Budgets: Tips to Help You Set Yours Up for Film Production

Ah, the dreaded budget…

If you’re a freelance professional in the creative world, you know what I’m talking about. Your client who is sitting in front of you or on the phone has just told you he/she loves the concept and wants to begin, but first they want to know how much it costs. There are so many variables that numbers start flying around in your head. You get a sense of panic and even some glistening begins to form somewhere on your body. You feel like you should have a number already in mind. But you’ve been so preoccupied by just getting a good concept down, not to mention all the other work you are in the middle of, that you haven’t given the budget much attention!

Creating a Production Budget

Relax, it’s ok. The first thing you need to do is not feel pressured to already have a number ready to throw out. Simply tell your client that you’re happy they approve of the concept but you’ll have to get back to them once you have some firm numbers. Now, this may not be necessary on small productions. Maybe it’s just a camera op doing some field work. But for those of you who constantly are diving into larger projects that require rentals, crew, locations, studios, craft services… this is a post you will want to read.

I deal with budgets on a consistent basis. For Dave Ramsey’s organization nearly every project requires a budget because of the company structure. Even when I freelance, most of my projects require more than just giving them a number for my time and my gear. So, I have quite a bit of experience to draw from in this area.

Let me give you a picture of the process I go through for each project:

There are five steps I follow when I’m creating a budget:

1. Get a good budget layout spreadsheet. This is key! You will use this as your template for all of your productions. It should have line items for crew, locations, rentals, craft services, talent, etc. I have mine broken into 3 sections: Pre Production, Production and Post Production. Within these sections I have separate line items. Mine’s a little archaic (I’ve been using it for almost 4 years) but it still works. I’ll upload it for those of you who would like to have a copy for your own use. Feel free to alter it how ever suits your needs.

2. Don’t guess, call! I have people I work with that can do the same job but their prices can vary…quite a bit too. Just because someone will charge $500 to do a job, don’t assume all those who can do the same job charge the same. So if you have people in mind, call them! If they are available, negotiate the rate right then and there. The same goes for rentals, studios, food, etc. Call around, you may find you can keep your client from having a seizure by saving them some money and not making the quote too high!

3. Don’t forget to bill for your time! I’ve made this mistake many times. I’ll get all the hard costs together and send them to the client. By the time the job is done and I have paid all my expenses, the money left over often does not reflect all the time and hard work I put into the project. Why? Because I didn’t bill for my time. Your time is precious and has value. If you’re going to head up a production, there’s more time involved than just being on set.

Estimate the amount of hours you will gather the crew, make phone calls, scout locations, do your billing… you get the point. Add all that up, giving a fair wage for all of those hours, and add it in the budget. I add my line items in pre-production for those costs.

4. Do a walk through. Walk yourself through the production mentally. Think about what all is going to happen once your client gives you the green light! This is a good way to make sure you’re not forgetting anything. On one job I thought I had everything laid out and accounted for… cameras, people, food, location, everything! Until, we got in our cars and drove 250 miles to the location and didn’t think to add in fuel costs… wa-wa-waaaaaa! Why did I forget such an easy detail?…because even though I knew what we were going to shoot and how we were going to shoot it, I didn’t give much thought to the location being 250 miles away!

So again, walk through the details. If you’re traveling, the lights will go off as soon as you see yourself loading up the truck to get to the location (still hitting myself in the forehead for that one!).

5. Pad it! No, I’m not talking about packing gear, I’m talking about padding your budget! It’s inevitable, something out of your control and that you didn’t see coming will happen! It’s happened to me, and at some point, it will happen to you, if not already. it’s because of Murphy’s Law that I always pad my budget. You can do this a couple of ways. You can either pad the individual line items, or what I typically do is add a separate line item and mark it “Misc Costs.” Now, for certain clients, this may not fly, but I haven’t had many problems with this method. The few questions I have gotten, once I explained the reasoning for the line item, the response has been agreeable.

The amount to pad will vary but I typically start out at ten percent. For smaller productions this may be too low. But for larger productions the opposite is true. Use your discretion. Also refer back to step 4 and try to visualize any problems that could happen. This will allow you to have a better idea of what percentage to use for your padding.

I hope this helps you all out. I know creating budgets is tedious and cumbersome but I guarantee if you use these steps every time the process will involve less headaches! Feel free to comment with some things that have made your life easier when creating your own budget.`

Production Budget Form Download Link
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