Thursday, June 14, 2012


Dear Reader,

I don’t write this column to make friends; although that’s fine if I do.  And I certainly don’t make any money with it.  Yet.  I write it because it’s mine, it's global, I get to say whatever I want to say, I get to tell the truth (in the sense of revealing reality, or exposing stupid, which I intend to do in this post - as a public service of course, in this case to other independent filmmakers), and because it’s the best way I know to start my writing for the day.  By writing.  Like Ray Bradbury, my favorite writer of all time said to his biographer:

“Work is the only answer,” he told Weller a few years ago. “I have three rules to live by: Get your work done. If that doesn't work, shut up and drink your gin, and when all else fails, run like hell.” 

Amen. Goodbye Ray. (I have a post coming about Ray Bradbury, check back in a few days for that).

This post, which is a companion piece to my post “Raising Money for Independent Film, Opening a Vein and Productive Insanity.”  Here it is if you want to refresh your memory:

So, yeah, “Low budget doesn’t mean stupid!”   I said that on a low budget picture I directed.  Actually, I screamed it really, REALLY loudly.  Got everyone’s attention that day too.  Movie turned out great. ;)  More on this, and the actual story of that day on-set later.

In an overall sense, this post is about the highs and lows of low budget indie filmmaking.  What’s low budget?  Depends on what the actual resource needs of the film are.

Every time -- every single time -- I finish a script and a potential investor, studio, executive, producer what-have-you reads it (and presumably likes it) the very first question I get is, “What’s the budget?”  And the first thing I think is, “How the hell should I know?” 

One dollar?  A hundred thousand dollars? $1,037,000 - which is SAG Modified Low Budget (plus the diversity add-on).  $2.5ish million -- so we can get under the DGA low budget tier at which all the rates are negotiable?  The point here is, that the answer to the question “What’s the budget?” is “Movies cost what they cost.”  I’m not trying to be flip, movies do cost what they cost, AND (and this is the  important part) there’s always a number (a budget number) at which spending a dollar more won’t impact the quality of the film in a positive way, but at the same time spending a dollar less will impact it in a negative way.

So, “What’s the budget?”  There’s three ways to look at it - but only two ways mean anything in the lower budget indie world.  But Way #1 is the right way, the way it should be done, and that is this:

The script is finished.  The Director, his AD and perhaps the Producer breakdown the script into ALL of its essential and needed elements according to the vision the Director has for the film (talent, locations, wardrobe, special effects, construction etc).  Based on that extremely detailed breakdown in which we try to anticipate everything (that’s impossible, but we try), the Producer (or Line Producer, with the help of the UPM) generates a budget wherein all of the resource needs for putting that vision on the screen are accounted for.  This is the most responsible, most judicious way to budget a film.  This is the way the big boys do it.  But even then, even in the studio world you’re gonna run into -- let’s call it “The Lone Ranger” consternation.

I mean the film Disney’s making, or made.  Or re-making.  Er, or re-imagining.  That Director (whose films have made billions of dollars), presumably with the help of his staff, generated a budget for that film that came in around $250 million.  This, presumably, was the budget number that befit the film he intended to make -- and I assume at that level the whole movie had been pre-visualized (which is a way of trying to anticipate everything that can possibly be anticipated) and as many surprises, budgetary or otherwise, as could be were squashed before they reared their costly heads; maybe not, but let’s pretend.

So they’re just about to go into production and the studio (so say the articles I’ve read about it) stepped in and threw out the spike-strip and tossed up a brick wall.  Why?  Because the budget was too high.  Okay.  If that’s so, then what was the budget number the studio would’ve felt comfortable with from the beginning?  And why?  And why, furthermore, didn’t they just lay it on the table up front, and avoid a shit-load of wasted time and (yeah...) money?  I’m making assumptions here (they may very well have done this, I don't know), I know that, I have nothing whatsoever to do with this movie (sure wish I did though) but let’s pretend.

