How can I write a script so that it's cheap to make?
January 28, 2014 10:24 AM   Subscribe

For those who have made movies, I have heard that the cheaper you can write a movie (This is of course presuming your script is already awesome!) the greater your chances are of having it bought. I am more than happy to work creatively within such constraints, but I was wondering if there were scenes that counterintuitively cost a lot that a first-time writer wouldn't know about, and vice versa.

I once had five minutes to talk to a producer of movies and he told me that two people talking in a room was the cheapest movie you could make, but a scene like two people talking while driving in a car was actually crazy expensive (which was surprising to me), and he told me that sure, when you're writing a script, you should let your imagination run wild, but that when he looks at a script, he is pricing it out, and that the reality is that the cheaper your movie is to make, the greater the chance that it will be bought and actually produced. So I am just wondering if there is a list or something out there that can serve as a guideline to a nascent writer like myself. Maybe a list of like, 10 common scenes where #1 is the cheapest to make and #10 the most expensive scene, so that as a writer, I can minimize including any scenes numbered 5 to 10 unless they are absolutely necessary.
posted by Sully to Media & Arts (26 answers total) 11 users marked this as a favorite
It isn't necessarily as black-and-white as that. Instead, you may want to familiarize yourself with some basics of movie-making craft, as that would help you figure that out yourself.

For instance - you said that you were surprised that two people talking while driving a car was expensive. But think about it for a minute - if you are filming two people driving a car, you can figure out where the actors sit, but where does the CAMERAMAN sit? And the sound guy, where does he sit? And the light guy?

When you remember that oh, yeah, the camera man and the sound man need to sit somewhere, and the light equipment also needs to go somewhere then you realize why filming in a car is very complicated after all - either you need the special camera and the special lights that's small enough to fit inside the car, or you have the special steel rig that can hold the camera on the outside, or you do [foo] or you do [baz] or....

Also, even with scenes that are supposedly "complicated" like that, there are ways around it - someone who really really wanted that scene in the car, but wanted to do it for cheap, could do what they used to do on Hollywood film sets in the old days, and just build a half a car on a stage set and then put a projector up behind it, and show film that made it look like the people were driving - but there would still be plenty of room for the camera equipment and such. I mean, that's not cheap either, but at least it's a bit easier.

I applaud your wanting to go cheap, but that should be a secondary concern compared to the quality of the story. If you have a good enough story, someone will buy your script eventually, no matter what. Not that you should totally ignore the technical concerns, but that should be more of a secondary concern, and it wouldn't necessarily make-or-break a film. It's something a producer does keep in mind, yes, but it's not the ONLY thing they keep in mind.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 10:33 AM on January 28, 2014 [2 favorites]

The EmpressCallpgyos is probably right, from a pragmatic point of view, but I kind of like the idea of doing this as a creative exercise. A sestina for movie scripts, or something.

I would guess that location is probably a huge thing: can the story take place in any city that looks vaguely like Vancouver, or does it have to be set somewhere halfway around the world? Is there, like, one scene set in a deciduous forest and another in a desert and another on a tundra and another in a city that all have to be woven together somehow? And permissions matter, too. I really want to write a screenplay that has its climactic scene set at the top of the observation tower in the La Sagrada Familia in Barcelona, but somehow I don't imagine that ever happening.
posted by pretentious illiterate at 10:45 AM on January 28, 2014

It's not just the locations themselves, but also the number of locations. A scene with two people talking in a room is great, but if right after that they go to see a three-ring circus, that's going to cost you. An entire movie of two people talking in a room would be cheap, but that's also a play, not a movie, perhaps. It's gonna feel really claustrophobic unless you're an amazing writer and you have amazing actors.

A movie that does just fine within that kind of limitations: My Dinner With Andre.

Some examples of things that cost a lot: anything involving weather; children; animals; other people (crowds, for example, or just people who populate, say, an average street on an average day); people with special talents (characters are at the circus, or strip club ? you need performers); water (shoot next to a fountain and you're going to have to re-record that dialogue in post); food (characters at a restaurant? everybody sitting at every table needs some prop food & drink, probably).

