Film Budgeting: Steps and techniques to budget like a Pro

Film Budgeting: Steps And Techniques To Budget Like A Pro

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For an average moviegoer, films are all about the experience: the car chases, the explosions, acting, locations, visual/sound effects, drama, comedy, etc. Have you thought of the primary resources that go into making these films? 

Money! Yes, money is the primary resource, and that directs us to the process of film budgeting because the business of filmmaking is not a piece of cake.

If you ask an outsider, “How do you think films are made in Hollywood?” reply would be, “Bunch of actors, directors, and cameramen shoot the script in locations or studios; Oh!! and there are crewmen and vanity buses too.” The public sees the actors getting paid ridiculous amounts of money and the bling that comes with being a movie star.

Nonetheless, one thing is overlooked, that is, who pays for the car chases, explosions, vanity buses, and actors’ compensation? The producer does that. He gives the money to make the movie, but film budgeting is the crucial step that can make or break a project.

Why do movies cost so much to make? 

Film budgeting: Why do movies cost to make so much
Photo by Igal Ness on Unsplash

Big studio feature films can cost up to $100 million, “ON AVERAGE”!!! The main cost of a film project includes

  • THE SCRIPT and the rights to secure the story from the writers.
  • PRODUCTION COSTS: Set design, Animation, Cars, and Equipment used in film
  • MARKETING which is usually under-reported; “Spider-Man 2” with a $200 million production budget, spent $75 million on Marketing.

Many Movies, even with mega budgets will be at a loss although, that shouldn’t a discouragement. The film budget shouldn’t stop you from telling a story, instead, it should inspire you to be more creative and deliver the same impact with minimal resources. Those are the best kind of films.

It hardly depends on the film budget, be it an independent short film or a studio-funded multi-million movie; how much or little resources don’t affect, rather “how well” that money and resources are utilized, will produce quality work. 

“Rocky”, which became a classic later, was shot on a budget of $1 million and grossed over $220 million.

Rocky made 220 million

Now, not every low-budget film can gross millions of dollars but merely shows that good films can be produced with little resources. It can seem amusing, how an artform can turn into such strict business; but some might say that is an art form in itself. 

Plus, Management, itself, is a huge industry in Hollywood. Plus it allows the artist to express and perform rather than manage the logistics all the time.

Let’s dive deep into the topic and see what we can learn about film budgeting and help you budget your films like a pro!

At the very inception, simply a rough outline of a budget can be presented to raise money from an investor. It may vary according to every project, it all depends on the genre, locations, strength of crew, music choice, etc.

Since the main cost of a movie involves compensation to the crew, let’s see the different sections of personnel working on a film.

Film budgeting: StudioBinder pre production process
Image source

Pre Production 

During Pre-Production, the development of a project takes place, where the “Above the line” crew like cinematographer, producer, director, screenwriter, main cast work together to put together a coherent screenplay out of a script. 

During this phase, you will produce a more complex, detailed, creative, and financial outlook on the project. 

Above the line, refers to the key creative crew and provides leadership on the creative side. Their compensation is fixed means it won’t wary according to the schedule of the production. These positions are difficult to change or not entirely replaceable.

film budgeting: film crew
Photo by Jakob Owens on Unsplash

Now if there are Above the line, there must be a Below the line crew too.

Below the line crew, from a BUDGET’s point of view, are those costs which are not ATL (Above the line). People working mainly on the production and post-production phase can be called Below the line. ATL are the more creative roles with Below the line roles are more technical.

They are mostly replaceable roles working on a contract, daily basis. Films shot on multiple locations can have different BTL units, since it is cheaper to work with a local BTL crew than to fly entire BTL personnel to the location. 

BTL crew includes Stuntmen, best boys, spot boys, makeup, wardrobe, ADs, extras.

Below the line crew, that works in the post-production stage (after shooting of the film), is called “Below the line Post“. You should always budget for the post-production crew, as it’s a major stage of the process. Sound, Colour, Editing, Effects, and Music demands quality and it comes at an expense.

Editors, Colorists, Voiceover artists, sound producers, music composers can be called the BTL Post crew. They usually work on a contract basis, therefore a filmmaker should always make sure of the time and compensation for the BTL Post crew, beforehand.

Insurance, Contingency, Marketers, distributors, and sales teams can be referred to as, “BTL Others” costs.

Budgeting for a Film: Major Pointers to remember

The genre of the film: In sales, “Familiarity” is an important factor to make a sale. Therefore, Sequel films, with big budgets perform better on BOX OFFICE than Non-Sequel films with similar budgets. 

The genre of the film signals the costs associated. For example, a superhero scientific movie with lots of effects and locations, like “Avengers” will have big costs. Dissimilarly, a Drama, Romcom or Comedy film will have relatively tiny budgets, due to less cost involved.

Moreover, it also depends on the artistic expectations; Directors like James Cameron, Martin Scorsese, Christopher Nolan demand perfection and like to work on a big scale. A lot of locations, equipment, manpower, and money are required to achieve that vision.

