Cinematography Mailing List - CML

Budgeting A Doco


Can anyone help with some budget savvy?

I'm pricing a doco for two separate Canadian production companies requesting treatments. The larger one is state funded and wants an "estimated comprehensive budget".

My budget comes in at 136K with a 5.5 hr to 1 hr shooting ratio on film. 5 person crew. 7 pre pro days. 14 day shoot. 1 month post. (that’s for each episode.)

A friend with some TV producing experience says to double all that (except the crew size) and that a 1 hr video show she is pitching will be 180-200K. (asking price I'm sure) for a very small cable channel !

My concern is in "meeting the expectations" of an experienced review committee.

What ball parks should a high production value 1 hour TV Doc come in at?

This isn't a long "in the field" type show. its very scriptable. alot of action on "bought" locations, re-enactments with actors and 'star' interviews with authors and historians.

My experience is that its worse to come in too low with $$ than too high. low suggests that you aren't well prepared, knowledgably or that the end product will be sub-par. High can always be negotiated down if they like the idea.

I just want to be sure the budget is within parameters that are customary for what I'm proposing to them.

If anyone is willing I'd be glad to call by phone to save email tapping

I need parameters!


Caleb Crosby, s.o.c.
New Orleans

Hi Caleb.

My thoughts on documentary budgeting.

I shot a couple of feature length docs on super 16 and one on HD. One super 16 film turned out to be a three part, three hour special on TLC that featured major musical artist. The other 90 minute super 16 project was an Academy Award Finalist and is currently running on The Sundance Channel after making the film festival tour (with a 35mm transform print). And the 90+ minute HD project opened at Sundance and was picked up by IFC Films for theatrical release with a 35mm transform print. All three of these films would be considered to be on the "high" side of the scale as far as docs go.

In the two super 16 docs we shot at a ratio much closer to three to one. With the HD doc, we shot something like 200 to one (no kidding, we had over 300 hours of source material - lol). All three films involved the same above the line team and production company.

I cannot give you an accurate budget for the cost of production due to my agreement with the producers nor can I share with you their final selling price other than what Variety has reported. But what I can share with you is a simple word to the wise.

The end game is not how much you can sell it for, but for how low you can produce it. All three of the films I shot exhibited high production values. I'm sure this did not hurt in their marketability. All three were high profile and enjoyed quite a bit of industry and consumer press. But in the end, the distribution companies picked up these films because they told a great story and they could buy them at a LOW PRICE (in relationship to their budgets).

I'm sharing this with you because I'm a bit fearful you might be taking the wrong path with your approach to costs. You wrote the following :

"My experience is that its worse to come in too low with $$ than too high. low suggests that you aren't well prepared, knowledgeable or that the end product will be sub-par. High can always be negotiated down if they like the idea."

My experience tells me that "high" does not mean the cameraman is more "knowledgeable" and it can't always be "negotiated down". High usually scares away the above line types and labels the cinematographer as either "slow" or "inexperienced". In the world of docs, you have to save every penny in production so you can give your director and producer a fighting chance in editorial where it is most critical to the documentary. You can't throw money at a production problem because there is little if any money to begin with. But what you can bring to the film is your expertise, experience, and commitment.

Use your personal tools to capture the best film possible given your budget constraints. Breakdown the film into a realistic budget knowing that the producers will most likely come back and ask you to cut even more.

In the end, I have found that individuals who fund and purchase filmed projects want to see reality. So give them a realistic budget that errors on the side of frugality, not padding.

This will go along way at establishing your credibility and commitment to the project and will also challenge you to deliver the goods. And a challenge always seems to bring out the best in all of us.

Just my two or more cents.

Have a great shoot!

Curt Apduhan
Southern California

Curt thanks for your reply.

The 3:1 ratio on a doc is unusual. how did you do it?

My situation is actually different than you related. Sorry if I was unclear in my earlier post. I've developed a treatment/script and shot a trailer. I have a couple prod co's interested (one seems pretty active) in producing it based on the trailer and they asked for an estimated total budget.

My comment about it being worse to "come in too low" relates to a price tag on paper for a show in development. I'm not producing a show and then marketing it as end product.

