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Film Directors – Direct the Money Before the Money Directs You

Most Film Directors have elected to stay away from film budgets and production costs. The heavy grinding SHOULD be left to accountants – but, let’s lay it on the table: Although most anyone can become a comic book artist, there are several essential skills you’ll need to make it in this industry of a freelance storyboard artist.

The Film Director is at the helm of a big money-burning machine. It is the Film Director’s job to produce his/her vision of the script – on time and on budget. At his service is a team of film production experts (the Line Producer, Unit Production Manager, the AD team, Production Accountant, etc.) all there to assist the Film Director to do just that.

Film Directors make it their business to understand the basic functions of on-set filmmaking, without being able to fully light a set, or operate a crane, or focus a steadicam. In the same spirit, the Film Director must understand the basics of Budgeting and the extremely important Weekly Cost Reporting process. Every creative decision involves money. It’s only good sense to learn to translate creative ideas into costs.

Experienced Directors know of The Weekly Cost Report. If you’re not yet familiar with it, let me introduce it to you:

The Weekly Cost Report informs all Producers, Studio Executives and Financiers of the costs you’re expending and how those costs compare to the Approved Budget. If you are unable to challenge, or defend, the conclusions made by those who read that financial ‘Report Card’ (that is, those who hold the purse strings) your ability to control your career is significantly weakened.

Find a comfort level where you can, at the very least, know what to ask during the Budgeting phase, and have a good understanding of how you can trade-off one cost overrun with a cost savings in another area. Know how to formulate general concepts of trading off costs to arrive at your vision and you’ll impress the money belts off the Studio Executives.

Picture the following scenario:
You’re the Film Director of an Independent Film Production. You’ve shot the exteriors called for in the script and you’ve seen the dailies; however, you KNOW that there’s a better shot of that exterior in Oklahoma that would give the perfect hook to the opening of your film.

You know that you can convince the producers of this on a creative plane. But, you also know that most producers will shudder at the task of dropping that bombshell on the Financiers/Bonding Company that you need to dip into the closely guarded Contingency funds. (Oh, did I tell you that we’re going to Okl…)

1. How do you pose solutions to those added costs?

2. What’s the right way to approach the game of cost trade-offs?

3. How do you defend those cost trade-offs?

It’s always going to be a challenge to present this kind of choice – but, a very doable challenge if you know how to translate your needs to cost trade-off’s by using my Walk The Talk ideas.

Usual Way:
As the Film Director you sincerely express your view that the Oklahoma shot would be a perfect opening for the movie. What kind of response do you think you’ll get? Here’s the most likely, from my experience:

Film Producer/Bonding Company Rep – This will put us over-budget by $150,000. I’ll talk to the… ‘whoever’ – (it’s a stall for sure).

Walk The Talk Way

Alternative: Film Director

– The cost of shooting 1 day of exteriors will not require a full crew in Oklahoma. I’ve called the Film Commission there (see my web site for internet links to all Film Commissions and major Unions) and they have assured me that there are plenty of local crew available to work at a very decent rate.

– I estimate it should cost about 1/2 of your estimate, say about $75,000 to give us a bit more than we absolutely need. I can get that back over the next 5 days here in New York. (Note: you’ll need to pick-up a copy of my eBook to see how I arrived at the $75,000 figure – see Figure 17.2, Table 3)

– You see, I’ve rehearsed the next five days with my very experienced cast and there’s no way that we can’t complete the scenes scheduled in 10 hours a day instead of the budgeted 13 hours a day. And, as you all know, that last 2 hours in New York costs about $10,000 a day (see Figure 15.1 in my book).

Alternative: Bonding Company Representative – Oh. Have the accountant make a schedule of the costs and we can check them. (That’s a Financier’s last stand – it’s up to the accountant to verify your estimates.)

You get the drift. You are simply applying a cost trade-off technique in the same technical way as you would use focal points, storyboards, crane shots, etc. You are ‘Directing The Money’; the money isn’t Directing you.

Some Directors, through the school-of-hard-knocks, have developed a ‘knack’ for conceptually streaming their creative ideas through a ‘what’s the cost?’ process. But that process is all too often tainted with blame on ‘the blue suits’ and ‘the money guys’ and ‘all they’re interested in is the money’, etc. It’s also often based on misinformation, biased toward a predetermined decision. Take my word for it; unless you, as the Film Director, can be familiar enough with the language of money in film production, you’re up the proverbial creek.

You, as the Film Director, are at the helm of a money burning machine. The best way to get the confidence of those who hold the purse strings is to know how to participate in the budget approval process, and then to trade off costs to get YOUR vision during the shoot. Take note you could think of it as Directing, only you’re Directing The Money.

Written by John Gaskin – With 20 years experience in the Film Industry as a Production Auditor, John has managed over 40 major films all over the world. John has worked with some of the industries top professionals including academy award winning producer Ron Howard, Brian Grazer, Walter Salles, etc. See more “About the Author” at

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