December 3, 2018

Percentage budgeting is idiotic

Some of you may have heard of George Lucas. He’s the guy who wrote and directed the first Indiana Jones and Star Wars movies. He’s one of the few writers, directors, or filmmakers full stop who makes it to the Forbes list.

Well, his breakthrough film was a little “coming of age” film called American Graffiti.  In that, the actors joke that there was no budget for chairs.  Joke?  Maybe there really was no budget for chairs.  According to the editor, most of the sound budget, pretty much the entire sound budget, went to songs.  According to some internet sources, the cost of licensing the songs cost 90k, out of a 777k budget.  That’s more than 10 percent of the total budget.

For his next film, Star Wars, the music cost a little more, but it was a much smaller percentage of the overall budget.  According to Den of Geek, the score for the first Star Wars film cost about 100k, or less than one percent of the total budget.

So, the percentages, from over ten to less than one, surely doesn’t scale.

If you’re making a relatively low budget movie with a lot of popular music in it, then your music budget will be high.  If you’re adapting a top novel, your script and story budget will be high.  If you’re making a relatively small film with the hottest star in it, that star’s salary alone might be 1/5 to 1/3 of the budget.  Of course, you’re not going to make that film with only 3 or five people, so something’s got to give.

Making a world War II documentary?  Perhaps 80 percent of the budget will go to stock footage.

I see so many people say things like 40% of a budget goes to post production, or 10% to a script, or whatever number goes to whatever role.  These formulaic filmmakers never make interesting films.  Not one of them has made a film that I’ve enjoyed enough to watch to the end.  The only films we watch from them are films about filmmaking, and those we only watch when we’re gullible and desperate.

If you’re making a low budget movie, you basically do that by using what you have.  You use your own clothes as costumes, your friends and family as cast and crew, and take who you can get to do what they can.  Or, if you have a partner who really wants to break through, they double their roles.  The director might also record sound, and edit, and write the screenplay.  Or, the director might act, and provide the location and the props.

If you find a terrific script that costs 50k, then it might be half the budget for a 100k film.  Or, if you can’t afford a great script, the location may even be half the budget.  Or the music might.  Or, you might make a documentary where 90 percent of the budget goes to the crew and filming equipment, that you edit yourself.  It really depends on what you want to show.

It’s like that with anything really.  If you build a McDonalds or a fancy restaurant, different percentages will go to different parts of the business.  The chef will probably get paid more at the fancy restaurant, but they won’t have to pay a franchise fee.  A small tearoom will have different percentages than either, so will a bakery, or a supermarket.

If things could just scale linearly, then there’s be no point in hiring engineers, planners, accountants, line producers, or anyone else.  Just get out an abacus and a calculator, and you could have an instant budget for everything.

Think about it.  If you moved into a smaller office, or a cheaper building, would you take a proportional pay cut?  I mean, if you worked in a fifty million dollar building, would you expect one thousand times the salary of someone who worked in a shed?  Not really.

Percent budgeting is idiotic.

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