>My experience tells me that "high" does not mean the cameraman is >more "knowledgeable"

I agree, I should be more clear. I mean when presenting a price - as a producer- to a sponsor. I'm not in a cameraman relationship with these companies. the cameraman is still just a line item (I gave him full travel days though.

>I have found that individuals who fund and purchase filmed projects >want to see reality.

That's funny, I hear they just want to see you bend over .

> So give them a realistic budget that errors on the side of frugality…

Under budgeting doesn't promote credibility. Its suggests either need (not a good signal in any negotiation) or it is a secret handshake that says 'we are not talking about the same kind of project here'. which is the last signal you'll send them.

Under budgeting as inspiration? (Capt. Kirk here) MUST.... CUT... this ..... CANCER out....before it grows!

No. first ask for what you want, understanding you probably wont get all of it. after going thru that drill a few times - it gets to be knee jerk to ask for, again “What You Want”, which is by definition more than you need. I don’t think of that as padding - which connotes scamming- but just the way the racket is run. (rhymes with business is done) getting back to my original question from a few days ago. my budget will be committee reviewed and I wanted to be as sure as I could be that I was within parameters the expectations that might exist for a 1 hour scripted film doc. I suspect that pricing these things is a considerable skill and ...blah blah blah.

Final price came in at 204. sent it out Friday. man mailing Canada is beaucoup wallet emptying.

Mr. Wells are you there? I hope the 204 ain’t too much or I'll never get to report on those new edit toys!


Caleb Crosby, s.o.c.
New Orleans

Caleb Crosby wrote :

>It sounds too low to me. Is that in Canadian dollars?

I would look at your overhead, and contingency numbers more closely, that's likely where you're low. Also above the line salaries, seriously. Are you just doing the below the line budget though? If so, then it sounds closer to the mark.

Steven Bradford.

Thx Mitch, good to know. I had a friend tell me that a doc video 1 hour she was trying to launch was 180-200, and I figured that was impossible. But the film costs added about 30,000 over video- or 14 odd% so heck maybe I landed in the ballpark at 204. that leaves me a 20K contingency in addition or 224 If I understand what a contingency is.

If anyones interested I broke film costs down like this stock 6750 (45 cores V2) 2475 develop 2000 work print (know neg, speed up Spirit, pick battles. I hate seeing neg for first time at $$$$ per hour.

It would be cool to know what you have before the plumber connects pipe to your wallet ) //1500 prep (if needed) // 425 tape stock for TK // 875 Aaton code layback //14 400 spirit - whole batch // 3000 D-5 and Dbeta drag I hope this is somewhat close.

I figured Spirit at 600 (I can get it lower than that- but had a bad experience at Lower Than That Labs.) It's about 8 hrs footage or 10:1 ratio at 52 min edited show. That gives me full 3:1 TK facility time which I never need, and with a good colourist I can get thru less than 2:1. So budgeting is fun. makes you think you're working

Caleb Crosby, s.o.c.
New Orleans

Steven Bradford wrote :

> If it's a 60 min doc, that's only 2k a minute.

Good to hear, that's helping build consensus any idea what "K" per minute would be a rough average for a S16 show?

>I would look at your overhead, and contingency numbers more closely,

Are these line items? A CML'er sent me an excel attachment quite awhile ago. (3 years) its formatted for budgeting- about 5-6 page spreadsheet, pretty standard from the others I've seen. but the others I have saved and have looked at are all for spot work- almost worthless for Doc comparisons.

> that's likely where you're low. Also above the line salaries, seriously.

No the 136 is total. The only above the line I have is a directors fee at 10K- should there be a producer's fee as well? writer? my spreadsheet has a 30% "production fee" built into the factoring - I eliminated it years ago not thinking it was serious.

If anyone has an Excel budgeting form handy - I could use a new one.

Caleb Crosby, s.o.c.
New Orleans

Hey Caleb, you're shooting a doc, not a commercial! You can certainly beat some of those prices without compromising quality. I would still put that same number in my budget, but when it comes time to actually produce the doc.

You can certainly drop the 13.75 cents/ft. neg. processing to perhaps as low as 10 cents/ft., saving $675. Not much, but things add up.

