Budgets: Use a Template or Write From Scratch, by Deborah S. Patz

My dad gave me an estimator’s pencil once: it was one half pencil and one half eraser. The pencil looked very ridiculous with the eraser flopping around due to its size, but the truth is: when writing budgets – estimating production costs – you spend equal parts erasing as you do writing. This takes time.

So, with many budget templates on the market, it seems a no-brainer to use pre-existing templates to write budgets. It will save you loads of time. Why duplicate the work? Well, yes, use them… but use them wisely. Here are three factors to seriously consider before using a pre-existing budget template.

Factor #1: Speed vs Quality

This one may be obvious. Using a budget template will increase the speed you can write a budget. No question. How much quality will you lose, however, in that speed? You need to examine the details of your particular production. If, for example, you start with a movie-of-the-week budget template and your project is a feature film, the completion costs of the template will not be helpful when you need to include a film finish and your back to working from scratch or end up budgeting a feature with no deliverable to show it in the theatre.

Each script is unique. By taking the time to go through the breakdown and budgeting process you not only budget more accurately, but can speak knowingly about the details of the production – like post deliverables, special effects, style of shooting, etc. – when meeting with the producer and director.

Factor #1: Your Budgeting Experience vs Outside Research Needed

So you don’t know everything there is to know about estimating production and post costs. That’s okay. Templates can be tapped into for guidance in some respects, but calling up other professionals – like construction managers or post houses – you will not only improve the estimates in your budget with relevant, current and local knowledge, but you will develop relationships within the industry in areas where you may not have expertise.

Ironically, the more experience you have the more templates may be useful. The budgets that you have written end up becoming the best template-guidance for future budgets you write. You know all the ins and outs of these budgets and productions, and if the production was completed, you know the strengths and weaknesses in the budget because you also have cost reports to show the actuals spent.

Factor #3: Rough Costing vs Detail Estimate

What if the project is early in development and far from a production date? You may need a budget to see if the projected financing total is remotely feasible for this current script. In this case, a budget of rough estimates may be sufficient, guided be a pre-existing template. In early development, there will be many unanswered questions about how the film will be shot (size of crew, number of days, location vs studio, etc.), and the answers will evolve over the course of development. You are expected to tap into your knowledge to invent educated recommendations to answer these questions for the budget you write. Take the time to summarize your assumptions on a cover page. Most pre-existing budget templates do not have such a summary to guide you.

If, however, you are drafting a production budget on a project with locked financing and a set production start date, spend the time to delve into the details of writing the budget, and do not rely on a template to know the specifics of your project.

Budget templates are road maps. The production you are budgeting, however, may put you in a different “city” or “time” than any of these road maps depict. Use templates as guidance, but not to replace the work of writing your own budgets and learning accordingly.

Think about the estimator’s pencil and that long, floppy eraser. Use that eraser about half the time, and you’ll not only write better budgets, but you will learn more about estimating production costs for when you sit down to write your next budget.

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