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How to Read a Budget

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 language.

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 at hand.

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 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 where appropriate.

In general, the following factors influence the size of a production budget:

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.

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