Your script is made out of locations, action snippets, and your characters’ dialogue. In the previous guide, you looked at action and dialogue. Here we are going to look at the locations you use in your script and what implications it has on your movie’s budget, complexity, and producibility. When looking at the Number of Location Appearances you can quickly get a sense of how many locations your story uses and what locations play a key role, by noting the repeated appearances. If you’re trying to figure out what locations and scenes to cut, to minimize the budget of the film or make your story more concise, this plot can be particularly useful. By looking at the locations which only appear in the film once, you can think about what importance these one-off locations serve in the greater film. Perhaps it would be best to move scenes to another location already in use. The characteristic of how this plot looks for your script will vary by the type of movie. For example, low budget films (budgets of under $5 million) will likely have relatively few total locations and a limited number of one-off locations (usually a maximum 50% of locations being one-offs). Mid-tier films will express a range, but we’ll see that the more cost effective and successful films used either fewer total locations or more repeat locations. While a major film (budgets of over $100 million) may contain both numerous locations and many locations used only once.
Something to note when looking at these plots is that the data distinguishes between scene headings which may take place in the same location but use elegant variation to differ the language used to describe the said location. For example, if a location takes place in someone’s home, yet in the next scene heading the writer writes “house,” the plot will show these as two separate locations. So, pay close attention to which locations are coming up as only in use once or twice and make note if these are actually the same locations with differing scene headings. If you used elegant variation in your scene headings, it might be best to adjust your screenplay for consistency when uploading to Scriptonomics. This way, our data can provide you with the most accurate results.
To dive deeper into the number of location appearances plot, we’ll be looking at a number of films in different budget ranges. While the number of locations is not the only factor in determining the budget, we can expect to see a pretty clear correlation between films with a larger budget having a greater number of locations. Budget breakdowns mainly fall under three broad categories: locations, CGI/action, and talent. While we’re focusing mainly on locations here, we may occasionally mention the other two if they compromise a large part of the picture for a specific film. As you look through these movies, keep in mind your script. Aside from just the number of locations or one-off locations you use, also keep in mind interior vs exterior scenes. Exterior location shooting can be far more difficult as moving the crew from one outdoor location to another is far more cumbersome than simply switching to another set within the same soundstage. Naturally lit films present another challenge, as daylight hours constrain the shooting time available on a given day. If you have a large number of locations or exterior locations, ask yourself if they play a significant role in your story and what budget the film would target. Question how complicated you’re making the film for a location scout.
Let’s take a look at some popular movies from various budget ranges to get a better idea of how others have written their scripts. We’ll look at:
Section 1(Budgets of $100M+):
$200M Budget, 145 locations with 129 one-off locations (88% of all locations), 53% INT / 47 % EXT
While from an outside perspective, Titanic took place largely in one location, the titular ship, the ship’s many rooms all require separate budgetary needs. With 145 locations, and a whopping 129 of them used only once, the number of location changes largely increased the production complexity and the overall expenses. Each location change takes a toll on production, as the entire crew, lights, cameras, etc. need to be moved. Exterior scenes can be even more difficult with obstacles like rain, cold and uncontrollable lighting that can’t be avoided. With 47% of Titanic’s scenes being exterior, this was a large concern for the production. Background noises are another added hardship to keep in mind with exterior locations. Indoors, you can generally control the background noise; outdoors you’ll need to worry about both animals and pedestrians alike. While for Titanic this may not have been as big a burden, as a lot of the outdoor shots were either completely CGI or recorded on a green screen, it is good to keep in mind the complexities associated with your locations as your craft your screenplay. While the budget of the film was very high, Titanic also has the honor of being the second largest worldwide grossing film and the fourth largest domestic grossing film of all time. In this case, the high budget paid off.
$190M Budget, 89 locations with 49 one-off locations (55% of the scenes), 66% INT / 34% EXT
Pacific Rim faired decently despite its large budget, grossing $411 million worldwide due in large part to China. In terms of locations, this is a difficult film to talk about as we can’t know how many of the outdoor fight scenes were purely CGI. Yet in the screenplay, we see 89 total locations, of which just over half (55%) being one-off locations. On paper, this sounds fairly conservative. That said, considering these large-scale battles took place exclusively outdoors in a big city and the ocean, this would certainly require a large budget. The city destruction combined with getting a film crew to the seashores of Alaska are costly endeavors. While the film only grossed $101 million domestically, its international box office made the film a small financial success. Although some locations certainly would prove costly, here we can chalk the extremely high budget up to the action set pieces and CGI more so than locations themselves. Regardless, trimming down the extraneous locations could help with any film.