Also, how your locations fit into a typical day. You write a tiny, 1/8 page scene that takes place at Location A? Okay, now you've just paid a bundle of money to the location to let you shoot there (or you built a set?)…only you only need a few hours to get that 1/8 page handled, and then you're shooting what? You're doing a company move to a new location? write a day's worth of scenes that can all be shot at one place? Better.

The list is endless. But a general rule for lowering the costs: small locations, few characters, few background, repeat locations.

But seriously - none of this matters now. If you're a true newbie, just write, write, write and make your story the best it can be. Worry about the rest later. Also, write a story about humans, on planet earth, set in the present day, without special effects. See, it's cheaper already.
posted by BlahLaLa at 10:45 AM on January 28, 2014 [3 favorites]

Robert Rodriguez's book, Rebel without a Crew, was an interesting read and describes how he approached making "El Mariachi" and how he worked around not having any money.

You might pick up a few ideas or be inspired.
posted by beowulf573 at 10:57 AM on January 28, 2014 [1 favorite]

Also, write a story about humans, on planet earth, set in the present day, without special effects. See, it's cheaper already.

Yeah, this is basically what I was going to say. I know some folks with a good comedy script that's opened some doors for them, but because the story involves aliens and would require special effects, it's pretty much never going to be made. (It's been a good calling card, though, as a way of demonstrating their comedy chops.)
posted by scody at 11:00 AM on January 28, 2014 [1 favorite]

I would think that the less characters you have in a script and the less things around them when they are talking or whatnot the less expensive your script would seem.

I recently watched a very good (in my opinion) movie called Resolution that you could tell had a low budget but still was a pretty decent flick. Maybe watch that and see what kinds of shots and things the production team used?
posted by Fister Roboto at 11:05 AM on January 28, 2014

In the end, the only thing that will reliably increase the chances of your script getting bought is an absolutely fantastic concept and story and characters.

I have heard that the cheaper you can write a movie... the greater your chances are of having it bought.

This isn't true. There are many different buyers at many different levels of budget - exactly no producer, all the way down to the smallest indie, will balk at something like a conversation in a car, or a scene with rain. It can work against you, too - a small, cheap script might be unattractive to a producer who wants to make something with some scope and scale. The limitations do exist at the upper levels, as referenced by Scody and BlahLaLa - space ships, aliens, computer-generated characters, exploding cities, that kind of thing - but otherwise, just do it. If you follow Blah's advice on writing a story about people in the present, that's a great place to start.

Once a script is bought, then the producer and financier (or studio) and the writer often sit down and kill budget - move scenes from outside to in, move cities, combine characters, alter effects sequences, that kind of thing.

Unless you're planning on making the movie yourself, do not do this kind of thing beforehand. That's the producer's job. They're the experts.

When you get a bit more experienced, you'll have a better handle on how much a certain kind of script written in a certain way will cost, but don't worry about that. Just worry about the story. That's it. Nothing else.
posted by incessant at 11:14 AM on January 28, 2014 [2 favorites]

Best answer: I work for a teen filmmaking program, and figuring out the least expensive way to shoot the script I write is part of my job. It's a fun challenge for me to figure out how to keep us under 10k on ten minute films. When I work on a script, this is what I keep in mind to keep the budget low:
  • Condense as many characters as possible. This way, we pay fewer actors.
  • No crowd scenes, for the same reason. Also, wrangling crowds takes time and effort, which is money.
  • Minimize exteriors. Shooting on streets, sidewalks, outside in general is expensive because you have to clear the area, get permits, often times pay for security or fire marshall presence, deal with weather, deal with sunrise and sunset, etcetera, etcetera. Inside, on sets, you just change the set.
  • All characters either over 18 or playable by an actor over 18. You have to have a tutor on set for minor actors, and they can only work a certain number of hours a day. You can shoot 18 hours with a grown-up.
  • No weather. Weather is just expensive.
  • Only night if it's inside and you can cover a window and create darkness with filters.
  • But not dark or low-light. Having to shoot a dark set is time consuming.
  • Keep character configurations to a minimum. That way if A and B, and B and C, but A and C do not have scenes together, you can bang all the pairs out in a single day and get an actor off the set
  • No stunts, no fights, no guns, no pyrotechnics.
  • No fantasy sequences. No dragons.
  • But you can have light sabers and ghosts, because those can all be dropped in, in post-production, fairly cheaply.
  • No mirrors! No glass! Nobody looking in mirrors or glass. Ugh. The amount of time it takes to hide the boom, the camera and the rest of the set, and all the people behind the camera, just to have a character look in a mirror or window is not worth it on a budget.
  • No period pieces. Costuming is expensive to do right, and looks terrible if you do it on the cheap.
I'm sure there are more, but they tend to come to mind when I'm actually writing the script. There's always a way to condense and cut the budget, you just have to figure out how to make the story work first.
posted by headspace at 11:27 AM on January 28, 2014 [16 favorites]

