Tuesday, July 15, 2008


Chapter #42

“The $5,000 to $10,000,000 Feature”

You just screened your film at the lab. The final print is gorgeous…absolutely gorgeous. You are proud. Your heart bubbles with excitement. But before you practice your Oscar thank yous let’s take a quick A-Z recap at what you accomplished.
A. IDEA: You got an idea that was great.
B. LOW BUDGET: You adapted it to a limited-location story.
C. TREATMENT: You fleshed it out into a four-page treatment.
D. REGISTER: You took $20 to the WGA and registered it.
E. SCREENPLAY: You expanded it into 40-60 scenes and a first draft.
F. RE-WRITE: You re-wrote it focusing on dialogue and character development.
G. COPYRIGHT & CYA: You registered and copyrighted it again.
H. FORM A COMPANY: You got your business license and filed your DBA statement.
I. STUDIO DEALMAKING: You tried getting an agent and selling to studios but without pay-or-play money you opted to go independent.
J. INDEPENDENT FINANCING: You got a DP’s demo reel, offered investors 50% of profits and raised $250,000-$500,000.
K. REVERSE BUDGET: You squeezed the 38 budget line items into $250,000-$500,000 and set out to make a film that looks like $1,000,000.
L. SHOOTING SCHEDULE: You scheduled a three-week shoot, with a schedule of five pages and 25-30 shots/day.
M. DIRECTOR: You hired a director (probably yourself) who understands low-budget filmmaking.
N. GUILDS & UNIONS: You weren’t intimidated, and decided to only sign with SAG on a LEA agreement.
O. KEY PERSONNEL: You hired your Cinematographer, Production Manager, Assistant Director, Production Designer and Production Coordinator.
P. CREW: You told each of them what you could afford and they hired everyone else.
Q. EQUIPMENT: You rented 35mm camera equipment, on a 2-day week rate, and made separate deals for lights, sound and a dolly.
R. FILM & LAB: You bought 50,000 feet of film, at a discount, and made a deal with a film lab to print it.
S. THE SHOOT: You spent three grueling weeks (18 shooting days) and got your 90 pages in the can.
T. FILM EDITOR: You hired a film editor and sat back.
U. SOUND EDITOR: You hired a sound editor and sat back.
V. MUSIC: You hired a composer and sat back.
W. SOUND FACILITY: You recorded ADR, then did Foley, then mixed the 30-40 tracks down to three tracks and ordered your M&E.
X. TITLES: Almost done, you made sure that everyone’s name was spelled correctly and you contracted for your titles.
Y. ANSWER PRINT: You cut the negative, color corrected it and got your final print from the lab.
Z. 60-80% DISCOUNT: Depending on how good you are at negotiating, (SECRET) you can make a $1,000,000 feature at a 60%-80% savings for $219,000-$413,500.

Let’s not stop at just producing a Million Dollar feature film at a 60% to 80% discount. Let’s get even more frugal, down in budget, and learn how to produce a feature film for as little as $5,000 and then go up in budget and discover how to produce (your 2nd and 3rd features) for as much as $5,000,000. The end product being that you will truly know how to produce any feature film on budgets from as little as $5,000 to as high as $10,000,000.

Going Down in Budget:
“$150,000” BUDGET (aka: “The Low-Budget Feature”)
If you have access to $150,000, you can still produce a 35mm, three-week shoot, but you must cut $69,000 from the prior $219,000 budget (aka: Million Dollar Feature) that you produced in Chapters 17-41. (SECRET) The 1st draft of every budget is always prepared in pencil. Now, take out your eraser and let’s go line item by line item (38 line items) as you trim $69,000.
Line item 1, PRODUCER: Instead of a $10,000 fee, take only $7,000. You'll save$3,000!
Line item 2, WRITER/SCRIPT: Instead of $5,000, you only have $4,000. Offer the writer 5% of the film’s profits instead. You'll save $1,000!
Line item 3, DIRECTOR: Instead of $10,000, pay him $2,000 for pre-production, $1,000/week during the shoot, and $1,000 during post for a total of $6,000. You'll save $4,000!
Line item 4, CAST/ACTORS: Instead of paying $6,000 ($100/day), you can only afford $3,000 at $50/day. You’ll save $3,000!
Line item 5, FILM STOCK: Instead of 50,000 feet at 40 cents/foot for $20,000, you get 40,000 feet (buybacks and recans) at 30 cents/foot for $12,000. You'll save $8,000!
Line item 6, FILM LAB: Instead of paying $15,000 to develop 50,000 feet at 30 cents/foot, you develop 40,000 feet at 25 cents/foot for $10,000. You’ll save $5,000!
Line item 7, CAMERA: Instead of paying $18,000 to rent a camera package, you spend only $12,000, foregoing some of the expensive add-ons. You’ll save $6,000!

