Should you consider budget when writing?
October 15, 2011 § Leave a comment
Just as I turn in my second pass on the treatment for my latest script assignment using the producer’s notes, I find myself doing another pass on a different script I co-wrote with a director. We received various notes from our trusted readers and the feedback was positive and that always feels good and helps me feel more confident that we nailed the script in the first several drafts. This next polish will be just that—a polish to refine the characters even more and make sure the comedy works. It’s been amazing working with the director, as he will be the person responsible for bringing the script to life. The script was recently budgeted and we’ll keep the budget in mind when making any new changes. There will be no giant explosions or massive Lawrence of Arabia crowd scenes.
I enjoy working with producers and directors, as sitting in my office or in the corner of a coffee-house can get a bit lonely at times. Creative types thrive around other like-minded folks. Especially if we are all working on the same project. The script takes flight and continues to grow and breathe. We base the creative decisions upon how to actually shoot the film. It’s one thing to write the script and focus on the story, but a writer must also consider the many issues with regards to actually producing the film. The real nuts and bolts of production — the budget, exotic locations, available shooting days or nights, rain, the CGI effects, and even actor’s availability.
If the budget calls for limited locations, you as a writer must get creative and double up on locations while still being able to tell an effective story. If you have to move the entire film crew during the same day (a company move) it costs time and money as every day is precious when shooting a film.
Let’s say you write a scene between two characters who talk on the phone. One character is at home in his living room and maybe you could place the second character in the kitchen — then you can shoot both scenes in the same house and you’ve doubled up on your location and saved time. The producer will love you if you are mindful of this and you’ll get to keep more of your scenes in the script. The fewer locations the cheaper it will be to make the film. Your budget dictates how many days you can film. This is why you find very low-budget films taking place in one location — in a house, in a bar, camping in the forest. You also have to think about how many actors are in the script as well. Do you have children in your script? If so, they can only work limited hours and if it’s during a school year they will need a teacher on the set. Animals in the script? You’ll need a wrangler. These are all budget considerations.
When I was in film school, I remember my writing professors telling us, “Write big. Movies are big and you aren’t paying for the budget.” Well, those were the days when Hollywood was throwing money at scripts just to take them off the market. I remember when a company bought a spec script for a million dollars just to keep it on their development shelf. The script got stuck in development and was never made into a movie. You may not care about the budget in your spec screenplay, but it can come back and bite you in the ass when they tell you, “It’s a pretty good script, you’re an unknown writer, and your budget is way past the type of films we make.”
I got swept up in the frenzy of the time by co-writing a big action movie on spec with my then writing partner It was big, so big the producer told us it would probably cost $100 million and that was crazy big money at the time. We purposely wrote it big and couldn’t tell the story otherwise — or could we? Years later, I took another crack at the script and brought the budget way down by focusing on the through line of the story. Did we really need all the explosions? We tried it the big way and it didn’t sell, maybe going with a smaller story was the answer? The story was about the relationships between people and the action beats now cost way too much money to produce.
These days, budget is a huge consideration when writing —especially with your spec script. I believe if you write a fantastic script that can be produced for a moderate or low-budget, there is a better chance it might get made. If you’re an unknown writer, it’s far easier to stay on a lower-budgeted project as they don’t have the extra money to fire you and hire a series of other writers. The end product will have your imprint all over it more than if other writers did the rewrites instead of you. Sure, on a lower budgeted film the payday is not grand, but it’s a payday and most likely a solo writing credit for you too. That’s extremely important to build your credits as credit is king.
You can try to play the lottery and write a studio type script that can only be made for $100 million, but unless you have “A-list” talent attached and you’re an “A-list” writer, it’s a huge gamble for the studios. A gamble they most likely will not take with you. I’m sure your script is amazing and the story has never been done before—but Hollywood is filled with amazing scripts (believe it or not) and the competition at every level to get produced has never been greater. If you’re only shooting for the “A list” you might quickly become disappointed when you realize the A list writers are getting their pick of assignment jobs. That’s not to say you shouldn’t dream and dream big, but be realistic on your journey. If you’re playing their game and against their power players, create your own game and find your own way inside.
But what if you wrote a heartfelt movie that could be made for $2 million or less? Let’s say the feedback on the script is fantastic and it found its way to a producer who loves it and is working on finding the budget. Suddenly, other talent becomes attached and they agree to take less in pay because they love the project as well— and it’s only three weeks of their time for the production. It happens. Suddenly, you find yourself with a start date, a payday on your produced script, and a writing credit on the film and possibly a profit participation. You’re on your way to a screenwriting career.
I really like the sound of that…
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“While Paramount was very firm about budget of ‘Star Trek,’ I’ve learned financial compromises can lead to creative inspiration.”—JJ Abrams