I have heard that the cheaper you can write a movie (This is of course presuming your script is already awesome!) the greater your chances are of having it bought.

Not really, no.

The dirty secret of today's screenplay market is that there is virtually no chance of writing a script that later gets "bought" and turned into an actual film, if you are not already a working screenwriter or filmmaker in some other capacity.

You can become a sought-after TV writer and eventually end up writing feature screenplays (a la someone like Damon Lindelof).

You can become an indie filmmaker and shoot your own scripts.

I'm pretty sure there were more lottery winners in the US last year than spec screenplay sales. There were certainly more rookie pro athletes. Probably more minor league baseball players moved up to the majors than un-repped screenwriters sold feature scripts on spec, in 2013.

All of the above said.

Yes, if you want to try for the lottery that is spec script sales, your only real option is to write low-budget horror.

If you write an AMAZING screenplay that is not low-budget horror, while you have almost zero chance of actually selling that script, said script could get you attention that leads to an agent, which leads to being offered writing assignments, which is theoretically how becoming a professional screenwriter happens. But in that situation, budget doesn't matter.

The only realistic situation in which you should think about writing a screenplay to a certain budget, would be if you intend to make it yourself. Or if you happen to write horror and feel you have a solid chance of selling the screenplay in question, for Reasons.

OK, so let's say all that is true for you.

Some pointers:

- Limit the number of locations you use. This is why the "contained thriller" is so hot right now. Ideally, center the action of the film around a location you already have access to for free.

- Limit the number of special effects and big set pieces. This includes scenes that will require a lot of extras, because keep in mind that you will at the very least have to feed everyone on set.

- No period pieces or science fiction that requires special sets, props, and costumes to be designed.

- Shoot entirely on location. No sound stages. No building sets.

- Do as much stuff yourself as you can. I'm producing a low budget thing, but I'm not a cinematographer or an editor, which drives the overall cost of the project up.

Those are the classic ways to keep the budget low. If you're exceptionally resourceful or charismatic, there is wiggle room for some of these things. Likewise if you have special access to anything that would help in making a movie. One of the ways Robert Rodriguez kept costs so low on El Mariachi was that his lead actor was from a wealthy family in Mexico who had property they could use basically as a backlot, they had the run of the town for the same reason, and they had connections to people involved in the production of Like Water For Chocolate, which had left behind a bunch of props and set dressing. If you can find a hookup like that, you can get a lot of production value for a lot less money.
posted by Sara C. at 11:40 AM on January 28, 2014 [3 favorites]

a scene like two people talking while driving in a car was actually crazy expensive

This isn't true unless nobody you know has a car. It costs nothing to park a car in your driveway, sit the actors inside, and have them pretend to drive while having a conversation. It gets a little more expensive if you want this to happen at night, but there's a lighting cheat called "poor man's process" that makes it no more expensive than any other night shoot you'd do.

On the other hand, write in a car chase, and then you're talking about money.

On the other other hand, something has to happen in your movie. If you're going to spend a lot of money on a big spectacle like a car chase, and it's going to be a great car chase, and it's really vital to the plot of your incredible movie, well, I mean, sure, spend the money on the car chase.
posted by Sara C. at 11:45 AM on January 28, 2014 [1 favorite]

(I love you, Sara, but advising anyone to write a horror movie who isn't, y'know, a horror writer is terrible advice.)

Sara's dead on right about the likelihood of selling a spec script and seeing it get made, though. Last year there were about 100 spec sales (many of those were options, though), and almost all of them were from already-established writers. First timers selling scripts number in the couple dozen, and most of those will never work again.

