It Costs How Much to Make a Movie?

Did you ever wonder why movies cost so much money to make? I know I’ve always wondered where those astronomical numbers came from, but the more I work on DEAD HUNT, and on my short film FINAL GOODBYE, the quicker it is all starting to make sense.

Picture of Steve Osmond and Director, Kenn Crawford

On the set of FINAL GOODBYE. Pictured on the left is Steve Osmond as “Grant” with writer/director Kenn Crawford.

Ironically, the film making industry is the only business I know of where they actually brag about the cost. Most businesses want to keep their profit margin a well-guarded secret, but in the filmmaking world they use it to their advantage because unlike other business models, it doesn’t matter if the theatre is playing a 2 million dollar movie or a 200 million dollar movie, the ticket price to watch it is the same.

According to Wikipedia, some of the upfront costs can quickly add up before they even begin thinking about casting actors or rolling the camera. The rights to the story can cost anywhere from a couple thousand (e.g., Leaving Las Vegas) to over 10 million dollars (e.g., Halo) and all stops in between. An original screenplay by a Writers Guild of America member can cost from a minimum of $69,499 and up. The rights for M. Night Shyamalan’s ‘Unbreakable’ cost 5 million.

It’s a good thing the rights to DEAD HUNT will cost $0 because I am the author of the novel that it is based on – there’s no way I could afford to make a movie if I had to buy the rights first, but securing the rights is just the start, the screenplay still has to be written and an A-list screenwriter could be paid between $100,000 to $2 million to write the script. Once again my cost is $0 because I wrote the screenplay.

Writing a screenplay is a whole different mindset and technique than writing a novel. It took me three solid months to write the script. Not to mention the guidance of half a dozen beta-readers to help me bring it from a good script to a great script, but a script is not a movie – somebody has to produce it and they are often well-paid. A top producer can earn a seven-figure salary upfront as well as bonuses and a share of the profits, but this isn’t Hollywood… like most small, indie films, the producer (me) will not be paid anything. So far our budget sits at a nice round number of $0.

Next up is the Director – the DGA minimum is about $16,800 per week for a minimum of ten weeks, while the A-list directors can command 5 to 10 million per film. Once again, indie filmmakers often direct their own films because there is no way we can afford to pay a director. Most of us cannot afford a cinematographer, also known as a DP or Director of Photography, because they usually get between $500,000 to $1,00,00. Definitely outside our indie budget, which is why the Writer slash Producer slash Director often has another slash and adds DP to their job description, which also comes it an a cost of $0.

I am a photographer and I have shot/edited videos for quite some time so to coin an old cliché, this is not my first rodeo. That being said, I am more than willing to hand over the reigns of DP over to someone with more experience provided they are willing to work within our budget of zero dollars. I feel fortunate that everyone who has come on board to help make “Dead Hunt” a reality is doing so on a volunteer basis because they are fans of the novel, are passionate about filmmaking, or they want to add the film to their portfolio.

Yet despite coming into this project as a no-budget film, there are unavoidable productions costs that include makeup, special effects, costumes, transportation and catering to name a few. If you ever wondered why I consistently mention food when I talk budget, it’s because one of the things I learned from the hundreds of hours of videos and filmmaking courses I studied is that a fed crew is a happy crew. People will work long hours for free because they are passionate about making the movie, but it stops being fun when your stomach is rumbling every day. That’s why food costs will be a large part of the budget.

The other unavoidable cost is equipment, primarily sound and video. Today’s digital cameras come in all shapes and sizes, and price points. “Tangerine” proved that a feature-length film can be made using three iPhone 5S with specialty lens, while “Act of Valor” proved that even high-action movies with a 12 million dollar budget can be made with DSLRs – notably the Canon 5D, 7D and 1D using Panavision Primo, Canon L-Series and Zeiss ZF Lenses. What does this mean to independent filmmakers with a micro-budget?

That anything is possible and more importantly, if Plan A doesn’t work there’s always a Plan B, C, D and so on to fall back on until eventually you have the gear to match your budget. One way or the other, DEAD HUNT is getting made. I really don’t want to shoot it on an iphone… well, except for a couple of cool shots that could put the camera in harm’s way – I’d rather crush a 4s if things go wrong instead of the main camera.

In a future post I’ll breakdown the budget in a little more detail. If you have any comments or questions I’d love to hear from you. Please post them below.


About Kenn

Author, Songwriter, Photographer
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One Response to It Costs How Much to Make a Movie?

  1. Ian says:

    Some great information. The amount of lessons you will learn by doing a lot of the jobs yourself will be invaluable.
    Congratulations on the steps you are taking to a successful completed project.
    All the best.

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