Thursday, October 10, 2019

Thoughts on film budgets

Budget breakdown for "Excursus"
A short film by the author—
with which he proposed to
his wife (who said yes).
One day, I was on the set of a corporate production and around lunchtime I was sitting with some of the crew members, talking shop. A newer member of the crew was asking one of the veterans about budgeting for a production. With appetites growing, catering and craft service was used as an example. Crafty can be budgeted by setting a dollar amount per day per person on the cast and crew. Allot $10 per person on a small 10-person production and your craft service budget will be $100/day. You’ll certainly want to be more generous and flexible when it comes to catering meals, especially if you opt to hire different caterers throughout the course of the shoot to add some variety to the menu. Productions—regardless of what they’re shooting—are often judged by the quality of their craft service and catering. In my budget template, “Comestibles” (Food) is the first item “Below-the-line” for that very reason.

Another question that was asked was, “Where in the budget can you most easily save money?”

Frugality, when budgeting for any film is always wise but I’m of the opinion that before one asks, “where can I save money?” One simply needs to become informed as to what the standard rates and fees are in order to properly estimate the required budget for a production. This is especially true if one is producing a project for a client. The client could be a business investing in a television commercial, or it can be an investor backing a feature film.

Knowing how much production services cost—and not forgetting that one needs to include their own fair wages—is essential to making a realistic budget estimate. When the client inevitably asks, “Can you do it for less?” the answer should never be “Yes.” It should be, “Only if you want to change the scope of the production and lower your expectations.”

Once production is rolling, and one has a defined budget for what they have been contracted to do, opportunities to save money may certainly present themselves. However, the way one saves money on a production and how one uses that savings should be informed by ethical business practices and the law.

Unfortunately, it is not uncommon for budgeted productions to request “volunteers” in front of and behind the camera, regardless of the fact that the practice is illegal. A producer may justify this practice—called “wage theft”—for any number of reasons, from saying that they’re “saving the client money” to trite appeals to artistic egos but it doesn’t change the fact that the practice opens up the production (and the client) to some severe legal ramifications that could cost much more than the savings envisioned by using unpaid labor.

In the case of productions that expect to take advantage of government-funded film incentives, the motivation to "save money" in the short-term negatively affects not only the people convinced to work for free but the bottom-line of the production itself.

If a project is approved for a film incentive rebate of 25% based on their commitment to spend at least $1 million dollars in the state, cutting corners through wage theft will directly impact the amount of money they would receive for their rebate.

For example: getting 100 people to be free extras for a simple crowd scene might save the production $10,000 for one day but NOT spending that money can, at best, shrink the production's rebate check by $2,500. Or worse. When all the receipts are counted, the budget has been properly audited and it turns out that not paying extras that one time was all it took to cut their in-state expenditures to less than $1 million dollars thus disqualifying them for the 25% rebate.

That $10,000 saved on one day of production would wind up costing $250,000. It's not uncommon for producers to count on incentive rebates to fund or at least supplement their post-production budget. And all it takes to screw it up is a short-sighted UPM or Line Producer to make an unethical and illegal decision because they think they're doing their employers a favor by "saving" them some money on a single day of production.

Bottom line, one should never try to save money at the expense of the people that are working for them. If one has given an accurate and fair budget estimate to a client and the client has agreed to it, there should be no excuse for asking—or requiring—anyone to work for less than a fair rate, especially if it means that a budget surplus is only going to be used to inflate one’s own reimbursement for their services as a producer. I can’t think of any producer that has used a budget surplus to refund their client/investor because they overestimated the cost of the production. Being able to make a reasonable profit for the work one does is an essential factor in making fair and accurate budget estimates.

When budget-saving opportunities present themselves, one needs to ask,
“Will any one person be negatively affected by this decision?”
For example: If one has allotted $2000 in their budget to secure the use of a location—based on typical rates for similar locations—and then learns that the owner/manager of said location only charges $1000 or its use. Before popping open the wrap party champaign, the question must be asked
“Will any one person be negatively affected by this decision?”
If $1000 is the standard fee, determined to be fair and worthwhile by the owner/manager, then the answer to the above question is, “No.”

