Writers are fascinating creatures, existing in their own little worlds in its most fantastic forms – creatures, wars, adventures, fantasy worlds, the depths of the ocean and more.
Scripts come alive when they are produced. Productions require money. Funding means examining the underlying costs through schedules and budgets. These two components – a film’s schedule and budget – determine the final cost of the film. That final cost is used, especially in the independent world, to determine whether or not to proceed with the project. Over last year, I did schedules and budgets for five projects that were ultimately deemed too costly to justify the sales in both the domestic and international markets. The product (film) cost more than the market could bear. No go.
LOWER FILM COST = CHANCE TO GET THE FILM MADE
Today, with the vast media landscape surging with so much content, the quest for the right ‘economic model’ to make films, TV and streaming programs is critical toward a creative’s survival and a company’s prosperity. One answer is to simply make the project cheaper.
How do you do that?
First, let’s break down the costs into several areas to consider in our discussion.
Above The Line – producer, director, writer, talent, stunts (yes, they’re onscreen) and T&L for all those personnel. T&L=Travel & Living.
Below the Line – a rather lengthy list of the crew. These are technicians and craftspeople who create the look of the film and support its logistical structure. They include the Production Staff – Unit Production Manager, First Assistant Director, Accountants (track the money!), Script Supervisor and production assistants. Numerous other departments include Camera, Wardrobe, Props, Set Dressing, Locations, Transportation, Electrical and Grip.
Post-Production – Editorial with an Editor, Assistant editors and Post-Production Supervisor including all the required equipment for their work
Other – These expenses vary but can include Deliverables as required by the distributor, office expenses, publicity and more.
Contractual Charges – Contingency (10%), Bond cost (2-3%), Finance, Development, Overhead and SAG/DGA Residuals.
LOWERING THE COST
Each section above has costs that can be altered or negotiated. And costs that cannot be changed. Rates in many countries are fixed. In American film production, these rates are set by the unions – Screen Actors Guild (SAG-AFTRA), Directors Guild of America (DGA), International Alliance of Theatrical State Employees and Teamsters. The rates are determined in these areas by the overall cost of the film because the overall cost determines the ‘Tier’ in their labor rate structure. The IATSE which covers most of the Below-The-Line technicians and craftspeople has numerous agreements but let’s just stick with the Tiers for now. These tiers have four levels
Tier 1 – $1.62 Million to $4.76
Tier 2 – $4.76 Million to $8.12
Tier 3 – $8.12 Million to $11.4
Above Tier 3 – Full Feature Rates
If your particular script falls into these categories, then those rates are utilized in the budget. For higher budget films, the rates can be duly proportional to the film. For low budget films, let’s say $2.5 Million, the Tier 1 rates can be very challenging in relation to their proportionality to the overall budget. In other words, those rates are pretty high for a ‘low budget’ film.
One strategy is to reduce the other costs – purchases, rentals, etc., At a certain point, you can’t lower too much or there is no point in having a crew as they would not have any equipment or purchases to work with in their department.
THE WORLD IS YOUR OYSTER – AND HAS LOCATIONS
Hollywood film productions have long shot overseas. “Lawrence of Arabia” was shot in Jordan, Morocco and Spain. “Spartacus” battle scenes were shot in Spain. More and more, technology allows us our productions to reach farther afield for locations – and reduced costs. Communication costs are practically zero with Skype and email. And Internet searches yield the low prices for hotels and flights.
National cinema in many countries has only grown with digital technology as compared to the Panavision and Arriflex monopolies which cost an enormous amount to buy these film cameras. Other areas like digital editing and VFX have only added to the flexible means of making a film.
So what are the options for shooting overseas and how does it help me make my film?
If your film can be shot overseas, then considerable cost reduction might make it more appealing to your producer-funders. “IF” depends on a number of factors. You can set a feature film in an American metropolis and then go to Vancouver or Toronto. You have to worry about license plates and signs which is probably not too bad. But taking your Chicago set film to Mexico or Europe presents much bigger architectural problems for production design. Similar is easier.