Whereas, Wes Anderson movies have to do a lot with colors, props, and wardrobes in minimal locations. Though his movies are no less impactful in their storytelling than the above-mentioned directors, artistic expectations, style, and genre impact the film budget a lot.

Script Breakdown: Effective Film budgeting boils down to how many pages you’ll shoot in a day? Big studio movies may shoot only one page a day, while an Indie movie production can shoot up to eight pages. Planning and scheduling of scripts are crucial to ensure smooth sailing.

Depending upon the script, this can be a long and tedious task to go through each scene and note the important elements then put those elements on the budget list. 

These important elements can be props, costumes, extras, cast, makeup, livestock (if any), vehicles, wranglers(small animals like cats or a dog). There are software, that can do this job automatically. 

Software like StudioBinder online software, Movie Magic Scheduling, Final Draft, etc. makes it ridiculously easy to break down a script. These platforms are usually expensive and are primarily used by big production studios. For a novice filmmaker, it can be done by hand or via outsourcing. It can be a tedious chore, instead, use a free script breakdown template. 

The Cast of the Film

Film budgeting: film cast
Photo by Jon Tyson on Unsplash

Compensation to the cast depends on, the cast itself. 

For the lead role, famous movie stars that are bankable, get paid up to  $15 million to $30 million-plus perks like an Entourage. Actors sometimes accept an upfront fee in exchange for the lucrative share of the profit. Side roles can make up to 10% of the lead role’s pay.

Most actors work according to Actor’s Guild standard rate, which is around $2500, per week. Unionized Extras can earn up to $150 per day, plus overtime if they bring their wardrobe. Non-Union workers get paid less and sometimes nothing. 

In an Indie film, if the story is good, the art is compelling; famous actors can work for free or next to nothing. As a filmmaker, a vision is paramount to sell the cast on the project. 

New upcoming actors can be explored for lead roles, like Gal Gadot in “Wonderwoman” was paid only around $300,000.

We have discussed how the Genre, the cast, and the script impact the film’s budget. There is one more thing to be analyzed, which is finding the compatible template for budgeting.

A template can differ for: Independent films, Short films, Animated films, Post-Production budgets, Pre-Production budgets, Documentary films, etc. This can be done in excel or templates can be downloaded. A template should include the film’s name, the cast, and crew, production activities, schedules, etc,

That was the rough review of film budgeting and the elements involved with it. 

Now let’s get started with film budgeting

Pre-Production: or Above the line costs are those costs which occur before the actual production/shooting of the film. These costs are associated with Above the line crew of the film. Before filmmaking, the budget accounts for the hiring of ATL crew, securing the rights to script and elements such as:

  • Scouting: Finding the right locations to shoot requires planning and must be accounted for. The crew may need to travel extensively, therefor proper scheduling and planning can reduce overheads.
  • Production Design: It is to do with the overall look and feel of the film. The production design crew is responsible for conjuring up the visuals, graphics, sets, and locations.
  • Preparation: It could take months to train, rehearse with the crew members, and cast to prepare them for their roles. Gathering, testing, and setting up of equipment must be carefully planned to avoid roadblocks ahead.
  • Travel/Living: All these personnel travelings, planning, and rehearsing need to be fed and accommodated. “Always feed the crew”, is the holy world in Hollywood. That need to be always accounted for, beforehand.

Tips for upcoming filmmakers on Pre-Production: 

Wear a lot of hats if you are on a tight budget. For a budding filmmaker, you have to assume a lot of roles to keep overheads low. It also allows you to have greater control over the story-telling and production of the film.

If possible, look for Non-Union workers, film school students, or recent graduates to work on your film in exchange for the experience.

It’s unnecessary to shoot a script chronologically, schedule your script according to locations, weather, permits, etc. The ending of the script can be shot first if allows optimum output.

An Independent/Beginner filmmaker should keep the script practical, like prioritizing shooting indoors, during daylight, keeping stunts and effects to minimal, and keeping the Script dialogue-heavy. Learn how to make an Independent film.

Production: or “Below the line costs” are those expenses that occur during the principal filming. BTL crew is involved with supervision and guidance from the ATL crew and the filming happens according to the schedule prepared during the Pre-Production phase. 

Film budgeting: film production
Photo by GR Stocks on Unsplash

Sticking to the timeline is of utter importance, as the BTL crew works on weekly or daily shifts. ADs (Assistant Directors) have their mandates already, in terms of schedule, set location, and even hospitals near the location, for insurance purposes or just in case any mishap onset that shouldn’t jeopardize the whole production.

Some of the BTL costs include:

Salaries: Support staff, Set Construction workers, Dressing staff, Makeup staff, production design staff, property staff, catering, lighting staff. Basically anyone except for the ATL crew, working on the filming needs to be in the budget.

Equipment: Depending on the Genre and style of the film, Camera and Lighting equipment need to be rented/acquired. This equipment can be expensive; before digital filmmaking, filmmakers had to use the expensive film reels very judiciously. 

Permits & Security: Film production attracts a lot of eyes and people especially if their favorite Movie star is starring in the film. Shooting in a public place can be a tedious and clumsy job. Therefore, the right permits need to be secured first and security has to be provided to avoid any unwanted elements on your set.

