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Intermission – how to calculate movie budgets

Before we carry on with our discussion of action lines, here is something I learned about movie budgets.

One of the most popular questions asked of screenwriters is “What is the budget of this movie”? Yet there are no websites I can see which offer guidance on this. So, to fill a gap I thought I would share my research with you, gentle reader…

It can be frustrating for a screenwriter trying to estimate his or her potential screenplay’s budget. How much do SFX cost? How much does it cost to shoot in a particular city or range of locations? Will those exotic wild animals bump up the cost?

The only way I’ve found any answers is to look at previous movie budgets. Now, inflation can be a vexing devil, so I’ve only gone back a few years in most cases.

Here’s a list of recent movies from a range of budgets, along with what it cost to make them (All numbers are taken from http://www.boxofficemojo.com):

Man of Steel = $225 million
Iron Man 3 = $200 million
World War Z = $190 million
Fast & Furious 6 = $160 million
Gravity = $100 million

Crazy Stupid Love= $50 million
Zero Dark Thirty = $40 million
The Social Network = $40 million
The Rite = $37 million
Saving Mr Banks = $35 million
Looper = $30 million
Anchorman = $26 million
The Conjuring = $20 million
The Apparition = $17 million
Nebraska = $12 million

Paranormal Activity 2 = $3 million
The Purge = $3 million
Last Exorcism = $1.8 million
Insidious = $1.5 million
The Devil Inside = $1 million


Paranormal Activity = $15,000

What does this mean? Well, let’s break it down.


At the top end, we have big budget tentpole studio movies crammed with SFX and bankable stars. If you can make one of these for under $100 million, good luck. This is a very small market. Studios may only make a handful of these a year. Most of them are adaptations. Competition is fierce, and writing jobs are usually assignments that are  given to writers with a proven track record for generating serious cash. Here you will find your Joss Wheedons, David S Goyers and Zack Snyders.


In the middle range we have movies that are between £10-$100 million. This is a big range, and may movies are made for this amount of money. Factors that can push your script into this bracket include SFX, a few bankable stars, or lots of animals and stunt scenes. So if you’re filming Tom Hanks, Anthony Hopkins, or Steve Carrell, or your script calls for a family of tigers, or a scene where someone jumps onto a moving semi-trailer (that’s a lorry for those of you who are English), or a wise-cracking CGI alien, this is likely to be your budget range. Again, there is tough competition here. Writers like Aaron Sorkin have made this budget range their own. But it may be possible to break into this market if you have a seriously strong concept and story that attracts star caliber talent or high-level investment. Note that many of these are dramas or dramedies. That’s because it’s tough to get a drama made unless you have a star, or an ex-star that wants to come back. Both of whom can push your low-budget piece up into this category.


Next, we have the low budget world. This is the easiest spot to aim at. Most of these movies have either no SFX, a limited cast, are contained (i.e. they have limited locations, ideally less than 4), or are found footage. This is the world of the TV or family movie, However, it is also notably dominated by the horror genre. Horror has been the proving ground for many directors who went on to be A-listers (Steven Spielberg, Peter Jackson) and tends to feature actors who can carry a movie without having the ego or bank account of so-called “stars”. A good horror movie can break box-office records, and studios know this. For instance, Insidious (2011) cost only £1.3 million to make, yet grossed over $55 million. Compare that to infamous flop “John Carter” (2012), which cost $250 million yet has recouped only $75 so far.


Finally, we have the weird and wonderful world of the microbudget movie. This can be the kind of thing that premieres on the horror channel (if anywhere), or the kind of megahit that makes an entire career. Again, horror tends to dominate. Paranormal Activity, The Blair Witch Project, and Halloween all became the most profitable independent films ever at one time. However other genres proliferate, such as 1980s sci-fi cult hits like Charles Band’s Trancers. However, it’s pretty safe to say these are flukes.

In reality, the low budget movie seems like a more sensible place to start. However, a word of warning: limiting your ideas to deliver a tiny budget movie may be a mistake. My own movie “Clone Hunter” was written as a big-budget space opera, yet managed to translate into a much lower budget movie. However, I’ve written microbudget movies by shoe-horning my ideas into confined locations without any SFX, and these failed to ignite any interest.

In my opinion, it doesn’t hurt to put your eggs in different baskets. You can always try for a big-budget payoff while honing that indie coming-of-age drama and rattling off that limited location found footage horor movie.

Like everything with writing, it seems there’s no single surefire quick access route to success. Sometimes it’s just a matter of writing what excites you and finding someone who is as passionate about your material as you are. If nobody else shares your vision, move on.




Cancelled too soon! 10 TV series that should have lasted longer.