Congratulations! That’s a $1000 budget surplus—assuming, of course, that the rest of the budget balances out at the end of the shoot.

So, what do you do with that savings?

One option of what to do with any budget surplus during production is to simply allot it to the contingency fund. Every production should include a “Contingency” line-item equal to at least 10% of the entire production budget. These funds are set aside from the beginning in order to cover unexpected expenses, and any minor differences between estimates and actual rates and fees for the production.

If a piece of equipment is damaged and needs to be repaired or replaced immediately, so the pace of production isn’t hindered, contingency funds can be used to cover those costs and those receipts provided to the production’s insurance company for reimbursement.

If one has fairly estimated the cost of a crew member’s rate and kit fee and the actual cost is slightly more than the estimate, don’t ask the crew member to give you a discount or to waive their kit fee just to match the estimate. Pay them what their knowledge and experience have determined is fair. Contingency funds exist to make up that difference.

If a new contractor has offered the production a valuable service for considerably less than what has been budgeted only because they’re new to the industry and have not yet grasped the value of their work, before just agreeing to their lower fee, ask the question:
“Will any one person be negatively affected by this decision?”
The new contractor would certainly be affected, even if they don’t realize it. One must also consider that agreeing to that lower fee may result in a budget surplus but it would be unethical and potentially detrimental to the segment of the industry that the contractor represents. Undervalued services often result in more knowledgable and experienced contractors having to lower their rates in order to be competitive while hurting their ability to make a living at what they do. So, it isn’t just one person being negatively affected, it has the potential to affect an entire segment of the industry. So, the answer to the above question is “Yes!”

It’s also important to remember that, in this scenario, we’re working within an approved budget. The funds are there to compensate cast and crew fairly so there is no excuse to exploit someone’s naïveté in the interest of “saving money” that's already been earmarked for necessary expenditures. The client has already agreed to the amount, fully understanding the inherent risks involved in such an investment. Worrying about the risk that a client is taking is not part of the producer's job description.

There are already too many established filmmakers that approach budgets with a “scarcity” mentality. Being knowledgable about the value of the work that goes into a production and standing firm with clients/investors about having realistic expectations when it comes to appropriate budget estimates will help ensure that the work is valued and respected.

The contract may still go to the lowest bidder, but at least the difference in cost will be based on reasonable variables in an estimate and not a deliberate effort to undercut the competition and devaluing the work.

Joe Puente
Utah Filmmakers

Utah Filmmaker(s)™ and UFA™ are trademarks registered with the Utah Department of Commerce Division of Corporations and Commercial Code, Registration Numbers 10706542-0190 , 11025542-0190 and 10502093-0190 respectively.

Sunday, May 12, 2019

There is no such thing as a “half day”

From the "Excursus" movie poster
As I write this, it’s the day after Labeled Fest, where our short film, “Excursus,” was screened in the same theater in which it premiered in 2014. Reflecting on the single day of production that it had under the August sun on top of the “giant reflector”—Mario DeAngelis’ hilarious and accurate description—that is the Bonneville Salt Flats, I’m reminded of a point toward the end of the day when a few clouds were making some unscheduled appearances in the sky, blocking the sun from time to time. At one point, our 1st AC, Jonathan Judeen, looked toward one cloud in particular and said, “That cloud’s going to block the sun in about seventeen seconds.” His tone was matter-of-fact, showing no hint of sarcasm.

I’ll admit, there was a part of me that wanted to roll my eyes or offer some sort of incredulous response to his statement. Probably within the first second following Jonathan’s estimate, I thought, “Seventeen seconds? How the hell did he come up with that number? Why so specific? How could he possibly know?” But instead of saying anything, I started counting seconds to myself, “two, three, four… sixteen, seventeen,” and by that point, the cloud had completely covered our view of the sun. Jonathan called it… to the second. I was impressed.

That same year, I had worked on the pilot for Wesley Austin’s series, “The IP Section,” as a boom operator and witnessed something similar. Almost every time that cinematographer Wes Johnson and his team were working to set up a new shot, the 1st AD would ask for a time estimate for when they would be ready to shoot. As I recall, the response was rarely in minutes—even if multiple minutes were required. It was almost always stated in seconds, “One hundred five seconds,” “98 seconds,” etc. This was an experienced crew that knew what they were doing and knew the capabilities and limitations of the equipment they were working with so well that they could estimate how long it would take them to set-up a shot to within a few seconds.

