By: Sarah Chaisson-Warner
You have a great pilot written. Maybe you have several follow-up episodes ready to go, too. But that little voice in the back of your head at night keeps nagging at you – how much is all of this going to cost?
Shooting your own TV Pilot pilot episode can cost anywhere from $1,000 to $50,000 (heck, maybe you can do it for less if you’re popular and have a lot of friends who owe you a bunch of favors.) But if you’re thinking about writing a TV pilot, and you want to make sure it is as producible as it can be, here are a few tips for packing the most into your story. Let’s look at how to cut back on costs, and keep your budget lean.
Building a Realistic Budget
If budgeting wasn’t your strongest suit in film school, or you didn’t go to film school at all, then the ins and outs of building a solid, competent, and realistic budget may not currently be in your skillset. Fear not, a good producer can help you build the budget for your pilot and help you identify what you’ll need – everything from your core pre-, and post-production team to your on-set needs. Some software, including Movie Magic, has budget templates you can customize too.
Most budgets look at four major categories – “above the line”, “below the line”, “post-production”, and “other”.
Through the budgeting process, you’ll also need to think through how many shooting days you will need. If your half-hour TV pilot is a standard 23 to 26 pages, it’s highly likely, given a 12-hour shooting day, that you’ll need five to six days of shooting configured into your budget.
Quick Tip: To save money (and your sanity) never schedule your most challenging shoots on the first day. Your first day should focus on easier scenes and shoots to give you space to work out problems and kinks. This will save you money and time as you work up to your more difficult scenes to shoot.
Assembling a Production Team
If you’re considering a bare-bones team for shooting the pilot, you’ll want to surround yourself with people who can take on multiple tasks without batting an eyelash, who complement your skills, and who fill important gaps.
Assuming you will act as Director, your core production team will need to include, at the minimum, a Line Producer, Assistant Director, Cinematographer, and a Script Supervisor.
Your Line Producer is responsible for the operations, logistics, and overall financial management of your shoot. The Assistant Director often acts as a liaison to the crew and staff, and creates and manages the shooting schedule and shot lists. The Cinematographer (Director of Photography) oversees the camera and lighting and creates the framing for your shots. Your Script Supervisor ensures continuity during your shoot between every take, scene, and episode.
If your budget can accommodate equipment rentals, we highly recommend our partners at ARRI Rental. Their team works with directors, writers, and producers to match them with the kind of equipment they need at a price that works within your budget.
If you don’t have a solid line item for equipment, there are several other options for filming and editing your TV series.
Many emerging creative professionals use iPhones and iPads, along with tripod clamps, to shoot their shows.
Remember, though, that while iPhones and iPads offer a budget-friendly option for shooting, you do need to consider issues like sound and lighting. These devices are known for producing flare when shooting into the light and can capture background noise, particularly wind.
Five-in-one reflectors can help – this piece of equipment includes diffusers to reduce light, a black reflector to block out light, and gold, white, and silver reflectors to fill shadows. You can find decent sets at around $100.
Sound will be an important component of your shoot, and most cameras, including iPhones and iPads, will require additional sound support to get the quality you desire. Lavalier microphones will run a few hundred dollars and are easy to use. A directional microphone with a boom pole is also a relatively affordable option.
Once your shoot is done, you’re onto editing. There are several affordable options for editing programs, some of which offer free trials. Final Cut Pro offers a 90-day free trial. Adobe Premiere Pro is also highly utilized by filmmakers, but only offers a 7-day free trial. Lightworks has a free version, and higher-grade options available for a monthly cost.
The number of characters in your script will have a big impact on your budget. To mitigate costs, do a thorough review of your script for extraneous characters. Ask yourself, what role does this character play in moving the story along? Can he/she/them be combined with another character to achieve the same results?
Similarly, consider eliminating any scenes that require extras or crowds. If your scene is set at a restaurant, can your characters sit in a small outdoor section with a few other tables, rather than in a busy indoor scene?
The standard daily rates for TV actors vary, and if you’re using SAG-AFTRA, the rates are different if your pilot is intended for streaming services (and your budget is less than one million.) If your budget is less than $20,000 you may qualify for the SAG Micro-Budget Agreement – check it out here.
Speaking of restaurants, most locations will cost money to hire. Whenever possible, seek out “dressed” locations – essentially locations that already look largely like what you need for the script. If you’re looking to film a scene in a restaurant, is there a local restaurant that might trade their space for a strategically placed mention or logo shot?
Similarly, comb through your script for outdoor scenes that take place at night – extra lighting and equipment will be necessary to support the shoot, and those costs are not insignificant. If you can, avoid outdoor night scenes and move the scenes indoors if possible, or, if an outdoor shoot is necessary, find ways in the storyline to make the scene take place during the day.
Interesting fact: Night scenes used to be filmed during the day with a blue filter on the camera as a cost-cutting measure. But it wasn’t without its errors – often shadows wouldn’t line up quite right, or the shadows of the light sources were actually visible!
Wardrobe and make-up costs can really add up, particularly if you’re shooting a period piece. Consider soliciting the help of beauty school students to work on set. If your script is a contemporary one without a significant need for special make-up or hair, you can ask your actors to arrive make-up and hair-ready.
Remember that each scene in most cases will require multiples of the same costume, just in case something happens to the original, so be prudent in choosing outfits, even if they are contemporary and less expensive than period costumes. (Yes, that Givenchy would look just stunning on your lead character in that pinnacle scene, but maybe a good knock-off would also do the trick 🙂
Second-hand shops (including online ones) are a great way to keep costs down. Try sites like Poshmark, which connects owners of previously owned, high-quality, brand-name items directly with consumers. You can find some real gems if you’re diligent.
Your largest, and probably most important administrative line item for shooting a TV series on a budget will be insurance. You might be tempted to go without insurance and hope for the best – don’t do it. Shop around for general liability insurance, particularly if you plan to shoot in public settings. Remember too, if you’re looking to cut down costs by shooting in public places, to build money into your budget for permits. This is another good reason to have general liability insurance – most cities and towns issuing permits will require proof of insurance.
The tips and ideas above can be applied to a variety of creative projects, including your TV pilots. Happy shooting!
After 15 years of working in state and national politics, Sarah Chaisson-Warner is moving into the entertainment industry. As the former Founder and Editor-in-Chief of Athena Magazine for Girls, Sarah is now focusing her passion for creative arts through screenwriting. Many of her feature-length scripts focus on the often unseen experiences of gay women throughout American History, and she is also currently writing a sci-fi and a family Christmas script. Her script, Serafina Stavinovna, was placed in “The Next 100” in the 2021 Nicholl Fellowship Competition.
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