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How much should a student first time film cost?

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  • How much should a student first time film cost?

    In answer to my own question, I would say between $10,000 and $40,000 dollars. It used to be more but digital has drastically lowered the cost while at the same time making it much easier to produce a professional look.

    However, this isn’t a story about reasonable. This is the true story about the most expensive student film of all time. Ten years have passed so I can’t remember anymore what the non-disclosure agreement I signed said. Just to be on the safe side I will not divulge the name of the film, or whose film it is. However, there is no reason why I can’t mention the names of people that were involved in it so, with a little search on IMDB you can figure out the rest.

    It all started out when my best friend and favorite Cinematographer called me up to let me know that he was in the South starting to prep a film and to expect a phone call from a production manager in a few hours. When I asked him what kind of a film it was he said that it would be autobiographic and a period piece. I then asked who the director was and reminded him that I was semi-retired at this point and only wanted to work a few days a week on commercials. Unless, visually there would be a compelling reason to take a film. He told me the director was also the writer and the producer and had never even stepped onto a film set before. For obvious reasons I hardly found that compelling but, agreed to talk to the production manager.

    Sure enough, about an hour later here comes the call. We had a nice chat about the story and I started to get interested. Then I asked the first of what to me is always an extremely important question, “How much night work is there?” His answer was, “It doesn’t matter. In order to be able to have control of the look of the picture and to insure that the set is protected from hurricanes we have knocked out the end walls of several stages and hooked them all together and built the street where the story actually took place.” I am thinking three things here, “no nights no working out in the weather and, who does that?” Then I ask the other important question, “Do you know what my rate is and can I bring some of my crew from CA.” Answer, “Your rate is whatever you tell me it is and yes, bring whoever you want.” Needless to say, I was all in.

    One week goes by and I get another phone call. “The director is flying down from San Francisco to pick you up and then you will continue on to New Orleans to begin a scout.” Flying down to pick me up? Huh, ok. A few hours later I am on a private jet with some hippy looking guy and a stewardess asking me if I want, “the lobster or the duck?” Hmmmm, I think this is going to work out all for the good.

    On the flight the two of us discuss the film, what it should look like, and he starts asking me about a few black and white films that he admires and wants to know if I can make my lighting look like that. I tell him yes I could but if he wants me to work on his film he has to accept that I don’t care what someone else has done I have no interest in copying it. I will read the script and the cameraman and I will discuss it and we will do what is best for the movie. I thought maybe I pushed back to far but all of a sudden he whips out a joint and lights it up and says, “Cool, I like you.”

    The rest of the way we pretty much just talked about what it was like working at the Fillmore West back in the day and he told me he lived next door to Phil Lesh. I told him to say Hi for me and he called him up and did just that. I think it was a test.

    So, we get to New Orleans spend of few days scouting around then off to the stages. We arrived at night and the construction coordinator immediately greets me. No Hi how are you, no how was the scout, just “I have been waiting for you. The production designer has designed a set that can’t be lighted and we have been anxious for you to take a look at it. He leads me into his office and on a table is a model of the city street that they have built. Three blocks. I examine it and can’t figure out what the panic is all about. Bigger just means more equipment you just deal with it one chunk at a time. He notices that I am not in any distress looking at the model and suggests that we go take a look. We walk over to the stages and then the, “Holy, s#$t” comes out of my mouth. “What were you guys thinking?” I say. The taller buildings are within 3 feet of the stage roof. Behind the buildings the set continues with alleyways. There is no perms (overhead cat walks that are used to light from), no catwalks around the perimeter just wall-to-wall floor to ceiling set.

    At this point I am thinking I need to go have a discussion with the Director/Writer/Producer and the Production Designer. First the Production Designer, his excuse, “Vilmos said you would enjoy the challenge.” “Did Vilmos say how he would light it?” I asked. “No, he said that I couldn’t build a set that the two of you can’t light.” Oh, man, I hate this. On to the Director. “Do you have any idea how much time and money this set is going to cost?” His answer, “Take all the time and money you need but, I am expecting an Academy Award.“ Oh, that is different, no pressure here.

    That night I ask the cameraman, “What is going to happen when the studio or investors find out about this. It is going to be like Heavens Gate. We are going to have bean counters crawling all over us.” “The Director/Writer/Producer is the only investor. There is no studio no consortium.” What!!! Nobody, not even major studios put up their own money for a film. They find pension funds, banks, and people with money to lose to back them. At this point I hadn’t really bothered to find out who this Director/Writer/Producer is. After 40+ years of filmmaking I never had any reason to research where the money for a particular film came from. I knew how the producers worked of course but other than on Sliver where the producers were swindling elderly people out of their life savings (that is another story) I really never questioned the whole process. So, using Google as your friend I discover that we are working for the 165th richest man in the world.

    I am writing this because WKHANNA said he wanted to hear stories about film making. I will continue the story if anyone is interested but, if you all find this pretty boring I will leave it here and not continue.
    Last edited by oldbob; 06 September 2016, 13:19 Tuesday.

  • #2
    Need hints to see if you want the story to continue? Hint one, cost so far for this student film is................... Time to film, exceeds anything Kubrick did. Which means it was ...............of filming. Number of times the main actor was recast, nobody does that, do they? Do they?


    • #3
      i am absolutely fascinated to hear about your time in the industry!

      Please, Please continue!


      Practicing Curmudgeon & Audio Snob
      ....just an "ON" switch, Please!



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