I am often asked to give producing notes as a script is heading toward a crowdfunding campaign or low-budget production. There are some pitfalls to avoid and considerations to be made for making your script more indie budget and schedule friendly.
The first question I have when evaluating a script’s low-budget potential is how many cast members are in the cast list. Final Draft has tools to make this really easy to identify, but you also may need to use your imagination to really answer the question. If you ask the writer, they might not even be aware of how many small roles they have built into their script. A restaurant scene might easily have a bus boy, a waiter, a hostess, other patrons, and a live band, but because the scene itself is mostly about the couple having an argument, the ‘impression’ of the scene allows the writer and reader to forget how many people they have just cast in your movie.
Cast means dollars. It means wardrobe and scheduling, parking, food, residuals, hotels in some cases, travel. Managing all those people and paperwork takes time at every stage of your film (all the way to final screening invite emails and festival announcements!). Count the precise number of speaking roles. Estimate the number of extras. If that number is climbing toward 30 (and it EASILY can), that cast line item is not low-budget friendly yet. Consider how you might adapt the script to eliminate or combine some of the peripheral players.
The next obvious question to ask is how many different locations are in the film. If there is a hospital sequence, for example, the reader might be left with the impression that is one location. It likely isn’t. Each separate space counts to the producer. Hospital waiting room, office, triage, hallway, supply closet, nurse’s station, operating room – those can all be easily spaces your characters move through in the writing without being critical to the story. Can you condense and reduce the number of locations that you’ll need to secure? Consider the resources you have and if any locations can be adapted to places you know you can shoot rather than spend a generous about of your pre-production hunting for places that are going to suck up budget and schedule. Sometimes changes as big as your supporting character changing professions from being a doctor to something less set piece heavy could make a huge difference in the producing load without actually hurting your story.
The number of locations is important because each separate location generates a significant amount of producing work and time that will need to be devoted to it, time that is then diverted from other creative problem solving potentially. Company moves are also hard on the crew and the schedule and are good to avoid. Business that has to remain open while you shoot really impacts your process and stretches your resources, possibly impacting your sound and performers. Each location has its own parking, permitting, scheduling, catering challenges. Any way you can reduce or combine means your producers can devote time to other things. Again, make sure you run a real report before getting into greenlighting discussions with your team. Know exactly what you’re dealing with, not just your impressions after reading the script.
I also like to take this budget and schedule pass at the script to look for potential blind spots in the writing and make sure the writer has consulted with experts to make the film ring true. Is there a character that seems quite far from the writer’s life experience? Has the writer consulted with someone that can verify the authenticity of the voice the writer has given that community? As I read the script I note if there are places I doubt the authenticity and suggest who might be right to weigh in on It to be sure it feels real.
For example, if there is a scientist in the film, but I suspect the writer doesn’t have an advanced understanding of the physics the scientist discusses in the film, I expect that writer to consult on subsequent drafts with real physicists to verify where the holes are in the believability. If there is someone with a disability, has a person with that disability been consulted? Representation matters. The truthfulness of that representation is so important to get right.
I often ask the team to brainstorm a list of every resource they might have access to that could add production value. Take those lists and consider the themes of the film. Consider how you might pull your existing assets into your script to make it more budget friendl, but keep the quality and visual interest up. You’ve written a restaurant into your script, but don’t know anyone with a restaurant. You do know someone with a vintage clothing store that is eager to support your production. Can you creatively justify adapting the scene to two characters shopping together instead of meeting for coffee?
Stunts, vehicles, animals and children are other script elements to flag. Because you are running a safe set and complying with SAG rules you know that anything from a stage slap to a pratfall to a full -on car chase is a stunt and must be coordinated. That costs money and time, more than you might imagine. Make sure you are aware of it early and determine its necessity to your story. Time of day, of course, also is something to note. Night shoots are harder on an indie budget and schedule than day shoots.
I am not suggesting that you only make movies with two actors in your backyard (though that is very budget friendly) but be aware of these simple ways to identify accurately the scope of your project before you greenlight. Remember these suggestions should always come in the spirit of the original ideas with the themes, characters and the story in mind, not arbitrarily to cut costs.