Film Budgets - When and When Do I Need One for My Screenplay?
When does a screenwriter need a budget for her film? Never. There. You can stop reading this article now.
Or can you?
The truth is, film budgets aren't generally something that accompany any screenplay unless they're already in development — significantly into development or pre-production — or part of a "package" that's getting sent around, looking for attachments of either the name talent, producer, or director variety.
But what about us journeyman screenwriters and us greenhorn screenwriters? Do we ever need a film budget to accompany our screenplay?
The answer is: sometimes.
Here's my take on when a film budget is the most useful for a screenwriter:
When you're DIY'ing your film
If you've written a screenplay with the intention of getting that script produced either by bootstrapping, Kickstarting, GoFundMe'ing, or other DIY methods, a film budget is absolutely essential.
Having a film budget on a DIY film is like having a second blueprint for that film, the first being the screenplay itself. For most DIY films, raising money is a struggle. But if you've ever made a DIY film, you know that raising money for a film is just one part of the struggle. The rest of the effort lies in spending that money wisely, correctly, fairly, in a way that keeps your production moving and your people happy and your SD cards full of great footage. And that wisdom and correctness and fairness all stems from planning out which departments get what money, and when.
Pitching a Private Investor
Making a movie on someone else's dime? Sure, this could fall under the category of DIY, but if you're making a film using other people's money, and it's a lot of money, you're probably not DIY. You're probably not studio, but you're probably not DIY.
In any case, a private investor, for our purposes, is defined as a private, non-film person putting up cash for your film. Some private investors are just wowed by the script alone and seduced by the potential glamor of Hollywood, and willing to throw cash at you even without a budget. But those folks are becoming fewer and fewer these days, as Tentpole Hollywood devours the world.
Most private film investors want to see a plan. And they want to see details. Script, budget, film business plan, you name it. The more you have ready to show them, the better your chances.
Fellowships / Grants / Some Types of Script Contests
There aren't a lot of these out there, but it's enough to warrant mentioning. If you're going for a grant, the people with the money want to see a plan. And that means a budget for your film. Pure and simple. People and institutions handing out grants demand you to meet their criteria, and in many instances, that criteria include not just a film budget, but a schedule, a script, a marketing plan, or more.
If you're serious about pursuing grants for your film, it can't be emphasized enough: you absolutely need to be ready to send them a budget, along with your script.
On the fellowship front, some fellowships and other filmmaking programs also want to see a script and a budget. The plan in the form of a screenplay is important, yes, but equally important in many cases is the skill level and seriousness of the filmmaker applying for the fellowship. And those fellowships often make a reasoned guess that a filmmaker with a script and a properly made, reasonably accurate film budget for that script, is probably going to be more prepared than a filmmaker with just a script.
So if you're going for a fellowship that requires a film budget in their submission process, you'll want to have a budget. It's that simple. But to be fair, as I mentioned, there aren't a ton of fellowships to begin with, and not all of them require script and budget on their submissions.
Proof of Concept for a Small Production Company
In some rare instances, a film budget and a script, if the budget is rendered with relative accuracy and detail, is enough to win the hearts of a producer or small production company looking to take on your film, or jump on an option.
Not every small or medium production house has the resources to line, breakdown, budget, and schedule a script, but the truth is, all of that is required in order to get an accurate number for the budget, and an accurate idea of how much time and money and effort a film is going to require.
If a filmmaker pitches a producer with a script that producer loves, and then can honestly say that that script can be made for a price the producer can embrace, and a film budget, or even a tentative, rough film budget can back that up in a way that the producer can look at and find credible, that may be just enough to swing a pitch in favor of the producer doing the film. Or, at least taking a chance on it with an option so she can do her own budget and breakdown to double check that the film is doable for the desired time and cost.
So the ultimate answer to the question of "Do you need a film budget?" when sending out your script for consideration or representation, or just to have one as a screenwriter, remains "Probably not," but I'd add "Unless you're taking one of the aforementioned paths with your screenplay."
But ultimately, the question is "What's your career path?" What is it you're pursuing? Are you a screenwriter, looking to write professionally? Are you a director, or aspiring director or cinematographer? If you're on a path towards any career other than producer, yes, it's good to have film budgeting as a skill, but it's not required.
That being said, being armed with a film budget for your screenplay, and/or the understanding of how to create one, could quite possible boost your script's chances of success, in some specific instances, and having the film budgeting skill yourself can only augment your overall understanding of how the film industry works, and how films get funded and made.
Jeff Orgill has produced feature films including the Slamdance selected 35mm feature film Caged and the horror comedy Audie & The Wolf. Orgill's feature directing debut Boppin' at The Glue Factory won several awards including Best Feature Seattle True Independent Film Festival and Best Director Los Angeles Downtown Film Festival.
You can reach him at his company Film Budgeeteers.