The answer is that, to the studio, the budget of the movie to be made has almost nothing to do with ensuring the creative team the necessary resources to bring to the screen the director’s vision of the film.  The budget -- to the studio, the total amount of money itself, and not necessarily the document which details how it will be spent -- is defined, really decided upon, by formulas.  Formulas that are supposed to predict income and profit based on all of the complex (and sometimes indefinable) elements that “are” the film they end up with.  Things like, who’s in it?  And what’s their foreign value?  What’s their domestic theatrical value and how much can we reasonably expect this film with that actor in it to generate?  What’s that actor’s value as an action figure?  On a grade school backpack?   What’s the potential monetary value of the old series, comic book, theme park ride (whatever) that the movie is based upon?  What are we, the studio liable to reasonably expect to make on DVD sales? Cable?  How much is it going to cost to market and advertise this film?  If we release it during a time when the theaters are full of other BIG movies, how will that affect our take?  And on, and on... It's a ridiculously complex process that, I suspect, involves some alchemy as well as accounting skills - they're very good at this BTW.

So bearing all this in mind, how’s the studio suppose to come up with a number they’re comfortable with as a budget without first receiving a budget that declares what the creative team claims they need to make the picture?  Well, they can’t.  Ok, they could, but it would all just be a gigantic gross assumption.

So essentially, the best, most responsible and judicious way to budget a film still isn’t the best most responsible and judicious way to budget a film.  Because that number, and the ways in which that money is going to be spent is going to be re-thought downward to a number that the studio can fit into their equivalent of a “PlayDough Pumper #9.”  The least amount of money the studio can possibly justify (or simply order) goes into the little squeezer machine, much force in the form of marketing and advertisement is applied, and all the little squiggly Playdough spaghetti-noodles you remember so fondly from your childhood are the studio’s revenue streams.  (I'm not trying to be snarky here, I just think that analogy is funny).  Make sense?  Seriously though, Pumper No. 9 was cool.

So then, what’s the point of making a budget in the most responsible, judicious manner you can employing Way #1?  I have no idea.  Because essentially Way #1 is pretty much equivalent to Ways #2 & #3.  Which are: you either back the film into the number, or the number into the film.


In the lower budget filmmaking world, the independent filmmaking world, this is, by a light-year, the most often necessitated way to go about finding your budget.  Sounds weird because this way means you already know how much money you have to spend.  So there’s your budget, right?  Nope.  That’s just a number.  That’s how much money you have to spend.  That’s not a budget.  A budget is a detailed, department by department spreadsheet of HOW you are going to spend that money.  That’s your budget.  And that’s where the “Low Budget Doesn’t Mean Stupid” part starts to comes in.

It isn't how much money you have to spend, it's how you spend how much money you have.

Now, if you've got a Producer (like most of the Producer's I've worked with) who cares about the film, and more to the point how you (the Director) intends to realize it, and whose attitude is "Here's how we can," not "Here's why we can't" then your life and your film are gonna be the better for it.

But sometimes...

... you are gonna run up against, or into, this guy: The Local Potentate Producer (it has to do with tax incentives, it'll make sense in a minute, I promise).

And this Producer has a number in his head at which he believes he can bring in the film to completion.  He probably already has a preliminary budget worked up, but maybe not.  His number is the money he managed to get from whatever the source (see my last Blog on raising money for independent film production) ,

and regardless of whether that number is enough money to make the film at a level it deserves -- the level at which the Director’s vision is fulfilled -- or not, is meaningless to this person.  The film is gonna get made.  At the number in this person’s head.  The end.  That’s it.  If the film turns out badly, the Producer moves on to the next picture and blames (usually) the Director, and if the film turns out good, believe me I’ve seen this a hundred times, that Producer will be the first to take as much credit for it as they possibly can.  Not every Producer I’ve ever worked with in the lower budget arena (not even the Local Potentate Producers) is like this, but there are enough of them out there to make it mine-field.

You'll know an LPP when you meet one because they're fond of saying things like this:

“There just isn’t any money for that.”  Yes, there is, you just have it allocated in the wrong place.

“That’s not in the budget.” That’s your mistake, genius.  Produce a solution.

“This is the (insert number here) movie I’ve done!”  Really?  Name one.

“It’s raining.  What’s your cover set?”  Well, we don’t have one because you removed those back-up elements from the schedule my AD created because you said we didn’t need any cover sets, that the weather would be great everyday we were on an exterior location, and it added time we couldn’t afford to the schedule.  So Produce a solution.

