What could be the cost of reducing your television production budget?

tv production budget

There is incredible pressure on marketers to reduce their budgets, while increasingly taking responsibility for delivering growth. This is passed on to their agencies to come up with bigger and better ideas on smaller budgets. And finally production companies are asked to produce these ideas for less money. Of course something has to give. Smaller fees, lower margins, corners cut. But at what cost?

Here is an actual production scenario based on fact.

As you read it, consider how you would feel if you were on this shoot? Or if you worked in the agency? Or if you were the Brand Manager, Marketing Manager or Marketing Director? Because while there are obviously legal ramifications, there are also professional and personal implications too.

The Pre-Production

This is the story of a TV production for an automotive client and their new vehicle “The Caravalle” – a mid sized 4-door sedan at a highly competitive low price for the market.

The script was fairly prosaic, a family traveling in the hero vehicle are discussing how they will spend the money they saved on their car purchase on a holiday. The tag line is “You can wave good bye to high prices”. This voice over occurs as the hero vehicle pulls away from the moving camera and as the kids in the back seat wave good bye to the camera through the rear window the camera cranes up revealing a picturesque landscape.

A simple enough shoot involving a remote camera on a crane on a tracking vehicle, several small (Go Pro) cameras mounted within the vehicle for the family dialogue and a drone-mounted camera for the high and wide shots of the hero vehicle.

A professional television commercial of this type would normally cost about $200,000 for a one-day shoot. The agency is told that the client has a limited budget of only $150,000. The agency producer suggests that a mid-weight production company should be able to produce the television commercial for that price and to choose one accordingly.

The production company (Drago Films) producer (Giovanni) suggests that if the TVC were shot on a private road that Drago Films could save money with very little in the way of traffic management personnel. A sealed two-way, 2-kilometer private road that leads to a winery, on the outskirts of the city, was selected as a potential location.

The winery cellar door business does not open on Monday or Tuesday and Giovanni believes he can secure the use of the private road on one of these days and use the cellar door facility for the shoot base camp, no need to hire port-a-loos etc saving even more money to meet the constraints of the production budget.

A runner could be located at the lockable front gate of the winery driveway to let in tradies or supplier vehicles doing business with the winery. This means that there would be minimal disruption to the shoot, unlike a public road where the traveling public would have to be let through at regular intervals delaying the shoot, plus police, traffic management staff and a safety report would be needed adding costs that would eat into the already tight budget.

Budget considerations also mean several other crew members are cut from the shoot crew including the unit nurse.

The agency producer suggests that perhaps the children of agency staff could be used as talent for the shoot. This would negate the need for casting costs for the children and all the costs associated with the department of child welfare, nannies and restrictions on the number of hours a child can work etc.

Not paying the children and relying on the goodwill of the agency staff is a big ask, but the agency producer is correct in assuming that the agency creative team will do anything to get the commercial produced and on their reel. The copywriter’s daughter, 10 year old Gemma is a ballet fanatic and is cast as Child One and the art director’s son Tom, 8 years old, a budding Astronaut is cast as Child Two. The mother and father of the advertising hero family will be real actors.

So it is agreed that the winery private road and the agency creative team’s children will be used for the shoot thus affording reasonable savings and reducing the cost back down close to the advertisers diminished budget.

The shoot

On Monday, the day of the shoot, all crew, actors, agency and the client arrive early and set up the shoot unit close to the actual cellar door building so they can use the cellar door facilities. The runner heads off for the front gate and secures it so the two kilometer drive way is now in lock down.

Once this has happened the tracking vehicle and the hero car move off, they will be shooting the last shot first as the sun is just in the right position for the spectacular kids waving good-bye end shot. The hero car and the tracking vehicle have done a few rehearsal runs. The director, Drago Film’s Carlo, has decided that the most spectacular end shot will be achieved if the crane up (reveal) happens at the crest in the road about 1 kilometer from the front gate heading toward the winery.

There is plenty of room for the vehicles to travel side by side and for the camera to crane up gracefully and effortlessly.

The camera operator is Giovanni’s son Parlo. The family connection translates to Parlo being paid very little by his father for the survival of the family business Drago Films. Carlo the director is the other partner in Drago Films and their eagerness to land this job on a reduced budget was because Drago Film’s cash flow was at an all time low.

Both Carlo and Parlo are seated in the tray of the tracking vehicle with their backs resting on the tailgate and facing forward in the tracking vehicle’s direction of travel. In front of them is the center post of the crane. The jib of the crane is hanging over the left wall of the tray and sitting about half a meter above the road, with the wide-angle lens fitted to the camera. This gives a great ground swell effect as Carlo has upped the road speed of both vehicles to 80 KPH to help achieve this subtle embellishment to the shot.

Tex, a 55 year old grip, is in charge of the crane. He is standing next to the crane’s center post and has a firm grip on the jib, also in the rear tray of the tracking vehicle seated with their backs to the ute’s cab are the agency creative team, Sue the art director and mother of Tom and Dave and the copywriter and father of Gemma. The client, Allan, who is on his first television shoot, is seated next to them in the spot usually reserved for a safety officer.

