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How to Budget for a Real Independent Film

If you've made it this far, you've already completed the most important step. You've recognized the need to budget. But how do you budget for something you've never done before? How much will you need? Here's your opportunity to learn from our mistakes (and from what went right) and get your indie moviemaking project off on the right foot.

First of all, I recommend dividing your budget into four main categories: Preproduction, production, postproduction, and distribution & marketing. This will help you understand the nature of your budget. While you might be making a $500 or a $500,000 movie, you'll find you have to put something into each one of those categories. Having an understanding of when you will be spending the money can make financing the film much easier (but that's something we'll save for a future article).


Preproduction is the beginning of your project and should be the easiest to predict in terms of cost. It should cover everything from the project's inception through the night before shooting begins. The biggest contributors to this area of the budget are usually salaries, costumes, props, screen tests, location scouting, set construction, meals and transportation. In a low-budget indie film this may be negligible, but at least budget for gas money. If you're running an office, many expenses will end up in this category, as you'll find yourself printing thousands of pages and making many many phone calls.


With many films, the bulk of the budget is spent in the production phase. Production usually entails the first through the last days of shooting, although on medium to large productions, this will overlap with the other budget categories.

The largest portion of most major picture's budgets in this category is salaries for actors and crew. On a more independent set, actors and crew may be paid with points, deferred salary, or not at all, allowing for some flexibility with the most difficult-to-manage portion of the budget. Most of the rest of production costs fall into the following categories: catering & craft service, insurance, transportation, lodging, cinematography (including the camera, tripod, filters, batteries, and media), lighting, makeup, equipment and location rentals, and fixing anything that breaks during shooting.


For the most primitive independent films, postproduction might only mean a few splices on 16mm before screening. Most of the modern indie filmmakers are turning to digital non-linear editing (NLE), which offers many options but requires a respectably modern computer. Filmmakers shooting in HD will find an even higher cost of entry, because not only does it take faster hardware, but the amount of data in a few days' worth of shooting can easily add up to more than 1 TB, far more than you'll find on your mother's PC.

Postproduction budgets for a digital production will typically include an editing workstation, software, special effects software, a sound mixing program or plug-in if you're working with 6 channel sound, salaries for the postproduction crew, and costs associated with test screenings.

Distribution & Marketing

Once you have a film, it's not doing you any good sitting on your bookshelf. Simply taking whatever format you've been working on and converting it to a slick-looking DVD with menus and transitions can be a costly proposition. Small production companies can use recordable DVD technology, but using glass-master duplication can decrease the per-unit cost considerably. No film is complete without a poster, and you'll soon find that you'll need branded everything to promote your film. Postcards and buttons are a great place to start, and make a solid addition to the rest of your press kit.

Try to budget for a professional to assemble or review your press kit and film festival submission package. While money is always the tightest at the end of a project, skimping here will really cripple your chances of catching the right kind of attention for your film.

As with the other three categories, salaries can be a large component of this budgeting process as well. Try to include money for postage, film festival submissions, conversions to other media (including 35mm if you're shooting in HD), and a website.

Most budgets and budget numbers don't include Distribution & Marketing costs, to encourage a fair comparison between films. Most film festivals that accept or reject projects based on their budget also don't include this category. It is important, however, to have an awareness of how much you'll need to spend after the completion of the film to get your work to an audience.

After you've worked out the details for each of these budget areas, don't forget to include some breathing room. Usually a 10% contingency is enough for most productions. Having an idea of when you'll need how much money can make it much easier for your financiers and executive producers. Most productions I've worked on only needed about two-thirds funding to get through the first day of shooting.

Here's a graphic breakdown of a typical independent film budget.

costs of production

The bulk of your expenses will occur during the 'production' phase

It's worth noting that many projects don't follow these proportions. "The Blair Witch Project" is famous for being shot on only $25,000. Of course, millions were spent on marketing after the project found a distributor.

Here's an excel worksheet you can use to create your own independent film budget. Don't forget to add any categories specific to your script, and be sure to get a professional to look over anything involving money, taxes, or financing, and good luck with your indie film!

Last months' article:
How to Make a $20,000 Indie Film

"Best Milwaukee Filmmaker 2006."
- Shepherd Express

"My new favorite indie film."
- Jon Kline, Director of Photography

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