Grassroots Moviemaker: The Five Stages of Budget Grief

At some point in our moviemaking lives we’re all going to face the loss of something very dear to us.

That grief can seem unbearable, I know. I’ve been there. But friends, I’m here to tell you that grief is a normal part of the healing process. Our intense disappointment about not being able to hire who we want, shoot where we want or get that crane shot that still arouses us whenever we envision it… all of this will subside. And when it does, our sense of liberation will open the gate that inevitably leads to that golden road where all our moviemaking dreams will come true.

Hard to believe if you’ve recently experienced such a loss, I know. But if you’ve ever been there, you understand what I’m talking about. For the rest of you, let’s briefly review the Five Stages of Budget Grief and hope this knowledge can provide some advance succor. They are:

1. Denial. As a serious grassroots moviemaker you’ll take your mind’s eye “Dream Budget”—the one you decided you must have to shoot your movie properly—and commit it to paper. And that’s the one you start telling people about, as in “Yeah, I’m making a $1.2 million indie movie this fall.” You need this much because, after all, you’re probably going to be shooting in some unique locale (like, say, Midcoast Maine), and you’re going to want a couple of “name” actors (the better to get distribution with, my dear), and you want to pay folks properly since, hey, this isn’t your first rodeo and you want to do things right. Then you slog through the would-be investor trenches for a year or so and talk to others out there trying to raise money for indie movies.

And you aren’t any closer to getting that $1.2 mill than when you started. So that’s when you take a good, hard look at the numbers and decide, reluctantly, that your buddy, the set designer, just ain’t gonna get the union wages you promised him. And the co-producer who’s worked so hard already? She’s going to have to defer some of her pay, no two ways about it, etc. etc. Because, like Robert De Niro in Raging Bull, you got no choice! You got no choice!

So now you have a new budget, your “Fantasy Budget,” and it is typically about 35 to 40 percent lower than your Dream Budget. So let’s say that now (in our hypothetical example, of course) you’re at $750K. An easy number to reach for such a brilliant screenplay, right? And you made sure to go through every line of that budget with your sharpest pencil. Now you know for certain that this particular movie, in this particular country, in this particular year, cannot be made for a penny less. This mindset lasts about 90 days. And that’s when Stage Two of the grief process sets in.

2. Anger. You start talking to yourself. You think you won’t, but you will, trust me. “Don’t these people know what I’m capable of? Don’t they see the genius of this script, with its subtle nuances, its wry humor, its timeless themes… Why doesn’t anybody get it? A measly $750K?? I cannot believe the drek I’ve been seeing in theaters lately, and it’s all been shot for way more than this. Is it the economy? It must be the economy, right? Just my f—ing luck! Why is this happening to me? Who exactly is to blame for my career coming to a grinding halt like this? I know—it’s the goddamn Republicans!” This phase can last as little as a week or as long as a lifetime.

3. Bargaining. Gradually, reluctantly, most of us will begin to re-think the situation eventually. “Man, so things are tough all over. Maybe what I should do is just go to each person and explain my situation and see if we can’t reach some consensus that will allow us to move forward on this.” So you get on the phone with your DP. “Hey, Bob? Great to hear your voice, man. Listen, yeah, no, things are good, good… But tell you what… it’s just not happening at $750K. Nope. I know, I know, but… No, we’re moving forward, absolutely. Fully committed. But I’m like that guy on the bench under the 300-pound barbell. Lil’ help… Yup, you knew this was coming, right? Wondering if you can’t slash your rate, man. Yeah. AND defer it. I know, I know. But that’s the way it is…”

4. Depression. This is when you decide you hate yourself. You go back to bed after breakfast, your afternoons are beset with a heartbreaking no-more-air-in-the-red-balloon feeling. You wonder whether you shouldn’t have just become a novelist. Or, better yet, a poet or a wandering minstrel. You’re firmly planted in Stage 4. This stage generally lasts long enough for you to starve or become gainfully emplyoyed in some other career far, far away from movie auteurship. Or it can end when you enter the final stage…

5. Acceptance. This is the stage where the rubber hits the road. You have now either abandoned your budget (and your movie aspirations entirely) or you decide that you’ll shoot it for whatever the f— is in your piggy bank next month. If you have to borrow a few hunno from Aunt Alwynne or max out your plastic, so be it. Your crew? Screw ’em if they can’t take it, you’ll “hire” kids from the local college if you have to. You are Guerilla Man now. You will make your movie the best way you can. You will cut scenes, you will adapt locations, you will shoot on the camera you borrow from the city’s public access station. You will make the movie. And all of a sudden, a load has been lifted from your shoulders. It’s like being a hobo. You got nothing to lose, baby! Everything to gain! The sheer joy of creative juices flowing through your veins is worth a thousand crane shots. Sort of.

And you know what happens next? You get a call. A producer who read the script six months ago gets in touch. He has a guy who wants to give you $250K to shoot it. That’s the way it happens. You commit to doing it for nothing and you’ll get something. Because you love it, that’s why it’s going to happen. As Andrew Wyeth famously said, “One’s art goes as far and as deep as one’s love goes.” Baby, you can take that to the bank. MM

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