Rebel Blog

Helpful tips, techniques, and occasional ramblings from the contributors to the Rebel Heart Film Workshop.

Posted in Budgets, Film Development, Filmmaking Tips, on 12 June 2015, by , 7 Comments

You have a script. It’s pretty straightforward – a contemporary drama or comedy, or dramedy perhaps. In any case, it’s not period, it doesn’t require big explosions or any special effects. It’s do-able on a small budget. Perhaps you even wrote it with that in mind, a film you could make yourself on a modest budget.

But now the question arises: how much should you aim to raise to make your film?  Should you be going after $200k or $2mil?

With my first film Obselidia, my answer to that question was based on this: I knew a producer who had told me he had offered some filmmakers $100k to make a movie, but they had all turned him down, because they all claimed they needed more.

Screw that, I thought, I’ll make you a movie for $100k!

 So I had a budget made up that showed I could make the movie for that amount (disclaimer: in the end, the budget was slightly higher, closer to $140k).

obselidia poster_full

The truth is: there is no magic number. Obselidia could have been for a million dollars and ultimately what was on the screen would have been identical.   This is why I hate that perennial favorite question at film fests: how much did it cost? If everyone on Obselidia had been paid better, it would have cost a million, and the movie would have looked the same. If no one had been paid at all, and we’d managed to bring in a ton of favors, the film would have looked pretty much the same (though it probably would have sounded worse) and it could have cost $20k.   How much a film costs to make doesn’t convey its worth, and to me is an uninteresting question.

Many first time filmmakers seek the largest budget they can get. I think this is for a couple of reasons. First and foremost: people seem to think it validates them, that if you make a film for $5mil you are more of a filmmaker than if you make it for $50k. Same applies to getting name cast.  Thing is though: the process is the same. No matter your budget level, if everyone is getting paid and it’s a professional production, you are a filmmaker. The rest is bullshit and ego.

On the other side of the coin, there’s the first timers who flaunt the fact their film cost $5k (popularized by the marketing of El Mariachi some years ago and repeated ever since). Whenever I hear someone bragging about how small their budget was, I feel a little sad. So no one got paid on your film? That’s not worth bragging about.

The key is that no matter what your budget, you make sure the money goes on the screen and that you have the funds to do justice to your material.  That’s what matters.  And you make sure you make a great film (and that has nothing to do with money or tools. Seriously).

The other thing that matters is that your budget is realistic and that your investors have a solid chance of making back their money, plus a profit. It’s essential that today’s filmmakers are entrepreneurs (I know, I know, it’s an awful thought if you’re still in the headspace of “I’m an artist and can’t muddy myself or my art with such thoughts”…but you know what? Time to grow up. Films cost money and if you want to make them again and again, you have to step up to that).

So let’s get back to your script. How much do you need to make it work?

I’m with Mark Duplass (read here if you missed it): there’s a sweet spot around $150-250k. Everyone gets paid (not a lot but enough to keep them ticking), technical aspects of the film will be solid and able to stand up against anything, and best of all, if you play it smart, you position yourself for solid financial return.

Less than that, it can be tricky to deliver a product that can quality-wise compete against anything; more than that, it can be tricky in today’s hyper-competitive world to make an honest return for your investors.

Ultimately, when you are thinking what the budget of your film should be, the question shouldn’t be: how much can I get? But rather: how much can we hope to make? It might not be the question you want to ask, but it’s the one that will ensure you get to make more movies in the future, guaranteed.


  1. The Nameless One

    I like how you pointed out that bragging about how little your film cost isn’t impressive either. If you didn’t compensate your people or didn’t make a GOOD movie, then how is that a thing to be proud of?

    As far as where the money goes, there are things that every film needs and ways to cut costs and all that, but in your experience what are some things that it’s not a good idea to cut corners on? Are there some things that cost what they cost and it’s best to just pay it?


    • Diane Bell Byrne

      Every film is different, and your budget should reflect that. On Obselidia, we cut our wardrobe budget to only $500 but spent $10,000 on set decoration! We knew that those sets had to be worlds unto themselves and it was worth spending a decent chunk of our budget to achieve that. It’s all a matter of figuring out what is going to make your film sing, and making sure that the money goes there. Having said that, there are a few immutable costs: camera rental, lights, a good final sound mix and color correction spring to mind. You can’t avoid them, and if you want a decent film, you’re going to have to cough up for them. Also not a good idea to slash insurance or legal fees (I don’t know of a film that hasn’t used the insurance).


      • The Nameless One

        Thank you, Diane!
        I am finding your site very helpful. I have thus far only thought of myself as a writer, but learning more about filmmaking from someone who makes it seem very accessible has been eye-opening. I might just pick up a camera one day!


        • Diane Bell Byrne

          I started out thinking of myself as a writer – but then I realized, I was a storyteller and that I wanted to be a part of bringing the script to life. The great thing is: you don’t have to pick up a camera! You just find someone who is great with one and inspire them with the story you want to tell. The director is the visionary – but they don’t need all the skills necessary to make a film. They just need to find the people who have them and get them excited to make your film! Stay in touch! xo Diane


    • Diane Bell Byrne

      I strongly recommend finding a local line producer to do it. On my first film, Obselidia, to find one, I put an ad on Craigslist! I was totally honest about the fact that I had no money to pay up front, but that the budget they created would be used to raise the money – and then they’d be paid. You don’t need someone with masses of experience (sometimes those with tons of experience think too conventionally and don’t know how to make something for nothing!), but you do need someone who knows the real costs of things in your area. Hope that helps. Best, Diane


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