Look - Hollywood doesn't buy spec scripts, very few movies actually get made, and very very very few people are professional screenwriters - 1600 WGA members worked in features last year. There are more players in the NFL.

So don't worry about writing a script so that it'll get bought. Worry about writing the most amazing version of the movie you want to write, and worry about writing it so well that anyone who reads it will refuse to put it down. Everything else comes later.
posted by incessant at 11:56 AM on January 28, 2014 [2 favorites]

I'm in no way advising anyone to write a horror movie! Just to absolutely 100% clarify.

The answer is "don't write a screenplay thinking you'll sell it", not "write a horror screenplay and sell it."

All of the above said, if someone were to want to make your script into a film, don't worry about whether a scene takes place at night or is a street scene or someone is in a car or silly penny ante things like that. Yes, it means money, but the bottom line is that in filmmaking, there's an assumption that some money is going to be spent. Nobody is going to want to make a movie that is just two people talking in a room because god forbid you spend a couple hundred bucks on a lighting kit or some lav mics. Those kinds of costs are built into the filmmaking process.

What is likely to turn someone off your script in terms of budget is things like the first (garbage) screenplay I ever wrote, which took place on a 19th century whaling ship in the middle of the South Pacific. Nope. Nope nope noep.
posted by Sara C. at 12:11 PM on January 28, 2014

Yes, if you want to try for the lottery that is spec script sales, your only real option is to write low-budget horror.

*Points to the entire genre of giallo and Jess Franco's filmography as examples*

However, nowadays even stupidly crazy-awesome movies like Iron Sky (wiki, trailer) can be made on the cheap thanks to the wonder of CGI.
posted by sukeban at 12:23 PM on January 28, 2014

What is likely to turn someone off your script in terms of budget is things like the first (garbage) screenplay I ever wrote, which took place on a 19th century whaling ship in the middle of the South Pacific. Nope. Nope nope noep.

OTOH, there's Snowpiercer, which was shot entirely in a set, thanks again to computers.
posted by sukeban at 12:30 PM on January 28, 2014

Best answer: If you're not already listening to the Scriptnotes podcast, John and Craig touch on this pretty often in passing, not just as a function of production cost but as a function of story, and then as a function of understanding the film you're trying to get made. Does a romantic comedy about a dog-walker who falls in love with a forklift driver need to take place on his vacation in Africa? No, it's just a distraction. Now she's an elephant veterinarian instead of a forklift driver: ah, okay, that might be something, but we'll need a big name playing the dog walker or we won't get the financing. Maybe they could meet at a safari park in Vancouver or the 2/3 of the US that can be played by Vancouver?

I don't think any of this is automatically a first-draft consideration, but as you start doing your tightening passes, consider every object in your script - every INT, every EXT, every CHARACTER, every PROP, every specifically-named piece of costuming, and ask yourself: does this serve the story? Are we standing in front of the Eiffel Tower so you'll know my characters are falling in love instead of the characters actually, you know, falling in love? Is this set in Prague in 1832 for a reason, or could this be set in Everycouver in 2015?

Everyone else is right that almost nobody sells a spec that will be developed (Go Into The Story tracks spec sales, I think there were 112 total spec scripts sold in 2013, a bunch of them from people already professionally writing in some capacity, but a fraction of those will actually get financing and made), so that's not your problem.

But you yourself will get bought, if you do, on the strength and agility of your spec. If you write a romantic comedy that would require an explosion-grade budget because of story-dependent locations* or explosions or effects, the people who get to make that decision are going to notice the dollar signs as they read and they're going to think you don't know how to write a romantic comedy with a romantic-comedy budget. (If you wrote a thriller on a romantic comedy budget, someone will think you're clever if it's really good, but somebody will eventually complain that there's no explosions, and explosions put males 13-29 in seats, so you obviously have no idea what you're doing.)

(*Example: Midnight in Paris. You and I would never sell that film, not if God himself was already attached to play the lead. Almost nobody but Woody Allen would get financing to make that film, which has every single expensive thing ever in it...for what is essentially a light sci-fi historical romance, which doesn't put boy-butts in seats.)

