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Why Are Movies So Expensive?

For longer than I’ve been in the Industry, we’ve been hearing how cheap, digital cameras
and readily available editing software would democratize cinema. There would be a revolution in independent filmmaking that would tear down the studio system.

Except… that hasn’t happened. The reason is, equipment is no where near the biggest expense on a film set. People are.

At one time, you needed to  buy an actual film camera, film stock, pay for developing, and rent a massive edit bay. An average person could afford none of this on their own, so “independent” cinema still required a huge amount of infrastructure.

But those were all necessary-but-not-sufficient conditions to shooting your movie. You still need a cast and crew. Even when Don Hertzfeldt hand-draws every frame of a short cartoon by himself, there are still 11 other people in the credits–

On your typical TV show, payroll is about 70% of the budget.1 Take away above-the-line talent (who are still paid through payroll), and the crew is still around 50%. And these are shows that are renting soundstages, trucks, and massive lighting packages.

How does this make sense?

Let’s bring it down in scale. Let’s talk about a hypothetical, small-budget, indie movie. Something you might PA on when you’re starting out in the business, or maybe you feel like you could produce yourself, now.

We’ll assume all of the locations are places you can borrow (or steal). You’ll shoot with the DP’s camera, using whatever lights he and the gaffer already own. The sound mixer is kind enough to supply his own gear, as is the editor. This’ll be cheap, right?

We’ll give you a 20 day schedule. That’s not very long for a feature film, but it’s not unreasonably short either. We’ll say there’s a cast & crew of 35 people. Again, small, but not crazy. You can shoot a movie like this.

Everyone who’s working on it loves the script, but they can’t work for free for a month. So, you pay everyone minimum wage.

So, how much is that? 35 people X 20 days X $140/day = $98,000.

That’s right: nearly a hundred grand just to get people to show up on set. For minimum wage, whether they’re the director or a PA. No equipment, no locations, no props, costumes, or production design. It doesn’t include food, which is vitally important. It also doesn’t include the cost of acquiring the script, and it doesn’t include post production at all.2

Movies are, and will always be, expensive, because they require a lot of time from a lot of people. It doesn’t matter how cheap your camera is, or if the cast wears their own clothes, or if you don’t do any kind of set decorating whatsoever.

Even on the largest possible scale, people are the biggest expense. Watch the credits of an effects-driven movie. They go on forever, right? It’s not the computers and software that cost so much; they’re actually pretty cheap, in the over-all scheme of a $200 million budget. It’s the people who use the computers and software with talent and skill that really drive up the price.

People are the most important part of filmmaking, and so it stands to reason that they are where you spend your money.

Footnotes    (↩ returns to text)

  1. This is according to several payroll accountants I spoke with.
  2. Which might even be more expensive than food.
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7 Responses

    1. That’s from Chris Henry, the producer of Crew Call. He asked me to plug his movie, since he produced my podcast for free for 26 episodes!

  1. The price of payroll for skilled and talented folks is just that; professional people actually save the production money, by not wasting it and knowing how to spend it.

    One may rent a room for a person to walk around in a white smock.
    That does NOT make a physician. The patient is paying for the doctor’s knowledge and skill. An unskilled person may actually unintentionally kill the person.

    There are films and TV programs made by unskilled people.
    They are not watched, since they do not communicate, so they do not make any money.

  2. Most of this is very true, but you are wrong in implying that independent filmmakers can’t make movies unless they have $98,000.

    1) Dead Hooker In A Trunk, $2500, sold to IFC Films
    2) El Mariachi, $7000, sold to Paramount Pictures
    3) Following, $6000, sold to Momentum Pictures

    Those are just three dream scenario examples excluding all of the digital age directors who spent several years making no-budget films until they progressed to $98,000+ movies (Gareth Evans, Andrew Bujalski, Ti West, Adam Wingard, Mike Flanagan, many others).

    If you want to make movies, go make movies. Not excuses.

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