Breakdown of Costs for Ultra-Low Budget Feature Action Films

When calculating the budget of a feature film, if your short is $5000 and runs 15 minutes long, it’s not as simple as saying this:

90/15=6
$5000×6=$30,000

When budgeting Rise And Fail I thought similarly, except I realized that my target audience wasn’t YouTube, there was profit involved, and the project required that people work on it for a solid 2 months (or more). The budget went from $30k up to $100k in short time. Here’s a small breakdown of expenses:

  • Camera, lenses, some lights, and misc equipment – $13,000 (gotta make it look tops)
  • General Liability Insurance – $7,000 ($1,000 per action scene on top of this, so we capped it there)
  • Lawyer fees – $5,500 (for filing the LLC, copyright, paperwork, counseling, creating our Private Placement Memo)
  • Location fee – warehouse 1 month @ $200/day – $6,000
  • Location fee – compound 7 days @ $200/day – $1,400
  • Paint and building supplies$2,000 (set design)
  • 1-Ton Grip Truck Rental for 45 days – $7,500(this is cheap)
  • Estimated scoring fees – $2,000 (I strongly recommend you do not ask someone to score for free, since you’ll find yourself regularly banging on their front door asking why they don’t return your calls)
  • Costumes – $1,000
  • Dedicated crew – $20,000 (DP, sound guy, production designer, go-fers, line producer, special fx)
  • Dedicated actors – $5,000
  • Eric Jacobus – $0.00
  • Food – $4,000 (keeping people for 45 days without good food is considered torture according to the Geneva Convention. You’ll lose em. Less than $100/day is CHEEEAAAAP)
  • Various housing and transportation costs – $3000 (getting people from out of town, hotel for your name actor, gas)
  • Props – $2,500

That’s $80,000 right there, without factoring in DVD pressing costs, authoring, website costs, key art design, sound design, color correction, misc. post fx (muzzle flashes), trailer cutting, trips to events, marketing & promotion (Comic-Con and film festivals), all of which probably total another $20,000. But we’re still well under the $200,000 threshold for “SAG Ultra-Low Budget”, which means we can pay SAG actors $100/day and the production can still be non-union. Here are more costs we DIDN’T incur because we a) did it wrong or b) couldn’t afford it:

  • Hiring a big name actor who’s part of SAG – $1,000 (estimated, or if you wanna get a big name, increase number to $10,000 or $20,000 depending on involvement)
  • Accommodations and travel for big name actor – $2,000 (or $5,000? depends how long)
  • Payroll fees (since SAG actors have to be employees) – $1,000
  • Worker’s Comp (since you need it if you have employees) – $??? (nobody would talk to us since we were a low budget action film)
  • Paying everyone as employees rather than contractors (5 full-time crew @ $5.25/hr * 8 * 45 days + 5 full-time cast @ $5.25/hr * 8 * 45 days)  – $20,000 (the IRS would prefer this, we’ll see what they say after tax season!)

To get Worker’s Comp, we would have needed to raise the budget significantly to prove that the set was safe, pair with a production company with experience, etc. If this gets your budget over the $200,000 line, you’re in trouble. Now you’re SAG “low-budget”, where the daily rate is $280 per performer and suddenly half your performers must be SAG, and hiring SAG stuntmen won’t be cheap. My 1-vs-10 group fight in RAF would have gone to hell.

The key differences between a short film and a feature film: it takes longer, so you’ll be digging into your bank account to stay alive and forcing people to stick around, the distribution and profitable nature of the project requires more marketing, and you have to deal with unions if you want to get a marketable actor. It’s no wonder action films cost millions, especially due to their high liability, which makes location owners and insurance brokers both nervous. The prices fly through the roof.

Short films by nature are cheaper per minute. Whatever a short films costs per minute, multiply that number by three for a feature film.

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2 thoughts on “Breakdown of Costs for Ultra-Low Budget Feature Action Films

  1. This was a really interesting and insightful read.
    Interestingly enough, my upcoming feature is probably cheaper per minute than many of the short films I’ve made. In fact, we’re marketing it as “Sweden’s cheapest feature film”, with a budget around 11.000SEK (~1.600USD). Of course, there are a thousand things I would have wanted to do differently, but couldn’t thanks to the restricted budget.

    I remember you saying that Contour cost something around 3.000 dollars, is that right?
    In that case, when you first started working on Rise and Fail – did you expect to make it at a similar budget, or were you planning for a “big” from the start?

  2. Hats off to you for doing it so cheaply. Contour was about $5000 to shoot entirely in the end I think, and then I spent the rest on general marketing, so the official budget was $6,000. We all paid our own way with gas. The budget went exclusively toward food, location costs, props, music, sound mixing, equipment, and marketing expenses. Then I paid $10,000 of my personal money to buy the film from the original owner, which was money well spent. Anyway, at $1600 you’re guaranteed to make a profit. Do you own the rights entirely?

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