How to Write a "Low Budget" Feature


Budget is usually the last thing on most screenwriters minds as they type away on their laptops... but maybe it shouldn't be.


The film industry is a business. Screenplays are written to be sold. Knowing the budget of your screenplay can help narrow down who you are selling to. There's no denying it: big budget films are awesome. Action packed. A-list cast. Incredible SFX. Exotic locations. I'm drooling just thinking about it.


But... that doesn't mean that low budget films are boring. They can be just as thrilling. And guess what? They are a lot easier to sell. Most production companies are not endless money pits. And even the ones that are may not be willing to risk that on an unknown writer.


If you've perused any production companies, literary agencies or management companies recently, you've probably seen a lot of this:

  • "ALL Submissions should be $1-5M Budget."

  • "Contained micro-budget (under $100K) and non-contained scripts with budgets between $1M - $5M."

  • "Looking for projects under $5M."

All of these were recently listed by producers looking for screenplays. $5M is a common breaking point. A lot of companies are not willing to purchase anything that will cost them more than that... because why would they? Low budget films cost less, but they can still make a crap-load of money. "Get Out" had a budget $4.5M and made $255M at the box office. That's a huge return.


So, how do you write a film with budget in mind? What determines the budget of a film? How can you make sure your project stays below that $5M mark? It's not as hard as you think. Below are six elements to consider when writing a low budget feature.


The Cast

Every character you write requires an actor to play them. This adds up fast. The more characters you have, the more expensive your screenplay will be to produce. And I'm not just talking leading and supporting cast. Think about background roles as well. The Barista your protagonist has to get coffee from. The people walking down the streets. A crowd. Any living, breathing, human.


Low Budget Advice: Keep your core cast small, and avoid scenes that require lots of extras.


Locations

Exotic locales. Spaceships. Pandora. It's obvious that these locations cost money. But the cost of locations can add up on a smaller scale too. A character who travels from the spa, to a school, to home, to work at a factory and then a fast food joint after their shift requires five locations. Some of these are easier to secure than others, but none of it is cheap. Location fees can range from $100 - $20,000 per day.


Because of this, occasionally you may see producers requesting "contained low budget" scripts. This is a screenplay that occurs predominantly in one location ("Panic Room", "Alien" and "Die Hard" are good examples of this). The appeal here is that a single location will generally cost less than multiples.


Low Budget Advice: You don't have to write a "contained" feature to qualify as low budget (but it helps!), but you should try to limit your locations. Try not to add too many "one off" spots if it's not crucial for the story.


Time Period

Hair, makeup and sets add up quick, especially if the screenplay is set in the past or future. Period pieces are notoriously expensive to produce because of this. As a result, it's much cheaper to shoot contemporary films. Consider the importance of the time period in your piece and how much work would need to go into making it look authentic. If you are writing a horror feature that happens in a cabin in the 70's, that can probably be done fairly cheap. Change that location a city and suddenly that price skyrockets as the production team now has to make sure the whole city (as seen on screen) looks era appropriate. Sometimes, time period matters. If it does, it may mean cutting back in other areas of the screenplay. Or, you may just have a concept that cannot be done on a small scale.


Low Budget Advice: Determine the importance of time period. If it matters, try to approach it in an affordable fashion. If it doesn't, consider a contemporary setting.


Special Effects & CGI

This one is obvious, right? Special effects is divided into two categories: mechanical effects and optical effects. Mechanical effects are accomplished during live shooting. They include the use of mechanized props, scenery, scale models, animatronics, pyrotechnics and atmospheric effects (wind, rain, fog, snow). Optical effects are camera techniques and filters (like using a green screen). Both varieties are being replaced more and more with CGI. Overall, CGI is usually more "cost effective" (but not always). That doesn't mean cheap.


"Game of Thrones" broke down their CGI costs in 2016. It came to $800K for ten minutes of CGI content in an episode. That's just one example. Not cheap.


Low Budget Advice: Limit the need for Special Effects and CGI. Somethings, like weather, you can probably do on budget (if you need snow, shoot in the winter!). Others (like a flying dragon) will cut into your production budget.


Animals

Animals in screenplays mean one of two things. Either the production needs to find those animals and pay for them (and their trainers!) in real life... or they need to be CGI/Motion Capture (see above). Neither is cheap. Consider the scope. Writing about a family that has a dog? You're probably fine. Change that to a tap-dancing dog that makes it on broadway and we've got a bit of a problem. The average price for a "normal" cat or dog is about $400 per day. This is doable as long as other aspects of your screenplay don't blow out the budget.


Low Budget Advice: Is the animal crucial to the story? And if so how "unique" are they? The more training the animal needs the more it will cost. If it's beyond training and CGI is the only option, then your budget is really going to start blowing up.


Stunts & Action Sequences

Gun fights. Explosions. Car chases. Anything in Water. While these scenes are thrilling, they are very expensive to shoot. The first three are obvious, but the "water" one tends to throw writers off. Anything that involves water requires additional safety crew on set (lifeguards, rescue divers, first aid...etc). It can make a quick shot of a character running through a creek cost a bucket load more than a shot without the water.


This doesn't mean that you can't have action sequences in your screenplay. Hand to hand combat is cheap in comparison to a car chase. Drowning in a bathtub is easier than in the ocean. It's all about scope.


Low Budget Advice: Keep scope in mind. You can still have action in your film without it costing millions.


The Low Budget Feature

You need to write smart. Low budget films can be just as thrilling as high budget ones. First and foremost, you need to have a strong concept and characters. Once you determine that, it's time to take a look at this list. Pick and choose what is important. You might be able to afford several of these, but not all. Limiting the use of these elements will ensure a lower budget production, making a sale much easier.