By now, indie filmmakers have a memorized list of miraculous films: Laws of Gravity, Clerks, Blood Guts Bullets and Octane, In The Company of Men, El Mariachi, The Blair Witch Project, Tadpole, Primer. Films that were made on guts, passion, with tiny crews and schedules, that used energy and dialogue in place of big-budget sets and effects, yadda yadda yadda.

Often when sitting down with a first-time director to budget his/her film, I get exhored to model my budget on these films. I then have to patiently explain to her why these “models” are flukes, exaggerations, or outright lies, and how no sane line producer (or producer or director) would use them as the basis for a realistic budget.

Now, don’t get me wrong – I like most of the above films. They were the springboards for a generation of actors, writer/directors, DPs, producers, and crewmembers. Many of them inspired me to attempt my own low-budget film, Caleb’s Door. But every film is a snowflake, unique unto itself. Here’s a short list of why you shouldn’t take other films’ budgets as a “benchmark” in no particular order:

Costs Change Over Time

Pi is over ten years old. El Mariachi is fifteen years old. These films were made in different areas of the country than you may be in, at particular moments in the film world. Case in point: when I first got out of film school (in the early 90s) everyone was running around doing deferred projects – we had all drunk the El Mariachi cool-aid and figured we would be rich one day off the films we worked on. Not one of the films I worked on has paid me a deferment check. Within a few years, all of us got wise and we started asking for cash.

The Budgets Aren’t Real

The budgets quoted are often the production costs, and don’t include post. Or they include post, but not delivery expenses. Or they’re simply not true. Rodriguez made a promotional video for $7000, not an entire film.

The Favor Factor

Joe Carnahan (Blood Guts Bloods and Octane) worked as an editor at a TV station. His post was essentially free. He called in a lot of production favors, spent a lot of time making friends with location owners, and used whatever freebies he could get. Kevin Smith used the store he worked at during off-hours. Most first-time directors hire actors and crew who will work “off the books.”

Creative Bookkeeping

This is a little different from the “unreal” category above. When I bought a Mac to edit Caleb’s Door, I figured I’d be able to spread the cost over several projects, so only about a 1/3 of it appeared in the budget. This is not necessarily a lie – I did work on the other projects and kept the computer for several years. I paid someone for a location, but she came aboard as my still photographer. If I had to budget the full value of these different items – computer, still photographer, location rental – my budget would be higher (by quite a bit).

So What Does This Mean?

When you’re doing a budget for your film, it’s important to realistically assess the favors you can call, the economic/labor conditions you’re in, and what you’re budgeting to (delivery, post or just “in the can”). In the next installment, I’ll talk about general comparisons you CAN make between your film and some of those that are cited above (despite being very different in terms of subject matter, budget, technique, etc. there are some things that made it possible for the producers to carry off their feats for so little dough).