Productions such as those are a joy to work on. A professional and efficient set—though not without it’s moments of work-related stress—is an atmosphere that instills confidence in all its participants and inspires the best work.

When I was hired for that pilot, I was told, “It’s only $***/day.” A more experienced boom operator may have accepted the role with some reluctance but I was happy for the opportunity, since all of the projects that I was working on that year were going to fund “Excursus” and the bulk of the compensation for my services would turn into paychecks for my crew.

When breaking down a polished screenplay for production, estimating the time it will take to shoot a particular scene or sequence is as much an art form as it is a skill and it requires experience to get any good at it. When I first broke down the screenplay for “Excursus” into a shooting script, I handed it to Mario and Jack Diamond—director and 1st AD, respectively—and said, “This isn’t written in stone. It’s just how I kinda pictured it in my head. Use what you like and what’s practical but if you have a better way of shooting it, then by all means, go with what you think will work best. This breakdown is just a suggestion.”

My breakdown was very much appreciated. On the day of the shoot, I did my best to let go of my role as Producer and focussed on my job as actor but I could definitely see where their decisions deviated from mine and how they worked better to accommodate the resources of the production. When we wrapped the location, Mario said to me, “You had a good shooting script but if we had shot it the way that it was written, it would have taken us three days instead of just one.”

Three seems like a magic number to me. Whenever I’m speaking with novice filmmakers on the subject of estimating the amount of time it takes to shoot something, based on my personal experience, I always tell them, “Take that first time estimate that you came up with and triple it. Because you never know what’s going to happen on the day of the shoot that’s going to cause a delay and there’s always something that’s going to cause a delay.”

I suppose it’s evocative of the exchange between Captain Kirk and Mr. Scott in Star Trek III, when Kirks asks his Chief Engineer, “How much refit time before we can take her out again?”
“Eight weeks, sir,” said Scotty, “but ye don't have eight weeks, so I'll do it for ye in two.”
“Mr. Scott. Have you always multiplied your repair estimates by a factor of four?”
“Certainly, sir. How else can I keep my reputation as a miracle worker?”

From time-to-time, I see job posts in our Facebook group that make statements like, “We’ll only need you for a couple” or “a few hours.” If an hourly rate is being offered for such work, that’s fine by me.

However, there are also times when I see posts that call for a specific job to be filled and the posters ask, “What’s your half-day rate?”

HMUA Heather Shelton
transforming the author
into a zombie
I can appreciate being mindful of budget limitations and needing to accommodate them but claiming that a job is “only” going to be a half-day commitment, suggests that the contractor would be free to fill the other half-day with a different half-day gig so they can get a full-day’s rate—which is within the realm of possibility but very unlikely. To suggest that there’s so much work out there that someone could make a living working two half-day gigs a day, for any period of time seriously overestimates the demands of the local industry not to mention ignoring important factors like crew meals and commute times.

No one ever really works for just “half a day.” The preparation time is going to vary from gig-to-gig depending on the demands of the production and for roles and positions beyond those of background actors and Production Assistants, rates are not determined by an hourly minimum but by the nature of the work that’s needed and the talent and experience that a contractor brings to the table. A “half-day” doesn’t necessarily translate into half the work. For specialties like hair and makeup artistry, the amount of work and resources required for it may be no different for a “half-day” shoot than a full day. It’s more likely to amount to the same amount of work but only with an earlier wrap-time. Since it’s unlikely that there will be another “half-day” gig waiting for that one person afterward—for which their energy and supplies can be significantly drained—they should just be paid their standard day-rate and kit-fee. There are other places in a production budget where a producer can be frugal without interfering with someone’s paycheck and—by extension—their livelihood.


Utah Filmmaker(s)™ and UFA™ are trademarks registered with the Utah Department of Commerce Division of Corporations and Commercial Code, Registration Numbers 10706542-0190 , 11025542-0190 and 10502093-0190 respectively.