“You have to make your days on this picture.” I don’t make days.  I make locations.

“We’ll just use the crew as extras because we can’t afford paid exrtas.” Really?  Then who is going to do the crews’  jobs when they’re all walking around in the background of my shot not doing their jobs?

“We need to move on.  You really don’t need a second take.” Tell that to the star actor you hired.  Lemme know how that works out for you.

Local Potentate Producers work in Tax Incentive Fiefdoms of their own making.  Again, the great majority of these people are good at what they do, a pleasure to work with -- it's the pufferfishy Napoleonettes I'm advising you to watch out for here.

With the rise of state tax incentives (programs wherein a production gets back a percentage of its qualified spend at the end of production - ranging between 5% and 42%) there arose a need for qualified local crew in these places. It sort of defeats the purpose to shoot your movie in a tax incentivized state only to have to fly in and house your entire crew, right?  That’s not savings, that’s extra cost.  So savvy local Producers consolidated anyone and everyone in their little areas in those states, and sometimes statewide, that could function as a crew member and opened with welcome arms all the gypsy types that migrated to those areas for work -- because with the tax incentive the productions were lining up to get in and shoot their film.

Productions began to depend on the Local Potentate Producers because they knew all the local crew, the film offices, could expedite permits, fill out tax incentive paperwork and squeeze every dime out of the program.  This was terrific news for the visiting production’s Producer.  And if things went well (read: the film came in on or under budget) then they were certainly inclined to bring another and another and another production to that Local Potentate Producer.  See where this is going?  The Local Potentate Producer had just created his own little Tax Incentive Fiefdom.  And how do the bad ones keep their costs low?  By paying those people like shit.  And since they all live and work in the potentate’s fiefdom there’s not much they can do about it.

I'd guess that no one sets out to make a bad film.  But with the bad type LPP, it's worse than if they did  -- they just don’t give a shit one way or the other.  Good movie.  Bad movie.  Makes no difference.  The point is that they need “a” movie, “any” movie shooting in their fiefdom as frequently as possible.  That’s it.  Like making widgets.  And they hold all the power because they control the budget.  I’ve actually had to turn the DGA loose on a few of these types to get my copy of the budget on a few films.  A director has a right to a copy, but it’s such a valuable document, few of these types ever want anyone to actually see it.  And why would that possibly be?  Two reasons: power and money.  The power part is self-explanatory.  The money part... well, ever heard of dual-contracts in the car dealership world?  Yeah.  That.  I’m not saying anything, I’m just saying...   Bitter, Dave?  Chip on your shoulder, Dave?  Not at all.  Because...

... one of the great advantages of backing the film into the number is there’s actually a way to solve a lot of problems right up front -- re-write the script per location, on location, once you get there.  This is called compromise.  Still, despite the advantage, it sucks because after all the pain, effort, sweat and blood you spilled writing the script and getting the story and all of its elements just the way you wanted them, just exactly the way they need to be to tell the story the best it can be told (remember, you work for the audience - not anyone or anything else), now you gotta tear it up, or at least re-mold it and re-conceive it to fit a number.

Although, I have to admit, that sometimes being forced to do this results in ideas and ways to get a particular story point across in a way you had never thought of before.  And sometimes it’s better.  More concise.  More efficient.  Those are great filmmaking moments.  Consider it a challenge and not the headache it is and your film will be much better off.

Your bad Local Potentate Producer (or any for that matter who make "budgets" not "movies") can also be labelled -- perhaps more accurately -- the “No-Stop-Light-Here-Until-Someone-Dies” Producers.  You know what I’m referring too, that all too frighteningly similar ass-backward reasoning used by local city councils and county transportation departments that states that it is a bad idea to anticipate a death at a dangerous intersection, and therefore we must wait till someone dies crossing it in order to then make it safe by installing a traffic light.  More on this later -- plus a perfect example.


While Way #2 is by and large the way you’ll probably have to do it, Way #3 generally results in a better film.  But you ain’t gonna make any friends this way.  Because it’s the flip side of the coin to Way #2.  If Way #2 is compromise, Way #3 is don’t compromise.

