is what least expensive to shoot.
However, too much talking and not enough action can be quite boring, so it’s important to achieve a balance.
But if you can achieve that balance you will end up with an interesting project that doesn’t cost too much to produce.