How Much Can I Afford to Spend on My Transportation Planning Movie?

Lately I have asked people for their opinions about my idea for a movie about transportation planners. Some comments I got made me realize that many people have an unrealistic view of the economics of moviemaking.

How Much Money Might I Make?

So, what is the market for a movie about transportation planning?

If we want to make a movie that only people who work in transportation engineering or planning would want to see, then there is a small audience. The Institute of Transportation Engineers has about 17,000 members. Not every one who works in the field is a member of ITE so let’s assume that there about 40,000 people.

Of these people only about 10 per cent to 25 per cent are likely to pay for the movie. That works out to 4,000 to 10,000 people. A typical DVD would sell for $15. Of that about $10 would go to manufacture and distribution. That leaves a profit of $5 per sale to pay for the movie. Distribution through other means would likely produce a similar profit. That works out to $20,000 to $50,000.

If we can go beyond the professionals to people who work in related fields, such as land developers and land use planners, we could have a larger audience. There are many people in the public with a keen interest in transportation planning issues, and we might appeal to them as well. That might increase our potential market to 100,000 people. If we do the same calculation as above, we could bring in $50,000 to $125,000.

Piracy of the movie could reduce the profits considerably. I’ve discovered to my disappointment that no movie is too small to be pirated.

We could broaden the appeal of the movie if we put less emphasis on the transportation planning and more on other aspects of the story. While this would increase the amount of money we could spend on the movie, we would also drift away from the original idea.


How Cheaply Can You Make a Movie Worth Watching?

In 1997, the movie Titanic cost $200,000,000 to make. Leonardo DiCaprio got paid $20,000,000. A movie about transportation planning would have to cost far less than this.

Feature movies can be made for surprisingly small amounts of money. For example The Blair Witch Project cost about $35,000 to make. There is even a course that you can take to learn how to make a very low budget feature movie:

I have experience with this kind of movie making. I made Line of Taxis for $5,000. It is 11 minutes long, so if I used the same approach, I could do a feature for about $40,000. Since I made it, the introduction of digital technology has reduced some of the costs. Other costs have gone up.

A budget this low puts real constraints on a movie. In The Glencoe Project, most of the scenes are set in offices and meeting rooms. Most scenes involve just two people. These scenes can be done fairly cheaply. One scene though is set in a city council chamber. That scene would be much more expensive to shoot. In The Gladstone Barrier I have two scenes set out doors on or near a road and a scene set at a public meeting. These would be expensive.

Although a scene of two people in a room talking can be done cheaply, it can bore the audience if it isn’t done right.


Building an Audience

It is worthwhile to speculate about how many people will pay to see the movie, but it is risky to make a movie based on that speculation. How can I ensure I will have a big enough audience to make the movie?

A common technique that low budget movie makers use to raise money is to pre-sell the DVD. People would pay $15 upfront and get a copy of the movie when it is done. I wouldn’t want to do this until I was confident that I could deliver the movie in a reasonable time. I’m not at that point yet.

Some other movie makers seek out patrons. People who believe in the value of the movie would donate money to get it made. It would be difficult to find enough patrons to make a movie. Again, I wouldn’t want to try this until I knew I could deliver on my promises. I do have a donation button on my website, but currently I don’t promise anything.

Finally, some movie makers set up e-mail lists and FaceBook pages for their movies. This way I could collect contact information for potential customers that I can contact when the movie is ready. I do have both an e-mail list and a FaceBook page, but these are for my work in general and not just my transportation planning movie.


Would You Like to Help Get This Movie Made?

If you want to see this movie become a reality, you can help make it happen.

If you think you would buy the movie when it is done, then sign up for my e-mail list or FaceBook page. This will keep you informed about progress. If I get enough interest, I would set up a list specifically for the movie.

If you know other people who might want to see this movie made, please send them a link to my transportation planning movie web page.

Thank you.


I modified this post on 2011 August 11 by adding the paragraph about Line of Taxis.

1 Comment

  1. James, I applaud your effort to show the world the exciting lives that planners have. And yes, a scene with two people in a room talking about planning could be very boring. I think the introduction of personal experiences, whether true to how they were, or even slightly modified to add color and interest is a good thing. Most of my planning career has involved spending countless hours staring at a computer screen, doing travel demand modeling no less or preparing reports that few ever read. Conversely, there have been times when the involvement of fellow workers (clever pranksters) and even some clients have generated near riotous laughter. The comradarie that can come from working as a team on challenging projects is likely something the general public is unaware of but could easily understand. I have been on a project team where the client held a very nice celebratory dinner to show appreciation of our accomplishments. It was an unusually complex project, that held the key to realizing a legendary person’s vision. It has been nice to work on premier projects lke that. I guess what I am saying is that there is a wealth of material, factual or even synthesized, to draw upon if such stories would be shared with you. To appeal to a wide audience, you probably need to use a format like in the TV shows Friends or How I Met Your Mother, where you’d have enough characters to provide variation in the personal interactions and variety of scenes throughout the movie. I recall a sitcom where Michael J. Fox was serving as a Mayor’s aide and it worked pretty well – enough variation between office and personal life to keep it interesting. Stitching the sequence of scenes together to form a coherent story and pull the audience in for a feature length film is the challenge. It is hard to compete with Superheroes and 3D animations. Then, there is the issue of what to leave behind as a message in viewer’s minds….planner as social engineer? Give the planner a break. See, he has a tough life just like you? I recall a transportation planner being in the movie Singles, promoting a rail system. One line comes to mind- “Have you ever thought about traffic?”

    I have a former coworker (Chris) that discussed the idea of writing a TV sitcom following the life of a Professional Engineer (PE) in a corporate setting. This was back in 1997 or so. He was mostly thinking that if the profession could be elevated to where engineers were like rock stars, there would be groupies, and fine automobiles. We had some pretty funny chats about this….even considering a PE Chris Action Figure….like the G.I. Joe. So as you can see, planning is not always boring, but certainly has it’s highs and lows.

    Good luck with your effort

    I found this link on a Traffic Engineer and Planner Network group on Linked In–mostly I check it for job leads as I am unemployed right now–or I should say a “Flex” employee. Things are really slow right now. I had a year of half- time before the status change, so it wasn’t quite like the “Line of Taxis”. I enjoyed the flick. Keep up the effort.

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