SHOW ME THE MONEY: Television Commercial budgets – their mysteries laid bare

By - CTL
March 20, 2017

By Marcus Honesta.

It has often occurred to me that the deliberate intent of a commercial film production budget is to confuse, misdirect and camouflage what should be 
a relatively straightforward document.

Inevitability what you’re presented is a hugely detailed, multi-paged document. Working through it is like wading through a sea of treacle with a millstone tied around your neck.

Mastering a production budget is not something I would expect the reader of this particular text to conquer. It takes years of practice to fully understand one and to know where money is hidden. How does the old disclaimer go – “these stunts are very dangerous and are conducted in a controlled environment, do not attempt them at home”.

The strange names listed up on your budget sheets hide some of
the simplest tasks. For example the Key Grip, Gaffer, Crane Grip, Steadycam, Best Boy, Swing Drivers, Filo Artists, just to name just a few. All seek I fear to add unnecessary mystery to the entire production process.

The derivations of some of the terms that are used in modern day filmmaking have hilarious and sometimes totally unrelated historic lineage.

Gaffer for example is an old English word for an “older man” or “boss”. It’s essentially a variation on grandfather, and has been applied to those in charge of workers since the 18th century. Of course his role on films today is as the key electrician, or head of the lighting department.

The Grip is the fellow responsible for putting up green screens, blacks, laying down tracks for the dolly to run upon, providing wooden boxes and to be generally the roustabout who has all the things we didn’t think would be needed on call in the back of his truck. The term Grip dates back to the era of the circus. Generally it related to 
a slang term for a fellow who carried his tools to work. Another popular story is that during the days of hand-cranked cameras, it would be necessary for a few burly chaps to hang on to the tripod legs to stop the camera shaking so violently that the pictures captured were usable. These men became known as “good grips”. Perhaps that’s where the saying “get a grip on it” originated.

Let us for a moment assume that the thronging hoards that seem to mill incessantly around the catering truck on shoots are all necessary for the good and orderly carriage of proceedings. As their wages are governed by industry awards and established rates we can reasonably assume their costs will be quoted accurately. Generally speaking it is too easy to check rates and only the most dubious of producers would attempt to be creative in this area.

Where most corruption tends to takes place is in the props, wardrobe, art department and the Greens.

You might well ask, ‘how is it so’?

It’s extremely difficult to know just how much it really costs to build a set. There are no specific benchmarks that one can draw upon, no templates to rely on, and in real terms each and every set is different.

I once had a set built for a car commercial that cost $65,000! I was aghast! When the quote was submitted I went through it with a fine tooth comb. To this day I am sure that I was had, but I was never able to pinpoint just where.

Props and set dressings provide a whole new area for potential larceny. Inevitably you are charged for absolutely everything and rarely do you get to keep any of it. Excuses are many and varied but the most common one being that they are supposedly hired. How you hire a toaster, a bowl of fruit and a chopping board has yet to be satisfactorily explained to me. The same rorts come with the wardrobe. By rights the client owns the wardrobe, but in general terms it’s more likely than not it will be spirited away by one of the crew who couldn’t afford to purchase either the $6000 Armani suit or the $3500 Versace frock your lead talent wore. As luck would have it, it is exactly the right fit for the wardrobe assistant’s new and now extremely well dressed boyfriend. Make no mistake it is something to watch.

The Greens are not the lunatic left wing political party we have all come to know and love. On a film set it refers to the folk who put the plants around the set. Generally speaking, the costs associated with hiring their services and the props they provide could replant the hanging Gardens of Babylon or the Palace of Versailles. Be alert, if there is an area where larceny is considered good sport, it is here.

Another area that must not escape a thorough inspection is in what is affectionately known as Unit. Unit provides the chairs, tables and tents where our pampered technicians enjoy their luncheon feasts. They also these days, come equipped with a portable coffee shop providing the most discerning coffee drinker with every possible flavor known to man; not to mention the bags and bags of lollies and sweet treats. Of course where a real killing is made is in the provision of bottles of water and soft drinks. If you examine the unit bill carefully you will find that your truly pampered crew
 has consumed 6 1⁄2 Olympic swimming pools of water, four tons of lollies and enough coffee to keep the entire Paddington café latte set happy for the next 10 years. Be warned, Unit needs to be watched like a hawk.

Other areas that warrant a good hard look are office expenses and insurances. This is where some very colourful charges pop-up. By the way mobile phone charges never serve to disappoint; a close look at the crew’s mobile phone bills, and you’ll most likely discover your make-up assistant has found a long lost second cousin in Mexico and has spent an interesting 3 hours shooting the breeze with her between takes, all on your tab.

Talent and casting is where more comical and insurmountably large fees seem to be paid to those who normally provide sustenance for themselves and their families in either the domestic home sciences (cleaners) or hospitality industries. I ask you to consider cast fees in this light. How long experienced do you have to work to earn, let’s say, between $7,000 and $15,000 per day? It is truly unfathomable to understand how cast rates can be so high.

Before rushing head-long into the obvious answer: please remove all actions, activities and services that are generally provided horizontally by the oldest profession. I have, in the past been given some pretty flimsy excuses by way of an explanation. They go something like ”You’ve got to understand they don’t work every day so they have to charge these sort of fees to survive.” Perhaps it could also be argued, if they didn’t charge so much maybe, just maybe, they’d work more often.

Post Production is an area that is under constant and revolutionary change. It is far
 too complicated to deal with in an article such as this, and by the time it goes to press things will have changed yet again. We will deal with this separately, later.

One of the more curious things you will find is that whilst all the quoted charges are estimates and have a certain amount of fat built into
 each and every one of the departments listed, your recently awarded production house quite boldly admits that on top of this villainy they are also charging you an extra 15 to 20%, which they unashamedly describe as mark-up.

The only possible way to get around this practice is to do what is known as the ‘cost plus’ deal. This is where the production company supplies you with each and every invoice from the shoot with an agreed margin added, but as you can imagine this will mean possibly hundreds of individual payments so it becomes impractical. Unhappily this is a case of ‘they’re going to get you in the end’.

Once you have mastered or perhaps survived the budget rollercoaster you can justifiably have a T-shirt made that states “I opened Pandora’s Box and survived”. You will be in elite company.

2 thoughts on “SHOW ME THE MONEY: Television Commercial budgets – their mysteries laid bare

  1. Great article Marcus, funny but how so true.
    Well Done!

  2. I have worked as a Producer in both Agencies and Production Companies for the last 28 years. Whilst the article is entertaining and would have been true 10 years ago, these days most Production Company estimates are remarkably transparent and more often than not tailored to fit a given budget for a creative concept that was delivered to a client with little thought to affordability.
    And what business does not charge mark up somewhere?. If you employ a company entity you will wear the cost of their overheads, one way or another. Cost plus gets you a bunch of freelancers with no resources.
    If Production Houses were overpaid in the past it is simply no longer the case. In the current climate and with the perception of technological advance helping drive down budgets I sincerely doubt the model of Agency, Production Company and Post Production House will see out the decade. Agencies doing their own production and post is obviously the new paradigm but for them that consumes head time while they still want to make money off the client’s paltry budget.
    Production Houses nurtured directing talent and fed new ideas into advertising, that unfortunately came with a cost that the industry seems no longer willing to bear and Marcus, before you get stuck into post production, just check how many post facilities are still in business compared to 5 years ago. I have seen the future of post production, 10 redundancies, one man, a box and a van.

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