Reader Question: What makes a movie a big budget and a small budget?

There are critical choices a writer can make at the script stage which directly influence a project’s budget… and its potential viability for getting set up.

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A question from Susan Burch:

I’ve read posts about writing a screenplay within a certain budget, but as a beginning screenwriter, I have no idea what that means. I saw one of your reader questions sort of address this with a sample budget, but as a writer, I’m still not clear what makes a movie big budget vs. small. Can you help me out?

The easy thing is simply to say “Write the best story possible.” But screenplays are not just stories. They are movies. And movies cost money to produce. A studio’s production budget is pretty much a zero sum game, they only have so many dollars to go around, so it’s possible you could write a great story, but price yourself out of a deal because what you’ve written is too expensive.

In general, I don’t think it’s a bad idea to wear a producer’s hat along with your screenwriter’s hat, at least be aware of some elements that drive up the cost of a script. Setting aside the cost of the cast which can vary depending upon who commits to the project, here are some story elements which can translate into higher production costs:

  • Crowd scenes
  • Multiple locations
  • Large cast
  • Water shoots
  • Snow shoots
  • Night shoots
  • Children
  • Animals
  • Period piece
  • Music rights
  • CGI effects
  • Page count

If you are writing a script with an eye toward the path of least resistance to getting representation, target the $5–20M production budget range (not including cast). So looking at the above list:

  • Minimize locations to reduce transportation and potentially housing costs.
  • Avoid writing a period piece which can require additional costs related to wardrobe, props, cars, and so forth.
  • No popular songs (besides in general, including any song title in a spec script is perceived as being a sign of an amateur).
  • Keep computer generated imagery and other post effects to a minimum.
  • Snow, water, children, and animals can take more on set time (although my movie Alaska had all four, so that shows what little I knew back in the day).
  • 120 page script will likely cost 15–25% more than a 90 page script, so be cognizant of page count.

Here’s the thing: You can take care of a lot of budget issues by your choice of a story concept. For example, I interviewed Chris Sparling in 2011 about his movie Buried starring Ryan Reynolds. IMDb plot summary:

Paul is a U.S. truck driver working in Iraq. After an attack by a group of Iraqis he wakes to find he is buried alive inside a coffin. With only a lighter and a cell phone it’s a race against time to escape this claustrophobic death trap.

I began the conversation with a question about his choice of story concept:

Scott: As writers, we face countless forks-in-the-road with every story we create. With “Buried,” you made some really tough choices, going down paths that would seem to be harder ones to take. For example, you decided once you were in the coffin, the story would stay there. No flashbacks, no cutting away to other characters and their perspective on the narrative. What was your thinking behind that choice?

Chris: It’s funny, but this is always the first question people ask me, which is why I wish there was a cooler answer I could give. But the fact is, the movie stayed in the box because it was the cheapest way to make the movie! My initial plan with “Buried” was to direct it myself and shoot it for about $5,000. When it took on a bigger life, that’s when the questions (from studio execs, etc.) began popping up about whether or not we should stay in the box the entire time (as well as other “interesting” suggestions). By this point, however, I began to realize that my financially-driven decision is what actually made the movie more interesting creatively, and this is why I pushed to keep the movie in the box for its duration — in spite of now having the money to shoot the other side of the phone conversations. Thankfully, the producers and the director (Rodrigo Cortes) who came on board all felt the same way as I did, as did Ryan Reynolds.

By choosing to write a project with a single location, you can not only considerably lower the budget, you can also create a context for a contained thriller a la movies like The Invitation, Panic Room, Green Room, and even A Quiet Place.

Here’s what you can do to educate yourself re movie budgets: Find actual movie scripts. Then go to resources like Box Office Mojo which often includes the reported movie production budgets. Read the script. Watch the movie. What’s included. What’s not. Do this with low budget movies, higher budget movies, and big budget movies. You’ll not only begin to sort out production elements which add to a movie’s cost…

You’ll also be reading scripts and watching movies, which are both key to learning the craft.

For 100s more Go Into The Story Reader Question articles, go here.

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