Monday, March 11, 2019

Owning a “label” as a filmmaker

This image is NOT of Brian Higgins
but most Utah Filmmakers who see it
may say, “Oh, yeah, I know Brian.”
When I think of Utah’s film community, there are only a handful of people that might be worthy of a label like “Icon.” One of these local film icons is Brian Higgins. Probably best known for producing Salt Lake City’s annual 48 Hour Film Project, Brian is also the mind behind the Filmulate Genre Festivals that take place throughout the year.
Another endeavor that Brian is committed to is his non profit organization, Create Reel Change, founded to educate and promote understanding and acceptance of mental health issues through creativity, so it came as no surprise when Brian decided to lend his support to the Labeled Festival for Mental Health and the efforts of its parent organization, Alliance House in Salt Lake City.
“Labeled Fest” starts at noon on May 11, 2019, at Library Square. Film submissions will continue to be accepted until March 20, 2019.

The “label” that this festival refers to is that which tends to be assigned to those who are proactive about seeking treatment for mental illness—and don’t hide it. While “labels” associated with various mental health diagnoses are often used pejoratively, the aim of the Labeled Festival is to help “take it back” with an eye toward removing any perceived stigma.

While my own efforts to maintain my mental health have never been a secret, I do try to be mindful when it comes to recognizing when it is or isn’t appropriate for discussion—especially within a professional setting. Considering the attention that Labeled Fest and Create Reel Change bring to the issue within the context of filmmaking, I feel encouraged to share some of my personal experiences and how they’ve affected me as a filmmaker.

I know and have worked with a number of people in the local film industry who function with various mental health diagnoses from clinical depression to bipolar disorder, general anxiety and other mental illnesses. They all do their best to manage their mental health while being productive, contributing their time and talent to the local industry, and growing as artists.

I’ll spare you a comprehensive mental health self-evaluation and limit my sharing to what can be an ancillary symptom to many mental illnesses as well as a singular diagnosis. It’s also something the most people have experienced at one time or another, especially those of us in creative fields.


To give you an idea of how debilitating anxiety can be, when I first started writing this essay—just three paragraphs in—I started feeling really anxious and had to step away from it. What I thought would just be a short break to administer some self-care turned into a day of worry that not only affected my ability to write but also impeded progress on a film project with a looming deadline.

It was about 24 hours before I was able to compose myself enough to finish writing it and I’ve been pretty much white-knuckling it ever since.

These are feelings that I know just about every actor experiences, regardless of whether they’re auditioning for a community theater production just for the love of it or if they’re an award-winning industry veteran preparing for a role written specifically for them in a big-budget feature film or series.

Anxiety is also experienced by creatives behind the camera, especially in high pressure positions like writers, producers and directors but, guess what, it doesn’t matter what job you might have on a project, you could be a cinematographer or a production assistant and still become virtually paralyzed by an unexpected panic attack.

Utah Film Commission
In my work as the Administrator for the Utah Filmmakers™ Association, I find myself enduring some intense anxiety even when I’m just working at home behind my computer (I’ll refer you to my experience writing this essay as described above). The nature of an “association” strongly suggests that I need to associate myself with others in the industry which means making an effort to go to local film-related events—and occasionally organizing them. This triggers my anxiety to an intense degree, so much so that I’ve had to cancel plans to participate in events at the last minute; most recently, Film Day on the Hill, which took place not long after I had been in contact with the Utah Film Commission and the Motion Picture Association of Utah. I certainly had a professional imperative to be there as a filmmaker and I wanted very much to show my support—and by extension that of the UFA™—by connecting with other industry professionals in person but my Generalized anxiety disorder had other plans for my physical person.

One thing that I’ve learned though is that my colleagues in the film industry are much more understanding of these challenges when I’m honest about them. To share with you another example, in December of 2018, I had a meeting with the leadership of another film-related non profit organization. When I was asked to briefly describe the mission of Utah Filmmakers™, I started to speak and then began to stutter—quite a bit. I paused for a moment, remembering that sometimes an anxiety attack can present itself as stuttering and stumbling over one’s words. I smiled, looked to my colleagues and said, “I apologize. I’m feeling a bit of anxiety.”

