Writing for budget

When I had started screenwriting, I used to have this romantic idea that all I needed to do was to bring down pen to paper or hit a few keys and let my imagination flow. Now, wouldn’t that be wonderful? Of course, as I later found out during my career as a script supervisor, none of these scripts that I had written would actually get made. I had completed several features during my teenage and young adult life before I made the move to Hollywood (North), knowing that, should I ever take them out of the dust, they would need some serious re-writes in order to meet the budgets they had been written or qualify for.

What do we need to consider when writing for a budget? To cut to the chase: Literally EVERYTHING.

That one thing writers need to ask themselves first to make their lives and that of productions easier is: Does it move the story forward?
In other words, some of the questions we writers need to ask ourselves to avoid the many time- and money-consuming re-writes or get considered in the first place are:

  • “Do we really need this additional prop in the scene?”
  • “Does this character need to be present?”
  • “Can we use the same location?” or
    “Can we take it to a place and time where we can avoid additional expenses such as lights, set decoration, car rentals, background performers, visual or special effects?”
  • “How can we avoid bad weather conditions?”

What is connected to all these questions are not only the budget spent for what we will end up seeing on screen but who is ever considering the aspects of crewing, equipment, transportation, and other amenities as we write our sh*tty first draft?

Too often, I hear the term accessories that need to be scraped – which may sound strange to you, but it also includes the people we see on screen such as actors or background performers – meaning everything and everyone who does not add anything to move the story forward or is merely a decorating part of the mise-en-scène.

Now, this particular guideline may not always apply, but writing for budget is an unwritten rule we strictly adhere to in TV Land where productions are reoccurring throughout the year and certain standards need to be met.
In my years as script supervisor, who is part of the re-writing and script breakdown process, I have made the observation that a lot of low budget production companies in particular obtain badly written scripts from first-time writers which are either re-written by professional writers or the producers or directors themselves, putting the original writer at risk of losing his or her credit for it.

When I am writing, I like to take advantage of different points of view. First, I approach the script as a plotter and pantser and complete my horrible first draft I would not even show my closest friends, because actual writing is re-writing. At that time, I am already looking at it partially through the actors’ eyes. Is the dialogue “actable” or even necessary? How many words do I need to convey this or that information? As I get into re-writes, I try looking at them from a producer’s point of view and try to figure out where my script could risk getting a pass on their desk in terms of storyline, bad writing (e.g. too much black on the pages), and most importantly the budget, of course.

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