How to be a screenwriter


Big budget, little budget, no budget…

With feature films we have big budget, low budget, micro budget, and no budget movies! The sky is the limit for a big budget movie. But they do not start with a script, more a technology, a new process, a new spectacle that can be created if a story is found that will usefully encompass this machinery. Given the job of writing such a script, you have to think big and bold and not worry about the number of characters or sets or which planet you set it on. Here, and only here, your only question is, how can I make this really expensive! As for every other film or TV project you come across, one is asking does the story warrant any expense, or what can be told within the limits of the below the line budget?

 No matter what the budget, whether limited or unlimited, things can go awry. Michael Cimino’s “Heaven’s Gate” bankrupted a studio because United Artists had a change of ownership and the new managers were unused to the ways of the creative industries. For fear of losing the studio’s reputation, instead of risking destroying the creative integrity of a project by controlling its spiraling costs they threw more money at it in order to buy an audience, and so the theory goes, forego profit to at least get the costs back.  It could have been as successful as Michael Cimino’s “The Deer Hunter”, but that was a medium budget melodrama expected to get its money back from TV, that did exceptionally well, whereas Heaven’s Gate was another melodrama with similar audience expectations, but the budget of a big blockbuster special FX movie, and so had to do exceptionally well! Unfortunately, as in everything in life, after a bit of luck, things usually fall back into the usual risk pattern.

 Losing a grip on the finances of a micro-budget movie can be just as devastating for the independent producers, if not more so, as these movies are financed out of someone’s personal savings rather than high risk venture capital funds. So it is beholden for all producers to understand the costs of a movie and part of their skill set is to choose writers who also understand what sort of costs their scripts imply. Art and commerce can find amicable ground, so long as both understand the situation and use their imagination to overcome limitations.

 Most studio movies come in at about twenty million dollars, where about half is on print and advertising. A-list actors get paid a nice fee up front and might get profit shares. Similarly, producers gained good fees and the writers will be paid early in the process and come out with a professional level wage. The below line costs of crew etc, are on union rates and the end product is expected to cover its costs with a respectable rate of return for the investors. In this range a screenwriter can do most anything they want.  It takes a certain amount of willfulness to write a script calling for a bigger budget.
 Low Budgets come in the two to ten million range. Mostly this means there are no major starts and the form of distribution is slow, one region at a time, and depends on word of mouth, critical chatter, etc. TV and DVD distribution is usually seen as the main way in which such a movie makes its money back. Everyone is getting paid here and union rates apply. The standard Indie movie will operate in this range and in this area one finds quirky individualistic movies, art house cinematography fests, blood and gore horrors, surprise comedy hits, and a whole range of issue driven films for niche audiences.  Here is where the writer struggles with the limitations. Everyone would like a twenty million dollar budget but for some reason, either the genre, the other personnel wanting to show themselves off as directors or producers, or the script for some reason, such as being non-English or resolutely not a Hollywood movie, this is as much as is available. 

Once we get into budgets below two million we are usually in areas where the above the line costs, i.e. the actors, producers, writers, and directors, are relatively low. They plough this saving into the below the line. Often the crews are the only one’s guaranteed payment. Even so, a highly professional film with good production values can be made comfortably for as little as fifty thousand dollars. But the scripts here have to work within very limited parameters. Locations are stripped down. The Numbers of characters are kept limited. Period drama is avoided, as it requires too much research and bespoke costume and set design. And so on.  Writer, producer and director are often the same person in these movies.

 Below all these are the no-budget films, shot with low-end equipment, everyone working for free or deferred fees. The writers, directors, producers, crew, actors and caterers are often the same people.  Locations are what are available without permit, or shot on the fly without asking permission. Interiors will be people’s own homes and premises begged from friends.  And the writer is often still writing the script as it is being shot and adapting the story to fit what is turning up during the shoot.