If you're planning on working in the big show as a writer, in all likelihood your paid job will be as the second, third, or fourth (but probably not the last) writer on Studio X's Genre Y film ("like Bridesmaids, but in the NFL!"). All they want to know is that you will write (rewrite) what you are told to write within the budget you are told to write it in on time and with as little hassle to anyone else as possible. Hollywood's got plenty of car-scene-shooting equipment, and the producers will tell you how many cars you can crash or limbs you can sever, etc. Your ability to combine two car crashes into one - which might be something you could show off in your spec, if that's your thing - will be appreciated. By the time you get your own development deal, this stuff will be intuitive from your previous experience.

If you are working on an indie production, on the other hand, your job is to put the least amount of people in the least amount of places with the least amount of explosions as is humanly possible to accomplish within whatever actual human story is being told. One place to get a decent feel for that kind of situation is the commentary tracks for Kevin Smith's movies. Even if you're not fond of his films as stories, he's made a lot of very inexpensive films that saw the light of day and knows a whole a lot about making a tight budget work.
posted by Lyn Never at 12:45 PM on January 28, 2014 [1 favorite]

It's worth noting that a movie like Snowpiercer is an adaptation of a comic book. An established production company acquired the rights to the comic, and director Bong Joon-Hoo write the screenplay himself.

This most certainly would not fall under the category of "selling a screenplay", nor would it fall under the category of "low budget". Or at least not low budget for the purposes of the OP's question.

Once a filmmaker is established, it is much easier to get a few million dollars in financing and adapt a pre-existing work into a feature, with very few of the limitations that exist for unknowns.

Unknown indie filmmakers generally don't take on projects like Snowpiercer right out of the gate.

Extensive post-production VFX is typically outside the budget of a low-budget filmmaker, unless said filmmaker already has connections in that world or can do it all her or himself.

Within the realm of film, it is possible to do almost anything you can imagine.

The constraints come in when someone is not already established within the film industry and doesn't have the money to do "anything you can imagine". Even within the "low budget" label, you've got $100,000 features, and you've got $10,000,000 features. At the upper end of that, you can shoot in a stage on green screen and pay a VFX company to create your setting. At the lower end of that, you're looking at two weeks shooting in your grandpa's half derelict Victorian mansion.
posted by Sara C. at 12:57 PM on January 28, 2014 [1 favorite]

And importantly, even ordinary location shooting is now increasingly replaced by green screen work. I think the TV concept of a bottle show is also instructive here -- using existing sets and props as much as possible, maybe no more than a guest actor or two -- as ways that series productions cut costs.

I think the series 24 is a good example of how production costs are kept down even in an action-filled thriller. In the first season there were a lot of very complicated car chases and things like Jack driving from this location to another in LA. In later seasons it almost becomes abstract as they finish the dramatic necessities at one practical location and then cut to a driving sequence shot in a studio with a blurred, constantly moving background. This allows them to dispense with even the simple continuity requirements of pretending to be driving on a freeway, for instance. They do a lot of location shooting but also place a great deal of story action in permanent (at least for a season) sets, e.g. CTU or a presidential bunker.

In film, I've recently been impressed with a number of indies, such as It's a Disaster, Prince Avalanche, and The Vicious Ones, at how much they accomplish with very little. The first sets 90% of the action within a single house; the second uses a state forest as a set, with a few recurring props including tents and vehicles; and the third has some highway driving but relies mostly on a number of practical sets and locations.

I'm trying to remember the specific anecdote of a production meeting where the writer -- who was experienced -- understood what qualms the studio was having about his screenplay and was able to have a very adult horse-trading conversation, such as, "But Joe and Jane don't have to be on a cruise, they can just be in a hotel", and thereby chopping the necessary budget of his movie by some colossal fraction, allowing it to be financed. If you know your story beats cold, then you can easily reimagine where and how they need to take place.