The unforeseen complication

On the other side of the car park about 40 meters away from the shoot unit is parked a pop-top camper van. Inside the van are a couple holidaying in Australia from Europe. Sven and Inga’s plan is to tour the region visiting as many wineries as they can. They are in the winery car park that morning as they had decided to camp over night due to the alcohol they had consumed the day before at the cellar door tasting.

On rising for the day they planned to motor into the next little town and have coffee and pastries for breakfast at a bakery they were told about while at the cellar door. The camper van slips out of the car park onto the exit driveway, un-noticed by any of the crew at the base camp.

As Sven reaches the top of the crest he spots the approaching vehicles, the hero car and next to it the tracking vehicle completely blocking the road and approaching at 80 kph. The vehicles are just 20 meters away there is no time for any evasive action so Sven pulls to the right hand side of the road, an automatic reaction for a driver taught to drive in Europe.

The hero vehicle and the camper van explode into each other in a classic head on. This saves Sven and Inga’s lives, as if they had remained on the left hand side of the road they would have had a head on with the tracking vehicle, a large American style pick-up truck twice as big as the hero car, powered by a 5.7 liter turbo V8.

The pick up truck has a massive roll bar behind the driver’s cab and a massive bull bar on the front to facilitate the addition of a camera platform. Weighing in at just under 2 tonnes, the pick-up would have flattened the camper. The air bags deployed in both the hero car and the camper, saving the actors playing mum and dad and the young holidaying couple.

Unfortunately both the children in the hero car had slipped out of their seat belts so that they could kneel on the back seat and wave out the back window, Both kids were thrown about the hero vehicle like rag dolls in a tumble drier.

The tracking vehicle cannons past the two cars in the head-on, the camera and jib clip the back of the hero Caravalle causing the crane jib to spin out of control. Tex the grip dives for the floor, the weight bucket of the crane missing his head by millimeters. The jib of the crane smashes into the right hand side of the roll bar behind the passenger cab of the pick up.

The jib wraps itself around the roll bar and the whole jib comes to a stop about 30 centimeters from the drivers head, he is showered in glass from the drivers side window but manages to pull the pick-up to a controlled stop. In the tray of the pick up Parlo has been decapitated and Carlo has had the top of his head sliced off.

The agency creative team and the client witnessed this from just meters away and what they have witnessed can never be forgotten. The crew from the base camp arrive at the scene. No one has any first aid experience (the unit nurse and safety officers, all trained in first aid were cut from the crew for budgetary reasons).

The aftermath

The allocating of a government body that would pay for the medical rehabilitation of the victims became a matter of great contention as technically being on a private road negated any government coverage or responsibility. The legal ramifications are ongoing to this day.

For the two children, Emma broke her spine and was pronounced a paraplegic, Tom’s parents switched off his life support system after 6 months in a coma. The kids legal status is still in contention as technically they were not working, but the agency producer had not got them to sign a release form before the accident. This means that the agency was responsible for their well-being.

As soon as this was established, the copywriter, Dave, and art director, Sue, sued the agency. As soon as this happened the agency legal team advised the 3 agency partners to declare the agency bankrupt.

The young couple from Europe, Sven and Inga, have massive lower body injuries due to the cab forward design of the Camper Van. After 7 months in hospital and 7 months in rehabilitation they leave Australia with permanent disabilities. Gail, the actor playing the mum, has scars on her face that require multiple plastic surgeries and after 18 of these she sues the automotive company for loss of present and future income. Her claim is just under $10,000,000

The directors strip the agency of it’s financial assets, by giving their wives huge bonuses (their wives were two dollar share holders just like their husbands, and according to the directors the bonuses were proposed at a partners meeting that was held before the accident but the minutes had not been published at the time of the accident).

With the agency in the hands of receivers all staff were given 2 weeks notice, 47 people lost their jobs including the creative team suing the agency.

After 3 months 30% of the agency employees with mortgages had defaulted, some were in serious danger of losing their homes. Megan, the assistant to the principal partner was one of these, it was her job to transcribe and publish the minutes of partner meetings. She alerted the appropriate authorities. The agency no longer exists and the 3 partners now face court, charged with fraud.

Drago Films just withered on the vine and never shot or bid for another commercial production again. With Carlo and his son dead, Giovanni entered into a deep depression and took his own life 2 years to the day after the accident.

The automotive company, the importer of the Caravalle, ended up paying close to 57 million dollars in compensation. The press and online community dubbed the Caravalle the “Caravalle Coffin”. Not one was sold in Australia, although 3,000 Caravalles were landed at dockside prior to the accident. The 3,000 Caravalles were sold and sent to the Proton Motor Company Malaysia at a fraction of their landed value. Proton re-branded and re-badged the Caravalle the Proton SafeT 1.2. and made a 450% profit per unit.


Television productions are potentially dangerous workplaces covered by extensive Occupational Health and Safety requirements. Many of the risks associated with television productions are outlined in the TrinityP3 Television Advertising Production Governance Guide.