#5 of 7 – Below-the-Line Film Budgeting

Below-the-Line film budgeting is usually thought of as highly as visiting the dentist. Executive Producers, who package the film projects for development, mostly refer to BTL as a one-number-bottom-line. Once a few key positions are hired, the film director often loses interest and runs from the dentist’s chair …er… I mean, the budgeting table.

Wow. Think about it. Once a film producer or film director leaves the big budget arena of below-the-line the only recourse left to him/her is to demand what they want … if you’re not Ron Howard, et al, don’t take the chance. Get visible in the BTL budget process.

The purpose of this Article is to take you out of the dentist’s chair and put you into a good game of cribbage. Get into the game by ‘Directing’ the BTL costs, then use the savings YOU created to be able to do the creative things you’re capable of – within your sphere of influence (directing, producing, UPM’ing, being head of any department, etc.).

The Shooting Period (Sometimes called Below-the-Line) includes all costs associated with the shooting of the negative. Click here for a pdf page – it’s easier to see than the figure below.

Below-the-Line budgeting can be mundane, if viewed in all its detail. It includes every detailed listing of every type of labor cost (hours of Travel, Work, Holidays, Prep, Wrap, etc.), as well as every detail of wardrobe purchases by character, all construction costs by set, all details of trucks and equipment rentals, etc. etc. etc.

So, let’s narrow it down to a function of ‘Directing’ the BTL costs. Let’s focus instead at the most significant cost—crew labor and the additional ‘fringe’ (that is, the additional government and union amounts that the Producer has to pay over and above the crew wages.)  You can refer to my book for simple ways to ‘direct’ the costs in other BTL areas.

A very large part of being able to control the costs as a Director, Producer, etc. is to know the fundamental terms used to describe, and control, crew labor costs.

The first term used A LOT is the ‘the budgeted number of worked hours’.

The Budgeted # of Worked Hours:

Usual Way:

Director/Producer To Studio Exec –  “Uh, how many hours do you expect us to shoot in a day?”

Studio Exec – “Well, we have a policy here at (Hollywood Studio) stated in our Critical Assumptions that we can only …”.  You see how the Studio Exec is in the driver’s seat. Regardless of the number of worked hours normally budgeted, he’ll be tempted to push the budgeted worked hours down.

Walk The Talk Way

Director/Producer To Studio Exec –  “There’s a lot of difficult shooting to complete the production on time. We REALLY NEED at least 13 hours of work budgeted for the regular shooting crew, with additional hours budgeted for the crew who have earlier calls, like wardrobe and makeup and hair crew. Any less and I can’t guarantee that we won’t be over budget on a daily basis!”

Studio Exec – “Uh, yeah. Sounds right for this type of production. I’ll check the Critical Assumptions.”  Now you’re in the driver’s seat.

You CAN support a 13-hour day as the norm in today’s film production environment.  You SHOULD push for 13 hours budgeted per day at any opportunity.

Regardless of your position—whether it be a Director, Producer, Production Manager, Dept Head or Joe Crew Member you will have your opportunities to complete your production in less than the 13 hours budgeted.  When you’re successful, you can treat that savings as money in the bank, which can in turn be used to enhance the quality of the final film in other ways.

The chart below (representative of a small to medium sized film production) shows why directors such as Clint Eastwood are so loved by the Hollywood Studios.  Not only do his movies make money, but he also knows how to shoot the script in a relatively short day. Thirteen-hour days are unheard of on a Clint Eastwood set.

The cost of a 13th hour worked is shown in this simple chart:

1 Day        1 Week        2 Weeks        3 Weeks         4 Weeks

13thHour $     5,500   $     27,500 $     55,000 $     82,500        $      110,000

12th Hour $     4,200  $     21,000  $     42,000   $     63,000        $       84,000

11th Hour $     3,100  $     15,500  $     31,000   $     46,500        $       62,000

10th Hour $     2,000  $     10,000  $     20,000   $     30,000        $       40,000

To sum up:

1.Avoid the 13th Hour of shooting for two weeks and save $55,000, which you can use to apply to other film enhancements.

2. Shoot 12 Hours one day and 11 hours the next and take home ($5,500 x 2) + ($4,200) for a total of $15,200—enough for a 100’ crane with operator and a hot head camera for a day. (See my Handy Budgeting Table in Chapter 17).

INSIST that you participate in the Below-the-Line budget process. For example, if you, as a Director, had asked for a specific crane shot, ask to see the budget page printed out that reflects the rental of the Crane, the Crane Operator, etc.  By simply insisting on a review of specifics before the Final Budget review with the Studio you can control over your areas of interest.

The principle of actually testing the budget (before its final approval) applies to anyone who has responsibility for costs in any area of the film production.

If you feel intimidated by the task of reviewing sections of a budget, take a moment to review the sample ‘small unit’ budget below.  Do you see how the columns are arranged?  The chances are very high that you’ll be referring to a document with these column headings – this is the most commonly used format, everywhere.

The “Amount” column refers to the amount of “Units” (that is, the amount of Hours, Days, Feet, Weeks or just ‘Allow’ if there isn’t a specific unit).

The ‘X’ is used primarily to reflect the number of people involved.  Rather than saying 42 Man-Days, you could say 7 Man-Days utilizing 6 men.  Then the ‘X’ would contain the number 6, representing the 6 men.  Also, if you have a foreign currency, like Canadian dollars, and you want to represent the budget in US$ only, then put the exchange rate in the ‘X’ column.

The ‘Rate’ is the dollar rate that matches the ‘Unit” – if it’s hours, then the rate would be $X/Hr, if the unit is days it’ll be $X/Day, etc.

The ‘Subtotal’ column is the result of multiplying the columns by each other:

Amount x ‘X’ x Rate = Subtotal.  Click here to see a pdf page of the figure below.

Now take a quiet moment to review the “Small Unit” schedule above. Look at the ‘Rate’ for the Fringe line items.

Can you see where the figure comes from?

Answer: See page 68 of Walk The Talk for the answer.

Can you think of any categories that may be missing in Fig.17.1?

Answer: See page 68 of Walk The Talk for the answer.

Can you see anything odd with the rates in Fig. 17.1?

Answer: Here’s a hint –  I’ve highlighted the three areas:

See page 69 of Walk The Talk for the answer.

Walk The Talk Way:

Just in case you’re not yet comfortable with ‘The Budget Talk’, here are some very good direct questions for a director, producer, Production Manager, etc., and suggested responses, you can use and apply on every film production:

Question: What is the budgeted number of worked hours for the crew?

Answer: If it’s less than 13 worked hours and you’re shooting the show anywhere in North America, you could be in trouble.

Question: Are there any plans to build sets?  If so, where are the Production Designer’s plans and construction budgets?

Answer: You want to ensure that the Production Designer is using the experience of a good Art Director and Construction Estimator in coming up with the construction estimates.  If you want to get into more details on Construction budgets, see the handy construction table in Chapter 17 of my book.

Question: Have the Departmental Budgets come in from the Wardrobe Designer, Set Decorator and Props Master, etc.?

Answer: If so, you should have meetings with each of them. Ask if they feel comfortable with the numbers.  They may have been arm wrestled into accepting unreal budgets from the Producer.

Question: Have the Gaffer and Key Grip prepared their required equipment lists yet?  (Ask to have a look at them).

Answer: You seldom get any real equipment lists until after the ‘Tech Survey’, late in the Prep Period; however, this kind of questioning keeps everyone honest.

You get the picture. ‘Direct’ the BTL costs and win. It’s not so bad – really.

Does all of that seem like too much? Then, you’d better get 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.


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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