There are also market considerations. If you're writing a potential blockbuster, that's one thing, but you're not going to get a blockbuster budget for adapting Jane Austen, so you have to mentally adjust just how much money you'll have available for sets, costumes, even headcount of actors.
posted by dhartung at 1:00 PM on January 28, 2014

You could compile a dry list of things that cost a lot to shoot, but it will always be incomplete. I'd suggest you approach it a different way: by getting personal experience with the logistical and financial realities of shooting (volunteer to crew on student productions, etc etc). Once you have that experience, you'll have your own intuitive sense of what's hard/expensive and what's easy/cheap. And you'll have a lot more wisdom in general to apply to your writing....and be more likely, just to pick one thing, to write stuff which works cinematically and not just on the page.

This is, in other words, a highly practical question that ought to be answered via your own practical experience rather than by asking people to fill you in second-hand.
posted by Quisp Lover at 1:00 PM on January 28, 2014 [1 favorite]

Well, of course. But that's the difference between writing a movie with people cooped in a wooden ship at sea that has to be actually built and people cooped in an industrial-looking set that can be built in a studio and shot for cheap.
posted by sukeban at 1:01 PM on January 28, 2014

built in a studio and shot for cheap.

This is something that doesn't exist for the purposes of the OP's question.
posted by Sara C. at 1:06 PM on January 28, 2014

To redirect, OP....

You're getting a lot of conflicting information here, I believe, because there are a lot of different approaches to filmmaking - some cost more money, some less. Some appeal more to some producers, and others do to others.

And while it's true that "how much will this cost" is one of the factors that all producers do keep in mind when they're reading a script, that is still only one of the factors. It's not like if you wrote the world's best story ever, a producer would reject it because "whoops, they have a car scene in here, that's too expensive, forget it".

So the answer to "which kinds of scenes are more or less expensive" isn't all that black-and-white a question - because there are greater- and lesser-cost ways to film anything, and there are film shoots with more or less amounts of money behind them, and there are producers who just happen to like the cheaper way of doing car scenes anyway because of reasons so they wouldn't care if you had a car scene, or...

So it is indeed smart to familiarize yourself with filmmaking techniques in general; volunteering on a film shoot just to see what happens is also not a bad idea. But ultimately, if your story is really, really good, you'll find a producer who'll want to figure out a way to make it no matter how much it costs (or at the very least they'll work with you to tweak it so it brings the cost down).

Good luck.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 1:24 PM on January 28, 2014 [2 favorites]

Using as few locations as possible is good.
Getting locations for free is good.
The most famous example would be Clerks, which Kevin Smith shot in and around the actual convenience store where he worked, doing the interior scenes when it was closed anyway. That's why the shutters are closed throughout the whole movie.
posted by w0mbat at 1:27 PM on January 28, 2014 [1 favorite]

One tried and true way to shoot an ultra low budget thing (whether it's a feature, a short, a web series, whatever) is to sit down and come up with a bunch of stuff you have access to. Especially if it's cool looking stuff, or impressive stuff, or stuff it would normally cost people a lot of money to rent.

So you sit down and you realize you have:

- grandpa's derelict Victorian
- a 1963 Mercedes that looks great but isn't reliable for more than a couple miles
- the Victorian sits on 10 acres of undeveloped property
- your best friend is obsessed with special effects makeup and can turn anyone into a zombie.
- your girlfriend runs the local community theatre and is cool with you borrowing props and costumes.
- your boss at the ice cream parlor doesn't give a shit if you want to shoot something in the store as long as it's closed.
- your dog is the best trained dog ever and will happily do tricks on command, for the camera.

Now, come up with a great story around those assets you already have. Congratulations, you've just written an ultra-low budget movie on par with something like Clerks, El Mariachi, or Peter Jackson's early indie stuff.
posted by Sara C. at 1:40 PM on January 28, 2014

Best answer: One thing I think about a lot -- and pardon me if this is tangential to your question, OP -- is the scope of a story and why it needs to be a feature film as opposed to some other kind of thing.

Nowadays there are just so many visual forms available. I feel like, in the 90s, because there was no internet and only a few TV networks broadcasting original content, if you wanted to tell a visual story on a budget, indie feature films were your only real option.

However, in 2014, a lot of the types of stories that would have been told in an indie feature are now being told in web series, or on television, or with comics, or in a radio drama format (Night Vale, This American Life, etc), and really the sky is the limit. So the kinds of stories that get told on the big screen are very different from what was the norm back when the spec screenplay market was a thing.

