“You Have to Rent the Sun”
Whenever we talk about big-studio production costs for a scene, that’s my wife’s go-to quote.
Movies sell $38 billion in tickets per year globally. That’s not counting DVDs, Netflix, or any other deliveries. It’s big bucks.
Most of us imagine a handful of studio billionaires, framing Roger Rabbits, and ruining our childhood nostalgia from on-high. But millions of people make money on movies every day.
As I’ve been creating Sovereign, I’ve learned a number of surprising realities about how all of it works. The biggest thing is, though…
…it takes a village to make a movie.
1. Budget Ranges
These vary depending on who you talk to and about which market, but a basic guideline goes like this:
$0 – $100K No-Budget/Nano-Budget
$100K – $250K Micro-Budget/Ultra-Low Budget
$250K – $3M Low Budget
$3M – $10M Mid Budget/Indy Budget
$10 to $40M Low Budget
$40M – $100 Medium Budget
$100M+ Big Budget
2. The digital age has ushered in a range of cameras
Depending on the goals, movies can be shot on a lot of devices. If you can get 1080p output, you’ve got True Hi-Def. Of course, most films are shot on larger formats…4K and 6K for example. What you really pay for, though, is sensor size and dynamic range. Dynamic range is the sensor’s ability to detect differences in lights and darks. All but the least expensive are usually rented by the week for projects. The following prices are for the bodies only, no lenses…no batteries…no storage.
$700 iPhone 8
$750 Canon EOS Rebel t7i
$2000 Panasonic Lumix GH5
$3000 Sony Alpha a7R III Mirrorless Digital Camera
$10,000 Canon Cinema EOS C300 Mark II
$30,000 RED Epic
$53,000 Arri Alexa Mini
$90,000 Arri Alexa LF
$150,000 Arri 65
3. What is “Scale”?
You’ve probably heard people refer to actors getting paid “scale” in shows and movies. You may have even wondered what this means. It’s likely you even intuited that it meant something like “minimum wage.”
Well, here’s what it means.
For Actors, these rates are determined by their union, usually SAG-AFTRA:
$125/day Ultra-low Budget Film
$335/day Modified-low Budget Film ($700,000 – $1,050,000)
$630/day Low Budget Film
$1009/day Standard Rate
4. How much do movies earn?
Investors are considered “above the line” on a movie budget, which means they get residual payments on its success into perpetuity. Normally, the equity investors will account for 50% of the returns after the budget’s been covered while the other above the line members (Producer, Director, Primary Actors, etc) split the other 50%.
Here are some of my favorite movies from each of the budget tiers.
6. What are “day rates”?
Film crew is typically paid a day rate. This term also applies to the actors listed above. When you get to the end of a movie, you see a huge list of names. Most of these jobs are probably totally unfamiliar to you because the movie industry uses funny names for them — best boy, craft services, foley artist, key grip. However, each of them is a worker and a part of the village that helps make a film happen.
How much do they get paid you ask? Well, it depends on the budget of the film. However, the fun fact I learned is that there are three tiers to the day rates, and typically these guide the payments to all your crew departments.
Tier 1: Key Rate: this is what gets paid to all department heads: Director of Photography, Production Supervisior, Line Producer, etc. $750-$3500/day
Tier 2: Sub-key Rate: this is the middle rate that goes to the art director, 1st assistant director, assistant makeup, etc. $250-$400/day
Tier 3: Assistant Rate: the lowest rate, paid to art department assistant, production assistant, and 2nd assistant director. $150-$250/day.
7. Are small horror movies lucrative?
Some of the best returns have come from very small production budgets. The numbers below don’t take into the costs of marketing and distribution, but they are nevertheless startling.
Some of the best returns have come from very small budgets if they were timed right and had a great concept.
8. Why do they film where they do?
Some states offer significant tax incentives for people to film there. If your budget is high enough to warrant it, it’s foolish to not choose a state that would maximize your budget’s buying power.
Many offer a tax credit that’s a percent of your total budget. Others offer rebates. Some offer nothing at all.
Georgia Incentive: 20%, plus 10% for screen credit. Minimum spend: $500,000
Illinois Incentive: 30%, plus 15% for resident labor from underemployed areas. Minimum spend: $100,000
Kentucky Incentive: 30% (35% for resident labor and economically distressed areas). Minimum spend: $250,000
Ohio Incentive: 25% (35% for resident labor). Minimum spend: $300,000
Puerto Rico Incentive: 40% (20% for nonresident labor). Minimum spend: $50,000
(See all the states here).
Consider joining us.
It’s likely you have a skill that can contribute or assets that can be applied to the success of the film.