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).
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.