I often write about the difference between working on a low budget or big budget production. But I realized, I’ve never defined the terms. If your understanding of the film business comes from entertainment websites, you might be under the mistaken impression that, say, a $12,000,000 film is “low budget.”
When you’re comparing it to movies that cost a hundred, or even three hundred million dollars, sure, twelve seems small. But movie budgets aren’t distributed evenly that way. Only 25 movies last year had a budget of over $100,000,000. That might sound like a lot, until you realize over seven hundred movies were released theatrically. Way more than that were made straight-to-video, or didn’t get distributed at all.
What Is a Low Budget Film?
Let’s see what the unions say.
IATSE (the union that covers most of the below-the-line crew) has three different tiers: below $6 million, between $6 and $10 million, and $10 to $14.2 million. (Anything above that is full union rates.) To give you a sense of scale, Get Out only cost $4.5 million. Then again, not paying the crew full union wages and benefits is probably how Blumhouse keep their films profitable.
A truly low budget film, then, is one with only six figures. Beyond that, you’re likely working under the auspices of at least one union or another, along with all the protections that confers.
Still, is it that big a deal to work on a union show versus a non-union one? Kinda yes, kinda no. I’ve heard it said the only difference between a $5 million picture and a $20 million one is how much the crew is paid; the difference between a $20 million and $100 million is how much the actors get paid.
That’s not entirely true, but it’s close. A bigger budget usually means more shooting days, which is good for everyone. A $5 million movie, while not technically covered by IATSE, will still likely follow the standard practices of the business, in terms of hours, meals, and general safety measures.1
If you’re a PA, you might wonder, “What does any of this have to do with me?”
The truth is, you benefit from unions, even though your position is non-union. Unions are, after all, the reason you don’t have to work on the weekend.2 Turnaround times are typically determined by the actors’ schedules, and limited by the SAG agreement. Even the types of food served at lunch are mandated by various union rules.
Your rate is likely to be minimum wage no matter what, at least if you’re starting out. But life is so much better, and easier on a union production. If you’re working on a hundred thousand dollar movie, well, for one, you’re lucky if you get paid at all. But even beyond that, the producers will try all kinds of tricks to pinch pennies, everything from not paying overtime to working ten days straight to not even paying for lunch or crafty.
I don’t begrudge anyone trying to direct their first film on a shoe string, as long as they’re not an abusive asshole. And if you’re willing to work on someone’s passion project for cheap or free, more power to you. Hell, we all started out on low budget productions, too.
But working in the low-budget world is not an easy life. I recommend moving up to union productions as soon as possible.