The Wolf of Wall Street:
$100M Budget, 108 locations with 77 one-off locations (71% of the scenes) 76% INT / 24% EXT
The Martin Scorsese-directed biopic, The Wolf of Wall Street, explores 108 locations through a $100M budget. And much of this budget can certainly be credited to the sheer number of locations in the film. With 77 one-off locations (over 70% of the locations), The Wolf of Wall Street pushes the envelope for big-budget biopics. The costs for the numerous locations are somewhat offset with much of the film being shot indoors (76% interior vs. 24% exterior). Yet with a big writer, director, and star attached, the spending on locations turned out to be no worry at all. The film earned Paramount over $392 million worldwide, although it’s interesting to note that $275 million of that box office came from overseas.
Section 2 (Budgets of $50M-100M):
$97M Budget, 70 locations with 49 one-off locations (70% of the scenes) 61% INT / 39% EXT
Featuring a large percentage of locations only used once on top of a number of CGI heavy sequences, Logan’s budget is unprecedented for an R-rated film. Yet this is a case of a film’s genre also influencing the number of locations required. While there are only 70 total locations, three out of four of them are only used once. As a road trip film, it makes sense that Logan features numerous one-off locations. At the beginning of the film, we come back to the same locations a few times, even then Logan works as a limo driver. So during the first act, it is his job as a driver which causes the location changes. Once we take to the road however, each destination is someplace new. As can be seen in the plot below. While high budgets are risky for R-rated films, the film also has a decade and a half of an established IP working in its favor, with audiences flocking to see the final hurrah of a fan favorite character. With a worldwide gross of $619 million, the risk paid off well. But films looking to emulate Logan’s success will likely want to pare down the number of locations and sharpen their focus.
The Dark Tower:
$60M Budget, 37 locations with 16 one-off locations (43% of the scenes) 51% INT / 49% EXT
With only 37 locations, of which 16 are one-offs, one could expect The Dark Tower to have a much smaller budget than $60 million. Yet likely due to the fact that many of these locations are outdoors, plus the high amount of CGI, a low number of locations failed to make an impact. As you can see in the data plot, only one out of the top ten locations was indoor. In fact, the majority of indoor locations were the one-offs. Instead, the film spends the majority of its time outdoors in another dimension-- a location which would be expensive from a production design standpoint as well. When we’re not outdoors in a foreign world, we’re roaming the New York City streets. While New York may have tax incentives in place for film productions, shooting in a city with as many variables as NYC will take time. So, despite a number of locations akin to what you’d find in a low budget film, the budget ran high and The Dark Tower failed to make a profit. The general rule is that a film must double its production budget at the box office to break even, and the film falls just short of that with a $113 million worldwide gross. The high budget of this film seems to be less a case of too many locations, but more a case of rampant CGI and perhaps too many characters or outdoor locations. Something you can look into further with other Scriptonomics data plots.
Section 3 (Budgets of $15M-50M):
$35M Budget, 69 locations with 43 one-off locations (62% of the scenes) 61% INT / 39% EXT
While in hindsight the film was wildly successful, earning $700 million worldwide, IT proved to be a financial risk for Warner Bros. Part of what may have made the film so costly (aside from child actors, a large cast, and a CGI-heavy villain), are the numerous locations—in particular those only used once. In exploring childhood youth in the 80’s, it makes sense the film would need to explore many locations alongside it. The group of kids shown in the film are very adventurous and have to explore even further when faced with taking down Pennywise. While it is typical of a film this size to use many locations, if the one-off locations were condensed to take place in settings already familiar to the audience it likely would have saved the studio some money on the budget. Creating new sets and moving to new locations is not only costly but time consuming for a production of this size. Many scenes which featured Travis, the bully, were isolated from the rest of the characters and events of the film. Luckily, the majority of scenes (61%) were internal which allowed the studio to film within sets rather than on location.
$30M Budget, 79 locations with 47 one-off locations (59% of the scenes) 71% INT / 29% EXT
While superhero action films are known for being quite expensive, Kick-Ass managed to keep costs down by repeating location usage and keeping the vast majority of its scenes indoors. While there are still ample one-off locations (59%), the use of an indoor location like D’Amico’s penthouse nearly 20 times is great to see. While there are certainly characters roaming the streets outdoors, all the action set pieces are housed internally. This allows the coordination of the stunt teams to run unobstructed by the sound department picking up background noise, or the production crew having to stop due to inclement weather. The film ended up making over triple its production budget with $96 million worldwide.
