Topsheet provides COVID-19 touchless payroll for productions
Caleb Pearson
September 28, 2022

Mapping out a budget for your film is the first major key to ensuring your film’s success. Film productions go over budget or simply fail because of budget inaccuracies and lack contingency budgeting. If you want to reach your film goals: figure out your costs. The preliminary film budget you create for your feature film, short films, or filming a television series does need to be highly detailed.  As an aspiring line producer, creating the budget as accurate of an idea of what your cost will be so you can get investors, raise financing or know how to spend money in daily production. It’s common for an investor to want changes made to your film or budget; they want to make sure their money is secure. The preliminary budget is used to give the investor an overall idea of your expenses and give you a firm foundation for how to budget and schedule the actual project. These steps are essential to accomplishing the line producer's job descriptions and  budgeting and scheduling your feature film. 

Step One: Breaking Down the Script

Breaking Down your script, or "script breakdown", is one of the line producer roles, is when you go page by page, scene by scene, and organize all the items in your scene you will need for filming including: the scene location, day or night, interior or exterior, scene props, set dressing to make location convincing, wardrobe, and all the other little pieces you find.

You can "script breakdown" in programs such as Movie Magic Scheduling, Yamdu, Studio Binder, Filmustage, or even in a simpler program like Google Sheets or Docs if needed. These programs work similarly; some are easier than others, as well as provide their own budget template. Basically, you upload your script, and the program goes through looking for obvious pieces of the scene like the Characters in the scene itemizing them. Your team needs to know exactly what is in every scene such as actors in the scenes, background actors, gear for daily production, shooting locations, special effects, special film crew, special equipment rental, etc. This is necessary for an accurate budget; without conducting script breakdown you will never know what you need, when you need it, and how many days you will be paying for it. This breakdown is the building block for all department heads to utilize and build on for their rental and daily needs. 

When breaking down a script you will need to think like a filmmaker. For every scene, you will need to visualize, and predict what items and people are needed on set, putting yourself in the shoes of all the heads of departments. For instance, if the script describes a shot introducing a town, what will you need to get that shot? For that shot will you need a drone, helicopter, or crane to get high enough to get the location in frame? How many vehicles, extras, and characters will you need to be there to complete the shot? Are you trying to save on money, and if so, would it be cheaper to rent a scissor lift instead of a crane or drone? There are so many ways to shoot a scene. As a line producer, you need to account for as much as possible, to get the result within budget.

Step Two: Scheduling The Production

Completing the initial production shoot schedule is instrumental in creating a budget. Now that you know what you need, because your scenes are broken down, you need to lay it out in a practical way. Without a schedule, you will have no idea how many days you need specific actors, locations, props, or when these items need to be ready, your crew hiring process will be a nightmare, working with your 1st Assistant Director (1st AD) will be difficult since they use this as a starting point for production scheduling and the daily call sheet , and as a whole it will be impossible to create an accurate budget.

The best way to lay out your filming schedule is using a stripboard, which each of these services provides Movie Magic Scheduling, Yamdu, Studio Binder, Filmustage. This stripboard will allow you to drag and drop, and rearrange your schedule quickly. If the program you are using doesn’t automatically do this, be sure to save a stripboard in “script continuity order” for later use on set for any edits to the script and scenes.

When scheduling, you will need to estimate how many pages a day will you be able to shoot. Communication with your team of producers and the director is very important to figuring this out. Make sure your director is comfortable and capable of moving at the pace you are setting. Some projects require the max budget constraints, influencing you to do as many as 6+pages a day. On a low-budget green screen production, 12 pages shot per day may be required. In some scheduling software, setting “day breaks” at the number of pages filmed per day. This is very helpful after getting your scenes blocked together.

Block shooting is usually the best way to shoot any film: grouping together what scenes by location or actors. Meaning if you have a list of scenes at “The Diner” you probably want to schedule those together, availability permitting, to save time from bouncing from location to location. Also, you may want to consider what is happening in the scene, meaning if something blows up in “the diner,” you probably don’t want to film that before filming a normal day scene inside there.