We have gone through only seven of thirty-eight line items and already saved $30,000. Go through the remaining items, cutting $1,000 here and $2,000 there, and you’ll get down to $150,000. Let’s not fool anyone. The film you make for $150,000 will not be as good as the film you make for $219,000. But, the bottom line is, if all you have is $150,000 and you want to produce a 35mm feature film on a three-week shoot --it is doable.

“$120,000” BUDGET (aka: “The Blowup Feature”)
With only a $120,000 you can’t produce a 35mm feature film on a three-week shoot but you will have two choices. Choice #1 is to shoot 35mm on a 3-week schedule, but only have enough money to get a rough cut that you submit to festivals as a Work-in-Progress. Choice #2 is to forget 35mm, and shoot 16mm for three weeks. This way, you can finish your film and also enter film festivals, where you hope that a distributor will pay the $45,000-$55,000 for the 35mm blowup.

“$80,000” BUDGET (aka: “Ultra-Low-Budget Feature”)
With only $80,000, you only have enough money for a two-week (13 shooting days) shoot with 35,000 feet of film. Hire a crew for two weeks not three. Rent equipment for two weeks not three. Do everything for two weeks instead of three. Instead of a five pages/day schedule, you will have a seven pages/day schedule. And as long as you don’t have many location moves you have enough time to get the Master Shot, with less coverage, and still make a 35mm film, with a rough cut, or a 16mm film that is finished.

“$50,000” BUDGET (aka: “The No-Budget Feature”)
With only $50,000, all you can afford is a one-week (9 shooting days over two weekends) shoot getting ten pages/day. If you shoot 35mm (20,000 feet), you will get a rough cut, and that’s it. If you choose 16mm, you will finish your film, but will inevitably have a lab debt of about $25,000. The lab will give you one print to enter festivals, but will hold on to the negative, and if you don’t pay the debt, it will foreclose. Other than shooting digitally, a 16mm one-week shoot is the most common type of film made by neophyte directors. Maybe you should think strongly about this.

“$20,000” BUDGET (aka: “The Guerilla or Digital Feature”)
With approximately $20,000--probably your budget -you can’t afford a film format, either 35mm or 16mm, and must shoot with tape. You’ll probably use (Chapter 50) the Mini-DV camera, $200 of tape, a seven-person crew, three lights, good sound setup and have a one-two week shoot.

“$5,000” BUDGET (aka: “The Real Time Feature”)
Here's how to shoot a 35mm movie (yes, that’s correct. I said 35mm film format not that inexpensive mini-digital video format) for less than $5,000.

First, attend local live theater until you discover that great one-room play that totally captivates an audience for 90 minutes. You have just discovered liquid gold. After the play find the writer. Introduce yourself as a Producer, and partner with him to make it into a movie. He ain’t gonna say no. You put up the money ($5,000), the writer puts up the script and together you co-produce and co-direct.

On Monday, cast the actors, offering deferral deals (paying out of profits). Rehearse on Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday and Friday. On Saturday, go to the actual location (possibly a bowling alley, a church, a courtroom, etc) and rehearse again. Meanwhile, on Thursday write two $300 checks to hire a DP and PM for a weekend shoot. The DP will rent a 35mm camera package (an Arri BLIV, rigged for handheld, with a 10:1 zoom lens, and two 1,000-foot magazines) to be picked up Friday and returned Monday, for $800. The PM will buy 10,000 feet (remember a 90-minute movie is only 8,100 feet) of recans (20 cents/foot) for $2,000.

On Saturday, at the location, get everyone together and give a great Knute Rockne rah-rah speech. On Sunday, have a soundman ($300) and a gaffer ($300) come with their equipment for a half-day. The actors will rehearse in the morning. In the afternoon, there will be only 8 shots. They’re called “fluid master shots” --Love that Hollywoodeese. Load a 1,000-foot magazine and shoot an 11-minute (1,000 feet) master shot scene. After 11 minutes the magazine will run out of film. Tell the actors to hold their marks and stay in character. Your DP will reload and shoot another 11-minute segment.

