Story Q&A: When should budget limit my film’s genre?

One of the questions that has come up in Free Lance Friday was posed by a screenwriter and filmmaker:

when should my budget limit my story?

The answer is either always or never, but not both. First, “never.”

Your budget, as a screenwriter, should never limit your story when you write to sell your screenplay. Write as big as you want, as bold as you can, because you want someone with money to buy your work. You want an actor with an established record to imagine himself saying your lines on screen. So don’t worry about budget – let go of the neverness of budget limitations and give your imagination room to romp. Buy a screenwriter’s market (on Amazon) or host your screenplay on Black List and get that baby sold.

Now, “always.”

If you’re making your own films, and your budget is literally zero… wait, time out.

Some producers say “we shot this film on nothing,” when they mean $300,000.

Now I know that budget doesn’t go far when you’re hiring out to people, when you’re patching together your film from all over the country. “Nothing” describes $300k in that context.

But many of you guys see six or seven figures as a jackpot scenario, assuming you sell your film post-Sundance. When some of you guys say “I shot it on nothing,” you mean “that coat belonged to grandma, that explosive charge was a Molotov rigged up by my redneck neighbor, and my cousin lent us his shop lamps and generator.”

So if your budget is literally nothing and you plan to actually film everything you write, then stop writing sweeping historical drama. Stop writing big-budget sci-fi. Stop writing war epics. This isn’t actually a limiting process, but a liberating one – cocoon and moth. Those genres of screenplay are for later in your career or for selling to other producers. You can’t film something that requires a 3,330-man crew, but that’s a good thing. Creative restrictions say, “Here is everything we can’t do. So what can we do?”

A good example was sent to me by a friend. This filmmaker wanted to shoot a short film on the book of Job on a thin budget. Obviously, you can’t do historically accurate shoots on a budget like that. Instead, they came up with this:

That’s Job, alright, but it’s in a do-able context. It’s affordable for that kind of budget.

There are ways to shoot a sci-fi on $0 and still make it more realistic than Pacific Rim. There are ways to shoot war films on $0 and make it more emotionally moving than Pearl Harbor.

Admit your budget’s limits and write your story within it. You might be surprised at what you find.

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