Schedule the week with production design practicality: if you have many exterior locations or locations with natural light, location manager will want to schedule the daylight shoots towards the beginning of the week, and the evening or night shots towards the end of the week in order to have the most daylight available. Note: it may be better to shoot the night scenes first in some cases, just mind your daylight and crew hours. You do not want to wrap at 1 am and have a call time at 6 am the next day. For one the film crew will be tired, and secondly, unions like SAG will charge you for “Forced Call” penalties, meal penalties increasing your spending exponentially.

Step Three: Production Sizing

Based on your work to this point: pages per day shot, the amount of locations, and budget constraints; you will want to make a production crew member, cast, and background actor list.

Communication with known heads of departments is key to creating a productions budget. Check with the director and ask if they have director of photography (DP) preferences. If so, make a quick call with that director of photography, and run the stripboard and script by them. The DP will help you gauge his expectations for the camera, grip, electrical and special camera production crew. Note: Typically, DP’s and Directors are going to tell you their dream team. This doesn’t mean you have to go with that exact number, if your production can not afford it, but it gives you a better understanding of their expectations versus what the Department Heads / heads of departments think they need. If you will be going with a smaller production crew than requested, communicate the budget constraints to the director of photography and Director, the sooner you let them know the better as it may change their interest in the project. You could literally put this in the line producer definition: be sure to talk to the other producers and the director as much as possible to make sure everyone is on the same page.

A crucial step in the  production workflow is asking yourself and team, which unions will be needed on this project? What states and cities will this project be shooting in? How many days? What about travel? Hotel stays? Does this production location have film tax incentives that we need to or want to take advantage of?

Step Four: Gathering Rates

When gathering rates, you want as many accurate and fact-based rates as possible. Having hundreds of fields that says “Allowed Spending” is not an accurate budget and doesn’t help the heads of departments as much as having real numbers does.

The best way to gather rates is the old fashion way: call the providers! Find out the camera houses that are in the area you are filming and ask for the price. You will use your break down and schedule to export out day out of day reports, similarly day in day out (DiDo) reports, for your cast, gear, and other items. This allows accurate estimation on how many days, and what days you will need what gear. You want to be sure you add time prep time for getting the gear at least the day before, and another time for wrapping the gear out. All of this will help when you need to secure film equipment as well. Remember it takes time to test gear out, make sure it works, go from one place to the other, assemble all the gear together and return it. If you underestimate the time, you could be charged an additional week for each item. Be sure the gear is what the team is expecting.

For rates on production payroll you can go to Topsheet and get started today where ever you in development or pre-production. As well you can gather payroll rates using our Payroll Calculator

If your project is reliant on “star names” for the cast, you will want to call up a casting director you are planning to use to get: a rough estimation, how much said actors will cost and if they are even available on the scheduled dates. Likely, you will need to have a contract and payment set up with the casting director and/or another production company for this information.

Step Five: Creating Globals

Globals is a feature used in production management software that is used to set production: rates, times, days, etc. You will want a diverse assortment of Globals, such as Total Shoot Days, Total Shoot Weeks, Post Days, Post Weeks, Daily Hours, SAG Dayplayer Rates, SAG Weekly Rates, SAG Schedule F Rate (flat rate with SAG), etc. For instance, Total Shoot Days are all the days for the entire production and will be used to build the crew budget. You can use our free production budget template or use any production budgeting software.

One of the key globals you will need is “fringes.” Fringes are state taxes, fed taxes, payroll handling fees, union fees, etc. An easy way to get these rates is by using Topsheet’s free Entertainment Payroll Calculator. This will give you an idea of how much it will cost to pay out your team. Topsheet has a guide on Entertainment Payroll that you can check out if you have more questions. 

Using Globals expedites the budget building process, editing your productions budget in a couple of minutes versus a couple of hours.  Changing one rate will update the entire document.

Step Six: Putting the Budget Together

It is finally time to put this productions budget together! Production management software applications like Movie Magic Scheduling and Showbiz Budgeting will have templates for you with accounts such as a chart of accounts layout. It is important to understand what this is for. The accounts are important because they allow you to see how much each account, or department is costing the production. These account numbers will also help you keep the production accounting and budget in sync.

