December 16, 2022

7 Ways to Save on Payroll for Your Next Low-Budget Film

Nathan Hilgartner
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It’s no secret: some low-budget films go on to become blockbusters. But financing a film is difficult, and a smart producer is always looking for new ways to save.

Payroll is one of the largest items in a film’s budget.  A film is the result of many talented people working collaboratively, making magic happen through their highly specialized and creative jobs. 

Even so, there are ways to slim down the costs of payroll in your film’s budget. In this post, we’ve outlined seven of them.

Let’s dive in.

1. Get talent for less

A movie is nothing without its actors. Still, salaries for on-screen talent – the brilliant, the beautiful, and the mercurial – can vary wildly. 

For your low-budget film, let’s assume you’re not paying millions for an A-list star. What else can you do to save?

Keep the cast small

This tip is as much for screenwriters and directors as it is for producers. A story with fewer characters is often more elegant, as well as less expensive, than one where payroll has to shell out SAG-minimum day rates for Bank Teller #2 and Police Officer #3. 

It takes ingenuity, but it can be done. Don’t be afraid to cut parts. Do you really need a different police officer in every scene? Do the best friend and the love interest serve the same purpose?

These kinds of questions can not only save you money, but make your story stronger. If the best friend and the love interest are the same character, what does that say about your protagonist?

Hire amateurs

When your story requires human actors with short speaking parts – and even for larger roles – it can sometimes pay to look beyond the professionals.

Many people in this amazing world have presence, charisma, and the talent to bring emotional truth to fictional situations. Find them. Audition them. Train them, if necessary. Cast them in your movie.

Now, bear in mind that this trick is not universal. It requires careful casting and masterful directing. It also benefits grounded films more than others. But when it works? It works miracles.

Remember, the lead role in Alfonso Cuarón’s Roma went to Yalitza Aparicio Martínez, who had never acted in a film before. Her performance went on to receive an Oscar nomination for Best Actress. If the part is right, you might turn your amateur into a pro.

Make a deal 

A lot of people in our industry float somewhere between “amateur” and “professional.” 

Going to auditions while working two day-jobs. Writing spec scripts while producing content on Youtube or Tik-Tok. Waiting on that breakout opportunity. Respect the hustle.

In some cases this may mean that a talented actor will be willing to take a smaller fee. See if you can make a fair trade by exchanging other services which you are able to provide, which will further their career. 

Maybe you can offer to take high-quality headshots with the high-end film cameras you’ve already paid for. Maybe you can put them in touch with this manager or that agent. Maybe you know someone who knows someone who can get their unproduced script onto the right producer’s desk.

Negotiation is the art of finding a way for everyone to be a little happy. Look for ways to give them what they need aside from the obvious.

2. Hire crew efficiently 

Many major film productions have 500+ crew members. You, however, probably don’t have the money for that.  That’s okay, you don’t have to.

With your limited film budget, you can cut down on wages if you only hire for necessary roles: cinematographer, lighting director, sound director, assistant director, and maybe a handful of others. Focus on what you NEED and what helps. Everything else is extra.
Here’s some ways to accomplish this.

Simplify your onboarding process

Onboarding is one of the most resource-consuming aspects of hiring. In fact, it’s such a big topic we wrote an entire eBook about it. We won’t try and cram it all in here, especially when we already wrote that book for you.
(Hint, hint).

Low Budget Films and Ways to Save on Payroll - Wrapbook - Onboarding

Start with a payroll system that does the job for you. Wrapbook’s Onboarding tools allow for digital signatures, and it’s crew database means you’ll never have to fill out the same form twice.

Recruit the multi-talented

Spend much time in the independent film world and you’ll discover that most people do a little bit of everything. Screenwriters who also do standup; aspiring directors who make their livings as editors; PAs who know how to do literally every job on a film set. 

If multi-talented people are committed to your project, you may be able to persuade them to do multiple jobs for a bargain fee. In exchange for the promise of certain work, many people will cut their rates. 

After all, if your director pays their rent as an editor, there’s no reason to hire another editor, is there?

Hire students

You may have been a film student yourself, once. Do you remember what you felt the first time you set foot on a movie set?

Students are eager for experience and may be willing to work for less. Reach out to film schools and film student forums online. If you can teach people something, you can also benefit from their enthusiasm.

Be careful not to abuse this, however. Just because someone will go above and beyond does not mean they should. You’re not just saving on money, you’re nurturing the future of filmmaking. Take that responsibility seriously!

Limit & bundle locations

In film, time is money. The more days you shoot, the more you pay. And few things take up time like setting.

This means the fewer locations you use, the cheaper your film will be.

Fewer locations mean fewer shoot days, more efficient use of those days, and less money and time spent on travel.

