If “location, location, location” is the buzzword of real estate, “budget, budget, budget” is what governs moviemaking.
Back when I ran a touring theater company, there was only one rule regarding the amount of furniture and props written into a show: If It Doesn’t Fit in the Car, It’s Not Going. It was this sense of economy that most influenced what I carried over into my workshops for aspiring scriptwriters, reinforcing the philosophy that if no one is going to mention why there’s a moosehead above the mantle, maybe that moosehead really doesn’t need to be there. A good story, first and foremost, needs to succeed on the strength of its plot and characters, not the weightiness of its production budget.
While everyone hungers to write a cast-of-thousands epic with a wealth of complex sets and technical glitz, the reality is that the lower the author can keep a script’s costs, the higher the chances of a sale.
What kind of red flags does your own movie idea contain?
The following quiz can help you identify them before you ever start shopping your script to a producer.
• My film is (A) Contemporary; (B) Contemporary with historical flashbacks; or (C) Historical or Futuristic.
• My film has (A) 0-10 special effects; (B) 11-30 special effects; or (C) over 30 special effects.
• My film has (A) less than 10 actors; (B) 11-50 actors; or (C) over 50 actors.
• My film has (A) no animals in it; (B) animals that are strictly for atmosphere (i.e., grazing cows, sleeping cats, etc.) or (C) animals that have a defined role or do special tricks.
• My film has (A) 0-10 interior scenes; (B) 11-30 interior scenes; or (C) over 30 interior scenes. (Note: If you have three scenes that take place in the same location (for instance, a kitchen), count it as only one interior no matter how many times it is used.)
• My film has (A) 0-10 exterior scenes; (B) 11-30 exterior scenes; or (C) over 30 exterior scenes. (Note: If you have three scenes that take place in the same location (such as a park), count it as only 1 exterior. If, however, you have a scene in a park, a scene at a beach, and a scene at an outdoor café, that would be 3 exteriors.)
• My film has (A) fewer than 10 night scenes; (B) 11-20 night scenes; or (C) over 20 night scenes. (Note: Night scenes are those which take place outdoors and in the dark, not just evening scenes which are all shot inside a house.)
• My film has (A) no car scenes or simply street scenes where cars are part of the background; (B) scenes in which my characters are traveling by car; or (C) car chases, crashes, or explosions.
• My film primarily takes place (A) on a soundstage; (B) in an existing house or public structure; or (C) in a specially constructed set (i.e., a ‘Medieval’ castle built from scratch for the production).
• My film would be most successful with (A) a cast of unknowns; (B) one name star; (C) three or more name stars.
• Physical stunts in my film are (A) non-existent; (B) computer-generated; or (C) performed by stunt people.
• For scenes outside a soundstage, the majority of my film takes place (A) in a small town; (B) in a major American city; or (c) in a foreign country.
To score: For each (A) answer, give yourself 1 point. For each (B) answer, give yourself 5 points. For each (C) answer, give yourself 10 points.
Before we take a look at what your total score means, here are some points to keep in mind that impact the overall cost of a screenplay.
Contemporary plots are usually less costly than period pieces. Can the story you want to tell be told in a modern context or are the historical benchmarks central to your characters’ viewpoints and actions? For futuristic tableaus, how do you intend to craft ahead-of-the-times architecture, vehicles, planets, etc.?
Fires, floods, earthquakes, volcanoes, explosions — while many disasters can now be computer-generated, those that can’t are going to cost money and plenty of it.
Do you really need those swarming crowds? Even though they’re paid scale for just taking up space, they’re still an expense. (And probably whatever they’ve got hanging at home in their closets won’t match your creative vision.)
Anything with animals — especially trained ones — could be a big-ticket item. Not to mention the presence of the SPCA on the set to ensure humane treatment and safety for anything that swims, flies, or moves on four feet.
Exterior scenes leave the crew at the mercy of time, season, and weather, as opposed to interior shots which will look exactly the same whether it’s 3 a.m. in the dead of winter or 7:30 on a summer night.
Night scenes are more expensive to film than scenes in daylight.
Are your car chases/crashes necessary or just gratuitous? Vehicular mayhem can put a sizable dent in the budget.
Going on location is pricier than shooting on a soundstage, especially the travel factor. It may be cheaper to shoot in a foreign country, but in exchange for their cooperation and city hospitality, you’ll probably be expected to stay in their hotels, frequent their restaurants, and — oh yes — fill out the cast and crew with star-struck locals.
Specifying that “Brad Pitt has to be in this movie or it simply won’t work” probably isn’t a compelling pitch.
Every time the equipment gets moved, the cash register dings. Try to minimize your locations so multiple scenes can be shot in one place. It’s also prudent to take into account the expense of a scene versus the amount of time it’s actually seen on camera.
How did your answers tally up?
If your score is less than 40, you probably have a story that falls into the “low” budget range and would be appealing to a small or independent producer.
If your score is between 40 and 80, you have hit the mid-ranges. This range gives you a lot of latitude since you can adjust up or down, depending on whom you approach with your pitch.
If your score is between 80 and 120, your vision may be too “big budget” for someone to take a risk on. The good news? It’s within your power to bring the higher numbers down by examining your (C) answers and determining where appropriate compromises can be made without compromising the story.