Build a Foolproof Budget for Your Short Film or Video
Let’s take a hard look at some steps, tips, and tricks for building a solid budget for your short film or video project.
No matter what your budget is, there is always one constant: creating a budget for your film should surely guarantee that every dollar will be spent wisely. A properly constructed budget will allow you to look critically at all of your departments, which in turn provides you with much-needed clarity on critical decisions that need to be made throughout the process. And we’re not just talking about high-end productions. If you’ve picked up a part-time job and have saved a few thousand dollars to produce your short film, this is just as important for you too.
For example: How much do you need to set aside for star talent (if any)? What elements can you, or need to, barter for if the budget is very low? Is it better to rent or buy gear? What can you get for free? What are the largest unavoidable expenses?
So let’s do our diligence today to outline everything you need to consider for putting together a budget for your project, as well as provide some helpful examples and templates to send you on your way.
What is a Film Budget?
So first and foremost, let’s go over some basic definitions and principles. What is a film budget, and how does one work? Well, as you might expect, a budget for a film or video project works like a budget for any other endeavor.
From building a house to doing any other contract work, a budget is used to itemize and list all the different tasks needed to be done while also providing an hourly (or day) rate with an estimation of how many of these units will need to be completed.
The bigger the project in terms of scope and time, the bigger the budget for items and deliverables. This is to say, some budgets can be pretty simple if it’s just one video professional shooting one video; however if it’s a whole team with lots of different departments shooting a huge video or one with several different versions, it can be quite complex.
What to Put into Your Budget
To begin the budgeting process, I recommend breaking things down into the four following major categories, all of which are standard to just about any film budget:
- Pre-Production ~10%
- Production ~35%
- Post-Production ~35%
- Distribution and Marketing ~20%
Understanding your needs ahead of time for each of these essential components of the filmmaking process will keep you organized and ultimately make your life that much easier. The percentage calculations are interpreted from a low-budget film basis that is likely to be published online and to go through the festival circuit.
Pre-production is comprised of all the items you must address in the beginning phases of your production up until the day you go to shoot your film. In this stage, your budget will account for location scouting, insurance, office expenses, courier services, script fees, casting director rate, and just about anything else you need to pay for before getting to set.
Theoretically, pre-production should be the easiest to predict in terms of cost, and if you’re shooting a low or micro-budget film, this stage will likely be the cheapest of the four components of your budget (no more than 10%).
For films of any scale, production is often where the most money is spent, simply because there are more unavoidable costs during this stage. Big ticket items such as paying your cast and crew, location permits, gear rentals (including the camera, lenses, filters, rigs, tripods, and extra batteries), insurance, etc. are all items that necessarily will need to eat into your budget.
Other line items such as catering, lodging (if necessary), transportation costs for cast and crew, and makeup are also significant considerations, but some of these can be mitigated by thinking outside of the box. For instance, if you’re really on a shoestring budget, you might be able to get a local catering company to sponsor your film, ultimately bringing down your food line item.
During production, it’s wise to keep a “miscellaneous fund” or a contingency of money that isn’t accounted for in case you incur unforeseen expenses such as repairing equipment that breaks or renting additional gear to help you get the most out of your shots.
As I mentioned earlier, the majority of film budgets are spent during production (not including huge blockbusters that spend the most on marketing), but regardless I typically recommend designating about 35% of your budget to shoot your film. As you will see in the following sections, both post-production and marketing deserve just as much attention and funding.
One aspect many filmmakers neglect when putting together a budget is the amount of time and resources they’ll need for post-production and editing. Even if you’re editing your film project yourself, you’ll need to understand how much time you’ll need to compensate for.
Again, this is a rough guideline depending on many factors of your editing process. But, generally, you can plan to budget three to five hours for the rough editing of five pages of a script, then another three to five hours for revisions, color, and minor effects.
I always advise leaving a healthy portion of your budget for post-production, even if you aren’t making a heavily post-driven film (such as a VFX spectacle or action movie). Post-production funds will go towards your editor, colorist, sound designer, composer, and the rest of your post team.
You may also need money for music licensing, stock footage, and deliverables (like a DCP for festival screenings). No matter what genre you’re working in, if you skimp out in post, your film will suffer, and the money you spent in production will be somewhat wasted.
I recommend allocating about 35% of your budget for post-production (the same as your production budget). This may seem like a lot, and many filmmakers choose to put more into production, but you will be doing your film a disservice by cutting corners in this department.
Your final audio mix alone is worth its weight in gold, as clean audio will make your film more valuable when you sell it. I’ve seen some films completely ruined in post-production because of a lack of funds…and these were films with great scripts and great production/cast/crew behind them. Without enough budget or time left for post, the final products just didn’t work.
Distribution and Marketing
Once you’ve got the final master of your film, it’s time to start pushing it out into the world. Independent filmmakers rarely allocate a sufficient budget to marketing, but this should never be the case. After all, without marketing dollars, no one will ever see your movie.