However, if you think about setting your story in cheaper location first, then you might be on your way toward making an appealing economic production model. Remember that a producer-funder has to like your story first. But the Media Math is critical these days.
RATES AROUND THE WORLD
I made a brief comparison of rates around the world based upon the budgets and spreadsheets sitting my in trusty Mac file labeled Unions>Foreign Shooting. As you can see from the table below, I lined up the rates.
Global Labor Rates Charts
The chart is fairly self-explanatory. On the top, we have locations and then the various rates. I converted everything to U.S. ($) Dollars so that one can see a true comparison across the board. A couple key notes.
First, not all the spreadsheets had all the positions that I initially chose. Gaffers and Script Supervisors were brought from overseas to foreign countries. Gaffers help the Director of Photography realize their vision for the film. Script Supervisors work closely with the directors on their notes for editorial. So when a director communicates with their Script Supervisor, the notes must be crystal clear.
In the next iteration, I think that I might look at Sound Mixers and Booms, electricians and drivers.
Second, the currency is key. We think that the U.S. Dollar is the supreme currency. The greenback certainly works today as the world’s reserve currency with its wide circulation and stability. But that could change. The Exchange Rate is critical. When I started “Taken 3”, the Euro was strong. The dollar was 1.38:1, meaning that I needed $1.38 to buy a single Euro. So shooting in the United States with a strong Euro was a good decision for Luc Besson and his company. The Euro has since declined in value against the U.S. Dollar, probably due to some economic turmoil and perhaps Brexit.
As you can see in the chart, the countries with an economic advantage are either in Eastern Europe (especially Romania and Bulgaria) or in developing countries like Vietnam, Colombia and India. In these countries, using the American film production technique as a standard, the quality can be lower in a certain sense. But these countries are catching up very, very fast. Youthful curiosity and energy, coupled with digital technology, is closing the gap very, very fast. And that good ol’ ingredient of guerilla filmmaking mentality – just make it happen – crosses many cultural boundaries.
Third, Infrastructure is also Key. Many countries do not have the American or European equipment and crew base. Trailers customarily used in the American production model won’t be found overseas – and could probably never navigate certain roads in Thailand, Vietnam or Malaysia. One of the greatest stumbling blocks was the lack of film labs approved by Kodak (and the insurance company) for processing film. With the digital world, the reach for locations has only expanded.
Fourth, the crew base is critical. Many technicians in developing countries have good technicians – but not great technicians. The American model is the apex of the production line mentality. Inspired by Henry Ford’s production line for automobiles and the Model T Ford, the Golden Age of Hollywood streamlined the process, creating numerous positions responsible for various activities on a film set. The production process for finishing the editorial and post process was also run like a machine. The crew base is defined as: “How many film crews are available in a given geographic area?” In other words, if you had four feature films suddenly show up in your location, how many locals could you get and use? This situation becomes tricky because you have to then import other Key Crew such as the Camera Operators, Sound Mixer and more.
The Director is choosing his Production Designer and Director of Photography.I did not include some countries that I have worked in or scouted like South Korea or Egypt. Perhaps on my next go around.
So what does this mean for you, The Screenwriter? A story set in an economically favorable region with strong crew, a stable and favorable (in relation to your funding source) currency and a steady political environment can yield a favorable economic model for your producer-funders. Some countries with very favorable rates also have production incentives, adding to the luster of their choice as a production target. They might embrace your Story, the Media Math and the sales attendant to your film project right into profitability.
A few elements stick out in this paragraph above. Puerto Rico was shooting many projects but its incompetent political leadership has led the U.S. Territory into financial ruin with a $78 Billion debt. The territory’s incentives are doubtful . Heck, they might even get the island’s electricity shut off. The same with the city of Chicago and State of Illinois which is in another complete financial debacle of their politicians own making. Their economic failure throws the likelihood of getting production incentive money back into doubt.
So that means that even when you check out the prospective location’s incentives, make sure you understand the underlying stability of their economy. Political stability is another situation. While I have been to both South Korea and Egypt, both experienced political instability. France and Britain have