“I’m a screenwriter. It’s not my job to know how to budget my screenplay.”
This is a common misconception that screenwriters have when it comes to the business side of things. Many will also say that screenwriters shouldn’t write with a budget in mind, but knowing the general budget range of your screenplay is vital to your eventual marketing campaign to get it read by those that can purchase it and get it made.
This knowledge also helps you further along in your screenwriting career as you are assigned to projects, because you need to know the difference between a $100 million film and a $5 million as you write. Your producer won’t be too happy if you are assigned to write a contained thriller — which studios like because they are cheap to make — and come back with a huge action fest that takes place over multiple locations.
And as you market your script, you need to know that difference in order to ascertain who you will be taking your script to for consideration. You can’t take a big science fiction script that has explosions and special effects to a production company that specializes in low budget indie dramas or small horror movies, no matter how successful their films have been. Specialty companies like that have a business model that they often follow to a tee.
So you need to know how much your screenplay is going to cost to produce. But how do you go about doing that?
We turn to indie producers Chris Wyatt and Sean Covel, known best for their smash indie hit Napoleon Dynamite, as they break down the many different ways screenwriters can learn how to budget their screenplays. We take their best points and elaborate on them so that you, the screenwriter, can best gauge the budget of your screenplays and what types of companies you should — or should not — approach.
1. What Movies Are Like the Movie You’re Writing?
“You may not be an expert in line producing, or budgeting movies, but you should know what kind of movies are like the movie you’re writing… there are other movies in the world — preferably within the last five years so that they’re relevant to the current marketing conditions — that your movie is kind of like,” indie producer Chris Wyatt told screenwriters at the 2015 Great American Pitch Fest.
Budget information is now available online at places like Box Office Mojo and IMDB. As a screenwriter, you must do your research before you approach anyone, and this is where you start. Find similar movies with similar locations, special effects (if any), number of roles, etc. Then look them up online to see what the budgets were for those films so you can have a general ball park figure for when you are asked questions leading to how big or small your stories are. You won’t be expected to have a full budget breakdown, but that general number will help put things into context.
2. How Many Characters Are There?
“There are some components that you know that you can rely on. Like a small number of speaking parts. That’s something you can be aware of. Doesn’t mean two people in a room, but…” indie producer Sean Covel added.
Knowing the amount of characters is key.
If you have a dozen or so speaking parts that are more than just a line or two, those will cost the production money. If you have a dozen main characters — avoid this at all costs in your scripts — it makes it all the more expensive because the producers will have to cast those roles and pay a larger chunk of money.
If you have scenes that require lots of movie extras — sports stadium scenes, busy restaurant scenes, crowded freeway scenes, etc. — background actors cost a lot of money too. And they all have to be fed as well.
3. What Is the Setting?
Location, location, location. It’s everything, especially with budgeting a film.
If you have a scene set on Times Square in New York City, that’s going to be expensive. If you have multiple locations like that, it will increase the budget. You can easily go to other movies that have used that location and compare and contrast the budgetary elements that we’re covering here to gauge the possible added expense.
Take a look at Vanilla Sky, which used Times Square for a scene. An added element was that they needed that location to be completely deserted. That was a cool but expensive undertaking.
The film is a psychological drama with some thriller and science fiction elements — and only some minor special effects — but it cost $68 million to produce. That Times Square scene cost hundreds of thousands of dollars to pull off.
Be aware of the settings of your script to figure out whether or not locations will be a major factor in the budget.
4. Locate Line Producers Online and Ask Them
“If you really feel a little bit lost or are not sure what movie to look to as your sample movie in terms of budget size, you can always go [online] and find a line producer who might give you a read or who might even just listen to you for five minutes to describe the movie and then give you a ball park,” Wyatt recommended.
In this day and age, you can reach almost anyone online. Line producers aren’t high profile thus may be more approachable. You can possibly find contact information for them on IMDBPro or through social media accounts. The worst thing that can happen is they say no or don’t have the time to help.
5. Know the Business End of Your Genre
This is an addition of the discussion on our part. Knowing the business end of the genres that you write is essential.
The horror genre is popular with studios because they are cheap to make and the core audience consistently shows up for them.
Action scripts denote stunts and special effects. Stunts and special effects cost money. When done right, audiences love the ride, but the action genre is not what it used to be back in the 80s and 90s. These days, either the studios have their tentpole franchises like the Fast and Furious or Taken movies, or they’re often going Direct-to-Streaming/Blu-Ray. How many Bruce Willis, Steven Seagal, and Jean Claude Van Damme movies have you seen in those non-theatrical markets? Endless.
So they’re expensive and audiences often don’t go see them in theaters to the degree they used to, thus, screenwriters writing such scripts need to keep that in mind.
These types of scripts are cheap to finance and often can turn a profit because of that. There are few locations — usually one or two tops — and smaller casts.
High Concept Comedy
High concept comedies often need a comedic star. Comedic stars are often expensive and difficult to schedule.
Character-driven Indie Comedies or Dramas
They are surely cheap to make, however, studios usually don’t buy them. You may see the remaining studio specialty companies acquire one or two, but that’s usually after the films are made in the indie market. So if you’re looking to write a script like that, it’s best to make it yourself or pair with a talented indie director.
These are just a few of the genres that screenwriters need to understand and learn about from a business angle. Anyone can say that screenwriters should just write what they want to write and let the executives handle the rest, but if you want to have a career in this business, you need to understand the business end of things as well.
These five tips will help you to gauge your stories during development so that you’re fully aware of what type of movie you’re writing and where you’ll be able to take it.
Watch the full panel discussion on the topic here:
Ken Miyamoto has worked in the film industry for nearly two decades, most notably as a studio liaison for Sony Studios and then as a script reader and story analyst for Sony Pictures.
He has many studio meetings under his belt as a produced screenwriter, meeting with the likes of Sony, Dreamworks, Universal, Disney, Warner Brothers, as well as many production and management companies. He has had a previous development deal with Lionsgate, as well as multiple writing assignments, including the produced miniseries Blackout, starring Anne Heche, Sean Patrick Flanery, Billy Zane, James Brolin, Haylie Duff, Brian Bloom, Eric La Salle, and Bruce Boxleitner. Follow Ken on Twitter @KenMovies