Creating the Development Package

This article was published in a film magazine some years back. I'm including it here just because...

The script is finished. Even your Great-Aunt Wilma thinks it’s good. Eight dozen grant bodies want to give you money to make it and all you need is a budget. Developing a budget can be a tad confusing. You don’t know how much the film will cost until it is budgetted. You can’t budget the film until you know how much money you’ll have. The first place to look is the last page of the script (another good reason for using a proper script format). What is the number in the top, right-hand corner? If your script is 29 pages, the film is probably a TV half-hour in length. Twenty-six minutes, not counting credits. A film of 110 minutes requires a properly formatted script of approximately 125 pages. A quick rule of thumb is that the film will cost between 500 and 2,000 pounds per screen-minute, if it is to be shot in 16mm (we’ll leave the more inferior formats, such as 35mm and video as an exercise for the reader!). It can be done for less, and it can be done for more. However, that’s a good start. This means for a quick answer we can multiply the page count by 1,000 and get a good guess as to what it will cost. This, obviously, doesn’t apply to feature films starring Kevin Costner. The next stage requires breaking down the script a bit further.

Proper script breakdowns are expensive and specialist tasks. However, it is possible to do a fairly complete breakdown without the need for a trained professional. Exactly how many different locations do we need? How often do the characters get up and move somewhere else? Can we minimize that? Remember that most of the action in Reservoir Dogs happened in a disused warehouse. Very handy – not many locations required, and cheap ones at that. Do the characters need to go to so many different places? Also, do so many people have to do so much of the travelling? When the script has been pared down to the bare minimum of locations, with the bare minimum of cast, we’re ready. How many night scenes are there? Can these be shot indoors in a darkened sound stage? Cast and crew must be allowed a minimum of twelve hours between the time they are released for the day, and the time they must appear on set, for the next days shooting. If you are shooting during the day and then switching to night, a whole day is wasted in the switchover.

How can we minimize the size of the cast on any given day? The easiest way to do this is to shoot all the scenes for a given actor out of sequence, completing all principle photography for that actor as quickly as possible. Even if the cast is working for free, they have to be fed, and clothed in rented costumes, etc. The ideal schedule would be to shoot the film in chronological order, but this is rarely possible. So, we have a list of the locations needed. Now, break down the script into eighth-pages. Mark the number of pages needed for each location. A well-oiled (and well-fed!) crew can shoot an average of four screen pages a day. If you feel your crew are even better, then you can push this number up even higher. Now you can estimate how long it will take at each location. If a given location is awkward, due to special lighting concerns, some sort of required effect, or possibly due to the fact that it is a pub, and only available for your use between the hours of 3AM and 5AM, then this average will shift radically. There is no real substitute for experience, here. However, lacking a knowledgeable source of information, use your own best judgement. Also allow for transit time from one location to another. For example, perhaps you only have one page at a given location, and decide to shoot it first thing in the morning. According to the above rule of thumb, it should only take two hours. You can then rush off and shoot another page somewhere else, before breaking for lunch. Unfortunately, this is rarely the case. The reality is that you will be lucky to be at the next location by lunchtime. Leave some slop in the shooting schedule for this. Eventually, you’ll arrive at the total number of locations, and the total number of days needed. Try to arrange the schedule to maximize the use of the locations, with the availability of the cast. For each day, make a detailed list of all the equipment, costumes, props, food, etc, required for the scheduled shots. A good trick is to close your eyes and imagine it is daybreak on day one, and mentally go through each step of the process, until you’re collapsing in bed that night. Repeat this for each day. Don’t forget the small details, as they can be expensive if overlooked.

As far as film stock is concerned, the magic formula depends on the shooting ratio of the director, and various other factors, such as the amount of dialogue, the ability of the actors, etc. Rehearsals are a good way of minimising the number of takes required, and should also be included in the budget. A school hall or back room of a pub is an ideal place to do rehearsals. Include photocopying charges, a sizeable allowance for telephone calls, and perhaps the rental of a camcorder so that the director can view the rehearsal in her own time. Assuming then, a 6:1 ratio, for every screen minute, we will need to shoot 6 minutes. This works out to about 24 minutes, or two cans of film stock a day. Other little details crop in here as well. Do you intend to project the previous days rushes? This can involve an express shipment each day, from the location to the film lab, and back. Also, the lab will be less likely to quote an agreeable rate per foot, if you want overnight service.

Once we have a preliminary breakdown, it is relatively straightforward to take this list and add real figures to the line items. The rule of thumb is that the list price is for reference only. Expect discounts of up to 40%, from labs and facilities houses. Also, by judicious rearrangement of the schedule, it is often possible to avail of cheaper, or off-peak rental rates. Most places (including Kodak) offer an automatic 10% discount to students. Most street-smart producers carry student cards. Making a film is a lot like buying a car. Never accept the first offer. Don’t send expensive stock to a disreputable lab, and likewise, avoid facilities houses with extra perks you don’t need. A postproduction facility with a fax and coffee service for its customers may sound appealing when you are facing a long edit session, but at 250 pounds an hour, go somewhere else and bring a flask!

Don’t forget to include public liability insurance, equipment hire insurance, and even negative insurance, if you desire. Add up all the numbers, including wages, taxes and VAT. This gives you the gross budget. Divide by 10 for a contingency allowance, and add this on and finally we have a projected budget. It is impossible to cover all the pitfalls of scheduling and budgetting in an article of this length, but this should give a good starting point. It is adviseable to let a more experienced producer examine the complete package. Don't expect to get the budget right first time, and don't commit to a budget until such time as you are completely happy with it. The figure may seem intimidating or unattainable at first. Avoid the temptation to shave the figures. There is a common practice whereby the budget is minimized to make it more appealing, even in the case where the film is self-funded. Be warned – the conservative, pessimistic budget is usually the correct one. All too often, filmmakers run out of funding because they shaved too much off the budget, and the actual costs exceeded their illusionary counterparts. Leave the budget alone for a while, come to terms with the projected cost of the film, and if you still think the project is worth pursuing at that cost, take another pass through to see if you have forgotten something. The more comprehensive the budget and the more forethought given to the project, the higher the probability that a grant agency or production company will view it in a favourable light. Good luck!