Kevin Smith's Clerks (1994) is a landmark in low-budget cinema. A gritty, naturalistic stoner comedy, Clerks follows a day in the life of, well – clerks. Budget aside, films about the struggles and annoyances of low-wage earning retail workers are not typical box-office earners. Even so, Kevin Smith’s low-budget debut became an instant cult classic and launched his career.
But what was the budget of Clerks? Could a successful film be made nowadays for as little, or for less? What lessons can we draw from Clerks’ budget? In this post, we’ll break down all these questions and more.
The total of the Clerks budget breakdown isn’t shown in the photo, but it adds up to $25,745; as Smith explains in his accompanying post text, a fee paid to process a negative cut of the film put the final total at $27,575. By any measure, Clerks’ budget is small!
But what would Clerks’ budget be today? Adjusting for 30 years of inflation, $27,575 in 1993 dollars would roughly equal $57,409.43 in 2023 dollars. But, as Smith points out in his post, a similar movie could be made today for even less. This comes down to one simple factor: technology.
As you can see, most of Clerks’ budget went toward technical equipment. In the 1990s, when Smith shot Clerks, film was still the only viable medium for shooting a feature. You may not realize just how expensive film is!
Thirty-seven rolls of Kodak Double X Negative black-and-white film cost $1,600, or 5.8% of the budget for Clerks. (Color film is even more expensive.) Film development costs still more. Add in rentals for a camera, lights, sound reels, sound processing and mixing, and we’ve accounted for most of Clerks’ budget!
But today things are different – it would take far less to make something like Clerks. Movie technology has shifted from film to digital.
Hollywood productions up to the highest budget levels have largely shifted from film cameras to digital. As in the analog epoch when Smith made Clerks, movie cameras of professional grade are widely available to rent. But the same basic technology is now even relatively inexpensive to buy, in the form of affordable camera models like the Blackmagic Pocket 6K, Canon EOS C100 Mark II, and Red Komodo.
In 1993, Smith paid $3,400 to rent a 16mm camera for about 21 days of shooting. Today, the amount he spent would translate to a little more than $7,000 – more than twice the average cost of buying the first two cameras we listed above.
Renting them would be even cheaper, giving flexibility for a longer shooting schedule. Though nothing makes for greater flexibility than owning your own equipment!
Granted, we haven’t factored in the cost of lenses and other essential accessories (an expense not listed on Smith’s Clerks budget, either). Factoring these in, the functional cost of the Red Komodo (the most expensive camera we mentioned) is closer to $10,000.
But for Clerks, movie camera and movie medium (physical film stock) were both significant costs. Today, the only significant cost is the camera – the movie itself is made up of electronic 0s and 1s.
Instead of paying for expensive film stock, filmmakers today can shoot as much footage as they like for no extra cost: the only limitation is digital storage. One 400ft reel of 16mm film translates to about 10 minutes of screen time, and costs about $300 today.
A 4-terabyte drive – which costs less than $100 – can hold at least 2.5 to 4 hours of footage (depending on compression). It’s like the difference between an extremely expensive Post-It note and a bargain subscription to the entire Library of Congress.
Furthermore, digital footage is highly malleable in post-production. Clerks’ budget largely determined its visual style of a somewhat grainy black and white, because with film, the image is defined on the front end.
Film is an unforgiving technology – if you over - or - underexpose an image, there’s not a lot you can do about it afterwards (that is, until you convert your footage to a digital format).
But digital technology affords an essentially infinite set of options for color correction and color grading, at no extra cost. Today, an inexpensive-as-Clerks movie might play with any number of distinct visual styles in ways that were totally unavailable to Smith at his budget range in the 1990s.
Kevin Smith knew he had a good idea on his hands, and he wrote a great script. Having done that, he didn’t wait around for some angel financier to come in and write him a check to make Clerks.
Film financiers are understandably wary of risk. Although his script had great potential, Smith knew that no investor was going to take a chance on it. Clerks’ budget was designed to be small – but even so, risk is risk!
At the same time, Smith didn’t have nearly $28,000 just lying around. He had to fund the film himself – which meant getting creative, as well as being willing to take on that risk personally.
This is where a true filmmaker’s passion, drive, and almost reckless faith come in. Smith put everything on the table to make his dream come true. He was determined to put together Clerks’ budget, and unafraid to get creative and take chances in order to do so.
He sold his beloved comic book collection. He borrowed from friends and family. He appropriated money from an insurance settlement which was supposed to go toward purchasing a new car to replace one lost in a flood.
He even resorted to an extremely risky tactic which we, in all frankness, cannot recommend: massive credit card debt. Smith applied for, and maxed out, some eight to ten credit cards with $2,000 limits; clearly, the lion’s share of the budget came from this all-or-nothing gambit.
Debt is a serious thing. No matter how passionate you are about your project, or how much you believe in your script, this business does not come with guarantees. A filmmaker who borrows on that kind of scale, with those kinds of interest rates, risks being stuck in a deep hole of debt for years – even a lifetime – if something goes wrong.
But happily for Kevin Smith, the gamble paid off: he had a winner on his hand with Clerks. Movie magic at its finest! How much money did Clerks make? About $4.4 million – impressive!
Clerks’ box office performance amounts to a serious return for a low-budget film, even one made and released back in the indie-crazy '90s. This meant that Smith was able to easily pay back his lenders, and he even managed to buy back that comic book collection. Silent Bob would be proud.
The breakdown we’ve seen budgets nothing toward cast, locations, props, costumes, or almost anything not directly related to technical elements. This is no accident!
In fact, Smith’s concept and script were specifically tailored to make use of resources at his disposal, which he wouldn’t have to pay for – not to mention his own life experience, which is the basis of the film.
To the writing maxim, “write what you know,” we might add the filmmaking maxim, “shoot what you see.”
Learning to make use of what’s around you (and available for cheap or free) is an essential low-budget filmmaking skill. Note that this doesn’t mean that every story should be a realistic slice from our (usually) un-cinematic daily lives.
It means that you can use the world around you – its locations, objects, and people – to create the story worlds of whimsical rom-coms, gritty action-dramas, and terrifying supernatural horror flicks.
At the time he developed and shot Clerks, filmmaker Kevin Smith was working as a clerk in a convenience store. His daily life was full of humor and frustration, and he knew this could make a good story.
In basing the film’s plot off his own life, he made use of the resources around him to populate its story world. The movie’s production was all grounded in what was available. Smith cast himself in a supporting role and shot on location at his real-life workplace, late at night, after hours, with the permission of his employer.
Working this way means getting creative. The story of Clerks takes place during a typical day, but the convenience store was only available for shooting at night. In order to explain the lack of daylight from the store windows during daytime scenes, Smith’s script introduces a comical beat: at start of business, the window grate won’t open, having been vandalized by gum-chewing miscreants.
This prompts a character to hang up the famous sign: “I assure you, we are open!” As we say in screenwriting, the problem (night for day) is the solution (an iconic gag). Had Clerks’ budget afforded the opportunity to pay for a daytime location, this piece of charm at least would be missing from the movie.
For the other characters, Smith cast friends and family, often in roles based directly on the actor playing the part, using their own real clothes as costumes. A story drawn straight from life has the benefit of being both realistic and cheap.
But as we said, not every film’s story should be like that of Clerks. Movies of all genres can be made out of the materials all around us – the only real limit is creativity, which ultimately has no limits.
We hope you enjoyed this breakdown of Clerks’ budget. Be sure to check out our full list of low-budget movies that made millions, one of which is Clerks!
Film producers ready to get their hands dirty should also check out our complete guide (and template!) on how to make a film budget.
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