Screenwriting : Thoughts on writing a "high concept & big budget" feature film script for a MUCH smaller budget by Joseph Rhea

Joseph Rhea

Thoughts on writing a "high concept & big budget" feature film script for a MUCH smaller budget

I have now written 2 feature scripts that, due to their setting and genre (far-future underwater science fiction (imagine "Dune" but replace sand with water)), would normally require a huge (100+ million) budget. However, knowing that would kill any chances of my stories making the big (or even small) screen, I specifically wrote my scripts to drastically reduce the CGI budget in a very organic way that actually made the scripts better. 

One of the things I liked about the TV series Firefly, was that 90% of the story took place inside the ship Serenity, and that was intentional for cost savings. However, it also forced the stories to be about the people inside and not on big sci-fi things outside the ship. I also based my stories on months spent at sea in my day job (oceanographer), where you tend to create external families and friendships to get you through the long days and nights. Both of my screenplays center on that type of "family" bonding and that allows you to focus on people and not get too carried away with plot. The plot is important and dramatic and life changing, but the center of the story is always how that plot affects the characters. 

I do wish I could find a way to realistically estimate the budget. As a comparison, I use far less external "undersea" CGI shots than the recent 2020 film "Underwater" with Kristen Stewart, and it cost between 50-80 million. So I would estimate maybe 50 million, maybe even less since I spend far more time inside than out.

Anyway, how many of you think about budget while writing your scripts?

Arthur Charpentier

you can write scripts in any genre, but to make films with a big budget, you need to be a banker's lover. :)

Joseph Rhea
Dan MaxXx

I do and I dont. My first/main goal is to shows strangers I am a competent screenwriter. Hirable. These are spec scripts- writing samples until they aint. I wrote a ridiculous action script with jet planes, 1000x extras, buildings blowing up. UTA staff reader said "unfilmable due to budget" but recommended me to agent-bosses. And that's all I want. Be on someone's radar.

As for budgeting- that is a specialized field of expertise. If you dont know, you dont know. Every public budget is a lie; nobody knows cost except for Business Affairs dept. Leave the budget for experts.

Timothy Moran

I try not to think about budget while writing, especially if scaling back on the inspired ideas that I have starts thwarting the writing process. This day and age VFX is becoming much more achievable on a smaller budget. I would say write from your heart. Write the best script possible. Once you have it done there is always a way to execute when it comes to production.

CJ Walley

I can't help but have it at the forefront of my mind these days. Producing conditions you to think like that.

I usually make a decision in my head if something is budget conscious or not before starting. I have blockbuster concepts I keep as just that.

I feel the wise thing is to have a portfolio that serves three major tiers; huge budget with franchise potential, mid-budget, and low-budget indie affairs. That should mean any industry member interested in our work has something they can read that's within their remit to get made.

Joseph Rhea

Thanks for your comments. It's great to see so many different points of view on this subject.

Personally, I look at it as, this is part of my pitch - knowing what my budget might be and how to reduce it--without affecting the story--because I wrote the story with budget in mind. Unlike when I write books, where there are no limits in terms of story-telling, films are a ridiculously-expensive, very large group effort, and I choose to know as much about the overall process as possible. I will never be a director, but I like to think like one when I am writing my scripts. That's just me.

Maurice Vaughan

Budget is one of the top things I focus on when outlining, writing, and rewriting a script, Joseph Rhea, especially for micro-budget scripts. I read a screenwriting tip that said if you want to write a big, expensive event, write the scene leading up to that event. Example: Instead of writing a big battle in your script, write the scene leading up to that battle (the crew preparing for the battle). Doing this will keep the budget down. It's a great tip for filmmakers too. Or a writer (or filmmaker) could write the aftermath scene of a big, expensive event.

Joseph Rhea

Maurice Vaughan A good example is in my current script, I had a scene in the first act that served a purpose (to relate some specific information) but after finishing the script at 125 pages, when I went back through to see where I could cut it down to the standard 110 pages, I realized that scene could not only be removed (and the info told elsewhere) but keeping it would require 2 new speaking parts, several dozen background actors (a crowd scene) and a set that is not reusable. So the combination of cutting pages and cutting cost, made my script that much tighter and cleaner. That's a win-win scenario.

