Trying to gauge the correct amount to make a movie for is probably one of the toughest jobs for a producer.  How do you spend the least amount so as to maximize profit, without sacrificing production value, VFX, and talent, which also help maximize profit (in other words, you need to spend and conserve, to make money)?

Here is the most consistent call I’ve received for as long as I’ve been in film finance….

INDIE: Hey Jeff, I’ve got a movie I need financing for.

JEFF: What’s the budget?

INDIE: Four million, but I can make it for less.

JEFF: That’s good. But, this fund only does movies with budgets ten+.

INDIE: Dude! Hey, I can totally make it for ten!!!!

JEFF: No “Dude” you can’t.

A wise producer named Ellen Krass used to say that, when it comes to budgets, “I can decorate a house for $750 or $75,000 — both will look great, but one will have antique styles, the other will have antiques.”

Same goes for movies.  There is a general misconception in the indie world that a film should be made for as much as you can raise.  Which would mean that a single location drama should be made for $10m for no other reason than you happen to be lucky enough to raise it.

Just because a movie can be made for more, doesn’t mean it should be made for more. – Jeff Steele circa 2010

In  “The 70% Gospel” post I recommended filmmakers use their sales agent as an initial frame of reference for establishing a budget amount.   In short, the bottom-line Take/Low amount on the foreign sales estimates should not be less than 70% of your budget.  As your cast and other creative elements change, your agent can revise those estimates accordingly.

Certitude speaks volumes in this business, so make sure you approach financiers knowing how much money you need.  Just having a below-the-line (BTL) amount with above-the-line (ATL) being predicated on how much you raise, tells me that a producer is out of touch.  ATL and BTL do not exist independently of each other.  Higher value talent expect higher productions values, as well as higher value perks.  To say you’re going to do a film for $3m BTL and go after a $10m star is ludicrous (unless it’s that star’s passion project or Oscar project).  A producer needs to be able to demonstrate to a financier (as well as talent reps) that the VFX, music, and other production values are going to be commensurate with the caliber of talent you attach (and for which you’ve allotted in your budget.)

Raise the money you need to execute your movie.  If you can make it for less, great.  But it’s irresponsible to your investors to raise (and spend) more money than can be recouped.  Buyers keep track of what kinds of films producers deliver, so if you deliver a theatrical star in a TV or video quality movie, good luck on your next round of pre-sales or casting talent for that matter.

Dude! I Can Make it For 10m!

Not pricing your film’s budget can give the impression that you and your team just stumbled out of a smoke filled van.


  1. Great column, as usual, Jeff.

    The following are questions that some of us may have…

    So, assuming you don’t already have a willing distributor or sales agent already compiling foreign sales estmates for you, and you’ve narrowed your choices for a distrib and/or sales agent by doing your homework…

    and you’ve opted to do your film with one bankable lead, or none….

    what’s required ($ or otherwise) to get the distrib or sales agent to do an estimate on your picture? More talent?

    What has worked for people you know in the past?

    Any comments from you or your readers would be great. If off list, email at:

    [email protected]

    Juri Koll

  2. Jeff! Dude!

    I got this outstanding film project with Willis, Statham and Li set to star in a $85mil romantic comedy. Everything’s looking great except one thing.

    I need 150 bucks for the lawyer to draw up the paperwork. Can you work some numbers for me?

    By the way, the 70% link is dead in the article.

    “Heaven’s Gate” the film which killed United Artists shows how “decorations” can make or break a film.

    I agree with you indie producers’ biggest challenge is the budget and knowing how to keep the production value at a premium without the budget becoming a premium. I would argue most don’t get it.

    Cimino didn’t.

    Great article as always.

  3. An independent must always remember that his return on the film will be roughly 1/3 of box office after the exhibitors and distributors got their take, and he must ask himself, “What sort of box office potential do I have in my package of story and cast?” I can’t think of any other industry in which makers of products approach their wholesalers and retailers with details of their manufacturing costs.

    Attaching an expensive name might get you the funding and some distribution from the naive but it won’t get you the ticket buyers except in cases so rare and so expensive that no independent could afford in the first place. Your chances at the box office would improve if instead you cast a talented unknown with potential appeal and then spent half as much as the bankable name would cost you promoting this newcomer. In promoting him or her, you will be promoting the film. Howard Hughes did that with great success in the case of Jane Russell in “The Outlaw.”

    Directors working for the Moguls in the ’30s often would push the budget up because then the studio might spend more in promotion (using a ratio formula) which would give the film a better chance. What finds me shaking my head is today’s adoration of mega budgets by the majors. The return on an Avatar in dollars is monstrous but not in ROI terms and the risk is equally monstrous. The beauty of the film making industry, the story telling process, is that it provides so much flexibility. If you have the funds but go overboard with effects to the point where it obscures or damages your story, you could fall flat on your face. If you tell your story imaginatively and allow the audience to fill in with THEIR imagination, you could bring in certain sequences for a fraction of the cost while heightening the dramatic effect. No shoemaker or car maker gets that kind of opportunity.

    If I run a private company, not a public corporation obliged to reveal financial details to shareholders and the public, I’d be tempted to keep my budget private. Joseph E. Levine didn’t tell the world he picked up some of his little kaka films for pennies when he spent zillions promoting them, a formula no one had previously applied. The good and bad thing about budgets and ratios is that there is nothing about them in the bible .

  4. Great post Jeff. I agree with you that just because you have more money to make your film doesn’t mean you should spend it. Honestly, if you have more than you need it should be spent on promotion. All the focus filmmakers have is on making their film. But getting the word out is more important now in the market.

    I also agree with Andy Halmay on the fact that if is odd that the film biz is the only business that we show our budget to make our product when all other businesses hide that fact. People watch a movie not based on budget but implied value. We need to focus on communicating the implied value of our film and keep our budgets down.

  5. If you’ve done the physical production homework and you’re working with a solid BTL budget consistent with the creative vision of the project then your ATL can absolutely be determined by cast.
    ATL and BTL are certainly not independent of each other but an A-list cast wouldn’t necessarily blow out you BTL either.

  6. Juri, are you familiar with filmspecific? It’s a subscription site run by Stacey Parks, and it’s all about markets, indies, and global sales trends. She maintains a section on the site that presents ranges of sales projections for indies, based on their budgets. Check it out.


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