The big savings is in that Spirit time. Come to a real town like NYC where there's lots of Spirits and plenty of competition. $600 per hour is fine for commercials, but you can get top colourists at top facilities for close to half that. Why should you be the only sucker to pay full retail? I'd peg that one at about $5000-$6000 savings, which should more than pay for a hotel room and airfare for you to come into town for the transfer. It could also go a long way to paying for a final DigiBeta Tape to Tape and other such costs.

Mitch Gross

Right on Mitch.

But really I'm not a Spirit sucker!! I paid 450 for spirit last couple times. if you can get it for less I take off my lens cap. thought I had a record at that price, but 10 process?

Last time, I paid that was at Allied and .... I'd lets just say I'd rather pay more.

"soup please not the stew"

I am a sucker for TK in NY tho. I've gone there last 3 times. love it.

I actually put in 1600 for DP/Producer to attend for 3 days. Hell if I'm pricing the show.... not gonna leave out a nice detailed TK, the X ingredient. I didn't put that in film costs but should have. It's a film cost.

What I really want to find this time is a spirit with power windows and a decent method of printing a good still off the neg. Have yet to find that.

Where did Dominic of Duart fame go? That's the man I'd like to talk to.

Then again I may be in Canada alot IF this thing gets picked up and may find a good lab there.

Caleb Crosby, s.o.c.
New Orleans

> where did Dominic of Duart fame go? That's the man I'd like to talk to.

Funny you should mention him. He now runs The Lab at Moving Images, the first new film processing lab in New York in more than 20 years (maybe thirty).
They process film quite nicely, and yep, they have a Spirit with all the toys. And they have Domenic Rom, which says a lot right there. They would actually have been my first suggestion to you. I believe Dom is on the CML, but here's the number for The Lab--212-661-2530. Say hi to him for me.

Mitch Gross

Mark Weingartner wrote :

> ...people may be more cordial, but are they NICER?

Definitely. someone once did a study and determined that the "niceness" of people rises in direct proportion to:

A/) the distance you are from your home zip code - and
B/) the amount of production advance in your bank account

Caleb Crosby, s.o.c.
New Orleans

Mitch Gross writes :

>where there's lots of Spirits and plenty of competition. $600/hr. is fine for >commercials, but you can get top colourists at top facilities for close to >half that.

I'm sorry, but if I could get an Adrian, a Fergus, a Gary, a JC, A Mick or a Seamus for that price then I'd be on a flight over like a shot.

I just feel that your definition of top colourist and mine differ.


Geoff Boyle FBKS
Director of Photography
EU based

Having done my share of budgets in the past, I can offer some simple advice to get costs down.

First, don't make savings "across the board". Look for ways where an increased small spend will lever a bigger saving.

Example, spending a bit more on good Makeup might mean you can hire cheaper, uglier Performers...

Spending on good voiceover talent saves studio recording time otherwise wasted as Uncle Fred tries to get it right.

Save thousands by shooting video, get a better Gaffer and DP.

Go for package deals. Try to bundle offline editing with telecine for example.

Pay single fee for Composer, Orchestra and Studio. Make it the Composer's problem.

If you are brave enough, deliberately plan to use Contingency in Post.

Hire top Managers (Accountants, 1ADs, Post Supers) - give them their budgets, read the riot act to them then unleash them.

If you are tough enough, screw every Dept budget down, keep some reserve, wait for the howls ("But I need...") and dispense the reserve carefully. Don't accept everything you are told about things being needed. Some things are better to get on a daily basis (cranes, radio mikes, whatever) and it might be prudent to hire a runner just to go get them. (May also not be possible in your Union environment).

Most importantly, as I often tell my Clients "I do this for the money, you know". Do it for the money. Don't treat budgeting and management as some chore loaded on top of the Creative Effort. Treat it as though it is the most important thing of all. Hire a real hardass Accountant. Let them do the dirty work and don't interfere (much).

John Hollands
"You need a camera AND a lens????"
"Can't you just film over the bad takes??"
"Share a limo?? SHARE??"


There was a whole group of people from New York in London today - I know this because they all decided to go to my favourite Starbucks at about the time I did. You can tell where they're from by their accents and the bullet holes in their trench coats.

