Friday, June 1, 2012

Scripts and Budgets

When we first moved out here in the mid- 1990s, the best advisors on film production told us to write what any given story needed for it to be told well and to not worry about how much it cost. However, back in those days, general wisdom was that a writer would pitch a script either directly to a studio or to a production company with a studio production deal. That is what we did for a number of years. These entities have the deep pockets to make anything written on a page a reality. Times have radically changed.

As we considered developing this web series, the first thing we had to look at was what assets we have, what assets we could obtain for free (or close to it), and what do we absolutely have to lay out money for. The easiest place to save money is the script. For example, One gunshot – from a blank pistol – requires an expensive rider on the production's insurance policy, the presence of a fire marshal (at $80 and hour with a four hour minimum) and a stunt coordinator certified in the use of firearms ($800/day). One gunshot! We would love to have Simon scale walls that are three stories or more tall in this web series. I'm sure that Owen Szabo would love to strap on a wire rig and scale a building. It may be hard to keep him from doing something like that, but the insurance rider for that cost more than the basic policy and requires a coordinator and a whole lot of safety equipment. I'm not saying that there won't be breathtaking action in this web series. It's just that everything we wrote had to be run through a lot of research and asset acquisition. It took a lot of creativity that was well beyond spinning a story.

Then, there are sets and locations. We have access to a location that will make a suitable home for Joe and Simon for this season. We had to be assured at we can film all the scenes we need to (no problems from neighbors with parking on the block, that sort of thing). Luckily, it's written into canon that Joe and Simon move frequently. I wouldn't expect to come back to the same location from one season to the next. LA neighbors can be fairly hard nosed when it comes to any kind of shoot. We could be the best neighbors in the world, and someone may still get a bug up their but about the content or not getting to have some of the catering. They could want a fee for their 'inconvenience' or complain to the permit office and block us from the location. It's best not to push one's luck. 

We are fortunate that the city, county and state are pro-film. We have found some wonderful locations owned by various government entities that we can shoot at without a fee. One of them is this great, old timey gazebo that we can make look like it's from the turn of the last century for one of the flashback scenes. We have to hire an LAPD officer to watch over us, but that's cool. We'll need someone to keep the homeless regulars out of the shots. They won't sit still for make-up, so we'll have to move them along for a while. We'll be shooting in a library where a vampire romance novel club meets, and at a really plush community auditorium that will double as a movie theater. All of these are free of fees. They also have plenty of parking and places for wardrobe, make-up and meal breaks. Yes, these things must be considered – along with where the bathrooms are – while I am writing the action in the scripts. If any location is lacking in these basic amenities, rental of trailers has to be considered. That brings with it the headache of where it would be parked and the cost of the fuel, water and the teamsters to drive it ($30/hour, 8 hour minimum and we need two – even for one vehicle – and I'd have to feed them).

Speaking of food, that has to be factored into the scripts as well. For lower budgeted projects, good food is a must. That is one of the elements that we have to pay for. And I mean paying for a caterer. We've had experience trying to feed a crew by preparing everything on our own. It is a hat that comes with too many headaches. We won't even try to do craft services snack table. We have to make sure that they are good and reliable. As the price of food tends to be per head, we have to keep an eye on how much cast and crew we have each day. Throngs of extras may be free (you can always find people who want to be on camera in LA), but that's a lot of mouths to feed. Trash is also something that we have to keep track of. More people make more trash. Some of these folks can be really slovenly about where they dispose of food and drinks. I've been on big productions where instead of nagging cast and crew about where they were putting empty containers or napkins, a cleaning service is hired. Honestly, it can come down to that. But that won't happen with us. I really insist that if I'm not working with children, I shouldn't have to pick up after anyone or pay someone to do it. Keeping the numbers down diminishes the problem.

So, on top of the terror for writers in looking at a blank page, indie filmmakers have to keep in mind myriad constraints to the budget. This can be daunting on the one hand. On the other hand, these constraints can be an interesting creative challenge. The very elements that made film noir fascinating to critics and audiences were born from some very tight constraints on content and budget. It wasn't easy to have sexually charged, hard boiled crime dramas drenched in violence under the Hays Code On top of that, noir was considered on the B list at studios by and large. The budgets were not so big. All this made writers work harder. Many times, magic was created. Actors tend to thrive in this setting, because their skills are leaned upon more heavily when there isn't the cash for big FX and not everything can be laid out and spoon fed to the audience. It's become a fascinating puzzle for us.

This brings us to how to write a script to interest well known actors enough to work for tens of dollars and some great catering. That's for the next blog!


  1. Wow, I'll never *think* about Hollywood production in the same manner again. I can't get over all the hidden costs of filming something. How in the world does anything ever get done with so many financial constraints? Truly an amazing and difficult process. I'll keep my fingers crossed that all goes well.

  2. I get very irritated if a director has a big budget and then spends it on special effects at the expense of the writing and the acting. I am much more interested in the story than in endless CGI.