I Want Granular Film Budget DataBut I’ve been Looking for a While and Haven’t Found Much Yet.
Robert BoscacciBlockedUnblockFollowFollowingMar 13The most detailed film production data I’ve been able to find is on WikiLeaks, like this budget for Unforgettable Season 3, and this budget for The Interview:That there is some high-resolution budget dataI’m not even supposed to be able to see these two line-item film budgets, but I want thousands.
Where do I find them?.How do I open the floodgates?Data science bootcamp students often do toy projects relating to movies, because everybody loves movies duh, and because there’s always a nice kaggle-style tabular movie dataset readily available within the first few pages of web search results.
There’s OMdB, where you can query a nice REST-ful API for a bunch of box-office data (and demonstrate that you can make API calls as an added bonus).
You can even buy an upgraded OMdB key that lets you make many API calls for one whole dollar.
I’m guilty of undertaking such projects, but I get the feeling variations on this theme are more than a little played out.
The problem is that publicly available box office datasets are not that interesting, to someone who knows something about film production.
It doesn’t typically go very deep.
I’m starting to feel like the truly juicy film production and distribution data, especially regarding budget, is very well guarded in some very walled gardens, and of course it is.
Why share that?Some lame data from KaggleWhat motivation does any film production company have to make public their whole, detailed line-item budgets?.Even those seeking crowd-sourced funding on platforms like Kickstarter are neither required nor expected to provide more than a “this is what we need” scalar-value budget total, a quirky pitch video, and perhaps some creative rewards.
Detailed film budgets are internally drafted, approved, tracked, reported to the IRS, then archived.
But what if film budgets were made transparent?.What could we learn?The art and staggering machinery of film production has always fascinated me, and I’ve thought about it a lot.
I worked as a camera assistant and a lighting technician on San Francisco-based film sets for the better part of a decade.
I then moved to NYC and signed up with a fancy post-production studio to be a dailies colorist for a couple years.
I had the great pleasure of working on a handful of cool/big projects, studied under some terrific mentors, and learned a lot.
I was usually a technician, and always in close proximity to the main characters: The director, the cinematographer, the actors, the producers (and the agency folks, in the case of commercial work).
I also got to see exactly how a film can fail, to one extent or another, at various stages.
I got to see where the cracks start to form when people at various levels of the administrative and creative hierarchy make errors or omissions, when budget is misallocated, when visionaries are forced to compromise on their visions, or when trust is erroneously placed in the hands of the incompetent or belligerent or some combination.
My key take-aways from the industry are thus:In a film production, there are many moving parts, and it works more like a military operation than you would think; time bends to become abnormally valuable; specialized equipment is often necessary but should not distract the artists from the real creative elements; the positive motivation (as fueled by factors such as a high-quality script and aggregate blood sugar levels) of the crew, cast, and patrons gives a film life; and money is a dirty evil, but an entirely necessary one, at many stages throughout the process.
People with special skills need to be paid for their labor, they require special materials and tools to be purchased and rented, and gatekeepers of special locations need to be bribed for access and permissions.
Everyone has to be fed and shuttled about.
Everything has to be insured, and it all has to happen on a schedule.
New filmmakers underestimate the expenses they will incur and the time they will need, as a rule.
Experienced filmmakers get better at estimating budgetary and temporal requirements, or hiring a squadron of people to do it for them.
It doesn’t stop disgusting amounts of time and money from burning in metaphorical dumpster fires with astounding frequency across the industry.
What I’m getting at is this: The way a film production allocates its budget is critical to its success or failure, and it’d be interesting to have finer-grained example data within reach to poke and prod at.
Every production’s requirements are utterly unique, so every budget is going to be organized differently if you drill down far enough, but we can do better than just looking at the total production budgets listed on IMdB, which are probably lies, or at best, coarsely rounded estimates.
We could be getting very good at budgeting film productions, collectively, but as far as I know, we’re not.
What if we knew how a few thousand films distributed their budgets between the [pre/pro/post/sales] phases, and how that turned out for them?.What if we could see how a few thousand films distributed their budgets between [production/camera/lighting/art/wardrobe/catering/casting] departments, and see how that affected the film’s success?.I want that data.
My favorite basic metric for a film’s “success” is a simple ratio: The revenue it generates worldwide (which is, yes, sometimes fueled by qualitative validators like the winning of Oscars or Lions or Prixe’s), over its total expenditures—from pre-production all the way through production, post-production, marketing, and distribution; any and all expenses.
This metric favors filmmakers who make a lot with a little, the Jordan Peeles of the world, over the James Camerons that inevitably succeed given enormous resources.
(I’m sure Cameron was scrappy early in his career, but you get what I mean.
)Filmmakers didn’t need students with access to big datasets to figure out that the horror genre is disproportionately lucrative.
Roger Corman built a career and a lasting legacy off of this fact starting in the 60’s: He’s been telling new producers for decades that it’s sensibly inexpensive to confine a handful of American teenagers (wearing American sneakers and ray-bans, chewing American bubblegum, driving American cars) to a single haunted-house location, chop them up, spray around some fake blood, do some creative licensing in international territories, make back multiples of your budget, and live to see another directorial opportunity.
By the way, never write into your script any nighttime exterior scenes, child roles with many lines, nor animals.
Indie GlimmerDallas Buyers Club is a film that wins three of the 2013 Oscars, and makes a 1,200% return on its $5 million budget.
The makeup department gets $250 (sic) to work with for the whole film, allegedly, and wins itself an Oscar.
As the story goes, big Canadian financiers drop out at the last minute, so the film’s $8 million budget vanishes overnight.
A powerful producer believes in the film and manages to raise $5 million over the following weekend to keep the project alive.
To make the diminished budget work, production cuts the entire lighting department, but keeps Matthew McConaughey.
But how, exactly, did they spend those $5 million?.Doesn’t every “low-budget” (less than $10 million) producer care to know how much was spent on lunch?More naïve dataThe Numbers offers some sample datasets, but again, they don’t give me hope that the full database is very granular or interesting, from a producing perspective.
Everyone seems to be more concerned with identifying effective revenue streams for finished films than with optimizing spending during the process of film-making!I’ll keep looking, but as of this post, I’m not sure where I’ll find what I want.