Stephen Folker

When writing a script, you should always keep budget in mind and if it's even feasible. So many writers bank on the hopes that some big time producer will finance their film and they're off to the races. Not likely. If you're a new writer, I'd aim to write something that can be done for 50k or less. On the flip side, if you want to write a big epic script, go for it! One day you might be in the position to pitch it!

Matthew Kelcourse

Some good advice I received: I have a grounded sci-fi (< 50MM) ready for a budget friendly sample; so now I just write. :-)

Toua Her

I still try to write something that I would watch even if the budget seems high. It’s about completing the script.

Joseph Rhea

Toua, from rough outline to final draft, this last script took me 9 months of "spare time" writing, but it is finished, and I'm really happy with it. I agree, completing the script is what it's all about.

Craig D Griffiths

I always think of budget. But not in an away that bends the story. In something I am working on at the moment. I have two friends meet at a park bench. Later on they meet again at the same park bench. I could have had a coffee shop, but the location was unimportant, so why add a second one that would include some extras.

You should do some reading on the “black sails” production. They moved it to South Africa as the oceans are nice and Mas Max Fury Road had left some cool stuff there.

Dan MaxXx

$50M+ budgets? The screenwriter is the cheapest creative hire, first to be replaced, corporate bosses will hire multiple writers to protect their investment.

I'm sure it has happened but who's the last newbie writer who sold a spec, solo screen credit, and the spec got made into a $50M+ budget movie?

Joseph Rhea

Dan MaxXx I think we all know the answer is 0. Zero, Zilch, Nil. However, I don't think a writer should never write a big-budget screenplay. It just means they should face the reality that it will most likely never become a movie, but it also never hurts to show that you can write one. In my case, my screenplay just is the basis of the novel I am now starting and that version of the story will exits in the world.

Dan MaxXx

How did you figure your script is a $50M budget movie? There are no talent salaries.

Joseph Rhea

Dan MaxXx I thought I mentioned in the original post that I wish there was a way to estimate budget, and I realize that to do that you would have to assume that you have no A-list actors, since that can't easily be estimated due to the huge variation. I was simply comparing my script to the 202 film' "Underwater" that had similar (but more) SFX and only one high-paid actor (Stewart).My focus of this post was on writing scripts in a way that reduces VFX shots for science fiction films by concentrating on scenes that do not involve VFX. I'm sure that my particular script could be made for substantially less, maybe by an indie film maker since VFX costs have really come down, (while simultaneously improving realism) in the past few years. So I guess I shouldn't tell people "my script will cost 50m." since that might kill any interest.

Mark Giacomin

Firefly was a really good series. A western in space.

Joseph Rhea

Mark Giacomin I won't deny that my Novum book series (which is the universe of my two screenplays) was inspired by Firefly, at least in the setting (captain of a cargo vessel trying to eek out a living while inadvertently getting into mischief along the way). It also wasn't hard to replace far-future empty space with far-future deep ocean. ;)

M LaVoie

Producers, agents, directors all get fees based off a % of the budget. So highlighting why this "high concept" thriller is affordable and suggesting it can be done for a lower budget, thus lowering everyone's fees for working on it is less appealing. It's the same two years out of their lives whether it's 15M or 50M. So which would they rather work on? The 50M version obviously.

Own it as a tentpole and sell it to the appropriate parties as a high budget popcorn film everyone will make bank on. Unless you're producing it yourself and selling the concept to investors. Then it might make sense to highlight "bang for your buck".

Joseph Rhea

M LaVoie Interesting take on this, and I was literally just reading a website that tries to break down what everyone makes on a 200M feature, from director to the hoards of crewmembers. Interesting.

M LaVoie

It's the primary reason no producer wants to go anywhere near a 2-3M movie no matter how good it is. Same time spent, same amount of work done, but now their 12% overhead of the budget is hardly worth the struggle. Why would they bother unless it was their script? Which often times is the only reason such movies get made. It's someone's passion project.

Jacqueline Maddison

I don't consider budget...I write big and let creativity reign without limits...Then we can deal with reality later :)

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