How Much Does It Cost to Make a Movie?

Trying to make a movie but can't get Hollywood to say yes? Here's a quick course on how today's young filmmakers are finding ways to get their films made.

How Much Does It Cost to Make a Movie?
Complex Original

Image via Complex

How Much Does It Cost to Make a Movie?

Take a quick glance at the 10 highest-grossing films this year so far and two things immediately become clear. First, nine of them are based around established intellectual properties or are sequels. Second, Free Guy, the lone original piece of intellectual property on this list, was directed by Hollywood veteran Shawn Levy and stars A-list actor Ryan Reynolds. With the 10 listed all coming from major film distributors, from Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures to Universal Pictures, the average film budget ranges between $100 million and $250 million. More “original” lower-budget films released this year, like Zola, The Green Knight, Nobody, and Judas and the Black Messiah, were all made for under $30 million. None cracked the top 20.

Meanwhile, the rise in popularity of streaming services like Netflix, HBO Max, Hulu, and Amazon Prime is leading to high demand for production despite conflict with more traditional film distribution mediums over first-runs. Last January, Netflix had even promised 70 films would be released on its platform before the year ended. 

Somewhere amid the big battle between traditional Hollywood and various streaming giants are aspiring filmmakers looking to carve their own lane in Hollywood.

Independent filmmakers have had it especially rough since the production shutdown brought on by COVID-19. Speaking with Filmmaker Magazine, director/producer Miranda Bailey said investors “may not be interested in risky businesses” like independent films, even though these endeavors require a lower investment than feature-length films.

Even short films that many aspiring directors use to build a portfolio or generate interest around a longer film aren’t cheap. According to Newbie Film School, the average short film costs between $700 and $1,500 per minute, with the possibility of shooting up higher. Regardless of the length of a film, though, the reality is that filmmaking is an expensive business all around. 

And another thing is certain: there’s no absolute route toward financing a film. But where there’s a will, there’s a way, and aspiring and established filmmakers have learned how to get their art out to the masses. But unless an aspiring filmmaker’s network is big enough for them to call on the likes of Oprah Winfrey, Magic Johnson, Prince, and Janet Jackson for help financing a film (like Spike Lee was able to do for his 1992 biopic, Malcolm X), they’re probably going to have to think of alternatives. Here’s how a few young filmmakers are doing it.

Loans and A-List Talent

Tiffany Haddish, TBS' 'Friday Night Vibes'

Another Medium

'Below Sycamore' cover mock up

Below Sycamore had a respectable theater run in San Francisco before writer Daniel Medina developed greater ambitions to create a feature-length film based on his play. Medina wanted to expand his story about battling his own demons of addiction through a fictional allegory with grotesque monsters. 

“There are 40 million people battling addiction out there who don’t have any decent content,” says Medina. “They don’t have a show—not a good one, not one that talks about recovery. Something that gives them any kind of hope. So there are some economic things there as well.”

He linked up with polymath entertainment lawyer and film producer Brandon Dorsky for help in turning Beyond Sycamore into a film. They both had trouble securing financing for an adaptation.  

“We had some frustrations in trying to get some sort of foot in the door on some initial meetings for him on this adapted play,’’ says Dorsky. “At the time, there was not a lot of budget being thrown around for a new development project.”

“You can have original content, but content that’s based on something that’s already been successful is proven to be more successful.” – Daniel Medina

Instead of waiting for those doors to open, Medina began not only working on a graphic novel, but writing episodes for a potential television series based on the play. They even got Danny Trejo to participate in the graphic novel adaptation of his play. 

“You can have original content, but content that’s based on something that’s already been successful is proven to be more successful,” Dorsky says. “We think we have good building blocks to move forward with, and we have a successful play behind us.”

Beginning as a theatrical play with goals for a silver screen adaptation hasn’t worked out too well in terms of securing financing. But taking a multimedia project approach in a social media age, where attention is currency, is a plan both Medina and Dorsky are willing to invest in.

Change Spots, Gain Tax Incentives

Daughter of the Wild Gina Carano

Lucretia Stinnette’s first student film at UCLA film school was Quyen, a story set in South Korea about the life of a woman forced into an arranged marriage. Initially, she used student loans to finance production and applied for grants. Then the unthinkable happened mid-shoot. 

“There came a point while I was in Korea that I ran out of money, and was waiting on some grants to come through from UCLA,” says Stinnette. “I had to pay all the vendors in Korea before I left to come back to the States, so I had to hit up family members for a loan until that money came through and I was able to pay them back.” 

The biggest financial lesson Stinnette says she learned was to always have a strong, experienced producer who can keep their eye on the bottom line. She also says that, because grants take a while to pay out quickly, it’s good to have a backup plan in case money doesn’t come through on time. 

As a part of the American Film Institute’s Directing Workshop for Women Class of 2021, Stinnette is also learning other lessons about financing movies. Her film for the class, Redondo, tackles tensions between Black and Korean residents of Los Angeles. Stinnette’s time with AFI’s Directing Workshop for Women has been an eye-opening experience, as members of the class are responsible for raising up to $40,000 to get their shorts made. 

“Through the program, they reframed the task and helped us think about this process not as ‘begging’ for money,” Stinnette explains. “Part of our job as filmmakers right now and for the rest of our careers is to sit down in front of people with the power to give us money and ensure confidence about our abilities and our projects to them. We have to be able to sell ourselves and our value as storytellers and make them feel comfortable trusting us with millions of dollars to go out and direct a feature or an episode of television.”

Paying for It Yourself


Latest in Pop Culture