What does this mean for you and your "budget" idea? A lot of dirt cheap stories, stories of two friends talking in a room, are not really done in feature films anymore, because, well, why? Why are people going to spend $12 to sit in a room for two hours and watch that story play out, when they could do the same thing on cable or the internet, for free?

It would be very hard to make Clerks as a feature film in 2014. Hell, my web series bears a lot of superficial similarities to the Clerks style of filmmaking, and I wonder all the time why anybody would bother to watch it. Because it's crowdfunded, I lie in bed every night and wonder if the backers are going to see it and wonder where the hell their money went, to have two people talking in a room? I've come up with all kinds of set pieces and big moments and visually interesting stuff, despite the rock bottom budget, because otherwise I think people will be disappointed.

A lot more producers are reading scripts nowadays wondering what, in this script, is going to make people put on pants and pay $12. As someone who occasionally dabbles in writing features, my first question is always "what are the big images that are going to make this worth the audience's while?" not "how cheap can a movie be made for?" You still want those big images to be cost effective to do, but you need them to be there.
posted by Sara C. at 2:57 PM on January 28, 2014

The most clear and informative segments that I've found on how effects are produced and at what expense are (oddly) from the PBS kids' show, "Wishbone." The show used to do a segment on exactly those questions at the end of every episode -- here's a link to an index of the segments. I hope you don't find that condescending, I honestly think the segments great and might be helpful to you, especially since the show was made on the cheap. I will warn you that they're somewhat dated (the show was on in the 90s).

Anyway some things that have come up for me when I've shown my work around:

-- Don't require licensed music. A particular (famous) song shouldn't be a plot point. If you make particular songs integral to your story (like I have before, bah), the first words out of everybody's mouth are likely to be "that's gonna be expensive."

-- Stunts are relatively expensive, and "stunts" can include things like throwing a glass at a wall or throwing a stick at somebody. Try to make those little "action" moments as safe and easy as possible, so the actors can actually perform them without everybody getting scared somebody's going to get hurt and it becoming a needlessly big deal. That doesn't mean that you can't include those moments, that just means that maybe it should be a plastic cup instead of a glass, or that the character should express his frustration in a non-projectile-throwing kind of way. Be mindful of your actors' safety and the constraints of the production's liability, I guess?

-- Live action is probably preferable, but if you veer from live action, stop motion is usually the cheapest kind of animation (depends on exactly what the situation is, but you can honestly make pretty good-looking stop motion in your basement if you have to. Or if you want to).

-- Try to make the OOOOOOOH SH*T! moments emotional (rather than physical). Dialogue is cheap. Obviously you're talking about a visual medium so don't lean entirely on your dialogue, but if you need to step up your game on a particular scene/moment/revelation, getting your dialogue as strong and tight as possible is a good first step (and will never increase costs!). The other thing is, your script is going to be read before it's filmed, and so you want to make sure it reads well -- and good dialogue helps that a lot.

-- Don't worry too much, specs aren't really for filming anymore (except maybe if you want to film your own work). Specs act more as calling cards. It's important that your script show off your skills as a writer, much less so that it show off your skills as a producer.
posted by rue72 at 3:24 PM on January 28, 2014 [1 favorite]

In the last chapters of William Goldman's Adventures in the Screen Trade he takes one of his short stories, converts it into a screenplay (giving the reader the full story, the full screenplay, and his thoughts on how to convert from one to the other), and then shows the screenplay to a production designer, a cinematographer, an editor, a composer, and a director to get their thoughts and input on how they would approach actually filming the script.

A lot of the feedback from these pros addresses issues of cost, at least tangentially. Like when the director says (paraphrasing), "The nature of the story is going to force me to shoot and light a main character like *so*, and it's going to take forever," you can read that as meaning "It's going to cost a ton, because time is money."

Other parts of the book also touch on various aspects of thinking about the actual costs of going from screenplay to film. The book is old enough that the "Hollywood" it describes might not be quite the same as the current environment (although Goldman is still alive and working), but I would think there's still some valuable info and perspectives for current screenwriters.

Plus it's just generally entertaining as hell.
posted by soundguy99 at 7:34 AM on January 29, 2014 [2 favorites]

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