"I've made 15 low budget films!"
I have a friend working on a low budget film as a Location Manager as I write this post.  The Producer is not good, fond of spouting  little Blowfishy Napoleonisms, things like, “I know what I’m doing! I’ve made 15 low budget movies!”  Really?  Name one.  But I digress.

The picture is budgeted at about $400,000, stars a very well known actor from a ridiculously successful TV show and has 30 (yep, 30) locations and a 24 day schedule.  Very tight.  Very, very tight.  My friend works closely with the Director and from what I hear, regardless of how many times the Producer says, “That’s not in the budget.”  Or  “We don’t have the money for that.”  This Director won’t budge.  Won’t compromise.  He sees the film the way he sees the film and that’s the film he’s gonna make.  God love him.  Like I said, he ain’t gonna make many friends this way, but his movie is gonna be as good as he can possibly make it.  I don’t know this guy, but I like him already.  BTW, I read the script.  It's really, really good.  I'm rooting for him.

Quick example of bad Local Potentate Producing:  The budget’s about $400,000.  If it was me, and I was producing this picture I would allocate about $30-$40,000 for locations (and obviously try and get everything as inexpensively as we could).  Why?  Because in lower budget movies (all movies really, but much more so in lower budget ones) you see two things on the screen: your actors, and wherever it is that your actors are acting what they’re acting -- the locations.  

So locations (since you sure as shit aren’t gonna be building any sets on a picture with a budget that low, nor dressing many of the practical location sets - you’ll probably be using the existing furniture) are second in importance only to your actors.  The locations are characters in the story.  Know what this Producer allocated for the Locations Department?  $10,000.  That is stupid.  And while I'm at it, where's the rest of the money in that budget anyway?

So, Way #3, backing the number into the film can be distilled to read: “Don’t compromise.”  You’ll probably have to resort to a lot of autocratic nastiness and a lot of begging (been there, done that) but I think it’s worth it.  So will your audience.

Moving on.  Back to the title of this post:


We’ve dealt with the second one, now let’s look at the other five, and the best way for me to describe them is with some true stories.  And I swear I am trying to be kind here.  Really:


So I’m making a picture in a mid-western state, a state I’ve thankfully made a picture in before (where there is a local producer I've worked with, who is, thankfully, great).  But this one is a much lower budget and comes with three other producers, two of which are constantly on set.  Neither of whom has a clue.  Don’t believe me? 

Okay, during pre-production Producer #1 asks my AD and myself which day a particular actor is working.  We show this person the new scheduling strip board we’ve put up on the production office wall.  Producer #1 examines it and says, “Oh, I see.  Thursday.”  We counter, “No, that actor is working Friday.”  Producer #1 counters, “No, it says here that actor is working on Thursday.”  We politely correct,  “No, really, that person works Friday.”  Now this is a Producer who claimed to me to have produced 30 (yes, 30) motion pictures.  Producer #1 calls me and my AD over to the strip board dead set on winning the debate, pointing to the character name saying, “See, right here.  It indicates this person works Thursday.”  My AD and I look at each other.  Is Producer #1 serious?  Yep.  But the problem is, this person doesn’t know how to read a scheduling strip board -- assuming the day/date strip above that day's scene work, is the day/date those scene strips shoot.  It’s not.  You don’t read a strip board top-down, you read one (and you should know this if you’ve produced 30 films) bottom-up.

This same Producer, Producer #1 also says we cannot rent air conditioning units for the interior of a practical location which has no air conditioning.  And it’s hot.  Hot as hell.  Dead of summer, mid-west state, do the math.  Oh wait, there’s more... I’ve got to shoot all day in the interior of this sweat box with motion picture lights jacking the heat up even higher (note: I picked this place for the only reason you should ever choose any location - it looked perfect).  Oh wait, there’s more... two of the actors in the scene are older people.  One is in ill health.  But still, "
No air conditioning."  Even after I explain all of those factors to Producer #1.  Oh-kay.

On the day, I block the scene, light it up with my DP and call in the actors.  Five minutes later the older actor in ill health is sweating so bad that we cannot photograph him, and he almost collapses from heat stroke.  Guess what?  30 minutes later... air conditioning.  Low budget doesn't mean stupid.

