#3 of 7 – Translating Film Scripts Into ‘Money Talk’

Most directors, executive producers and crew have elected to stay away from budgets and costs. The heavy grinding SHOULD be left to accountants — BUT, the control still needs to rest with the Director, Producers, Production Managers and Department Heads.

As a filmmaker, get a degree of familiarity with the money flow, especially with the budget creation and the weekly ‘Report Card’ – the Cost Report.  Find a comfort level where you can, AT THE VERY LEAST, KNOW WHAT TO ASK.  Know how to formulate the questions—you’ll impress the money belts off  the Studio Executives.

Picture the following scenario—you are a Line Producer and your Director wants to do a crane shot that entails several movements best handled with a ‘Techno Crane”.  It will also involve 100 background extras (the first 50 need to be SAG Union extras).

Studio Executive:  “That’ll cost $200,000 and I don’t see how that will pay back at the box office.  It cost even more than that on my last show, and THAT was in Denver just last February … yaddy, yaddy, yah.”

(Remember, the Studio Executive is going to estimate high).

You, the Line Producer (or the Director could do this himself), rather than feeling out of your element, say, “According to my charts a top of the line ‘Techno Crane’ can be rented for $8,000 for a week (if you aren’t already familiar with basic costs of Techno Cranes, etc. Figure 17.2, Table 1 of my book presents some general costs that can be used as ‘round numbers’ to help formulate this kind of answer).  We can shoot out the extras over two days—according to my charts that’s about $14,000 a day for the SAG extras and $7,000 a day for the non-union extras (see Figure 17.2, Table 2 of my book). According to my math, that’s ($8,000 + 14,000×2 + $7,000×2) =  $50,000.”

Then, after taking a breath, you also say, “Because we’re in the Studio I know that we can get our shots with 10 Hour shoot days all of this week.  As you know, wrapping the crew 2 hours early saves $10,000 a day (See Figure 15.3 – I’ve made a chart to broadly indicate the cost of crew labor for the last two hours of overtime on small/ medium/ big budget shoots to give the reader a general familiarity with the costs of overtime).  There’s the $50,000 we need. And anybody who would shoot in Denver in February must be……”.

Directors, Line Producers, Department Heads, etc. deserve all the help they can get. Some of these people, through the school-of-hard-knocks, have developed a ‘knack’ for conceptually streaming their creative ideas through a ‘what’s the cost?’ process. But that process is all too often tainted with blame on ‘the blue suits’ and ‘the money guys’ and ‘all they’re interested in is the money’, etc. It’s also often based on misinformation, biased toward a predetermined decision. Take my word for it; unless you can be familiar enough with the language of money in film production, you’re up the proverbial creek.


Some training and drilling is needed to get to know the tricks of directing and controlling the costs during film production, but not a lot.

There’s a regularly occurring pattern of problems presented by and to the director, producers, production manager, department heads, etc. on down the line. Conflicts that come up are almost always due to poor, or no, translation of a creative need into a cost that is based on accurate projections. Most attempts made by creative people to trade-off expected costs with some kind of savings somewhere else in the budget are clumsily presented and easily shot down by those who know the ‘lingo’ of budgets and costs.

Let’s take up an example:

You’re the Director of an Independent Film Production. You’ve shot the exteriors called for in the script and you’ve seen the dailies; however, you KNOW that there’s a better shot of that exterior in Oklahoma that would give the perfect hook to the opening of your film.

You know that you can convince the producers and the studio of this on a creative plane.  But, you also know that the studio and most producers will shudder at the task of dropping that bombshell on the financiers/Bonding Company that you need to dip into the closely guarded Contingency funds.  (Oh, did I tell you that we’re going to Okl…).

1. How do you pose solutions to those added costs?

2. What’s the right way to approach the game of cost trade-offs?

3. It’s always going to be a challenge to present this kind of choice – but, a very doable challenge if you know how to translate your needs to cost trade-off’s by using my Walk The Talk ideas.
Here’s a variation of three typical kinds of questions for feature film or TV productions.  I’ve shown the way the questions are usually posed, as well as the Walk The Talk way.

