Colin Brown on Thinking in Budgets

In an October 18th, 2013 guest post to Ted Hope's Hope For Film Blog, Colin Brown shares some essential wisdom on film budgets.

Here's Colin Brown's starting point:

"Persuading people to put money behind a particular film idea is, after all, an exercise in quantifying delight. Sooner or later, even with the most munificent of patrons and the most sublime of screenplay propositions, budget numbers still have to be part of that pitch. Get those projections askew and that dream project is a brawl-in-waiting. Get them horribly wrong and it’s a complete non-starter."

And, as Anthony Kaufman found - when he interviewed Greg Shapiro (producer of James Gray's The Immigrant) for a May 2013 piece for Variety - the best producers work to reduce the budget without harming the reasons for making the film: "A crucial part of auteur-pic financing strategy is to make the movies [as Gary Shapiro says] “for the absolute lowest price possible without compromising the integrity of the film. Seems a natural and obvious thing to do, but it is usually very difficult in practice.”"

And Colin Brown (helpfully?) explodes the fallacy of one magic number for all films. There is no budget sweet spot where a star and a particular genre or story can safely be assured of earning a return on investment. Sure some genres are safer than others, and certain budget goals work for certain types of films, but... "The truth is there has never has been a one-size-fits-all budget sweet spot that is assured of success, nor even different off-the-shelf budgets that are best suited for different genres. While basic data analysis from the last several years of box office returns might suggest that $20 million productions fall in the profitability hot-zone, more rigorous attempts at regression analysis has also gone some way to confirming that no single production budget confers an advantage over any other."

So what guidelines or rules should a young filmmaker pursue when it comes to film budgeting and scheduling?

As Colin Brown writes, "nothing saves money quite as effectively as the experience of seasoned line producers, unit production managers and creative producers who know the battles worth fighting, the union agreements that can be made to work, and all the corners that deserve cutting for the sake of maintaining control. Done judiciously, such alterations will go unnoticed by their intended audiences. Done creatively, they may even enhance what ends up on the screen by the mere fact of forcing an imaginative workaround."

In other words, nothing can replace the experienced film professional's approach to keeping the budget to a minimum - without sacrificing the integrity of the project.  Each film is unique - but, if you've hired wisely, someone working on the film (with gray hair?) probably has some ideas about the right way to schedule and budget.

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