The Lost City of Z:
$30M Budget, 86 locations with 64 one-off locations (74% of the scenes) 36% INT / 64% EXT
While the film did well with critics, The Lost City of Z was always going to be hard-pressed to make a profit. With an insane number of single-use locations and a vast majority of them being external, costs soared to new heights for a domestic-only indie film. Whether roaming a vast jungle or the streets of early 1900’s London, the location budget was certainly costly. We’ve already spoken about how outdoor locations can be tricky, particularly with difficult terrain like a jungle, but period settings are known to be some of the more difficult locations to shoot. To ensure accuracy, clothing, vehicles, and even buildings may have to be changed from their current styles. Period settings alone can result in costly productions and here, to make matters worse, we have one that’s primarily outdoors. In the end, with $30 million budget, the film only grossed $8.5 million. The Lost City of Z served as a massive loss for Plan B Entertainment.
The Shape of Water:
$19.5M Budget, 74 locations with 44 one-off locations (59.4% of the scenes) 83% INT / 17% EXT
This Oscar-winning Fantasy/Romance turned a middle ground $19.5 million budget and turned it into a very successful $195.2 million, just over 10 times the budget. Despite using 44 locations only a single time, The Shape of Water was able to save money by keeping the majority of the film’s location internal (48 of the 74 scenes) while 18 of the 26 external scenes were only used once with many scenes taking place within the facility, a place that serves as a sort of trap for Elisa and the creature.
While the creature’s entrapment is more literal, Elisa’s is figurative. Her disability and lack of means leave her with few job opportunities, forcing her to take a menial cleaning job. With little options for companionship, Elisa’s routine consists mainly of Elisa at work, or in the confines of her apartment complex watching movies with her neighbor or enjoying a soak in her tub. These internal scenes give us a sense of Elisa’s enclosure as she yearns for more. This makes the last scene with her and the creature finally free from their prisons all the more magical. With a conscious budget and a high profile writer/director at the helm, The Shape of Water was an assured success from the start.
10 Cloverfield Lane:
$15M Budget, 16 locations with 5 one-off locations (31% of the scenes) 88% INT / 12% EXT
10 Cloverfield Lane serves as an edge case. The film, which houses an impressive 88% of its scenes indoors, primarily takes place in only one location. With only 16 total locations, five of which are used once, the film provides a great example of how to pay attention to where scenes are held. As you can see in the plot, the main room is featured over 40 times. Even other locations like the bedrooms and bathrooms which are featured heavily are offshoots of this main room. The production was able to not only save money but maintain secrecy around its development by housing the majority of the film in a single set. Even during the few times the characters venture outside, they typically return to an indoor location within the farmhouse. And by placing the only outdoor locations on the road and around this farmhouse, the location budget was kept very low. These budget savings likely then went towards booking high-caliber actors and the CGI alien invasion at the film’s conclusion. 10 Cloverfield Lane went on to gross $110 million worldwide, nearly ten times its production budget.
$15M Budget, 36 locations with 17 one-off locations (47.22% of the scenes) 69% INT / 31% EXT
Despite having 36 locations, the majority of the film takes place within Nathan’s home. Ex Machina was mostly filmed at a remote hotel in Norway giving us a nice juxtaposition between the robotic and the natural. In the 31.2% of the film that takes place outside, every single scene's location is defined by sort of natural area, whether it's "meadow," "glacier," or "mountains." These natural wonders further that juxtaposition between the artificial and natural, so once Nathan’s artificial intelligence shows signs of mal-intent, the viewer remembers the power of mother nature and the impossible task Ava has set before her. With a relatively small number of locations, most of which were interior, but a large use of CGI for the androids, this thought-provoking indie film needed a budget of $15 million. Not a huge profit maker, the movie made just barely double its production budget with a worldwide gross of $36 million.
The Theory of Everything:
$15M Budget, 102 locations with 81 one-off locations (79% of the scenes) 70% INT / 30% EXT
Another biopic, The Theory of Everything, explores famed physicist Stephen Hawking’s theoretical and academic endeavors and his experiences with love and illness. Based on Jane Hawking’s book, the character study provides insight into the Hawkings’ lives amidst the turbulence of the now, recently deceased theoretician’s examination of time. Its worldwide box office earned Focus Features over $123.5 million with a $15 million budget. Also, noteworthy is its $87.5 million non-US box office
The most profitable films here, IT, The Shape of Water, Kick-Ass, and 10 Cloverfield Lane used their number of one-off locations and external locations sparingly to great effect. One can look at these films as exemplars in their respective genres for how to use locations to minimize budget.
