Anatomy of an Independent Film Budget

As my weary team and I near the close of our independent film’s second year of production, I often think back on our purchasing decisions. Before we started filming we set budget caps for each ‘department,’ distributing our funds across each area, and although we managed to stay within our budget, our estimate about the distribution of those funds wasn’t quite as accurate.

[Bone to the Dog; est. budget: $5,000; Genre: Dark-Comedy; Main Characters: 8 +1 dog]


Where does this money go? What does the budget of a $5,000 film look like? My guess is that the answer to these questions varies widely depending on who’s making the film, genre, and total budget. This experience will inform my budget estimations for future projects, and how confidently I spend money in each area, but I also hope that the same information can lend you insight as you budget your projects. Keep in mind that in this example I’m only factoring money we actually spent in each area (some budgets calculate value of items they already have in inventory).

Right away, the Camera/Electrical department blew its cap – even though we had free access to a camera and light kit. Lenses and rigs, memory cards, spare lights, and diffusion sheets, just to name a few expenses in this category. Luckily, we were equally surprised that our $300 “Locations” budget was never touched, and neither was our “Emergency” category; both of these are eliminated in the graph below. This exemplifies the sort of push & pull that kept us within our budget. The graph below shows the following other expenses on our film: Wardrobe (e.g. tie, apron), Props (e.g. Arm Sling, Dog treats), Business (e.g. Business Cards), Catering (e.g. water, pizza), Special Effects (e.g. fake blood, digital effects), Misc. (e.g. Duct Tape… twice… as I discussed in an earlier post)…

2011-2012 Budget for Bone to the Dog

2011-2012 Budget for Bone to the Dog

I think the biggest surprise for us was the hefty Wardrobe department. In our student film production, we mostly went with clothing our actors already owned. I guess that’s the advantage of writing about slacker characters wearing t-shirts. This time we needed suits for most of our characters, and we often couldn’t find what we wanted at the thrift store. The biggest factor inflating this part of the budget was that we felt like we could afford to be picky. I think we would have spent more conservatively if we’d realized how much it would add up, but the payoff is very consistent and appropriate styles and colors in our characters’ clothing. Keep in mind though that even Jeff Bridges supplied all of his own clothing in The Big Lebowski, and that worked pretty well for the Coens.


Again, easier for some characters than others. (This image belongs to the copyright holder)

This budget breakdown is very specific to our circumstances. Had our film taken place in space, special effects and costuming might have weighed in a lot heavier. If our local setting, charm, and good luck hadn’t helped us acquire so many locations for free, we could’ve spent a lot there as well; several businesses opened their doors for us to film during business hours and their generosity saved us.


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