Example of Walk The Talk On Reshoots

Usual Way:

As the Director you sincerely express your view that the Oklahoma shot would be a perfect opening for the movie. What kind of response do you think you’ll get? Here’s the most likely, from my experience:

Producer/Bonding Company Rep – This will put us over-budget by $130,000. I’ll talk to the… ‘whoever’ – (it’s a stall for sure).

Walk The Talk Way

Alternative: Director/Line Producer – The cost of shooting 1 day of exteriors will not require a full crew in Oklahoma. I’ve called the Film Commission there (see my web site for internet links to all Film Commissions and major Unions) and they have assured me that there are plenty of local crew available to work at a very decent rate.  I estimate it should cost about 1/2 of your estimate, say about $75,000 (see Figure 17.2, Table 3 in my book) to give us a bit more than we absolutely need.  I can get that back over the next 5 days here in New York. You see, I’ve rehearsed the next five days with my very experienced cast and there’s no way that we can’t complete the scenes scheduled in 10 hours a day instead of the budgeted 13 hours a day.  And, as you all know, that last 2 hours in New York costs about  $10,000 a day (see Figure 15.1 in my book).

Alternative: Bonding Company – Oh. Have the accountant make a schedule of the costs and we can check them. (That’s a Financier’s last stand – it’s up to the accountant to verify your estimates.)

A budget is simply an amount of money needed, or made available, for the purpose of producing a film/TV show/documentary/commercial/etc.

In the last article we covered the four major categories of any budget.  Review the categories and get a ‘feel’ for the types of account descriptions that are listed.  Don’t spend too much time on it right now; we’ll be spending more time on it later.

The full process of budgets and costs travels the following simple course of events:

1.Budget Preparation During Pre-Production

2.Final Approved Budget (Just Before the Shoot)

3.The ‘Cost Report’ Process Starts (The Cost Report compares the projected known costs with the budgeted costs on a line-by-line basis). Note that the Weekly Cost Report has the same structure universally, so if you are familiar with one cost report, you’ve be familiar with all Cost Reports everywhere. It is regarded by all film productions, in every country, as a report card of how well you’re doing with the investor’s money. DON’T UNDERESTIMATE HOW IMPORTANT THIS DOCUMENT IS TO YOUR CAREER! We’ll be looking at Cost Reports, and how to present them to your best advantage, in the last 2 articles of this series.

Here’s some general information on budgeting and how it relates to ‘Translating Creative Ideas Into Money’. This final section of the article segues into the next couple of articles, where we’ll be looking at some details to increase your familiarity with budgets.

The budget is intended to be a direct reflection of the final shooting schedule. Every time the script says something simple like “Joe looked at the clock” or as complex as “Dawn in the Desert” all of the associated costs for that activity should be detailed in the budget.

Furthermore, every aspect of the script that has been detailed by the First Assistant Director through the various reports that assist in organizing the shoot should be detailed in the budget. When the Final Approved Budget is signed off by us all (the Director, Producers, Financiers/Studio Executives, Production Manager and the Accountant) we are attesting that the budget, the shooting schedule and the script are all dynamically linked.

So, you need to contribute to the “Final Approved Budget” in any way that you have the authority to do so.  As a Director, feel free to insist on ample budgeted working hours for the crew as well as for the more obvious elements of cast, stunts, special effects, camera cranes, etc.

If you are a Line Producer, Production Manager, Department Head (or even a crew member keen to get an upgrade) you should be familiar with the format of a budget page, like a Departmental Budget. We’ll be going through all of those details in the next two articles. (See Chapter 17 of my book for an example of a Budget of a ‘Small Unit’ to shoot a “New York Alley Scene”).

The usual production ‘breakdown’ reports, like the Shooting Schedule, Day-Out-Of-Days, etc. are usually well known and very familiar to Directors, Producers, Production Managers and Department Heads; however, translating the associated costs into a budget requires such detailed monotony that it quite often overwhelms (or, under-whelms, if you like) the creative minded people.  However, you can quite quickly get familiar with the language of Budgets and Cost Reports if you can find a good book.

Well, I have a good book, that’s easy to read, that lays it out for you. As of July 27/08 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.

-John Gaskin


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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