Last week’s article didn’t feature any sexy charts, so I thought it would be a shame to disappoint film data nerds two weeks in a row. As penance, I thought I’d tackle a juicy topic I’ve had on my mind for a while: Do filmmakers lie about their budgets?
The short answer is – yes, all the time. There are times when you want your budget to seem higher than it actually is (to get noticed in the industry, to get a sales deal, to look cool at a party as the big-shot filmmaker) and sometimes when you want it to seem like you spent less than you actually did (getting good deals on kit and crew, when you’re embarrassed at how much you wasted, to look cool at a party as the resourceful filmmaker).
I took data from the BFI and HMRC and compared it with budget figures published online. In summary…
- Between a third and a half of British films released 2009-14 have publicly declared what their film cost to make.
- 92% of films budgeted over £30 million declare a budget whereas for films under £150k it’s 40%.
- At least 30% of British films released 2009-14 lied about their budget – 8% claiming it cost less than it did and 22% inflating their budget.
- 43% of films actually made for £500k – £1m inflated their budgets publicly
- 35% of films actually made for £1m – £2m under-reported their budget.
- On average, British filmmakers making films under £150k claim that their budget is £255k.
- Of the sub-£150k films released in 2014, 21% claimed that their film cost over half a million pounds.
- Micro-budget filmmakers are increasingly inflating their budgets.
- Filmmakers blame distribution and marketing pressures
How can we find out what a film really cost?
The budgets for Hollywood films tend to make their way into the public domain via leaked documents, gossip from the vast number of people ‘in the know’ and reports to stockholders. However, lower budget films don’t suffer from many of these leaks and so the only online source for most budgets is the filmmakers themselves. This makes is extremely easy to misrepresent your film’s true cost.
In fact, there are very few places where filmmakers are forced to reveal the truth about their budget. All UK companies have to file annual statements with Companies House showing basic financial data, but these don’t give enough detail to work out budgets. Films can be split across years, a company’s overall income/expenditure could be across numerous projects and some films are co-productions, meaning the film’s budget has been paid by more than one company.
Fortunately for us, the UK currently has a tax rebate system and a friendly government body. The producers of British films can claim back about a fifth of the money they spend on a film in the UK. You need to get your film officially certified as ‘British’, work out how much you’re owed (for films budgeted under £20m, it’s 25% of 80% of your total spend, or 25% of the money you spend in the UK – whichever is lower) and then submit your corporation tax return.
HMRC (i.e. the taxman) shares some of these details with the BFI, meaning that the BFI has accurate figures for how much every single British film cost to make. They don’t publish these figures in detail but they were kind enough to share budget range data with me. This means that for all recent British films, I know for a fact that one of the following budget ranges applies:
- Over £30 million
- Between £10 million and £30 million
- Between £5 million and £10 million
- Between £2 million and £5 million
- Between £1 million and £2 million
- Between £0.5 million and £1 million
- Between £150k and £500k
- Under £150k
These budget ranges are as factual as anything can be, because if anyone lied to HMRC then they would have been committing fraud. It does happen by only very rarely. I then cross-referred this data with publicly available data such as Wikipedia, IMDb, Box Office Mojo and interviews with filmmakers in order to measure how different the publicly stated budgets are from the legally-declared true budgets.
How many filmmakers publicly state their film’s budget?
Across all British films released between 2009 and 2014 (including those not released yet but scheduled for a 2014 release) I found budget figures for 38% of them.
Approximately three out of every ten films has a budget published in the year it’s released in cinemas. Over time this increases; there are published budgets for almost half of all the British films released in 2010.
Are they telling the truth?
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