To start, you need to create a strategy to reach your audience and eventually turn a profit. There are cost-efficient options such as blogging or reaching out to other bloggers/online publications in hopes that they will share your film’s trailer or write a review. Social media outlets such as Facebook, Twitter, and Vimeo can also be instrumental in your films’ success on a grassroots level if you really push things on those platforms.
That said, you will also want to account for the following more costly, items marketing in your budget: A website for your film, screenings at various theaters, film festival applications, local ad campaigns, and hiring a publicist (if needed). Like any other phase mentioned here, note what can be done on your own and what bartering options are available to you within your network to keep your costs down. In any case, do your best to allocate at least 20-30% of your funds to marketing, and be prepared to do most of the leg work if you are trying to keep the costs down.
There is no one-size-fits-all budget format; ultimately, you must create a budget that is most in line with your film’s needs. However, it is essential that you make a well-thought-out, organized budget for your project to ensure that all bases are covered when it comes to the four essential elements of filmmaking. Familiarizing yourself with the film’s needs will make the entire process (and your life) more accessible.
Itemizing Roles and Costs
When you begin itemizing your expenses, be sure to understand what you can contribute to the process on your own and who you can utilize in your network to lend your film a helping hand. Here are some of the primary inputs you will want to consider.
- Writer/Pre-Production: There’s a lot you can add here, but for many projects, simply documenting your time for scheduling, planning, and producing your videos should be accounted for (this is often referred to as the “above-the-line” category).
- Producer/Crew Rate: If your project is a solo endeavor, you should be sure to include yourself and your daily (or hourly) rate. On a more extensive shoot, your role might be one of many, and each should be added accordingly.
- Camera Rate: How much it costs to rent your camera and lenses per hour or day?
- Lighting Package: While you can itemize individual items, usually, different departments are listed as a package where all lights and appropriate support gear are lumped together for a daily rate.
- Sound Package: Audio can include all manner of microphones, sound recorders, boom poles, etc.
- Art Departments: If your shoot requires different art departments, including design, sets, costumes, and makeup, you should include those here as well.
- Misc Departments: You’ll also need catering, transportation, and PAs for bigger shoots.
- Talent Fees: For narrative or commercial projects with actors, you should budget both for the fees for your performers and any talent scouts or managers.
- Video Editing: While sometimes calculated along with a solo videographer’s day rate, the video editing process should be a separate calculation that includes all post-production stages.
- Sound Mixing: Sound design and mixing are often done by a different person or team and should be calculated separately.
- Music and Score: If you’re working with a composer, that rate should go here, or if you’re using royalty-free music you can add that in separately.
- Visual Effects: Any VFX, animation, or motion graphics that require an outside visual effects specialist should also be included.
After you’ve worked out these essential details, don’t forget to include some breathing room by creating a “contingency” fund, which will go toward miscellaneous or unforeseen expenses you may (and likely, will) incur when setting out to make your film.
How to Calculate Your Budget
Once you understand and have outlined your relevant needs and expenses, we can begin calculating your budget. If you’ve done your budgeting above well, the actual calculation process shouldn’t be anything more than a bit of math.
Basically, this is the formula you’ll want to follow for each line item from above.
Number of days (or hours) x unit rate = line item cost
From there, you can take these different line items (camera rate, producer rate, packages, and department rates, etc.…) and then add them up one by one based on your budgeted number of days or hours. Add up the final totals of each, and you have your overall budget.
When you start to put the numbers together, the hard costs are often the easiest to look at first, as they are typically the most concrete to define. Your camera and gear are an excellent place to start. If you’re renting a camera, you’ll need to know how many days you’ll need it and what other lenses, rigs, and gear you’ll need to go along with it. If you’re working with the gear you (or somebody) already own, you should also put that into your budget (even if you end up discounting it later). Cameras, lighting, and audio will give you a base for your budget, to begin with.
Tips for Budgeting like a Pro
Now, all of that might sound great in theory, but when starting for the first time from scratch, it can still be a bit tricky. Luckily, there are ample resources available to film and video professionals online for free to use budget templates and more functional apps and platforms that can handle all of your budgeting and comprehensive production management needs.
Here are some helpful templates to consider checking out first:
You can also check out some paid but compelling and helpful production management apps which can handle budgeting, scheduling, and all of your other planning needs:
Outline Your Production Schedule
When starting with your budget, you need to start with a good idea of your scope and schedule for production. Ideally, you need to know the number of days and what you plan to shoot for each. As a rough guideline (this can vary on different production scales), you should plan to spend at least one day shooting for every three to five pages of a script. Also, when starting your first budget, you can use one of the apps or free templates below.
Consider All Costs Involved
After you’ve looked at these pre-production, production, and post-production elements, you’ll need to begin your work of filling in the blanks by considering all costs involved. There are both hard and soft costs everywhere in film and video production — from location fees to production insurance, to meals and craft services, to even your time putting together this budget.
While it may feel unnecessary or defeating to some when just starting, the more precise you can get with your budget, the better. That’ll help as you grow into bigger and bigger projects, but also as you start applying for grants and getting more people involved.
Cover image by Lewis McGregor.
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