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Writers On The Web: Staying Out of the Money Trap

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It happens when you least expect it. You're in the last days or weeks of production, everything's going along swimmingly, and then... some things you never thought would be a problem start to go wrong.


Before you know it, your leg is fully ensnared in what I call the Money Trap. (In his book, Rebel Without a Crew, Robert Rodriguez refers to it as the Money Hose.)

It means that when problems arise, you start throwing money at them. Then you run out of money in your budget. Then you start maxing out your credit cards. Then you open new credit cards when the current ones are maxed out.

Once your project is filmed, you now don't have money for post or marketing because you spent your entire budget on the production. So then you take out a personal loan. Or you take a loan out from family and friends. Or you refinance your house.

Now you're securely in the Trap: DEBT.

For years, I practically lived in the Trap. I set up a mattress and slept in the Trap.

Our society, particularly here in America, has taught us that it's not only acceptable but completely normal to carry huge, heaping amounts of debt. That it actually benefits you, because you'll have a higher credit score.

Let me tell you from firsthand experience that the only people who benefit from your debt are the bankers and credit card companies. And all a high credit score means is that you're a good candidate for taking on more debt and moving farther into the Trap in the future.

We all hear stories of writers and filmmakers who put their heart and soul into their project, spent their life savings, refinanced their home, all for the love of the work, and it all paid off when their film was accepted to Cannes and now they're the hot new thing.

But for every success story like that, there's thousands who don't make it, and probably end up living in their cars (if it hasn't been repossessed.)

I'm not trying to be a negative nellie. What I want to do is to encourage you to find creative ways to finish your projects without going into debt. Don't sacrifice your future to pay for today.

When you're shelling out money every month for a short film you made years ago that never made it past Vimeo, you'll see what I mean. I've paid my credit cards off now, but it took a long while, and in the meantime, robbed me of the chance to go a lot of places, do a lot of things, and build savings.

Examples of actual things that went wrong on past sets that required the Money Hose:

  • While a crew member was removing something he taped to the ceiling, he ripped the tape off too fast and took down a chunk of the drywall and ruined the surrounding paint. Do you think he was going to pay for it? Ha! I spent the entire afternoon trying to find an immediate handyman with drywall patching experience. Cost: $450
  • We put up "removable wallpaper" to dress a set, only to find out it wasn't so removable. Off came paint and drywall...again. This time we were smarter and hired an independent painter rather than a handyman company. Cost: $100
  • A PA double-parked (why?!) while out picking up a prop and got a $150 ticket. She came back crying, with the ticket and no prop, and expectations that we would be paying for it. We ended up coming to a consensus and paid half. Cost: $75 and tons of aggravation
  • Our sound recordist had a "family emergency" AKA got a higher-paying project and needed to be replaced with only one day's notice. After at least 12 hours on the phone and internet trying to find a replacement (all of our regular guys were booked), we ended up having to pay the new recordist double what the last guy was making to be available for the weekend at the last minute. Extra Cost: $200
  • Our production designer had to leave town the night before the first day of shooting, and she was supposed to bring her own set pieces and props. So this necessitated a late-night trip to Target to buy a whole set's worth of decor. Cost: $250
  • A PA ordering pizza for the film set misunderstood and had everyone order full-size pizzas rather than personal lunch-size ones. I was completely perplexed when the pizza man came to the door with twelve large pizzas. Then I saw the bill: well over $200 for a lunch that was supposed to cost $60. Extra Cost: $140

This is where your contingency fund in your budget comes to play. I can't stress enough how important it is to have money set aside for emergencies. Just like many financial experts talk about having an "emergency fund" for your personal finances, you must have an emergency fund for your film and web projects. If you don't have to use it, great, you just have all the more money to transfer into your film/web festival and marketing budget.

If you have a nice, hefty contingency fund, then you don't have to open up a new credit card when problems arise (which they will).

Looking back, there were more creative ways that we could have saved money on the above issues:

  • Hiring an independent painter for that first ceiling drywall issue rather than a major handyman company. We also should have asked around to the cast and crew for referrals as well. (Turns out that our costume designer's roommate was a set designer and she could paint and do drywall. We hired her for the second issue we had, and she did a great job and saved us hundreds of dollars.)
  • Spelled out in our deal memo that the production would not be paying for parking tickets and crew members need to be conscientious and make smart choices when parking.
  • Called cast and crew to see if they had any decor they could bring to the shoot the next day to help out, and made better use of what we had around the house.
  • Clarified with the PA about the lunch order to make sure he understood, and then looked over it before he called.

For more ideas of creative ways to save money on everything from locations to food to costumes and makeup, check out my article from last year on Reverse Budgeting.

Just remember: There is no project worth losing your shirt over. Or your car. Or your house. Make smart financial choices to protect your future so you can keep doing the things you love: writing and producing!

Rebecca Norris is a writer, producer, web enthusiast, and creator of the award-winning web series Split with her production company, Freebird Entertainment. Follow Rebecca on Twitter at @beckaroohoo.

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