Welcome to FrockTalk, the web’s only costume-based movie review site. The goal of Frocktalk is to shed light on the magnificent artistry of costume design in motion pictures. Reviews on this site are written by working costume designers in the entertainment industry – people who know, better than anyone, what it takes to make it all happen. The focus of FrockTalk is not to comment on the big flashy costume dramas, but to call attention to the seemingly ordinary costume design work in film that silently and persuasively moves the audience toward understanding the characters. Costume design for motion pictures is an art form that deserves more recognition than it usually gets. Fancy, pretty costumes do not always equal effective, appropriate costumes. The art of the costume is in letting the audience know who the character is, before the actor even has a chance to open his mouth. Read on, and enjoy. ** CAUTION: ALL REVIEWS CONTAIN SPOILERS! **

What’s in a Budget?

Hello Frocktalkers – it’s been crazy here. I am designing a very small movie for a friend of mine, and my days have been jammed – like 4:30 AM to 10:30 PM, every day. I have signed an NDA (non-disclosure agreement) for my work on this film, so I can’t talk about the project. However, working on this film reminds me of the stark contrast between low-budget, independent films and bigger-budget, studio films. I’d like to discuss the differences for those of you just getting started or heretofore unaware of the differences.

“Low-budget, independent film” can mean different things to different people. People called Juno a low-budget indie (imdB lists its budget at $7.5M). The Blair Witch Project had a very low budget (estimated anywhere between $25K – $60K). That’s a big difference. Informally to us in the film industry, a “low budget feature” is a movie made for under $10M.

“Low Budget Feature” does NOT necessarily mean “independent”, however. For a movie to be an “independent”, it must be made without the financial backing of a studio. This means that the money being used to make the movie has been raised from independent investors or from non-studio entities.

Many studios a few years back were trying their hand at making low-budget features, and the IATSE (International Alliance of Theatrical and Stage Employees) came up with an agreement to allow these lower-budgeted featured to be made within the union contract. According to the Low-Budget Agreement dated 2007-2009, IATSE defines a “low-budget film” in three categories (from http://entlabor.com/):

(As of January 1, 2009) Tier one: Production costs budgeted at no more than $4.23M;

(As of January 1, 2009) Tier two: Production costs budgeted over $4.23M and no more than $7.22; and

(As of January 1, 2009) Tier three: Production costs budgeted over $7.22M and no more than $10.209M.

So you can see, it is possible to make a “Low-Budget Feature” within a union contract if you are above a certain budget level. However, in this crazy economy, many films are being made far below the aforementioned budget levels, therefore NON-union, and this is the kind of work I want to discuss.

In addition to “regular studio films”, I have designed two feature films with budgets of less than $1M in the last couple of years, and wow, it is a wake-up call. With costume design, like anything else, one becomes accustomed to performing the job duties at a certain level – you do things efficiently, and you get used to the process at that level. OK, now take away all the money it takes to do things efficiently. And take away all the people you usually have to help you. Now it’s just you, and one other person, and you have 10% of the money you usually have.

On a film with a budget of $1M or less, you would be lucky to have a costume budget of $10,000. Compare that to a “regular studio film” where your budget would start at $100,000 and go up from there. On a film of $1M or less, the costume crew consists of you and one other person. You function as the designer, the costume supervisor and the additional set costumer. The one other person functions as the key costumer, the set costumer, the ager-dyer, the tailor, and the laundry service. Well, both of you serve as the laundry service; let’s be honest. On a “regular studio film” you usually have a crew of eight or more people, and everyone can do his/her actual job, one job per person. Oh yeah, and you have an outside laundry contract that picks up and delivers.

On a film with a budget of $1M or less (and we’re talking non-union here), you make a flat rate, and there is no overtime, no matter what your position is. On a “regular studio film”, the unions regulate how much you are paid, and those employees in hourly positions (costume supervisor, costumers, tailors, ager-dyers) get overtime, meal penalties, etc. Keep in mind that because a costume designer is considered a “managerial” position, there is NO overtime pay; no matter how many hours of work you perform in a given week. However, working on a “regular studio film”, add a zero to that low-budget paycheck. The difference is staggering.

But here’s the contrast:

On a film of $1M or less, you deal with ONE person about creative decisions: the director. On a “regular studio film” you could deal with up to fifteen people: producers, co-producers, assistant producers, writer/creators, executive producers, studio “suits”, and oh yeah, the director. On a film of $1M, you get one person’s approval, and you’re done. On a “regular studio film” you get one person’s approval, and then it goes on up the chain of fifteen people – if your idea gets thrown out by one person in the chain, you are back to square one. It can be mind-bogglingly frustrating.

So, working in low-budget film has its perks, for sure – creatively there is almost nothing better. If you can be clever with your budget, executing the “look” of the movie for less, it is an indescribably rewarding feeling. However, if you’re trying to do a lavish period piece with dance numbers and showgirls for $10,000, it can be sheer frustration. This is something to think about the next time you watch an indie feature. Consider how much more work it is for the costume department: 1/10th the money of a normal feature, and 1/4th the staff. If an indie feature’s costumes look amazing, that is one hell of a costume team.

One of the most important things to consider when doing a film: the people involved with the project. If you work with talented people who “get it” and are appreciative, lack of budget and low pay seem like non-issues. If you work with unethical a$$h*les, no amount of money is going to make it better. I am happy to say that right now I am working with some wonderful people, and I feel lucky for the opportunity. If you find yourself in bed with unethical a$$h*les, God help you.

Just something to think about on an almost-rainy Sunday.

— KMB

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