You’ll probably watch a variety of movies this year, all made with different budgets. Some are small $2 million pictures. Others are $200+ million blockbusters.

Big films and small films are essentially made the same way, just on a different scale. But this doesn’t mean $200 million films are just bigger than $2 million films. Big films benefit from some extra variety and flavor than small films.

Think of it like a meal at a Chinese restaurant. If you go alone and spend $15, you get a couple things – maybe orange chicken and shrimp fried rice. Not much variety, but worth the price.

Now imagine you spend $100 at a Chinese restaurant. Now you have ten or twelve plates of food in front of you, all different. There are three kinds of chicken, a pork dish, and noodles too. You don’t just have more food than your $15 meal. Ultimately, you get to eat a completely different meal, but both are still Chinese food..

Big films and small films are essentially made the same way, just on a smaller scale. Share on X

Does this mean $15 meals are lame and we should only buy $100 dinners? Of course not. We can’t spend $100 on every meal. And we can’t spend $200 million on every film. The market needs a lot of content, so they all can’t be summer blockbusters. There’s plenty of room for $2 million films, $5 million films, $10 million films, etc.

The biggest difference between $2 million movies and $200 million movies is the access to resources. Shocking, right? But this access changes the way the cast and crew work in a lot of ways.

Free download: How to Reduce Your Film’s Costs

For example, let’s say a film set in the 1850s wants to film a doorway, but there’s a Ring doorbell in the frame. A $2 million movie would remove it or cover it with a plant. They might paint the door to look authentic. A $200 million movie would never have that problem because they would build their own damn doorway on a soundstage.

On a $2 million film, craft services is a nice person with a table of fruits, nuts, sodas, coffee, and water. On a $200 million film, craft services is three or more people serving multiple shooting units (tables and trucks) with endless, ready-to-go meals at all times. Now imagine that kind of difference across all departments.

But a bigger scale doesn’t tell the whole story. $2 million and $200 million film budgets are different in three and a half ways. (Yes, there’s half a reason. You’ll understand why in a moment.)

1) The Script

$2 Million vs. $200 Million Movie Budgets


The script is a key element that distinguishes $2 million and $200 million movies. Good producers can look at a script and ballpark how much the film will cost just by adding up what’s on the page in their head. Here are some variables in scripts that have drastic effects on film’s budget.

  • The number of scenes. More scenes usually means more locations, which means more transportation and labor costs. A $200 million film could have 80-100 scenes, whereas a $2 million film might have 40-50. Smaller films should have fewer scenes that are longer.
  • The types of scenes. Some scenes are more expensive than others. For example, montages and establishing shots can be expensive.
  • The number of speaking roles. If you have an actor with a speaking part, he or she costs a minimum of about $1,000 for the day. Small films have fewer than 25 speaking parts. Big films could have more than a hundred with stunts, pilots and on-camera musicians. You can save a good deal of money by having a character raise an eyebrow or shrug instead of speaking a line (not as interesting, but a compromise that is made all the time).
  • The number and type of locations. Certain locations are expensive to shoot on. Airports and casinos are good examples. Moving a scene from an airport parking lot to an airport terminal can wreck the budget. It’s expensive to film in an airport. But you can film in any parking lot. Add some B-roll airplane footage and you’ve got an airport.
  • The number of extras. Those are just more people who need to be paid. A scene in a baseball stadium with 15,000 to 18,000 people gets expensive fast.
  • The number and types of stunts. A single stunt that takes up 30 seconds of screen time could cost tens of thousands or hundreds of thousands of dollars. I once worked with a stunt guy who specialized in high falls. He made $10,000 every time he fell or was thrown out the side of a 17-story building (and this was back in the 90s, so adjust for inflation).
  • Kids in the film. Children can’t work long days, so putting kids in your film will increase the number of shooting days.

How do you prevent these kinds of elements from ballooning your movie budget? You simply don’t include them during the development phase. If you want to make a $2 million film, you can’t afford dangerous stunts, army helicopters, massive crowds or exotic locations, so don’t write them in. This means it’s important to understand the scope of your budget early so you don’t produce a draft of the screenplay that later becomes unusable or becomes a big fight with the financier.

2) Prep and Post Schedule

$2 million and $200 million films have very different prep and post schedules as well. A small film might prep in two or three weeks and finish post in eight to 12 weeks.

A $200 million film, however, might prep with a full crew over 12 weeks. It might prep with a minimal crew over six months, depending on the complexity of the film. Post could take more than a year, especially if it needs a lot of CGI. If it does require computer graphics, there could be multiple design, pre-vis and CG teams working on the same film.

How do longer schedules affect the budget? More work time means more labor time. And labor accounts for 60-75% of a film’s costs. Which brings me to my next point…

3) Shooting Days


$2 Million vs. $200 Million Movie Budgets

This is the biggest factor that affects the cost of a film. More shooting days means more people on payroll, more per diems, more housing and transportation expenses, more craft services, and more of everything that comes with employing people.

The number of shooting days is based on a schedule. The schedule is derived from a breakdown of the screenplay. The production team will go through the script to determine the number of scenes and locations, what’s in them, how many people will be involved, how much travel is involved, etc.

There’s also a correlation between shooting days and crew size. More shooting days usually means the crew is larger. And of course, more people means more costs.

  • A film that costs less than $2 million usually has about 20 speaking roles, 25-50 crew and shoots in three weeks or less.
  • A $2 million film usually shoots in 12-15 days will have a crew of 50-125 (including actors, director, ADs, writers, etc.).
  • A $5 to $10 million film usually shoots in 30-45 days with 125-250 people.
  • A $200 million film shoots in 50-120 days with 500-1,000 people.

3.5) Vanities

I’m calling this 3.5 instead of four because it’s not as significant as my previous three points. You can’t really save a lot of money by cutting out vanities, but they have the potential to scale your budget quickly.

A vanity is anything you don’t need to tell the film’s story. They add some value, but you can probably remove them without affecting much. These include things like props, set decoration, physical effects, etc.

For instance, let’s say you want to make your period piece costumes a little more authentic, so you bump your $40,000 wardrobe budget to $60,000. That extra $20,000 is a vanity expense. But it’s not the only expense that comes along with the bump. The extra $20,000 in wardrobe might cost another $10,000 in transportation costs and $2,000 in storage costs. Will it take longer to get into costume each morning? Well, now your actors will contractually (Screen Actors Guild) get paid more for the longer days.

Locations are often vanities. $200 million films are more likely to change locations often. $2 million films are more likely to shoot the same location from a different angle or disguise an existing location to make it seem like a new one.

Actors can be vanities, too. Having 12 big names in your film doesn’t really boost the film’s marquee value. Once you have a few names to put asses in seats (domestically and internationally) you don’t really need more salable names.  More expensive talent is just that – an expense.

Vanities are more impactful on low budget films. An extra $100,000 expense won’t even move the needle on a $200 million film, but it can cripple the budget of a $2 million film.

I’m not saying vanity expenses are unnecessary and should be cut out of every film’s budget. But they are real costs of making movies that producers and financiers should consider.

Need to trim down your film costs? Download this free guide to learn the most impactful ways to control costs.

What This Means for You

The big takeaway here is that you can make great content with a small budget as long as you understand your limitations and plan for them. Can’t afford a crazy stunt? Don’t write one. Don’t be discouraged if you can’t raise enough to make your dream film. The world needs a lot of film content.