The question “How to Read a Production Budget” does not
have a simple answer. Media projects come in all shapes and sizes,
and producers work in an array of film, video, audio and electronic
formats. When mediamakers start talking about 16mm film, Betacam SP
video, MP3, mini-DV video etc., it can begin to sound like a foreign
Even if a program officer is versed in the terminology of the latest
technology, budgets are a tricky business. For one thing, there is
a legitimate range of costs within each media form. The appropriate
budget for a 60-minute documentary project might be $150,000, for
another project of the same length, it might be $1 million. The question
is really whether the budget submitted is appropriate for the proposal
Program officers do not have to make these assessments entirely on
their own. Foundations often turn to media consultants or the staff
of media arts centers for expertise in evaluating proposals and budgets
in particular. The best place to find a media consultant or a media
arts center in your region that can provide assistance is by contacting
the National Alliance of Media Arts and Culture (NAMAC) at www.namac.org.
When in doubt about a budget, program officers should not hesitate
to ask the filmmaker. Foundations can ask filmmakers to submit more
detailed budgets, fully annotated with explanatory notes for items
In general, the following factors influence the size of a production
Scope/Audience. A program made for public television or national
cable broadcast must meet certain technical and legal requirements
(such as union fees and insurance). These considerations can add legitimate
line items that might be absent in a budget for a program intended
primarily as an educational tool in classrooms and communities.
Experience and Size of Production Crew. The expertise of the
production crew is one of the biggest factors influencing any production
budget. A veteran producer with an accomplished body of work can and
should expect a higher rate of pay than an up-and-coming filmmaker.
The same is true for every member of the production team. It is important
to assess whether day rates and project fees seem high, but it is
equally important to make sure they are not too low. If a project
does not have adequate funding, it will take longer to complete. If
the film will take the producer/director a year or more, think of
the salary in relation to what a foundation might pay for a year-long
contract with a consultant. The filmmaker will need to be able to
live on the project fee (perhaps supporting a family).
A production that has a small production crew (for example a producer/director,
cameraperson and one additional person for sound and/or lighting)
will have a significantly smaller budget than one with a team of five
or six on location. (A larger crew is needed when working in film
or shooting with more than one camera.)
Travel. Obviously a project that requires the crew to travel
will have additional expenses- airfare, ground transportation, hotel
and per diem costs. Producers often seek out in-kind contributions
from airlines and hotels (particularly for international travel),
but requests are granted infrequently.
Archival Footage. The acquisition of archival footage can be
a major expense for a project. Archival footage fees are determined
by the venues in which the film will be presented. Fees for footage
that will be broadcast can be hundreds of dollars per second used.
Music Rights. Securing the right to use licensed music or hiring
a composer to create original music can also add significantly to
the quality and cost of a production.