TV, Video and Film Budgeting

There’s nothing that drives fear into a filmmaker’s heart quite like film budgeting. Most of us got into this work because we love good stories, not numbers. But the budget is a critical part of accomplishing our storytelling mission. So what’s the best way to handle a production budget?

Film Budgeting Tools

The first thing people always ask me when I present on the topic of film budgeting is “what’s the best tool?” They generally mean software. And there’s plenty to choose from. You’ve got the industry leader, Movie Magic from Entertainment Partners, which offers comprehensive budgeting, scheduling, pay mastering and payroll software which integrates for a seamless production back office. If you are making a major narrative or multi-part long form documentary project with lots of shoot days and the need for strip boards to tie in to your daily call sheets and payment tools, this suite of products is for you. Jungle Software also offers a suite of products that can work for large (“Gorilla”) and small (“Chimpanzee”) productions, with story, scheduling and budgeting tools. An industry staple, Reelgrok has great budgeting resources, and their Hot Budget is now sold by Hot Bricks. When I was writing my book, The Producer’s Playbook: Real People on Camera (Focal Press), I asked a number of broadcast reality and documentary producers what they were using for budgeting. You might be surprised to learn they almost all use Microsoft Excel. I’ve been using this incredibly flexible tool for years myself. Once you’ve set up your template and linked various worksheets so that changes populate across your templates, you can adjust the variables easily for every project.

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What Really Affects Your Budget?

What really impacts a budget is how you manage your project from the start. Specifically, you must manage the various variables and opinions involved so that you don’t burn through what little money you have left on re-shoots, endless re-cutting, or trying to “fix it in post.” Because let’s face it, the edit room is where budgets go to die. Start with the story and get everyone on board with that. Storyboarding and fleshing out a script treatment are critical at the outset of a project to avoid nasty surprises and sudden changes of purpose, content and deliverables that can completely derail a budget. Aside from using Photoshop, there are loads of ways to storyboard a project. Everything from Storyboard That to using stock images dropped into a Keynote or PowerPoint presentation. The key is not elegant boards. The key is flushing out any concerns or new ideas BEFORE you really start burning money on the shoot. Pair this with your script treatment, and later your shooting and editing scripts (using Adobe Story or Final Draft or simply a multi-column table in a Microsoft Word document, and you will be on your way to staying on budget.

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The next tool for project management is, in fact, project management software. I like Basecamp for managing group conversations, script changes and schedules. I use Wipster for managing client/Executive Producer changes to rough cuts. They recently partnered with Vimeo, which now makes it easier for PRO users to import videos from one platform to the other and publish back to Vimeo (I always have at least one client who can’t get into any online portal to look at what we’re doing.) I’ve not used it, but I’ve heard good things about Screenlight, which touts the added bonus of housing final files so you don’t need to add another layer of software for your file transfers.

It’s also important to have a streamlined plan for tagging and identifying footage before you edit. If you’re a FCPX user, you’ve got a built in way to identify files since that system relies on keywords and keyword ranges. Use it! Or you can overlay a program like Lumberjack to add a more robust field-to-edit tagging system. The Adobe Cloud suite of products offers lots of tools for tagging and identifying best takes, including Live Logger which you can use in the field to get ahead of the game before editing.

Tricks to Cut Your Budget

Most people think cutting a budget means cutting rates, hours or deliverables. To a certain extent this is true. But one of the hidden tools of the experienced filmmaker is knowing when adding something to streamline production actually cuts your budget in the end. There are two items I always include in my film budgeting arsenal, after having experiences on other productions that didn’t include them, and we lost valuable time and money. The first is food. Feed everyone, feed them on time, bring them coffee and snacks. It’s amazing how many crew I work with thank me for the food I provide, which I consider to be basic fuel for creative minds. When you push a crew from a 7AM call and don’t feed them lunch until 2PM, you will probably have some really crappy footage or missed opportunities starting at around noon.

The second tip is to add a body—a grip if you can afford one, a PA if you can’t. I cannot tell you enough how fantastic it is to have an experienced grip setting up two shots ahead of where we are on the schedule, while we’re still shooting the earlier setup. You will save loads on overtime, and your production will look better. A PA won’t always have enough expertise in lighting to do more than haul gear to the next location or jockey cars when the meter runs out, but even then you are saving money not running into a long shoot day or having cars towed.

Budgeting is rarely the reason we all get into the business of filmmaking. But it is a business, after all, so being smart about how you plan and how you budget, will help you bring your creative vision to life.

Amy DeLouise is a non-fiction director-producer who teaches and speaks at industry conferences like NAB Show where she has a session on budgeting. She hopes you’ll take a look at her new book The Producer’s Playbook: Real People on Camera (Focal Press)