Phil Rhodes
Video camera/edit


> Come to a real town like NYC where there's lots of Spirits...

Paging London post houses, paging London post houses.

Why is it so much cheaper?

Phil Rhodes
Video camera/edit

Phil Rhodes wrote:

> Paging London post houses, paging London post houses.

Think back to September 11, 2001. 175,000 people in Manhattan lost jobs directly or indirectly as a result. The economy was already a bit soft before that. Metropolitan, NY has an unemployment rate of 8.something percent. Network television shows doing post work are offering a third or half of the bids they get from post houses...Depends where you look at it from, but it is a competitive environment.

Mark Smith DP
Oh Seven Films Inc.

Caleb Crosby wrote:

> What I really want to find this time is a spirit with power windows

Your power windows are going to be an attribute of the color corrector, not the Spirit. The color corrector attached to almost any Spirit is going to be a daVinci 2K and will have power windows as standard equipment. If the da Vinci 2K is equipped with the Gallery still store, there is a really easy way to export still frames from the Gallery PC for manipulation in your favourite paint program. (Hint: bring a USB flash memory "disk on a chip" to the session with you.)

And why not Dallas or even LA?

David Tosh
Southern California systems engineer

David Tosh wrote :

>The color corrector attached to almost any Spirit is going to be a daVinci >2K


I'm bad with remembering the kit names in TK. But Duart is where I have been going. I like it there and have had very good results with the Sr. Colourist. last time he couldn't show up for the session and problems did happen- we managed to get thru it.

I believe they do use a daVinci CC, not positive. perhaps not the right or most recent model - it does not have Windows or a way to print stills. this may have changed in the last 6 months since I was there.

> (Hint: bring a USB flash memory "disk on a chip" to the session with

Thanks on that. Great idea.

> And why not Dallas or even LA?

I have used Dallas for Spiriting and liked it OK- just love NYC. LA?
Never been. Have to try it someday.

Caleb Crosby, s.o.c.
New Orleans

Can anybody recommend a clear and concise book on budgeting? Like maybe...

"Budgeting on a Budget" or "Budgeting for Beginners".

Tom McDonnell
New Orleans,La


I remember a book called "Budgeting for Film and Television" but can't lay my hands on it at the moment to give you the numbers and author.

Just a suggestion, get yourself a copy of "Movie Magic Budgeting" for your PC. It is a software program that is pricey but worth it. It has a large number of templates from the various studios and all the line items are included.

I used this as a beginner and found that it was great for remembering all of the things that sometimes get missed. There are lots of advanced features too. Things like fringes, discounts and residuals can all be programmed in.

You can tailor your own budget form to your own specific needs.

A couple of budgets and you will become very adept.

Andrew "producer in another life" Gordon
Regina, Saskatchewan

> Mitch just curious, how did they go a bit higher than beta and PD150?

Interviews were on DigiBeta. Re-enactments were shot on my JVC DV 500, which I consider significantly superior to the PD150. We also had a Steadicam, my jib and some real lighting for the shoot, most of which is a bit beyond what these type of jobs usually do. It was really a matter of my friends - a Steadicam Op and Gaffer spouse - and I working out a package deal for the use of our gear and our services for the shoot with the Producer/Director. We helped him save on certain areas so that he could afford other things. Worked out great in the end and we all made money and were happy.

Mitch Gross

The other day as I was perusing my local Barnes and Noble (Yes, THE Barnes and Noble on 7th Ave...) I happened across a book titled "Film and Video Budgets". Recalling your post, I took note and wrote down all the info. It was fairly inexpensive. I didn't read it any more than flipping through, but it looked pretty detailed.

I just looked it up and found it on Amazon, you can check that out at

The other book info follows :

Film and Video Budgets
Deke Simon & Michael Wiese
Paperback, 480 pages
Publisher: Edmond H. Weiss; 3rd edition (August 2001)
ISBN: 0941188345

See, this proves that I do pay attention... just in case anyone thought I didn't. And, of course, I am not affiliated with "Film and Video Budgets," or Barnes and Noble. However, I do own a bookstore if you ever need a special connection.

James MacWhyte
Seattle, Wa, USA

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