 With regards to TV, the budgets are lower per hour, than the movies, largely because it requires a lot of product and thrives on repetition with slight variation: the soap opera, the sit-com, the genre action shows, the costume dramas and the high-end contemporary drama serials. The amount of money in these can be very large, with large budgets for writers and top-end character actors. And with some action drama series, or historical dramas, the actual budget for filming is up there with the average film budget and beyond. Most TV work though is in the low-end soap operas, and these have basic sets, a basic rota of actors, and an expected cycle of stories concerning illicit romance, work place conflict, births and deaths, and other basic rites of passage.

 The genre and format of a show will alert you to whether this is a top, bottom or medium budget show, and the guidelines of the brief will make it very clear what the sets and characters are. The shows are essentially designed for the various slots and budget levels available.

 The rules of thumb when writing for any of these areas are that stunts, extraordinary costumes, exotic locations – real or imaginary – require large budgets. For the most part a large cast will also mean a large budget, though in the TV world a large available cast on a TV series is often seen as a cheap way of providing variety in an otherwise visually uninteresting show. Having a lot of locations is inevitably expensive, whether for TV or Film, and requiring a lot of camera set ups, as most action dramas require, is expensive. In TV, one can find that action dramas compensate for the expense of the action sequence, by having one basic studio interior where all the rest of the action takes place, for instance The Police Station, The Fire Station, The Hospital, and so on.

 For the most part, if a writer understands the genre of film or show, they will instinctively write within the budget that is common for those shows. You cannot have a horror movie without a lot of special FX, and so anyone wanting to make one will have to have a budget that can cope with such an expense. On the other hand, someone wanting to make such a show without FX, will be looking for an extraordinary script that manages to deliver the expectations of the genre without such a key component. Not impossible, but not easy.

 Similarly if one is writing a sitcom, one should write for a single studio set and a couple of main characters and two or three minor characters.  If one wants to go outside of that into an array of encounters in various different locations, then often a more theatrical approach is used and the sets are not realistic. Cars are obviously set-ups in a studio, streets are obviously mock-ups, or nowadays, shot guerrilla style with hand held cameras and radio-miked sound.  The high-end polish of a movie is not expected under these circumstances, so writing a sit-com, for instance, that has lots of characters and sets might not be as impossible nowadays as it once was. And to say that sort of show is more expensive than the more traditional, is not true any more.

 Screenwriters will always have the problem that the nighttime scenario they have written is too expensive for the budget and so they must make it a daytime scenario. Exterior Night, is always a more expensive proposition than Exterior Day. For that matter, Interior Day can be a more expensive proposition than Exterior Day, because with an exterior one might be able to get away with ambient lighting and a set that one merely has to turn up in for a few hours and not dress.

 Writing for a budget has as much to do with knowing a genre and the production values the audience expect than merely conforming rigidly to any rules.  Though when a producer tells you not to worry about the budget but just write a good story for them and let them worry about the costs, treat such statements with suspicion. The producer has often worked within a given genre for so long they assume that anyone working within it will automatically understand the constraints they work with. If you have been writing big budget spec scripts and now have work on a basic TV cop show, some of the habits of the one arena may well have to be unlearnt. It is just as well to make sure that you ask all the right questions and get a good feel for what the situation really is.

 Finally, just one last word about the concept of “Production Values.” You will hear these words a lot: High Production Values, Low Production Values. One assumes they mean expensive and cheap. High Production Values must require lots of equipment, crew, A-list actors, whereas Low Production Values must mean two guys, a camcorder and some friends from the amateur dramatics society. High Production Values must be glossy, glamorous, with pretty cinematography, whereas Low Production Values must be gritty, hand held camerawork, with bad lighting. Unfortunately, things are not that clear cut, especially when it comes to TV. Production styles might be high or low, but costs may well be just as cheap or expensive either way. Low budget art movies can have very high-end photography and high budget action thrillers can have very rough and ready hand held camera work that cost a fortune because they’re covering dangerous stunts. Also, a cheap looking sit-com can have some very
expensive stars giving very high end performances with some very classy scripts.  So when a producer starts talking about the high production values that he wants for his show, do not immediately think you have to write big set pieces and lots of locations etc. What he is probably talking about is his desire for everyone to do a good job and the script to be as high quality as possible.  You may think that for the money he is paying you, he will be lucky,  but that is another story.