Independent Movie Budgets: How to Prepare the Basic Top Sheet

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Basic budget preparation for the Top Sheet of an Independent Movie.

This article is designed for the new producer's education in making a profitable movie. When a Professional Filmmaker, especially a new professional filmmaker, chooses to make a movie, a movie designed to bring an income back to the makers and the investors of a film, several elements must be in place, to provide the best opportunity, to make the movie a profitable success.

Here is a process that almost all true filmmakers go through, when deciding to make a movie for money.

The first consideration for making a movie is, "Do I have something to shoot that other people will actually pay for?" What is your story? You need a story that you can shoot, that will hold the interest of the watcher, and draw them back to watch it again. So you need a good script. Your choices are to write it or buy it. What will that cost? Well, you have the registration fee, purchases of the story rights, the writer's fees, copyright fees, copying fees, rewrite fees, and other considerations.

The second consideration, once you have selected a story, is to decide, "What do I show my story on?" What is the format that you want to shoot on or can afford to shoot it and where do you think it will appear? Do you choose to shoot it on film, if so are you going to shoot it on 16mm or 35mm stock? Are you prepared for the costs associated with film stock? Are you shooting on a digital format? If you are, are you shooting at 720p, 1080i, or 1080p in 24 frame? What will that cost? How much are the P2 cards going to cost or how much will you have to pay for the external hard drives you will need to down load your masterpiece?

The next considerations are a myriad of questions you must answer? Who will you get to act in your movie? How much will you have to pay them? Is it a Union Shoot? If, so, what about the union requirements of health and retirement funding. What about getting a crew? How much is that going to cost? How about equipment costs? What about location costs, after all you need to shoot it, some place? What about food? Wardrobe? Hair and makeup? These are all costs that a filmmaker/producer must consider.

This brings us to our first working step in pre-production, making a workable budget. This article will lay the ground work for the first tier of your movie budget, the Top Sheet. There are usually three tiers to a movie budget, the Top Sheet, the "Description Budget" or Account tier, because it list the items by their accounting numbers and description, and the Detailed Item Tier, which is where very detailed individual listings of costs are explained.

A note about Top Sheets, they are constantly being revised as the production moves from one phase to another of producing the movie. The first time you create a Top Sheet, it will be for estimate purposes. Let me repeat that, The first time you create a top sheet it will be for estimate purposes! Why?

A movie is made up of many variables but the two that will change often and change the circumstance of a planned budget are People and Time. Both are fickle and will always cost a production more money than it wants to spend, given any opportunity.

But the best way to control the chaos that ensues in a movie is to make a budget that is both stoic to change and fluid to allow for the eventualities.

Top Sheets, essentially, follow the same format and they are not hard to create.

I have made a very simple Top Sheet for this article, using just the table maker and a paper and pencil to check my calculations. It is very simplified. Top Sheets tiers usually are, because this is what you initially present to your investors for their money. Keep it simple and easy to read and follow the format.

There are usually four sections, sometimes five to the Top Sheet. Those sections are the Title Section, Above-The-Line Section, Below-The-Line Section, the Post-Production Section and sometimes the dreaded "Other" Section. This example uses four. Besides creating your own, you can also download budget software programs such as Entertainment Partner's Budgeting, which is commonly used in the movie business. When you start to create more detailed budgets, this will become a requirement.

The four sections of the example tell a story. That story is what you are going to do to make a successful movie. All the sections have purpose and functionality. They are quickly able to answer important questions that come up, repeatedly.

The Title Section names your project, tells you what kind of crew and talent you are going to use, how long the movie will be when it is finished and how long you will need to shoot it. Essentially it tells you and your investors what you are going to do.

The Above-The-Line Section covers your creative talents; Producer, Writer/s, Director, and Actor/s. This section, sometimes called "The Seats Section" because these are the people that put ticket buyers in the seats of the movies, and it will, initially, look to be the most expensive items (they are not, unless your A-List Actor has real draw and you have agreed to everything they want) and usually will be the first shock that your new investors will have to overcome. These are the professionals that will bring your film to the screen with their vision. Notice I said their vision because everyone has input from this group, The actor interprets the character, the director sees the vision of the idea of the story, the writers cringe as their original intent is sliced and shaped into something not of what they slaved over for months, and the producer has to keep the overall budget and general story intact to sell something that the public will want to see and pay good money to watch.