Reload and do it again, again and again, until in a little over two hours (changing magazines takes time) you’ve exposed eight reels (8,000’) and have shot a 90-minute 35mm movie in “real time”, for just under $5,000.

(SECRET) You can produce a 35mm feature for only $5,000. If you don’t believe this then rent Alfred Hitchcock’s “Rope” to see how he did it. While you’re at it, check out Hitchcock’s classic “Rear Window,” starring Grace Kelly and James Stewart. A two-room location shoot. Then check out Hitchcock’s “Lifeboat” a movie set in one boat with eight people. Now, you’ll understand why Hitchcock’s a genius. He knows how to do it cheap. And, now, so do you!

Going Up in Budget:
Now let’s assume you have $500,000-$700,000. How will you spend the extra $200,000 to make the $250,000-$500,000 (Chapters 17-41) movie a better movie? What if you had $700,000-$1,000,000. How will you spend the extra $200,000-$300,000 to make the $500,000-$700,000 movie a better movie? Etc. Obviously as you go up in budget you spend more money on extra weeks, better crew, more takes, name actors, and other items, but watch, as we go up in budget, how certain production aspects kick-in at each budget increase.

“$250,000-$500,000” BUDGET (aka: “The Million Dollar Feature”)
This is what you just learned to make (Chapters 17-41): a 35mm, three-week shoot, working with one guild (SAG on a Limited Exhibition Agreement), purchasing 50,000 feet of film, with experienced key people, a three-four month post period, and an original score. (SECRET) As the budget increases, above-the-line amounts increase 100%-1,000% and below-the-line items increase only 3%-5%.—Watch.

“$500,000-$700,000” BUDGET (aka: “The $1-$2 Million Feature”)
With this extra $200,000, you can now do a 35mm, 4-week shoot (not three), buying 80,000 feet of film (not 50,000), signing with 2 guilds (not one), casting a name actor for two or three doubling the production design budget, paying your crew much better, licensing one popular song to use under the titles and hiring a composer for the rest of the score. The end product is a movie that people think costs $1 to $2 Million was produced for only $500,000-$700,000.

“$700,000-$1,200,000” BUDGET (aka: “The $2-$3 Million Feature”)
With another $200,000, you can shoot for five weeks (not four), sign with all three guilds (WGA, DGA & SAG) and have enough film (120,000 feet) and time (30 days) to allow the actors three takes of each shot. It is usually on the third take (The Golden Take) that the actor gives the best performance. And, the editor will probably opt for the third takes. With the previous budgets the editor didn’t have choices, he had only one take to edit. Thus, this film will appear to be a much better acted film.

“$1,200,000-$2,000,000” BUDGET (aka: “The $3-$5 Million Feature”)
This is the budget range assigned to the Movie-of-the-Week (aka: MOW), which is usually a three week, 35mm shoot, with three guilds, in which one actor, almost always a woman, is paid $200,000-$300,000 to be the star and a second actor is paid $100,000-$150,000 to be the co-star. (SECRET) Ninety-Nine per cent of all MOWs star a woman.

Twenty-five years ago Monday Night Football appeared. Guys tuned in to football and the competing networks counter programmed for women. While men like action and sports, women like stories. Stories about women-- a woman in a crisis, a woman and her family, her house, her career and her relationships-- which always are based on a true story.

Thus, the easiest way to break into the industry, which is still not easy, is to option an event or a true story (Jon Benet Ramsey, Amy Fisher, Monika Lewinsky, Chandra Levy) and then partner with an established episodic TV actress (ER, Law & Order, Friends), who has a development deal with the TV network to make a MOW starring herself.

The TV networks finance MOWs for $1,000,000-$1,500,000. If the network funds almost $1,500,000 then you shoot the movie in the actual city where the true story took place. If the network low-balls and funds closer to $1,000,000 then your film becomes a runaway production. You go to Canada to shoot, because Toronto and Vancouver look like any American city, you get a 35% discount on the dollar, and the Canadian Government gives up to a 25% refund on all monies spent in Canada for filming.

Anyway, back to the budget. With $1,000,000-$1,500,000 you can produce a MOW, starring a famous TV actress ($200,000-$300,000) and the co-star ($100,000-$150,000), with an excellent crew, running 3 cameras simultaneously, over a 3-week shoot, which you will eventually call either a $2,000,000-$3,000,000 feature or a “just under” $3,000,000-$5,000,000 feature.