They all smiled back at me, expressed their understanding and patiently allowed me a moment to collect myself and continue. I can’t help but wonder how that would have gone over in a different industry where creativity isn’t as integral to the work that’s done. Speaking with one of these colleagues again on the phone, they mentioned to me experiencing “nervous energy” in anticipation of an upcoming event and I was glad to be able to express my empathy. I wondered if we were both reminded of my anxiety-induced stammering.

Utah Filmmakers Meet & Greet
When I am able to make it to film industry and community networking events, it takes a great deal of effort on my part not to isolate myself with familiar faces and I’m not always successful. Many people who are not accustomed to speaking or performing in front of an audience will find what I'm about to say incredibly ironic but I find it much easier to address a large group of people than to make small talk and meet them one-on-one. I enthusiastically jump at the chance to do so at events like Sue Rowe’s Utah Filmmakers Meet & Greets. Before I thank the host for the opportunity to speak and ask everyone to join the Facebook group if they haven’t already done so, I start off by saying something to the effect of, “I’ve got to run soon but before I do…”

I imagine that this little caveat might make it appear to others that I must be a very busy man with a number of projects on my plate, places to go and important people to see. If I haven’t been given the chance to speak to the room, I try to seek out the organizer and say, “I’ve got to run but before I do, I want to thank you…” and they may very well infer the same thing.

While I usually do have a number of projects on my plate, occasionally go places and get to meet important people once in a while, I have a confession to make:

“I’ve got to run,” more often than not, is just my way of saying that my anxiety is really elevated and I need to go home to deal with the panic attack that I knew all along would be coming.

In the end, I would rather pay that price to attend an event for the sake of the art that I love and the community that I adore than regret not having gone at all. It’s also one of the reasons that I started the Utah Filmmakers™ Community Liaison Program. It is a genuine effort to raise awareness of the organization but it’s also to make up for those times when I can’t be somewhere even when I want to be, more than anything.

Joe Puente
Utah Filmmakers™ Association

Addendum (16 March 2019):

I went to a short film screening last night… There were a lot of people there. It was pretty awesome. I said hi to one of the proprietors of the venue, took some photos and shared them online, dropped off some business cards and went home before the screenings actually started simply because I was feeling anxious.

I’m still glad that I made it out there though. It looked like everyone was having a great time and the night was definitely a success for those who planned it—and my ducking out early probably didn’t even register with anyone and that’s okay.

As I’ve said before, everyone experiences anxiety from time to time—some of us are affected by it more than others—and it’s important to remember that it’s not anyone’s fault. Panic attacks—mild, moderate and severe—just happen, affecting different people for different reasons. Sometimes, there are circumstances that can predictably elevate someone’s anxiety. Sometimes anxiety shows up when you least expect it. No matter when or where it happens, no one can take responsibility for someone else’s anxiety any more than they can for the fact that someone’s pupils will dilate when it gets dark.

This experience also reminded me of times that I’ve experienced anxiety on set and have witnessed others experiencing it. One of the ways that anxiety manifests itself is through irritability. Something to consider the next time a person might appear to be acting “difficult” in a high pressure situation. That’s not to say that those of us who struggle with anxiety should just get a pass for anything they might say or do when our anxiety is elevated. Those of us who have come to be aware of these challenges, are able to recognize their feelings of anxiety, and identify what may be causing them, have a responsibility to learn how to manage those feelings—principally for their own benefit but also when they are working, especially in a collaborative environment such as a film set.

I have been in situations where I needed to bring what I was experiencing to the attention of a crew member—usually a 1st or 2nd AD. By being honest about it, the production had the information that it needed to maintain its momentum. It’s better to be aware and prepared to be flexible with the order of scheduled events than for something to unexpectedly halt production—all due to a lack of communication rooted in fear of embarrassment. More often than not, just knowing that my crew was aware and understanding of what I was dealing with was enough to help me focus on the task at hand.

I’m sure that most people with on-set experience can remember a time when off-camera drama affected the crew’s ability to capture the drama that was scripted. If we’re being completely honest, it was usually an actor. When something like that is witnessed on a film set, it’s considered unprofessional behavior regardless of any underlying cause. Film and television production is an intense, high-pressure work environment and one of the responsibilities that everyone has on set is to manage their stress in a professional manner. Acknowledging a potential problem is professional, allowing a potential problem to turn into an actual problem is not.

