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Funny Money: The Games of Animated Budgets

John Cawley lays out the rules of the funny game of animation budgeting.

Nowadays, the budget is a tool of publicity and egos, a series of games the modern producer must play and win. Images courtesy of iStockphoto.

There was a time when budgeting for animation was pretty straight forward, and unknown to the outside. Studio A proposed a project and told the client the price to produce. After a little used car haggling between the two, a final amount was settled on. The studio took the money and produced the project. Aside from popular stories of studio owners skimming money, or actually disappearing with the money, there seemed little interest in budgets. Budgets were just something for the crew to gripe about (being too small) and accountants to worry about. Many a creator had no real idea what the budget was. (And some still do not.)

There was one general rule -- the more money involved the better the final product. Of course features generally got more money than TV, thus features were considered more important than TV. Just as primetime series were more important than Saturday morning. Yet there were plenty of examples that proved throwing money at a project was no guarantee of quality.

I recall at one meeting towards the start of a series, a major exec brought me in to discuss the production. He asked me if we could produce a quality animated series for the money in the budget. I looked at the budget and stated it was a pretty standard budget for TV. "Yes," his tone got firmer, "but can we produce a quality animated series for this money. The owners want a quality series." I sat for a second and then stated, "Well, it really depends on whether everyone has the same definition of quality."

When animation went Hollywood back in the 1990s, budgeting followed along. Suddenly budgeting was drawn into the games of live-action production. It became a tool of publicity, egos and deals just as credits and "star power" did. And budgets were no longer something handled by top execs. The budget was thrust down to the line producers and producers to wrangle with. Now the budget was something everyone talked about, as if it were the Nielsens or box-office. The result had the effect of creating a series of games that the modern producer must play and win.

Some of these games include...

There are three kinds of budget games: The Budget Brag, The Old Army Budget and The Budget Box. All involve the producer fighting the financing entity for the right amount of money to be spent properly.

The Budget Brag

One of the first games to come along was the budget "brag." This became particularly popular in the 1990s as one studio or network after another bragged about how much money their production cost. Networks acted as if the show with the highest price tag won.

Quite frequently the mega-budget is simply a smoke screen for an average or even small budget. Once one looks at the line-by-line, one can find all sorts of money pits. A popular pit is in the exec producer budget lines. Here you will find big name producers getting as much as 25% of the budget for having their names on the project. Or maybe there is a star artist who is receiving two to five times the average rate because the client thinks they are "worth" it. I know of several productions (feature and TV) in which "plain old talented" artists are brought in to "fix" or "complete" all the work done by the star artist. Then there is the lure of the "big name" voice talent or music person.

Years ago, I was brought in on an educational series. The studio bragged it was the highest budgeted show they had ever done. They mentioned the total budget and it was easily 20% higher than any show currently in production at the studio. I began going over the figures with them, when I noticed something odd. "Why is the budget for storyboards less than on series 'x'?" I asked. Nothing but diverted eyes met my glance. Then I noticed that the amount of time and money for props was half the budget of a series that had been in production for over three seasons. "That show," I mentioned, "has lots of existing material, whereas this new show will need everything done by scratch." Looking deeper, I found a majority of the money was going to a research think-tank and advisory group, leaving the show with a smaller budget than the other series at the studio!

This one-ups-man-ship is mostly gone in today's cost conscious (cutting) mood. Yet, one should always be wary of the budget that seems "too good to be true." A savvy producer is not taken in by general talk about how "big" a budget is or how many stars are attached. They look line by line to see how much money is really going into the production. After all, a big budget is only of value if the money is used on the actual production.

The Old Army Budget

How many budgets can a production have? Not to say that studios are playing the old "two books" game, but it is not uncommon for there to be the "established" and signed off budget and the "real" budget. This is one of the toughest games for new producers to play.

Sometimes this happens due to a last minute decision by someone higher up. You are initially shown the budget and a discussion takes place between you, accounting, execs and such. The figures are locked in and the budget is then sent around for signatures showing that everyone has agreed. Folks often sign the cover sheet without looking inside. The savvy producer will always re-check the interior.

More than once I have found that a number inside the budget has been altered. The final total is the same, but suddenly money has been shifted from say, storyboarding to music (perhaps due to the desire for a big name composer). Frequently there is nothing to do at this point, but it is always better going in knowing where your monies are.

Much like the oft-reported company buyout, some of the actual money may not exist. For example, it is easy to find stories in the financial section of company "a" buying company "b" for a million dollars. When you read the article, you discover what is really being exchanged is $500 plus all sorts of shares, rights, property and such. Similarly, there are some budgets that promise a million dollars. Upon closer look, you can see that the actual cash for production is much less. The remaining "money" is in the form of licensing agreements, broadcast rights and such.

Since one cannot pay a layout artist with a toy, the producer must stick with the actual money involved. This can be a tough sell when talking to a crew that believes there is more money in the project than exists. And since such deals are usually fairly "private," it sometimes cannot be passed on to the crew who will just assume something "funny" is going on.

Producers must study budgets carefully and not allow outside influences to sway decisions. Urban legends are in fact legends. © 2000 Animation Budget Builder.

The Budget Box

Most common today is the "budget box." Like running a gauntlet, this is where a project must be done for X dollars. No haggling. No complaining. Take it or leave it. No matter the amount, it is almost always less than desired. While it might be tempting to reject the project, often these are brought in by folks with a great deal of prominence in the business: an award winning director, a big star or even a major network. A chance to work on something that could be a major production is very tempting to a studio.

Sometimes the figure is created by the client, who has little idea of the price of animation. At best they might "know" that Flash or CG is cheaper than hand animation. Sometimes a studio exec comes up with the figure. I recall at one studio an exec called us in to state we were doing a half-hour animated special for $100,000. At the time, that amount was half of what we were doing our half hour shows. I asked how the figure was derived. "It just popped into my head," stated the exec, "and the client liked it."

In this scenario the producer must look at all divisions like a massive checkerboard and figure where to place the funds available. Usually the answer is to crunch one place or another. This is where a knowledgeable line producer is golden. Perhaps shave some money off the board by keeping them rough. Maybe doubling up some voice talent can help. You may need to look at recording talent in Canada. If you have good production people, perhaps you can do with only an assistant instead of a coordinator. If you are using an outside studio (Flash, overseas, CG, whatever), see if they will do it for a bit less. Or, find a studio that will.

In the end, a good producer will find a way to make the numbers work. But doing so will take a lot of creativity on the producer's side... and a lot of sweat from their crew. It is never impossible. And sometimes, the challenge can make it fun for everyone. There is still something to be said for an occasional "guerrilla" production.

Winning The Games

Again, the best way to keep on top of these and other games is to study budgets carefully. No matter what folks say, only the money used for the production will get into the production. Do not allow outsiders, executives or creatives to push urban legends on you. Crews do not get faster and cheaper as the production goes on. You will not make up money or time wasted up front. You cannot "fix" things in animation. The client will not be impressed and give you more money in mid-production.

A producer who understands actual production, realistic budgets and honest schedules is a production's most valuable player. The result could be the production and its team winning the Gold.

John Cawley is a producer of animation whose résumé includes Cartoon Network, Nickelodeon, New World/Marvel, Film Roman and Sullivan-Bluth. John, an author of several books on animation, has also written for comics and animation. He is a lecturer on animation production and an established mascot performer.