Sometimes they left us hanging on the edge of our seats, never knowing what was going to happen to the characters we had watched  for an entire season. Sometimes the shows were too hard to catch due to bizarre scheduling. And sometimes they were just plain unlucky. But for whatever reason, here are 10 shows that I think were cancelled too soon…

10. Flashforward

What the heck was going on? Just when we thought we were getting a handle on the whole situation – a blackout in which most of an American city’s population got a glimpse of their future – the show was axed. A great concept was admittedly dragged out way too long. But the constant surprises kept me coming back for more despite the uneven acting. Who was behind the strange device uncovered that may have caused the blackout? We’ll never know.

9. Automan

Although it may be risible now, “Automan” was groundbreaking stuff in its day. Yet it barely saw out a single series. The titular character is in fact a rather conceited hologram which his creator uses to fight crime. Automan had a variety of Tron-like gadgets he could summon out of thin air, including a car and a helicopter. Not bad for the 1980s!

Special effects, 80s-style, from “Automan”.

8. Earth 2

A surprisingly good sci-fi show from the 1990s that went against the grain by having the first female sci-fi commander, this understated series boasted some darned good actors – Richard Bradford (Man in a Suitcase), Madchen Amick (Twin Peaks) and Tim Curry (everything). But it proved too low-key for its own good, and failed to grab ratings. A shame.

7. Max Headroom

Is it a drama? Is it a music video show? Is it a chat show? Nobody knows, not even the producers it seems. Actually this was a British TV show featuring the world’s first 3D computer generated chat show host. Mr. Headroom was brought to life by Matt Frewer. Loooking back, it’s hard to see how Max did not stay with us for years. But a confusing premise and heavy competition from Miami Vice means that max is now obsolete, along with the Commodore 64 and the Sinclair Spectrum.


Is it a hologram? Is it a chat show host? No, it’s… Max Headroom!

6. American Gothic

Produced by Saim Raimi (Spider-Man, Evil Dead) this understated supernatural mystery series featured great child actor Lucas Black (who starred opposite Billy BobThornton in Sling Blade) as the kid who knows too much for his own good about mysterious, menacing Sheriff Lucas Buck (Midnight Caller‘s Gary Cole), a small-town cop with powerful supernatural, possibly demonic abilities. A slightly murky plot and a lack of the supernatural may have contributed to its demise. But it was a good idea with some nice acting.

5. Blade

Based on the movie trilogy with rapper Sticky Fingers standing in for Wesley Snipes, this was an amazingly good show, with great plot twists, great supporting characters, and a very stylish production. Blade joins forces with recently-turned vampire Jill Wagner to destroy the vampiric House of Cthon from the inside. Ended on a huge cliffhanger. Blade exhibits the true hallmark of a series that was cancelled too soon — its own box set for fans which continues to sell despite its cancellation.

4. Firefly

Joss Whedon’s sci-fi foray that owes a heavy debt to Star Wars as well as old-fashioned Westerns, Nathan Fillion shines as captain of a motley team of reprobates. Excellent production qualities and solid acting meant that this remains a cult favourite among Whedon’s salivating fans who long to get their teeth into something after Buffy.

3. Streethawk

A cop on a really fast motorcycle hardly seems like a great concept, yet this was a highly entertaining series, mainly due to the polar opposite characters of its leads, the suitably macho-named Jessie Mach (he likes to go fast, you see), and his controller Norman Tuttle (yep, he stays in his shell). With a fantastic score by German techno gods Tangerine Dream and some awesome stunt work, it’s not surprising the show was cancelled as it must have taken a fortune to produce each episode. But you can now relive all 13 of them thanks to DVD.

2. Twin Peaks

Hard to believe that this show is on the list, especially as it lasted for two seasons. But the sudden, shocking twist ending is one of the all-time cliffhangers. Fans will definitely agree the series ended too soon. Will there ever be a resolution? Doubtful.

1. Star Trek

The top series cancelled too soon? Yes, the original sci-fi series. Although it seems like it ran a lifetime, it was cancelled after only three seasons. Its cancellation was in the main due to budget cuts by the network and the move to a different time slot – incredibly so as not to conflict with Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In. Since then, Star Trek has become firmly entrenched as not just a cult classic but part of the popular culture. It remains a perennial favourite of TV programmers. It’s very rare that an episode of this show isn’t been played on some channel somewhere. That’s why Star Trek is the ultimate series that was cancelled too soon!

Ten books I dare Hollywood to make into movies

Hello, True Believers!

Today I thought I woud share a list of ten books that should be made into movies. Okay, so some of them are actually comic books. But these are the properties I think would reinvigorate the motion picture industry.

