#2 of 7: Film Production and ‘Directing the Money’

The topic of money in general is a little scary to most of us. When you approach the topic of money in film production – steel your nerve! There are reputations at stake and careers on the line.

The purpose of this article is to demonstrate that ‘Directing’ Money in the film production business (or any business, for that matter) is fundamental to your career – especially if you want to rise on the food chain of film production. If you’re already a Film Director, you know all about the flow of spirit, vision and creative collaboration that it takes to make a film. If that momentum is stopped in some manner, the whole project is clouded with doubt and apprehension. Film crew of all stripes can smell that arrested movement almost immediately – sometimes even before the Director and Producers.

Beneath the noble flows of creative spirit and collaboration runs the green flow of money. NOTHING happens without a corresponding effect on that money flow. Begin to think like a film director, but in the area of money flows. (It’s really just a minor skill, like playing bridge.) Would a good director worry about the small stuff? (Okay, maybe, but let’s hope not.) Then don’t put your attention on every penny – think in concepts of $1,000 at a time.

Keep those creative juices flowing; however, like it or not, your performance is measured to some degree by how well you can ‘Direct the Money’ – in whatever level of production you choose, but especially if you’re an aspiring, or working, Film Director. How well you can do that is how well you control your career in film.

Anything that’s bought (I mean ANYTHING) is tracked and compared to the budget. Every conceivable type of film equipment, prop-holding rooms, toilet paper, you name it, is compared to the ‘approved budget’. But, you’re not going to get fired because you wasted toilet paper. On the other hand, if you ‘Direct the Money’ (and know it when you’re doing it) by borrowing the Construction Department’s forklift for a couple of hours, instead of renting your another one, you’re ‘Directing the Money’. Now you just need to learn how to parley that into a truce with the Studio Exec, Producer, Production Manager, etc. by talking competently in terms of budgets and costs.

It’s time to introduce some details. Let’s take a look at what, exactly, is a priority in order for you to be seen as a competent ‘money talk’ person in film production (say a Producer, UPM or Department Head).

The very first task is to be able to make comments intelligently about the budget. Read the shooting schedule (and other script breakdowns) from a viewpoint of money. Ask the accountant what is the average cost of shooting per day and multiply by the number of shooting days. Become familiar with the terms of the budget and learn how to comment about the most important elements (read as, know what categories of costs could benefit you, or hurt you, the most). Become familiar with the ‘look’ and presentation of a budget, so that you’re not mistaking a subtotal line for an expense (actually, I’ve seen that happen too often to laugh). You’ll get some hands-on practice in the next 6 articles.

Before going any further, let’s look at the 4 basic sections of a budget. (As I said in my article ‘Making It in Film Production’ I’ve written these articles for the complete novice, so please be patient if you’ve already been exposed to the fundamentals here).

If you can’t read the picture below, click here: Page 37 of “Walk The Talk” for a clearer PDF illustration.
Budget Topsheet
The Four Major Sections of Any Film Budget are:
1.Above-the-Line: This section includes all costs associated with the Writer, Director, Producers, Cast and Stunts. The costs of the writer, director, producer and stars is driven by the market place, Major Studios or financiers, so I won’t spend much time on them. However, you will need to have a good understanding of the costs associated with the daily/weekly cast and stunts. (Note: In the very early days of film budgeting there was actually a heavy line drawn here – thus the term ‘Above’ and ‘Below’ the line.)

2.Shooting Period: This is the most important section for anyone looking to produce films. As you would have guessed from the title, it includes all production costs of the actual time of shooting the film, including a bit of ‘wrap’ time (say a week or two) after the shooting is completed. It includes all of those costs that you would intuitively think of

– like the labor costs of all crew, camera-grip-electric equipment rentals, as well as, all construction-wardrobe- transportation costs, etc. When I first started in the business everyone called this section ‘Below-the-Line’, and I still hear it occasionally. The official definition currently in use for ‘Below-the-Line’ is the sum of the Shooting Period and the Post-Production Costs (see point #3 below).

3.Post Production: This section of the budget includes all costs associated with the time period AFTER the shooting is complete – costs like editing, sound mixing, music, visual effects, etc. I won’t be spending any time on post-production costs. It’s in the interests of the Studio and Financiers to create the best ‘look’ they can. There are experts in this area who stay current with the technology. The only control you can hope for is a tight coordination among the Director, Editors, Post-Production Supervisor and Financiers to arrive at some real plan for ‘post’.

4.Other: Finally, the last section includes costs like insurance, on-set publicity costs, legal expenses, etc. The financiers have certain requirements for these areas and usually have a pretty good idea what they’ll cost before approving the financing. So, in the interests of self-preservation, always defer any discussion of ‘Other’ costs to the Studio, Bonding Company or Financiers.

Occasionally, an ‘Overhead’ account is added after Contingency – but it’s almost never used. Again, they are what they are, once the financing is in place and the Bonding Company agrees to bond the show. (Note that if there’s a bank involved, there will always be a Bonding Company).

The four different sections illustrated above is a typical Budget Summary sheet. These four sections are universally referred to; so don’t be afraid to use the terms. Additionally, if your show is an independent production, there will be three more lines at the bottom (always presented in bold) – they are Financing Charges, Bond Fee and Contingency after the budget is approved (often referred to as the ‘Locked Budget) all costs incurred are compared to the approved budget.

At this point you need to switch gears from budgeting to the process of reporting the costs as they compare to the budget. There is an internationally agreed upon format for this purpose, called the Weekly Cost Report. It’s the ‘Report Card’ of how the show is going.

This Weekly Cost Report process is where the fun begins and you’ll need to be familiar with the many in’s and out’s of cost reporting. How the costs are gathered together is a technicality belonging in the realm of accounting – what you need to know is the importance of the Weekly Cost Report, and how to ‘Direct the Money’ by knowing how to acceptably manipulate the reporting process to show an honest, but credible presentation of the production costs. It is THE key report card presented to those with the money behind the film production. It’s presented to the Financiers/ Studio Execs/ Bonding Company every week, on every financed film production on planet earth, period.

Presentation of this cost report can make or break your credibility. AND, to my knowledge, there’s nowhere else you can learn these tricks of the trade – except for an off-hand statement here and there in the larger film schools. See my next articles for more about this report.

I want to remind you that in the 20 years that I’ve worked in film production, I have NEVER shown a crew member a Final Budget or a Weekly Cost Report. They are considered sacrosanct by Studio Executives, Financiers and Bonding Companies everywhere.

Well, get a good book, that’s easy to read, that lays it out for you. Recently both the University of Southern California Masters of Fine Arts (Peter Stark Program) and the University of Tampa Film Program have ordered my book, “Walk The Talk” as required reading for their students.

They’re available in my book – see my web site here “Walk The Talk”. All of them are simple but effective.

Cheers,

Visit my web site at www.talkfilm.biz.

John Gaskin’s Profile: http://www.linkedin.com/in/johngaskin

Email: johngaskin@talkfilm.biz

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About filmproduction
I have worked in the film production industry since 1985, working on over 50 different productions of every size in 6 different countries. My self-published book, "Walk The Talk" is written in an easy to read manner for film students and working professionals who haven't had the chance to learn how to 'Direct the Money'.

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