So I wrote an apocolyptic thriller. I’m not an apocolyptic thriller kind of girl, really, but that doesn’t mean I won’t write one if it’s offered to me.

It was decided that this particular end of times should be set in an Old World location, and we settled on Prague and the Czech Republic as an ideal, picturesque location. After weeks of work, two drafts and a polish, we got terrible news…

Prague was too expensive.

This was a low budget movie, and the numbers that came back from the production services company in Prague blew our budget by almost 200%. The first remedy was to rewrite the script — save money anywhere we could. But even that draft was overbudget.

What were we going to do? Actors had already committed and we were moving toward production in less than two months.

The end of the world had to be re-engineered.

If you’re writing for an ultra low budget, there are certain things producers are going to ask you to change, and now I do my best to write with the list in mind so that I don’t have to do too many panic-stricken, production-looming rewrites. I thought I’d share them here, in case you’re writing for a budget and want to show producers you love them (so they will hire you again).

Some of the costliest elements are obvious, like avoiding visual effects, epic scenes, and period pieces that require extra art direction. Most people know to avoid SFX as well (special effects done on set, as opposed to VFX/visual effects). SFX includes things like like fire, rain, explosions, accidents, firearms — things that require extra prep time and extra crew on set for safety.

Here are a few other things that I look at to help keep the budget down:

Page count
It’s the first thing producers look at. While most Hollywood movies hover around 110 pages these days, a low-budget movie is shorter. But it also needs to be at least 85-90 pages to ensure the movie is feature-length when it’s complete. (Many festivals have an 85 minute minimum for feature categories.) Shooting 4-5 pages per day gives you a 4 week shoot (with 6 day weeks). If you go into new weeks, you have extra payroll and rental expenses for equipment.

Characters
Assuming your producers are using SAG actors, there are a lot of rules they have to follow as well as payment requirements. Actors who speak get paid more than actors who don’t (extras or featured extras), so if someone doesn’t have to speak, don’t write dialogue for them. If I have a crowd interaction scene, I try to make one or two “representative” speakers and then the rest of the crowd is extras. Reducing and combining day-players (people in one scene or with less than 4 pages of scenes) also helps — if I have someone like a police officer or a soldier who speaks early in the script, and it makes sense for him to come back again, I’ll use him instead of creating a new character (which saves money on manpower for casting, wardrobe fittings, etc.)

Some other tips on reducing budget with characters:

  • Look out for character requirements that may complicate your shooting schedule and add time/money — minor characters that appear in many locations, characters that age or change their look (like gaining weight or growing a beard, etc.).
  • Reduce extras and crowd scenes. You have to pay them and feed them, and coordinating the crowd takes extra time that slows down the shoot.
  • Limit use of babies, kids and animals. They don’t cooperate as well, they have fewer available hours on set, AND their presence requires extra crew like a studio teachers and animal wranglers.
  • Limit the number of stunts in the script, which requires a stunt performer and a stunt coordinator. Usually you think of stunts as leaping through flame or jumping out a window, but you even need a stunt player for simple things like fights or trips and falls.

Locations
A lot of times I will read calls for script submissions that take place in one (or few) locations, and this is a specific budget request. Every time the crew has to move, it takes time, and time is money. I usually try to make sure there are at least 4 or 5 pages that take place in any location. Underutilizing a location can cause split days and company movies, which burns time and travel budget. (Montages are a big killer here.)

So how much does a location cost? It ranges widely, but the cheapest locations for low-budget filmmaking are interiors of common, easy-to-find places (like houses, offices, etc.), where you aren’t worried about weather or shifting daylight. The most expensive are exterior nights, because they require more equipment to light. Generally, private locations are cheaper than public locations. Although you can get some public locations for free, many have permit fees and requirements for police & fire safety officers and after-hours site reps. (My husband paid over $10,000 for a “free” location on one film he produced.)

You also want to look at the locale. The more exotic the location, the greater the travel and shipping expenses and the harder it is to find local crew. Most of the time a producer will tell you where he wants to shoot, but if it’s your choice, then it can be helpful to know which states have incentives and local support, so you can set your film there (See www.FILMUSA.ORG). Some states offer rebates, and some offer tax credits that you can sell to help pay for the film.

The rebate is the reason I have written projects set in Alaska, Michigan, Thailand, and now… Budapest.

That’s right — after all the rewrites of characters, location and page count, our regularly scheduled apocolypse was still too pricey in Prague. Budapest has a similar feel, with a better prices and a production incentive.

So sbohem, Czech Republic, and szia, Hungary. The end of the world has been relocated.

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