Some background first. Hollywood is in dire need of franchise material. Jack Reacher and The Hobbit just won’t cut it. Where are the iconic films for the Y2K generation? Where are the Indiana Joneses, the Dirty Harries and the Star Warses (How do you pluralize “Star Wars” anyway?)

What we need is a new approach, something more daring and edgy than conventional blockbuster fare with its cookie cutter plots and bloated CGI (remember Green Lantern?)

Here are my choices for breathing fresh life into the film industry:


Terry Brooks’ finest book. This epic fantasy has enough originality to give the Lord of the Rings a run for its money. But it’s a much more human story, with an unforgettable twist ending.2. BATTLE OF THE PLANETS

Based on the 1970s Japanese cartoon and the father of modern anime. Superpowered teens in a cool ship do battle with giant monsters from outer space. I’m not seeing the downside. Just don’t let Jerry Bruckheimer near it!3. THE WITCHING HOUR

Anne Rice is best known for her Vampire Chorincles, but this multi-generational tale of witchcraft in New Orleans ranks among her best work. Very dark and gothic, with a rich sense of history. This is the “Gone With the Wind” of horror stories. Neil Jordan to direct please!4. STRONTIUM DOG

Mutant bounty-hunters from the future hop across planets to collect bounties from the humans who despise them. If it sounds like X-Men in space, it isn’t. More like some insane Speghetti Western. Created by 200A.D. writer John Wagner (“A History of Violence”) and artist Carlos Ezquerra, mutant “Strontium Dog” Johnny Aplha has a host of cool gadgets and ways to kill you. Backed up by some truly wonderful supporting characters like Norse bounty-hunter Wulf Sternhammer and lumpy-headed Middenface McNulty.5. THE RATS

A Canadian company attempted this once and came badly unstuck. But with modern SFX this horror classic is screaming to be made into a major motion picture. It has two sequels, the third of which takes place after a nuclear holocaust! “The Walking Dead”‘s Andrew Lincoln would be perfect for the lead!6. THE CALL OF CTHULHU

This is the project Guillermo Del Toror should have tackled after Hellboy. HP Lovecraft’s cosmic tale of a conspiracy to revive an immortal extradimensional demon from his ages-old slumber in a buried city under the Pacific Ocean. Comes with its own built-in fanboy audience!7. MIKE HAMMER

Mickey Spillance wrote numerous Mike Hammer books, many of which have been filmed, with the most memorable being “Kiss Me Deadly” with Ralph Meeker. Hammer is the uber-detective. A World War II veteran transplanted into post-1940s America, he is politically incorrect (he promises to murder his friends murderer), mysoginistic (he pimps out his secretary to solve a case), but with a sense of purpose that is at times terrifying, Hammer is Dirty Harry on steroids. The only problem could be getting someone who is gritty and believable enough to play him. Imagine Kirk Douglas fused with Clint Eastwood and you’re about halfway there.8. EON

Intelligent and epic sci-fi novel from Greg Bear. A team of astronauts investigate a hollow asteroid orbiting Earth and find… well, you’ll have to read the book. But it has a vision of the future of humanity that’s slowly coming true. Could be the next Stargate. One for director Alex Proyas, perhaps, who filmed the excellent “Dark City”.9. NORSTRILIA

A bewilderingly exotic sci-fi, so rich and strange that it outrivals even Frank Herbert’s “Dune”. Cordwainer Smith’s stories of the far, far future include the anti-ageing drug “Stroon”, uplifted animals that carry out slave labour, a humanity so interwoven with technology that it has forgotten happiness, and the weirdest planetary defence system known to man. Together with his short stories, Smith’s sci-fi is almost poetic in beauty and would present moviegoers with images never before seen on film. But who could direct such divine madness? Kubrick perhaps, were he still alive, or maybe David Lynch. But nowadays my money would be on “Tron Legacy” director Joseph Kosinski.10. ALAN MOORE’S SWAMP THING.

Comics legend Moore managed to revive this flagging minor  DC book and turn it into one the greatest works of comic art in the 1980s. Swamp Thing is a kind of existential Everyman. Rather than perform the usual superheroics, the eonymous hero explores the nature of good and evil, travels from Heaven to Hell, and meets a young John Constantine.  In a fantastic series of stories titled “American Gothic”, Moore reinvents horror staples such as vampires, werewolves, ghosts and zombies,  giving them fresh social relevance and deaing with issues such as racism, gun laws, family ties, veganism, and feminism! Never one to offer us easy answers, Moore leaves many of these debates open-ended. This resulted in some fierce debates with readers and fans at the time. Forget Green Lantern, give us Swamp Thing!