TIPS to upcoming Filmmakers for Production: 

Film budgeting: post production
Photo by Stephan Müller from Pexels

Eliminate night scenes: Filming night scenes is a technical challenge and requires special lighting equipment. Some movies saved millions of dollars by eliminating night scenes. Use techniques like “Day for night” to achieve the same shot in daylight.

Filming on Sundays: Film car chases or action sequences on a Sunday early morning. It is a time when traffic and activity will be minimal and filming can be done without hiccups and disturbance to the public.

Avoid Filming at Famous or Commercial areas. The sheer number of public and cost to the city can make it expensive to secure a famous location. 

Filming in different regions can be a big budget saver. Many movies are shot in Canada because it resembles America, it’s easy to shoot and the local governments can give tax rebates for bringing jobs and work to their local economies.

Always Try to Rent, lease or buy the best camera, lighting, and sound equipment you can afford.

After the filming and shooting is over, you still have a lot of work on your hand. All that planning, traveling, and shooting was just so that you could get your raw material for the product. 

The real processing and development of your project have not even begun yet. This last process of making a film is called Post-Production or simply, “Post“. In terms of budgeting, it can be called a BTL post.

Again, the Post-Production budget will depend a lot on the genre, style, and scale of the film. A feature animated film with a lot of visual and sound effects will require an exponentially larger budget than a commercial RomCom flick. 

Main Costs Involved in the Post-Production:

Film budgeting: CGI

CGI: Visual effects, depending on the scale, can be an exorbitant cost to the budget. Large-scale movies shot in front of a green screen require a big post-production CGI budget. Coloring and color correction also be kept in mind for the “Post”.

Music: Music rights can be bought for the film or If you are planning on having original music for the film, you need to hire Composers, musicians, and sound editors. Have a dialogue about the rates and the timeframe, beforehand.

Film budgeting: SFX
Photo by Nejc Soklič on Unsplash

SFX: “Sound is the soul of a film.” Though the audience may not realize it, the sound is the main ingredient, and getting the right sound needs expert ears and experience. That comes at a cost and should definitely be accounted for.

Editing: The editing process is the most crucial process of post-production. In this process, the editor, along with the ATL crew, will cut, mix and produce an end product. The editing process requires editing software, and there are a lot in the market. 

TIPS to upcoming Filmmakers for Post-Production: 

Use freelancers to cut down on costs: After the pandemic, one can find a lot of good talent and skill at a low cost from all over the world. Leverage such platforms and get quality work at low costs.

Communicate to the Post-Production crew about the timeframe and the pay scale they prefer. Its easier to manage costs when the timeline and the compensation are defined.

Use Open-source Software when possible to avoid paying for expensive licenses and lawsuits. The learning curve may be steep, but this software can match any proprietary software in quality with little practice and research.

The ATL crew members should have a clear vision and story to save time and money on redoing the editing and post-process repeatedly.

You have the final product, and if you are well satisfied with it; It is time to sell it and make it a worldwide phenomenon. 

That leads us to the final section of our film budget, which is… 

Marketing and Distribution of the Film.

Film budgeting: film distribution
Photo by Jeremy Yap on Unsplash

The standard Hollywood practice keeps the marketing and distribution of the film outside the film’s budget. The Film Distributor does the marketing and distribution of the film.

A film distributor can be an in-house studio or an outside company. Distributor deals are an important part of financing the film in the first place. There have been many controversies regarding this method of accounting. 

Like “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy grossed $2 billion, way above the cost of the movies. But due to separate marketing costs, the film didn’t make any money, and many actors were not paid their compensations.

Now, film promotion and distribution occur simultaneously, where the distributor assesses and announces release dates, along with trailers and teasers, to create hype around the film. Marketing and promotion costs can be up to 50% of the production cost of film.

They are responsible for creating appeal in different markets and have to tweak their marketing campaigns according to different audiences. 

International distributions require dubbing, subtitling, and creating media campaigns suited to the background of the audiences.

The Global Covid-19 pandemic and closing of cinema halls all over the world changed the landscape of how films and content are distributed. The rise of OTT platforms and audiences watching content from the comfort of their homes gave rise to players like Netflix, Amazon Prime, and HULU in the movie distribution industry.

Many filmmakers are jumping to these platforms and even free distribution channels like Youtube and Vimeo. These filmmakers upload their content for free to a global audience without any cost. It may not be a sound idea in the traditional sense, but these films generate revenue in a totally different business model.

These were the major costs and sections to be kept in mind while budgeting your film. There may be some extra costs like Insurance, Paperwork, Emergencies, etc. Always keep a breathing room and plan for contingencies ahead.


Hope the article and the tips painted a better picture of the intricacies of budgeting a film. Indeed, these topics and the history behind those topics demand full-length articles of their own, though you must now have a better idea of how films are actually made.

Researching about this article gave me an appreciation for the filmmakers and the industry at large. It is a management wonder how these films with so many moving parts can still produce such artistic masterpieces.

Whether you are a low-budget even no-budget filmmaker, this must inspire you to make that film even more. Lack of resources should never turn you away, rather motivate you to get creative, resourceful, and make your film.

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