I try my best to maintain my professionalism on set and—just like everyone else on the planet—I’m not always successful. But when I see someone just abandon all responsibility in service to their own ego, potentially sending the whole production off the rails, there’s part of me that wants to say, “Pull yourself together! You think the rest of us aren’t feeling the same pressure you are? Get back to work! You don’t see me losing it! I power through and save the panic attack, tears and IBS symptoms for when I get home!…That’s because I’m a professional.”

Utah Filmmaker(s)™ and UFA™ are trademarks registered with the Utah Department of Commerce Division of Corporations and Commercial Code, Registration Numbers 10706542-0190 , 11025542-0190 and 10502093-0190 respectively.

Monday, January 14, 2019

Tell your state reps how the film incentive benefits you

(This post has been updated with the inclusion of a letter† sent to Senator Luz Escamilla and Representative Angela Romero from the Utah Filmmakers™ Association)

This article in the Salt Lake Tribune has been making the rounds in the Utah film community. It does a terrific job of illustrating how much government incentives benefit local film industries and professionals but—regardless of the amount of money being discussed—one can only read so much about “tax credits,” “rebates” and “GDP” impact before one’s eyes start to glaze over.

As important and informative as this article is, there's one section that I think should resonate with filmmakers on a personal level. It starts with Virginia Pearce, Director of the Utah Film Commission, talking about “the crew member who gets paid, who takes his wife out to dinner, who buys a new car, who is able to live and work here instead of living and working in L.A….”

It quotes Taylor Sheridan, the filmmaker behind the Utah-based production “Wind River,” who said of his Paramount Network series “Yellowstone” that it “…employs hundreds of people, and the vast majority of them are local… And the ones who are coming in, they’re renting properties, they’re standing in line at the grocery store. They’re staying here. They’re moving in… We show up and spend an extreme amount of money, employ a workforce... And showcase the state.”

It’s one thing to read about the film incentive’s benefits to the local economy in abstract terms but I think what was missing from this article was a more personal perspective.

The Motion Picture Association of Utah exists to inform the Utah state legislature about how important the film industry is to Utah’s economy and how integral the Motion Picture Incentive Program is to bringing productions into the state and employing local filmmakers.

It’s imperative that state legislators also hear from the people who benefit directly from a thriving local film industry: their filmmaking constituents.

Utah Filmmakers* can support their industry and the efforts of the MPAU by contacting their legislative representatives by phone, fax, letter, and e-mail and letting them know how the film incentives directly impact their lives.

Don’t know who your legislative representatives are? That’s okay. I voted and I still had to double check—I guess state legislators are more camera shy than those in federal office. Just visit, plug in your address/zip code to find out who your representatives are and tell them how important the film incentives are to you personally.

As individuals, Utah filmmakers do not need to talk about GDP growth or the return on the state’s investments. Talk about how much you love your job and being able to make a living doing it in Utah. Better yet, how a more active industry would enable you to work full time—if you don’t already.

Talk about how landing that gig on a film or series that made use of the incentive is what kept a roof over your head in Utah, enabled you to support your family, buy locally and to take a more active part in your community.

Who among us doesn’t have a story of how a job came through at just the right time to take care of the bills or an unforeseen expense. If that job wouldn’t have been possible without the incentive, you need to let your representatives know about it.

The Utah legislative session starts on January 28, 2019. Contact your representatives TODAY!

—Joe Puente
Utah Filmmakers™ Association

*As loosely defined by the Utah Filmmakers™ Association, “A ‘Utah filmmaker’ can be anyone based in Utah who’s involved in filmmaking including—but not limited to—Producers, Writers, Directors, Cinematographers, Animators, Actors, Sound Engineers, SFX/VFX Artists, Composers and many other technical and creative people.”


Utah Filmmaker(s)™ and UFA™ are trademarks registered with the Utah Department of Commerce Division of Corporations and Commercial Code, Registration Numbers 10706542-019011025542-0190 and 10502093-0190 respectively.