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Secrets from a Script Reader: 5 Script Elements that Increase the Budget

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One of the great lessons I’ve learned as a script reader is what increases a budget and what changes can be made on the page to fit the budget while still maintaining the spirit and message of a screenplay. I’m so grateful for this, because it’s helped me as a producer. Being a screenwriter that understands what a low budget script looks like and how to write to a budget is a valued skill in the business.

When I offer notes on a script, sometimes I know what kind of budget the producer or production company is working with. I make suggestions to decrease the budget or highlight elements in the script that could push the budget higher than they want it to go. If I’m producing a project, knowing what increases the budget helps me start brainstorming creative solutions if a script change isn’t going to achieve what we need. To help you gain some insight on this, below are five elements that can increase the budget.

1)    MULTIPLE LOCATIONS

The less locations you have in your screenplay, the lower the budget it will take to pull it off. Why? Consider what it takes to shoot a project that contains, say 10 locations. Production has to scout and find each of these locations, negotiate a cost to rent them, coordinate schedules of cast and crew with the locations to shoot there, and secure permits and insurance for each location. Time can be wasted with company moves, which means time spent loading in and loading out is precious shooting time that’s just going by. In addition to the locations themselves, space has to be found for base camp, crafty, parking, etc for each location. You can see how the cost adds up fast.

2)    VFX

Here I get to mention the infamous and dreaded “fix it in post!” Post isn’t a magical place where all your filmmaking dreams come true and anything can happen. Fixing it in post means more time, energy, and cost is required after production for something that might not be able to be rectified. VFX is an additional step and cost in post outside of the usual costs to cut, color, score, record ADR and complete sound design. It means that any time you include VFX, you increase the budget, no matter how small or large that VFX is. Sometimes a VFX supervisor will be required on set, which is also an added cost, as well as any special equipment or green screen that might be needed to execute the VFX on set.

3)    SCENES WITH CROWDS

Scenes that require a large number of extras not only take quite a bit of coordinating, but they increase the cost for production, because more resources are needed to accommodate background talent on set. This means more space needed for parking, possibly more transport, more PA’s to wrangle background artists, more wardrobe and makeup that might also require days for fittings, holding locations for extras near set, more bathrooms, not to mention the pay each background artist receives. If production goes into overtime, costs can increase exponentially with that much talent on set. Even in the instances where extras agree to work for credit only and provide their own wardrobe/makeup, increased craft service costs have to be considered, and there’s a greater chance of property damage with many bodies on set.

4)    STUNTS

Let’s be clear, I love stunts and action. If you didn’t know, I’m a trained sword fighter. I am all about writing, producing, and acting in action films! At the same time, I’m also aware that to pull off a stunt, there are extra expenses many don’t realize are needed or don’t take into account. Shooting an action scene typically takes longer than a dialogue scene, so costs increase with more shooting time required and the talent, crew, and gear for that. Costs for safety gear are part of shooting action, and the amount needed varies based on the stunt. Production insurance rates increase when stunts are involved. A stunt coordinator is needed any time you have a stunt, and if you don’t have pro doubles for your actors, then talent will need more rehearsal time to learn to execute the stunts. This means paying for rehearsal time and space, which also needs safety gear present to practice.

Low budget projects typically attempt to have the actors perform the stunts themselves. This risks not just the talent getting injured, which halts production, but also risks the action looking bad on screen since stunt performers know how to make the action look fantastic and read on camera. It’s an entirely different skill than acting. Not only do actors have doubles, but props used in fight scenes also have doubles, which can increase costs. For example, if there’s a knife fight, there’s usually a dummy rubber knife that’s safe for the performer to wield and an identical real knife for close ups. There are many types of stunts that I haven’t even gotten into, like car chases and tactical fights, but just know each of them requires more specialized manpower and equipment that can greatly affect the budget.

5)    EXPLOSIONS

I’m putting this in a category all by itself rather than under stunts, because I see explosions in scripts regularly and usually have to offer a note saying the cost to pull off the explosion might not fit within the budget. It takes just one sentence for a writer to put an explosion into a screenplay, but like stunts, the logistics to pull that off safely, successfully, and in a way that looks great on camera takes much more. What is being blown up? How many of that do we have to blow up? Explosions are not scenes that can have multiple takes like dialogue. Fire safety is a factor, and that doesn’t just include the costs of gear, but also the cost of having a fire marshal on set. Safe locations that allow for fire and explosions have to be secured. Like stunts, production insurance costs increase with explosions.

Does shooting on a lower budget mean that you can’t include the above? Absolutely not! It means that knowing what could eat up your budget empowers you as you pen the script or as a producer so that you can come up with innovative ideas and alternative options to best fit the story you want to tell within the available budget.

Whether you’re an indie filmmaker, a screenwriter writing to a budget, or a newer producer that isn’t sure what aspects of a script affect the budget, knowing what increases costs is a valued skill on the business side of the biz that will help you immensely in your career.

Joanna Ke

About Joanna Ke

If grace married silliness, their child would be Joanna Ke. Joanna is an award-winning filmmaker that thrives in the industry as an actor, writer, professional script reader, and producer. She champions diverse stories led by women both behind and in front of the camera. Joanna has been creating stories ever since she was a child, performing skits for her sisters and scribbling in journals before she even know how to write. She studied the craft of screenwriting with the late, great Syd Field. As a professional script reader, she is known for her ability to masterfully analyze screenplays. Joanna runs the twitter account @femcharacters, highlighting the unfortunate way women are often portrayed on screen. She also isn’t too shabby as a stunt performer and sword fighter. Wielding her broadsword is a favorite both on camera and off.