Pre-production The Film Business

Four Common Budgeting Mistakes for Your Documentary

When it comes right down to it, budgeting is an exercise in guesswork. But there is a difference between blind guessing, as in the lottery, and educated guessing, as in the stock market. Nobody knows what lottery ball will pop up, but with stocks you can see certain things coming if you know what to look for. It’s the same with guerrilla filmmaking. Here are some things to look out for when trying to balance your budget:

1. Excluding or Discounting Items You Hope To Secure

Your roommate’s boyfriend is a camera operator for a production house and while you’re out for drinks he says he can get you a free HD Varicam for a weekend, but a week before production, he has no idea what you’re talking about and says he can’t do it . . . The principal of the elementary school said you can shoot there for free, but the day before the shoot the school board president calls you demanding a $500/day location fee . . . These are what I call “phantom freebies” and they can easily send your production into a panicked tailspin. The bottom line is unless you are extremely positive that this is a sure thing, done deal, rock-solid agreement, you should leave that item in your budget at full price. Whenever possible, try to get things on paper or save a trail of e-mail conversations so there’s no confusion about what you’re getting, when you’re getting it, and how much it will cost you. The closer you get to production without these great deals and favors fully secured, the harder it will be to change course and get another camera or school or whatever it was you planned on getting for free or at a discount. Don’t let your budget be led astray by the siren call of “free” or “cheap” unless you’re confident. Once it’s secure, then you can move that money elsewhere in the budget.

2. Not Including Enough Contingency Money

Your contingency is your “what if” money. It’s your all-purpose slush fund for unexpected things that happen during production or items that run over their estimated budget. Unexpected things will ALWAYS happen in filmmaking and it’s a pretty sure bet that at least one category of your budget WILL run over. I can’t overemphasize how important it is to keep some contingency money in the budget on standby. Don’t make the amateur mistake of eliminating your contingency as a line item to balance your final budget. If you’re truly desperate and the numbers still don’t add up, you can cut that 15% figure down to as little as 10%, but anything less than that is opening the door to hasty compromises and a potential production shut down.

3. Not Creating Alternate Budgets

Films rarely have one budget. There’s the 35 mm film budget, the shooting on location in Paris and London budget, the DSLR camera budget, the budget with name actors, the budget with unknown actors, etc. Each of these budgets represents an alternate production scenario based on unfolding events and access to money and resources. Once you write out your initial budget, you should then save alternate versions with different sets of line items based on all the likely scenarios. The only thing these budgets need to have in common is the grand total. Making alternate budgets further forces you to consider the true production value of each resource. They are also invaluable to your decision making if you do suddenly have to change your production plan.

4. Overlooking a Hundred “Little Things”

Remember, the budgeting process is essentially brainstorming every cost you’re going to incur to make your shoot happen. Every cost includes all those “little things” that new filmmakers often overlook, such as the cost of taxes, permits, cab fare, photocopies, cell phone charges, insurance, overtime meals, and on and on. All these “little things” can add up quickly and eat away at your precious contingency if they’re not in the original budget. You can find numerous examples of documentary budgets online at filmmaking sites like,, and Just because it seems insignificant or you don’t write it down, doesn’t mean you don’t have to pay for it. Estimate what it will cost and put it in there.
Excerpt from The Shut Up and Shoot Documentary Guide: A Down & Dirty DV Production, 2nd Edition by Anthony Q. Artis © 2014 Taylor and Francis Group. All Rights Reserved.

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