Same picture, Producer #2.  From the beginning of pre-production, and certainly in the all-crew production meeting, I raise a concern about rain.  Not that I’ll get rained out, but making rain.  There’s a certain scene at the end of the film that needs to take place in the rain.  It’s at night too, and at this time of the year (in this mid-western state) it doesn’t get dark (at least shootable “night dark”) until about 10 PM.  Oh, there’s a kid in the scene, so I can’t shoot past midnight.  Get it?  That means I’m going to have exactly two hours to shoot the big scene at the end of the movie, in the rain. 

So I need rain pipes, an on set F/X crew of two guys to operate the pipes and several thousand gallons of water in a tank.  Producer #2 tells me, “No way, there’s no money for that.  You’ll have to use the water that’s available from the garden hoses at the house we're shooting at.  And a sprinkler.”  So I inform Producer #2 of what that’s gonna look like (it’s gonna look exactly like a guy standing off screen squirting water from a garden hose.  Not rain.).  Producer #2 doesn’t care.  Or isn't listening.  Or both.

So a month goes by.  The night arrives to shoot the rain scene.  Producer #2 acquiesces to the rain pipes (which I get at a discount - by calling the F/X crew I used on the last movie I shot in this mid-western state.  Nice, capable guys), but not on the water supply.  So the rain guys build their rig and hook it up to their 700 gallon tank.  And Producer #2 says, “See you have a water supply.”  I tell him, "No, actually that’s just the small tank to test the rig.  We need a main source for the scene with enough water so we don’t run out in the two short hours we have to shoot the scene."  

Producer #2 tells me 700 gallons is more than enough.  I turn to the rain guys and ask (and I already know the answer), “Guys, how long do we need to test the rig?”  They answer, “About a minute or so.”  I continue, “And how much water are you gonna burn through when we test?”  They answer, “About 700 gallons.”  I turn to Producer #2 and say, “Produce a solution.”  Producer #2 gets ruffled, and then has a stroke of genius idea,  “That’s easy.  Just refill the tank!”  Right.  I ask the rain guys out loud, “Guys how long to refill the tank?”  They answer, “With a garden hose?”  I say, “Yes, that’s all we have.”  They answer, “About 45 minutes.”  I turn to Producer #2 and say, “That will give us one hour and fifteen minutes to shoot the scene.  Produce a solution.” 

Producer #2 of course, can’t.  Well, “can” but won’t.  Won’t spend another dime.  So I let Producer #2 sweat it out all the way till the sun is almost down and it’s almost dark.  As the last drops of sunshine are fading fast I walk over and ask, “So, what’re we gonna do boss?”  No answer.  We can’t shoot the scene in 1 1/2 hours.  We can’t come back to do it another day -- this is low budget --  there are no re-shoots, so, what to do? 

Producer #2 is literally shaking, he’s screwed, he’s screwed the show and he knows it.  Just then (as if on cue - alright it was on cue because I set it up that way. HA!)  the local Fire Department shows up with two tankers.  The Producer from the previous show I’d done in this mid-western state is a dear friend and a smart, well connected guy in the community.  And it’s HIS HOUSE we’re using for the last scene!  FOR FREE NO LESS!  I had him call the local FD and have them send over the trucks.  For free.  This is the moment I screamed “Low budget doesn’t mean stupid!”  Was that a little harsh? Yes.  Was I rubbing it in?  You bet.

But see, the point was made -- low budget does not have to mean stupid.

In these examples the Local Producer came to the rescue.  But it's what the two other's have in common with the bad Local Potentate Producers that you have to watch out for:

It’s this: the “No-You-Can’t-Have-A-Water-Tank,” incident, and the “Air-Conditioning-Is-Not-In-The-Budget” reasoning defines them, more accurately (remember above where I mentioned this?) the “No-Stop-Light-Here-Until-Someone-Dies” Producers. 

And it’s a budgetary conundrum really -- it doesn’t make any sense -- because why would a pinch-penny Producer have an attitude upfront about not spending money on things that are necessary, only to then have to spend the money on them later when they’re more expensive?   That's just stupid.