“$2,000,000-$3,000,000” BUDGET (aka: “The $5-$7 Million Feature”)
With the extra $1,000,000 you can hire a “movie actor”, rather than a “TV actor”, and your three-five week shoot will become a five-seven week shoot. You will sign with three guilds, obtain a completion bond and have a lot of blood, violence, sex and swearing in the movie. What I have just described is not a MOW for television but a HBO Special or Showtime Original for pay-cable.

When you subscribe to HBO or Showtime you want movies. It’s a movie channel. Movies are those newspaper ads. However, the movie studios (Paramount, Warner Bros, 20th Century Fox, etc) don’t make enough movies for HBO or Showtime to program 24 hours/day. Thus, HBO, Showtime and even Encore/Starz have to manufacture their own product. But these cable movies have to feel and look like a movie that you might pay $9 to see at a theater. This is accomplished by always putting one “movie actor” ($1,000,000+ salary), instead of a “TV actor” ($200,000-$300,000 salary), in a film with a cash budget of $2,500,000-$3,000,000 and calling it a $5,000,000-$7,000,000 feature or a “just under” $7,000,000-$10,000,000 feature.

Let’s play the name-game. (SECRET) There is a big difference between a TV actor and a movie actor and it has nothing to do with their abilities. It is about their name marketability. 99% of all actors who break into the movie industry and achieve fame and fortune do it via primetime (8pm-11pm) episodic TV. The double edged sword, however, is that after the actor is on TV every Tuesday night (paid $100,000-$750,000/episode) for five years, the viewers think of that actor as free and they balk at paying $9 to see this “free” actor in a movie.

It is very hard for a TV actor to become a famous movie actor. All TV actors try it but four out of five fail and come back to TV three years later. Michael J Fox came back. Ted Danson came back. Kirstie Alley came back. Tom Selleck came back. And let’s not even talk about David Caruso. But one out of five succeed, like Denzel Washington (St. Elsewhere), Helen Hunt (Mad About You), Bruce Willis (Moonlighting), George Clooney (ER), and Danny DeVito (Taxi) and launch successful movie careers. I know you’re thinking of names of this actor and that actor--but the bottom line is, that once an actor becomes famous by starring in a weekly primetime TV series, it is extremely hard to get a movie audience to pay to see him/he. Why pay when you can see them every night for free?

Now, on to movie actors. These are the actors who famous by only being in movies. If you want to see Tom Cruise, Dustin Hoffman, Harrison Ford, Edward Norton, Brad Pitt. Julia Roberts or Angeline Jolie at a movie theater you must shell out $9.

Every year one or two actors/actresses becomes famous without ever being in a TV series. They’re nicknamed the “flavor of the month” and are considered to be a movie actor. Recent examples being Mira Sorvino, Selma Hayek, Catherine Zeta-Jones-Douglas, Jennifer Lopez, Charlize Theron, etc. If you want to look at them you pay $9, and their salaries start at $1,000,000.

Thus, with a $2,500,000-$3,000,000 cash budget you can afford a movie actor ($1,000,000+), instead of a TV actor ($200,000+), and you will probably be producing an HBO Special or a Showtime Original starring Ray Liotta, Chaz Palmentieri or Holly Hunter, with a budget allegedly just under $7,000,000-$10,000,000.

IMPORTANT POINT: You should know, however, that it is not difficult to get episodic TV actors in your movie for less money than they’re paid for a half-hour TV episode. The TV actor sees your film as an opportunity to prove to the movie studios that he/she can pull an audience. You are really paying that actor not in cash, but with the opportunity to become a movie star.

We have now gone from $5,000 to $10,000,000 to produce your first feature to. Where do you think you’ll start --At the top, or, at the bottom of the budget ladder? The answer, of course, is at the bottom. And, your first feature film will either be a $250,000-$500,000 (35mm, 3-week shoot) production which you’ll call a “million dollar feature”; or a $50,000-$150,000 (16mm, one-week shoot) shoot which you’ll call a “guerilla feature”; or an ultra-low-budget $5,000-$50,000 (digital) feature.

Now the issue becomes let’s sell it. And, it doesn’t matter if your budget is $5,000 or $500,000 or $5,000,000 the bottom line to always remember is that you have now spent your money, you are close to broke and you want to sell your film. So let’s start publicity, attend a festival or two, attract a distributor and make a deal.

1. For $500,000-$700,000, write down which guilds you’ll sign with, what you’ll pay a star and how long is your shoot.
2. Do the same for $700,000-$900,000.
3. Do the same for $900,000-$1,500,000.
4. Do the same for $2,500,000+.