(Budgets of $5-15 mil):
$11M Budget, 70 locations with 43 one-off locations (61% of the scenes) 88% INT / 12% EXT
I, Tonya uses the infamous story of American figure-skater Tonya Harding to ensure its wide audience. Much of the script, plays out the present day testimonial input of its culprits, giving the story a quasi-documentary feel, but spares room for the audience’s imagination when it finally arrives at the controversial “incident” that sparked the media’s attention. This is to the film’s benefit as the biopic’s production budget of $11 million and a large number of single-use locations could have easily tipped the scales toward a loss for Neon. With a $30 million total gross (the film only released domestically), the award season buzz no doubt helped push the film toward profitability.
$10M Budget, 78 locations with 58 one-off locations (74 of the scenes) 81% INT / 19% EXT
Another 2018 Oscar contender, Lady Bird uses a baffling 58 locations only a single time. This coming-of-age comedy depicts the titular Lady Bird meandering throughout her senior year as she drifts from friend groups, jobs, and boyfriends trying to find herself. Despite using so many locations, Lady Bird was able to save its budget by filming over 81% of the scenes indoors. With this, you avoid the cost of clearing traffic, unpredictable weather, and limited daylight. Instead, you can focus on getting more shots. What few external scenes there are were filmed almost entirely in Sacramento, with only a few scenes in New York (the New York scenes also had few characters, saving even more money). All of this coupled with glowing reviews, Lady Bird was able to take in over four times its budget of $10 million with an ample $45.2 million box office success.
(Budgets of less than $5 mil):
The Big Sick:
$5M Budget, 57 locations with 33 one-off locations (58% of the scenes) 91% INT / 9% EXT
In their writing debut, husband and wife Kumail Nanjiani and Emily Gordon broke away from their gaming podcast to write an Oscar-nominated romcom. The Big Sick tells the true story of how Nanjiani and his wife were brought together. With a tiny budget, this indie film made liberal use of internal scenes by keeping over 90% of the movie indoors with only 10 external scenes and 7 of them used only once. By filming the majority of the scenes in the fictional Kumail’s apartment or in the hospital, the crew was able to save money and focused on telling the story. Although hospitals can prove costly, with medical equipment coming with high rental prices, much of these scenes were even in waiting rooms. The Big Sick’s multiple accolades brought it a worldwide box office of $56 million despite having a limited release and short run.
$4.5M Budget, 54 locations with 32 one-off locations (59% of the scenes) 65% INT / 35% EXT
Micro-budget horror has become a recipe for box office success in recent years, and at the forefront of this success is Blumhouse. The studio is known for making commercial success after commercial success. With none of their films budgeted over $13 million after transitioning to a focus on the horror genre, they minimize risk while maximizing potential profits. One of their biggest successes came with Get Out, a critical and commercial hit that raked in $255 million worldwide. Get Out pays specific attention to its locations in order to keep its costs low in order to maximize potential box office success. After establishing Chris and Rose’s relationship in a location entirely removed from the majority of the film, their arrival at the Armitage estate brings the audience to where we’ll be spending the majority of our time, cutting down on location costs. While the estate is home to a mix of indoor and outdoor locations, the use of a backyard is far less costly than a city street. Furthermore, the majority of other frequent or one-off locations are indoors. The production team merely had to find one estate to house the majority of the film. As a result, Get Out can serve as an example of how to conserve locations to keep your budget low.
You’ve just looked at 16 different movies, everything from high budgets ($100M+) to small-budgets ($4.5M). We saw a clear correlation to the number of locations and how large the budget of the film ends up being-- higher budget films tend to have both a large number of locations and a large number of one-off locations. Mid-budget films are where paying attention to your locations seems to make the most significance, however. Films like The Lost City of Z with an extravagant number of locations and one-off locations not only result in larger than necessary budgets but struggle to make a profit. Furthermore, a film like The Lost City of Z also contains a high volume of exterior locations, which can be particularly cumbersome for a production. All the other films we looked at with a budget of $30 million or less featured fewer than 30% exterior scenes.
While larger budgets can mean an ability to increase exterior locations or number of locations overall, you’ll need to assess where spending money on your film will best fit the story you’re telling. Your goal should not just be to receive funding for a movie but to write a screenplay which will make a profitable film-- something which in turn can help secure funding and producers. Low-budget films cover a wide range of genres, but all have one thing in common: a low number of locations. The most profitable low-budget films also tend to be in the horror genre, with films like Get Out making upwards of 50 times its production budget. Those kinds of scripts make the producer and location scout’s lives just a little easier and make financiers more likely to support your next story. You can write the most amazing script with hundreds of locations, but if it is not feasible to produce audiences will never have the pleasure of watching your creation. Next time you redraft your story, try counting your locations and making sure the story is feasible to produce. Rather than a producer cutting scenes and rewriting your screenplay, who better than you, the storyteller, to make the necessary edits.
Ready to dig into more insights with our other plots? Jump to the next blog!
The Scriptonomics Team