Terms you will need to be aware of are “Above the Line” and “Below the Line” costs. 

Above the line are roles responsible for the creative development of the film. Before pre-production or principal photography ever begins. These positions are responsible for the major decisions of the project. Generally, the above the line team is paid an agreed-upon sum, rather than being paid hourly. Creative work is difficult to determine hourly rates. The exception being smaller roles in cast and stunts which are usually paid daily or weekly rates.

Below the line roles (belowtheline crew) are responsible for the day-to-day work of making the film—during pre-production, production, and post-production. They mostly execute the production the “above the line” team laid out. The below the line crew are usually paid hourly, daily, or weekly rates instead of flat rates.

While putting together your productions budget you will want to be sure to separate those above the line, below the line, and post-production costs. 

Now, you need to go account by account, adding the sub accounts. For instance, the 1400 Producers Unit will have sub accounts inside of it such as 1401 Executive Producers, 1402 Producers, 1403 Associate Producers, 1404 Line Producers, etc. You will add the details for these employees here. This is where you put those global rates to good use. Instead of typing in each of those rates, you can put in the global abbreviation, such as Total Shoot Days being TSD or ShootDays, etc. This will automatically fill in the rate you put into globals and allow for editing later.

Fast Budgeting Tip: Exporting libraries from production management software applications like Movie Magic Scheduling is an easier way to get the props, locations, wardrobe, and other items. These libraries will list out every prop, or character, etc, with the number days scheduled. Ensure that you add those prep and wrap days to props if not accounted for in the schedule. 

Finally, it's line producer job to ensure the production runs smoothly. Don’t forget the intangible aspect of production: production insurance, on-location internet, legal fees for documentation and clearance, and production bonds (if required from your investor).

Step Seven: Critical Assumptions

Critical assumptions are the collection of all the assumptions needed to make this version of this productions budget. Note: Budget versions will have different critical assumption pages depending on the variations made to the budget. You can create the critical assumptions in any document application such as word, google docs, or pages.

You want to load this each budget section with every varying detail you can: What unions were included? What locations are in this budget? What is the crew size? How many days of travel? Do you plan on using state or regional tax incentives?

Why? How many hotel days? Who gets a suite versus a basic room? How many days for each of the major shooting locations? Be sure to include any varying details. Film investors, producers, directors, and pertinent individuals reading this budget may not grasp the details in each line item. The critical assumption page answers the “Why these choices matter?” and provide understanding of how the money is being spent and budget limitations.  Ensure you work with your production accountant to make sure the production runs smoothly. 

As an important aspect of production, you will want to clearly label your budget and schedule the same as your critical assumptions. If this is made with the Version Two (V2) of the script, you may want to label these items as V2.1 to allow for other versions from the same script to be done. If it was made as a variant with a unique location in mind like Arizona, you may want to label it V2-AZ to make it clear.

Step Eight: Editing Your Budget

Following these basic steps make for easy use and alteration of your budget: scripts, locations, and funding timelines. The Assistant Director (AD) or 1st AD will be taking your pre-schedule to make a shooting schedule. You'll be able to track and work with them to keep the budget up to date. It will allow for easy comparison with the accounting reports as your production spends money.

As one of the production managers, you'll need to accomplish all of these steps in setting up an accurate and comprehensive film budget, you won’t be able to account for every contingency every time. An aspect of production: reality happens and it is what it is. Regardless, it’s crucial to keep an accurate track of cash flow during your production. This way, if you need to go back to your investor or executive producers for more funding because some tragedy hit out of left field, you can show them your books and maintain the trust in that highly important business relationship. Studiobinder has created a free cash flow spreadsheet for this reason.

Topsheet is obsessed with film and thereby, filmmakers. To the best of our ability, we desire to give line producer jobs all the tools and resources you need without going to film school to get your work from concept to distribution and have success along the way. Once you’ve completed the first step in your budgeting journey and you have yet to find an investor, you may be interested in learning How to Raise Money for Film for more information. Sign up to Topsheet for free today!

About Topsheet

Topsheet is an entertainment tech company specializing in production payroll. We service clients from commercials for Fortune 500 to feature films. We are born in technology, built with filmmakers in mind.

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