Here's an example of what Producer #2 regarded as very important, while he should've been securing a water truck: Producer #2 had some manner of anxiety with the way the craft service person was laying out the snack table.  Yes,  about the actual places on the table itself that crafty was setting the various food stuffs.   So Producer #2 sits this poor (very capable) crew member down and proceeds to lecture on how to set up a craft service table.  And then...

... he draws the craft service person a topographical map of the table -- a satellite view -- of where every item on the table should be placed.  I. Swear.  Don’t believe me?  Well, here it is:

Now about:


A Canned Crew is a crew comprised of all local people in a particular location.  Local Potentate Producers almost always insist on canned crews -- their crew people, the ones they consistently pay like shit -- because of the tax incentive advantages of writing off their salaries.  

It’s also the worst sort of crew-relationship to encumber a director with.  Because he doesn’t know any of them, and certainly has never worked with any of them, and more importantly having never worked with the particular Director the Canned Crew has no idea how this Director thinks, creates, or anything. 

I'm not saying the Canned Crew is bad, on the contrary, almost all of the Canned Crews I have ever worked with have been outstanding.  

The issue is that it is immeasurably more time consuming because the Director has to get this Canned Crew to “see what he/she sees, how he/she sees it.”  And in order to do that you've got to get them to understand how you see the film.

How do you do that?  Any way you can.  At the risk of sounding slightly behind the times or a little retro-analytic it has to do with ideas.  

Or rather, the meme.  To wit:

“A meme is any idea, behavior, or skill that can be transferred from one person to another by imitation: stories, fashions, inventions, recipes, songs, ways of plowing a field or throwing a baseball or making a sculpture (or methods and needs specific to a particular director on a movie set - my add and italics).”

 (This is cadged from the google books page of Susan Blackmore’s book The Meme Machine.  Here’s the link:

So I’ve got to get my idea for the movie (in all the necessary ways that entails) across to the Canned Crew (yes, the Producer as well - even my regular crew for that matter) and especially the actors in any way I can -- get them on the same page, so we’re all making the same movie at the same time -- and hopefully with passion.  How?  One of the great things about being a news junkie (and I am) is that I’m always somehow (synchronicity anyone?) coming across articles that have much to do with whatever the current subject of my column is.  So...

...about that Dengue Fever: 

Apparently this persistent genius researcher in Australia has spent the last twenty years trying to figure out a way to rid the world of Dengue fever.  And he figured it out.  

Seems there’s a bacteria Wolbachia (let’s call this the idea - the meme) which when inserted into a mosquito (in essence infecting it) prevents the mosquito from ever being able to transmit dengue fever (let's say prevents anyone from making a movie different than the one the Director is making).  Infect enough mosquitos (let’s say my Canned Crew - and the Producer, actors etc...), turn them loose into the wild (onto the movie set), they mate with wild mosquitos, those babies carry the bacteria (everyone’s thinking about the “same” film as I am), pretty soon no more dengue fever (nobody on my crew is making a movie different than the one I am making).  Genius.  Movie done.  Everyone’s on the same page.  The movie turns out the way I meant it, the way I intended it, the way I saw it.  

The infection metaphor, I admit, is a little sketchy, but I mean it in the the sense of "infectious" -- relating to getting others to share my passion, vision and enthusiasm for the film I am making --  not "infection."

If you want to read the whole article here it is.  Trust me, it’s good:

Scott O'Neill wants to rid the world of dengue fever by infecting mosquitoes with bacteria so they can't carry the virus that causes the disease.
A Scientist's 20-Year Quest To Defeat Dengue Fever
by Joe Palca

I love independent filmmaking.  I even love lower budget independent filmmaking -- a lot -- the challenge and the control.  Don’t get me wrong I would love to be writing and directing The Lone Ranger with $200 million at my budgetary disposal (alright, maybe not making The Lone Ranger, but definitely have a $200 million budget at my disposal).  I really would.  But I seriously doubt there would be a Producer on a show of that magnitude who would dare take the time to sit the craft service person down and draw them a satellite map of the placement of the snacks on the crafty table.

I mean, really, how great is that?

What was it Forrest Gump was fond of saying?

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