Why does it cost so much to make a short film?
A lot of people -- filmmakers and non-filmmakers alike -- have expressed interest in the budget of my latest short film Self-Deportation: The Untold Tale of a Marginal Woman. Last night, at a public screening at Columbia College, one person in the audience asked me flat-out, "What was your budget for this movie?"
My answer: $30,000.
I noted that this was an estimate, since the film is still being completed. (If you'd like to help us finish it, please hit us up on Indiegogo!) I added that this figure includes in-kind donations, such as services, equipment, and other valuable production assets. In other words, if I paid for labor and other expenses at fair market value, I'd have to spend roughly $30,000 to make this film.
So why does it cost so much to make a short film?
Well, consider this: Feature films cost millions of dollars, sometimes tens or even hundreds of millions of dollars. This is for a product that's about 90 minutes long. Even for small indie films, the average budget is in the $1-3 mil range.
If you're trying to make a short film with similar production values to a very low-end indie feature, and assuming you pay about the same amount for things, that's about $11,000 per minute of screentime. So for a 20-minute short, that's like $220,000.
Considered in this light, $30,000 for a short film seems cheap, and the question really should be, "How did you make your short for so little?"
In any case, here's why a short film costs what it costs: It's expensive to hire cast and crew, it's expensive to rent equipment, and it's expensive to build sets. Add in casting and rehearsals, insurance, food, transportation, promotion, administrative costs, and so on, and it adds up quickly.
Simply put, a short film production (just like a feature film production) is a small- to mid-sized business. When you decide to make a short film, you are launching a small organization. It may be ephemeral, but it nonetheless requires all the bells and whistles of a properly functioning organization.
In some ways, a short film production is actually more difficult to run than a normal small business because it is so ephemeral. The clock is ticking once you're on set, and you and your crew had better figure out how to work together effectively and without too much delay. In this sense, a short film production is more like a pop-up business -- here today, gone tomorrow. There's little room for error, and sometimes you just have to throw money at a problem because it's the quickest way to fix it.
Unfortunately, short films usually don't make any money. They tend to be passion projects, and this is one reason why some actors and crew are willing to work for free or for very little. But, at the end of the day, even if you cut every corner -- feeding people PBnJ sandwiches and paying them $1/hour -- it still costs a lot of money to make a film, even a short one.