If you bundle your locations – that is, find locations to shoot at which are physically close to one another – you save on travel and personnel costs as well.  Some locations can double as others. You have no idea how much mileage Star Trek shows used to get out of the same cabin and hallway sets.

3. Hire freelancers instead of full-time staff

In this digital age, a lot of work has moved from full-time positions to what’s called the “gig economy.” This is as true in film as it is anywhere.

Low Budget Films and Ways to Save on Payroll - Wrapbook - Freelancers
More and more labor is being done by freelancers every year, as opposed to full-time employees.

The ethical merits of this change are hotly debated. However, there’s no doubt that hiring freelancers or gig workers is more cost-efficient than hiring full-time crew. 

Though calculating day rates can be complicated, hiring freelancers can be more cost-effective than hiring full-time workers.  Not every payroll service makes it easy. Classification isn’t always obvious, and getting it wrong can cost you a lot of money in fees or fixes.

Low Budget Films and Ways to Save on Payroll - Wrapbook - Timecard Wages

With Wrapbook, you can calculate day rates, hourly rates, overtime wages, tax requirements, and more with minimal effort. Switch classification easily and know that all tax requirements will be changed with it.

4. Push payments to the last day in the cycle

Pushing the release of payments to the last legally allowable day in the cycle can help you save. When this is done at scale for many employees, the extra funds sitting in your bank account for a few more days will generate a small amount of interest – money that can go towards production expenses. 

We know, that doesn’t seem like a lot. But with a low-budget film, literally every penny counts. At the time of this writing, interest rates are at historical highs. Depending on how much money you have in your payroll bank account, that could be extra money you can use for last minute problems.

 Each US state has unique paycheck laws – familiarize yourself to make sure you’re within bounds. The interest you gain isn’t worth the risk of fees.

5. Take advantage of film incentive schemes 

Tax incentives are a fabulous way to save, and more and more states offer them. ‌You’ve heard of Georgia’s incentives, but it isn't the only one. Consider where your script is set, and what states could double for it in a pinch!

Production Incentive Center - Wrapbook - Inline Ad

Several states offer tax benefits on employee wages if you hire locally. For example, New Mexico’s Film Crew Advancement Program reimburses 50% of locally-hired crew members’ wages for up to 1,040 hours of work. 

These kinds of incentives can also go a long way towards cost-cutting within your payroll budget, as well as getting you the benefits of a local crew.  As we said earlier, never be afraid to hire local!

6. Decide if a section 125 benefit plan is right for you

A section 125 benefit plan lets employees use pretax dollars to pay medical and dental premiums, earmarking funds for qualified medical and dependent-care costs. This can save employees roughly 30 percent in federal, state, and local taxes – a major benefit to your employees!

Low Budget Films and Ways to Save on Payroll - Wrapbook - Section 125
Section 125 is a great way to help your employees save on costs – which helps you in the long run.

Saving on payroll partly depends on having the best, most efficient, most enthusiastic people working for you. They will do a better job faster, helping you get your movie made for less. Help them out – keep them happy – and you’ll retain them on the next project. 

Your company can save $115 per participant on average with the reduction in payroll and tax liabilities for Social Security, Medicare, and unemployment insurance. 

7. Avoid payroll errors 

Mistakes are expensive – obviously! In all seriousness, processing payroll is a complicated process involving multiple computations for tax payments, social security deductions, and employee contributions. A single error in this complicated process can result in a hefty fine. High-quality payroll software, like Wrapbook, will ensure you stay compliant, and off the IRS' radar.

The IRS collected nearly $7 billion in payroll penalties in 2021. Getting fined can make a dent in your already limited film budget, so if you want to avoid common production payroll mistakes that lead to overpaying employees or generating fines, consider automating this process.

The more seamlessly you take care of payroll, the less likely you are to make an expensive error. What kind of a pricetag can you put on piece of mind? Just ask the IRS; or, better yet, avoid that messy headache entirely by using Wrapbook’s flexible and user-friendly software.

Wrapping up

These tips should help you start to trim your payroll expenses. We advise that you research payroll laws for your state and film genre to understand what you can and cannot do while cutting costs. 

Interested in learning more ways to save on payroll? Then why not try learning how to avoid the most common payroll mistakes? Nothing like staying compliant to save money.

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At Wrapbook, we pride ourselves on providing outstanding free resources to producers and their crews, but this post is for informational purposes only as of the date above. The content on our website is not intended to provide and should not be relied on for legal, accounting, or tax advice.  You should consult with your own legal, accounting, or tax advisors to determine how this general information may apply to your specific circumstances.

About the author
Nathan Hilgartner

Nathan Hilgartner is a writer living in Brooklyn.

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