The Below-The-Line Section covers the machine works of the movie making process, or to put it another way, this section covers what it really takes to get through with the production, this includes the equipment, crew, food, advertising, insurances, permits, and all those things that gets you through production. Finally, the Post Production Section covers you editing costs, music and score, mix, titles, contingency and related areas.

I have made a generic example and you may use and adapt this for your own Projects.

This example uses $100,000.00 for your fictional budget, adjust your's accordingly. Remember, all that is required to make this is a table maker and a calculator.

The Title Section, this is a basic title page, but it can be extended for more information common to your production.

"My New Movie" Budget

Title My New Movie

I. M. A filmmaker

Director I. B. A visionary
Writer R.E. Write
Length 91 minutes
Cast SAG Ultimate Low Budget
Crew Non-union
Shooting days 2 weeks

That is your title section. The reason for the section is to guide you. You know what the story is, you know who is in charge of the overall film (That's your Producer), you know who is in charge of the actors and the story (Your Director), and you know who to go to to rewrite a scenes or a line or at least who to blame for a poor story, if your movie bombs at the box office, (Your writer, just kidding). Then, you want to know how long your film will run when it is in its finished form. Why? Because the longer the length the more it costs, but a feature length movie also brings in better return on investment (profit) than short films. Next, do you have any unions involved, is this a "favored nations" (meaning that everyone is treated and paid the same) shoot, because, if you do, there is always additional paperwork and greater costs to consider.

In this case, you are using the Screen Actor's Guild Ultimate Low Budget Agreement, for your actors, but your crew is not a union crew.

Next, you want to make your first working section of your budget. It is called the Above-The-Line section. Above the Line costs are your creative costs and consist, for this budget example, of just four sub-divisions, although I have worked above the line budgets that may have seven or eight sections that include background actors place in the above the line section, as opposed to the below the line costs, and travel costs.

The first sub section of the Above the Line section is the Producer section, This includes the Executive Producer (The person that usually Brings in the Money), The Producer (This is the Boss), Associate Producers (People who bring something to the movie, or do something that makes the movie better, that are usually assigned specific tasks by the Producer), and their staff and expenses. For this Budget, You have one Producer that represents everyone in this sub-section.

The Second Sub-section is for your writer. All the costs for the writer are included in this section, Registration fees, the writer's fees (In some budgets, these can be broken down to first draft, final draft, and retouch (rewrites)), Copy fees, and story rights.

The Third Sub section, is set for your Director, it also includes his office assistants, but not the First Assistant Directors, Second Assistant Directors, or Second Assistant Directors.

Finally, the last section concerns your talent. These are your actors. See example below.

Above-The-Line Section

Account number Description percentage allowed for budget Actual Budget
001 Producer Five percent (5%) of the budget is the standard fee paid to producers. $ 5000.00
002 Writer/Script Two percent (2%) is usually the guide, but this floats a lot, be prepared to go as much as 8% or more, for a named writer. $ 2000.00
003 Director Four Percent (4%) is the "unofficial" standard. $ 4000.00
004 Cast Set 20% of the budget to cover all the costs associated with all your talent. $20000.00

Then ad the Totals for this section. I have made a separate section here, just as an example. In the next section I have included it in the section.

Above-The-Line Section Totals

ABL Totals Sum up your total for the above the line section, if it is with in the percentages, move on to your next section 31% of your budget $29,000.00

In some budgets you will have an estimate budget and an actual budget. The Actual budget is how much it is really going to cost you to produce the movie, and the estimate is an all inclusive cost analysis tool, that includes the all deferments. The estimate tells you what really it costs once complete, the actual is the actual cash flow your need to get the job done. The Estimate budget tells you what, if you are successful, in the market place, what it will cost to bring the movie to the break even at production point. This is what the production costs will have been to break even, but not what the added Distribution costs, such as P&A (Prints and Advertisement fees), are, for your movie to make a real profit. More on distribution cost in another article.

