With many films, TV productions, and film schools all making the transition into the digital era, ostensibly to save money, it is interesting to take a step back and analyze exactly what are the costly aspects of making a movie.
Film vs Video
While lab costs and film stock are certainly not incurred in the digital realm, the image created on 35mm film, when lit properly with professional lenses, is sharper at 8K digital resolution equivalent than the top level 3K digital resolution of a $10,000 Sony RED Scarlet camera. Given the rugged, long lifespan of mechanical film cameras, a used 35mm Arriflex with a high-quality lens package would easily cost under half that of the RED camera.
Shooting Ratios and Instant Playback
On the production side, the primary cost differentials are in shot length and shooting ratio. With video, the ability to view instant playback is a definite advantage that video has over film, where one has to wait until a lab has processed the film to view dailies. A director who is indecisive will shoot multiple backup takes, which is a negligible cost on video. Other than crew labor, location, and other daily costs, can explode a budget on film. These costs were overrun on commercials back in the latter 20th century, as well as a major headache for notoriously indecisive movie directors like Stanley Kubrick and Michael Cimino.
With the number of post-production houses with film editing equipment continuing to shrink, actual editing of workprints and negative matching services may be the biggest obstacle to overcome. Such facilities are becoming rarer as the convenience of editing digitally on a laptop computer becomes increasingly ubiquitous. If one’s production is in a major city where such services are still available, it can be a consideration, but if not, that could be a major stumbling negative against shooting and editing in film. If a budget allows for video transfer with timecode, and edge matching for negative, then a compromise can possibly be made for a video edit to serve as the reference for the negative matcher to create the master print.
In actuality, the largest cost for most productions is getting sufficiently famous talent to commit to the production in order to secure distribution deals. With film studio accountants overseeing increasingly large bets on franchise type “tentpole” films loaded with CGI effects, signing up films made with low budgets that can still be marketed to offset any big losses should a tentpole film become a bomb (even Tom Cruise’s “The Mummy” showed he could bomb at the box office!). Marketing campaigns and other extravagances spent for securing familiar talent is still one of the largest budget items. Netflix’s approach of using less familiar talent, which even can be found in its successful Marvel releases of “Daredevil” and “Jessica Jones”, are relatively low budget productions when compared to the Avengers and X-Men feature films. The rise of interest in documentaries is also showing that the market can bear successful alternative productions that do not have movie stars.