Staying on Budget and On Schedule

Good planning is the key to adherence to the production schedule. If the locations have been properly planned, the work planned in either a consecutive or story-conscious sense to aid both the director and actors in implementing a common vision, and reasonable time for bad weather or equipment mishaps has been allotted, a realistic schedule should be achievable.

Given that creative decisions will inevitably be influenced by the availability of funds, pragmatic choices have to be made every step of the way. The producers can choose to play a vital role in keeping to the goal of maximum creative freedom within the carefully defined budget and schedule parameters that have been agreed to, or they can choose to absent themselves, and leave it to the line producer or production manager to deal with.

The scenario defined above often leads to what’s known as a true “runaway production” – a movie that’s gone out of control, whose budget is undefined and ever-escalating, whose director is not recognizing any financial limits, and whose producer has clearly lost control of the situation. [NOTE: This use of the term “runaway production” should not be confused with the term used by some to describe to phenomenon of films lured by tax incentives to film away from traditional film production centers such as Hollywood]

The common sense in avoiding this situation is obvious and does not need overemphasis. The proactive producer can prevent this scenario from unfolding by supporting the director’s creative vision wherever possible in the wise expenditure of funds, yet maintaining the fiscal responsibility due the financier or studio, which is taking the biggest risk.

The key individuals in keeping the production on budget are the production accountant, or auditor, and the production manager and/or line producer. These individuals, along with the producer who must always be aware of the production’s budget status and forecast, have bottom-line responsibility to keep the ship on a steady course and the captain focused on the destination, and not the reasons the trip is costing so much.

As mentioned in the previous chapter, the first AD has the responsibility of keeping the schedule flexible enough to accommodate the inevitable mishaps and delays that plague any large-scale, labor-intensive endeavor. Working closely with both the director and the production staff, s/he can make sure that pages of the script can be successfully acknowledged as having been shot.

The financier or studio will be carefully tallying this number, along with the footage expended, the number of takes and the number of printed takes, and of course any overtime or, any double overtime (golden time) costs. The producer will be held accountable for these costs, and will be required to justify them or explain what will be cut from the remaining script and schedule to replace their expense.

The director is not unaware of these overages, of course. It is also not the director’s direct concern to stay on budget. All that matters to the filmmaker is making the best film possible, a shared goal if not a shared methodology. The experienced director understands that if a scene is not properly achieved at the time of shooting, the moment is irreparably lost. If that means going into overtime, so be it.

The producer, representing both the financier/studio’s interests but also his own, also wants the film to be as good as it can be, must remain cognizant of the commitment to a specific budget number in the greenlight agreement. If that agreement is violated, the movie can be taken away from both the producer and the director. Sometimes directors need to be clearly reminded of this consequence of going over budget.

Compromises can be made by both sides, and the priorities for the production can be realized if common sense prevails. It is always best to accommodate the director whenever possible, particularly if it’s clear how the request for more money will specifically benefit the production. If the extra costs seem extravagant, wasted or reflective more of ego than necessity, a review should be undertaken by the auditor and its results discussed in specific with the director.

The only give in a tight budget situation comes in the schedule. Only the canceling of production days, which on a decent sized feature will cost at least $80,000-$120,000 per day, will make a serious trade-off for production overages. Something has to give, and most directors would rather keep their production days and their ability to get the best performance and action moments, rather than constantly go into overtime to finish overly-ambitious shot lists. Again, this is the place where previz can be so helpful, defining shot lists in advance and helping the film stay on schedule.