The Second section of your budget is called the Below-The-Line Section. These are the cost necessary to make the movie. Your crew costs, equipment costs, food, locations, stock, etc.

Below-The-Line Section

Account Number Description percentage allowed for budget Actual Budget
005 Background/Stunts Three percent (1%) $ 1000.00
006 Camera (Rentals/Purchase) Seven Percent (5%), because the camera and the sound quality make or break a movie. $ 5000.00
007 Sound (Rentals/Purchase) Six Percent (4%) because Sound packages usually are less costly than cameras $ 4000.00
008 Lights/Grip (Rental/Purchases) Three percent (3%) because, while lights are important, day shoots use less in lighting and more in scrims and silks, plus packages cost a lot less. $ 3000.00
009 Electrical Two percent (2%) because you need electrical, especially if you go to locations, because many locations do not have power or the right kind. $ 2000.00
010 Expendables One Percent (1%) because you will use them and this area can get out of control, if you do not watch this. $ 1000.00
011 Director of Photography/ Cinematographer This person are your eyes, they are worth the money, pay them well! three Percent (3%) is reasonable $ 3000.00
012 First Assistant Director This is the hardest working crew member of your team, they keep everything running smooth or they can mess it up badly, choose well. Pay three percent (3%) $ 3000.00
013 Film Crew ten percent (10%) should be your guide $ 10000.00
014 Arts/Props Varies but Two percent (2%) is the usual for a small feature. $ 2000.00
015 Wardrobe Varies but two percent (2%) is a good rule of thumb. $ 2000.00
016 Hair Stylist/Makeup One percent (1%) including kits should be used here. $ 1000.00
017 Insurance I allow two percent (2%) but most of my films have paid around 1.84% for all insurances totals. $ 2000.00
018 Permits This depends where you shoot and can make you crazy because many places have no rhyme, nor reason. But I set aside two percent (2%) $ 2000.00
019 Locations Set up three percent (3%) for location costs not covered in your other expenses. $ 3000.00
020 Transportation

This should be red lined with a big siren, this is a variable that will get out of control if you let it. Figure three percent (3%) for anything under $10 Million and eight percent (8%) above that.

$ 3000.00
021 Special FX Three Percent (3%) is standard for this expense. $ 3000.00
022 Set Design Small Productions usually rely on rentals or locations, set designers can be very expenses, but set another two percent (2%) $ 2000.00
023 Food There is an adage in Hollywood, "Feed everyone well andthey will work out well for you." Five percent is a good guide but if you have it in your budget try for twelve to fifteen dollars per person per each day of the shoot. $ 5000.00
024 Publicity As much as you can afford but start at three percent (3%) $ 3000.00
Totals   61 $ 61000.00

This is an abbreviated budget for below the line. There are many other sub-sections that can be added and should be. These are just the key elements needed to complete production. The Last section is your Post Production section.

Post Production

Account Number Description Percentage allowed for budget Actual Budget
025 Editing Two percent (1%) $ 2000.00
026 Music/Score One percent (1%) $ 1000.00
027 Post Sound One Percent (1%) $ 1000.00
028 ADR One Percent (1%) $ 1000.00
029 Titles One Percent (1%) $ 1000.00
030 Mix One percent (1%) $ 1000.00
Completion Bond Usually runs 3% Three percent3.% $ 3000.00
Total Above-The-Line     $ 29000.00
Total Below-The-Line     $ 61000.00
Total Post Production     $ 7000.00
Total   100 percent $100,000.00

Post Cost vary and this example would be out of line if you take your production to a professional house, but with today's digital software, such as Final Cut, many of the traditional editing costs can be greatly reduced by doing it yourself. This concludes the lesson on How to prepare a Top Sheet. Good Luck and break a Leg. See you on the Set.


Danny Hauger
Posted on Feb 7, 2011
M 5446
Posted on May 18, 2010
William J. Felchner
Posted on May 16, 2010