Web video may have started out with user-generated content at its core, but in today’s world there’s a new cast of players creating web videos, from the funny guy with a web cam to the big-budget studio. And as web-specific content has become more professional in nature, the actual scale of the productions, along with the money necessary to make them happen, has increased.
The diversity of the landscape can make it difficult to understand what, exactly, goes into the making of high-quality web content. To get a sense of what today’s production budgets look like, we asked the producers of a web series to share their balance sheet with us and explain how the numbers fit together. The budget below (skip ahead), provided to us under the condition of anonymity, reflects the costs associated with a multi-episode comedic web series that was commissioned and financed by the digital arm of a mainstream network. We have removed all potentially identifying information, but the financials remain untouched.
Setting the Budget
The three producers were given a $30,000 budget to work with, upfront. This was the largest-scale production they had worked on, so the team took pains to create a budget up front and tracked their expenses against it. The budget was for their own use only, however; none of the production companies the producers have worked with — including this one — require the submission of a budget, instead trusting that the producers (who have an established track record in low-budget production) would be able to manage their finances. For this team, though, $30,000 was quite a bit of money. “When there’s that much money involved,” one of them said, “A budget makes sense.”
Pay Yourself First
The way many projects like this are financed is that the producers are given a set budget for the entire project, out of which comes their own fee for producing it. The first decision producers have to make when creating their budget is their own salaries, an important balance for any creator of low-budget content to make. Take too much for yourself, and there won’t be enough money for the production; take too little, and what was supposed to be a financed project accidentally becomes a “labor of love.” The three producers of this show set their individual fees at $3,000 each, for a total of $9,000, which left them $21,000 to handle production costs.
All About the Actors
The team budgeted $100 for each co-starring performer. A few changes occurred after casting, however: one role was given to a friend who participated for free; the other went to a veteran actor who required a slightly higher salary. One of the producers was also cast as the lead actor, which means that he took no salary for his acting work. Had an outside actor been brought in for the role, he would have been paid equivalent to the co-lead, a total of $1,000. Because these producers came from a do-it-all-yourselves background, this sort of cast and crew overlap is fairly typical for them, a natural creative decision as opposed to a deliberate attempt to keep the budget down. This is an element that varies from producer to producer: Some creators got involved in web video as a way to be able to star in their own productions, and others can’t wait to step behind the camera and bring in a professional.
Most crew members during production are paid per day (a standard production day lasts 12 hours), which means that a good way to keep costs down is to limit the number of shoot days. However, this comes at a potential cost: if the day limit is reached, the production team may not have enough time to get the necessary coverage. The x7 seen in the salary totals for crew refers to the fact that this was scheduled to be a seven-day shoot. The Grip/Electric department was paid slightly extra because they were needed for a few pickup shots. This is identical to the way crews on film and TV production are paid, except that across the board, those productions tend to shoot at a slightly slower speed (thus ensuring they get all the shots they need). This is one element of web video production that is likely to change as budgets increase and creators get more time to get things right.
Location, Location, Location
The “Location” fee of $2,500 reflects the money paid to the owner of the shoot’s single location, which in this case was a privately-owned residence. Because most location owners do require payment before shooting can occur (unless the producer is able to secure a location for free, either by calling in favors, using a location they own or control, or shooting “guerrilla-style” without permits or permission), limiting the number of locations is key to keeping down costs (it also makes things easier logistically).
Hungry Crews are Cranky Crews
You might think that budgeting over $1,000 for meals sounds like a lot of money. But the secret to a happy cast and crew, any experienced creator of media will tell you, is keeping them well-fed, and feeding a 35-person crew and a cast that at times numbered up to 25 (including extras) isn’t cheap. This is a universal aspect of production, though film and TV shows may have slightly higher quality food.
Estimations Lead to Overruns
Services like color correction, visual effects and sound mixing — all key elements of the post-production process — were contracted out, and overages on their predicted costs were generally due to the assigned tasks being more extensive than predicted. The overrun on visual effects was the largest ones of the production as a whole, but this was due to a creative decision by the team to add more animation and graphics to a particular sequence of the series, and thus considered an acceptable cost.
Any task not itemized on this budget was taken care of in-house by the producers, as included in their producing fee — a place where the versatility many makers of web video develop (stuck as they are in the early days doing everything themselves) comes in handy. The biggest component of this during post-production was editing.
|Itemized Costs||Budget ($)||Actuals ($)||Variance ($)|
|Director of Photography||200 x 7||1,400.00||1,400.00||0.00|
|Gaffer||125 x 7||875.00||875.00||0.00|
|AC||125 x 7||875.00||875.00||0.00|
|Grip/Electric||100 x 7||700.00||875.00||(175.00)|
|AD||100 x 7||700.00||700.00||0.00|
|Audio||200 x 7||1,400.00||1,400.00||0.00|
|PA||75 x 7||525.00||525.00||0.00|
|Grip and Lighting Gear Type Gear||3,000.00||1,050.00||1,950.00|
|Audio Gear||100 x 7||700.00||700.00||0.00|