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Cost of Making a Movie vs. a TV Series

October 31, 2012

The landscape of television is changing. Brilliant writers and talented new actors are being grouped with visionaries and technology. What that creates is new and ever-improving entertainment that, once upon a time, you could only find on the big screen. That’s no longer the case. In fact, there was a time when big name actors found it taboo to be featured in or appearing on a TV series. Now it’s more of a bonus.

There’s a powerful draw that seems to be stronger when it comes to television. Fan clubs, social media groups and online interaction are more popular with TV series than most movies. Why is that? Because a television show will last for weeks, hopefully years—building an ever-expanding following. Look at shows like “Game of Thrones,” “The Big Bang Theory” or “The Vampire Diaries” for powerful examples of fan based culture online. Viewers have time to get to know the characters they love on TV, whereas a major motion picture is forced to distill and compact a complete storyline into roughly two hours.

So what’s the cost of a making a movie, as opposed to developing a TV series? Let’s take a look at some factors.


Nearly a third of the budget from a major motion picture goes to marketing the film. They sell the film by romancing the public and developing interest that might not exist. If that films budget happens to be $100 million, not an uncommon budget in today’s movie world, the studio will spend $30 million of that on ads alone. With a TV series, the costs aren’t nearly that high. Though there will be costs, most of the ads will be appearing on the network that’s producing the show.

Design and Sets

Both motion pictures and TV series have sets to build, staff to employ in making costumes, building various props and the like. This is expensive for both industries. However, the advantage a television show has over a motion picture is the usage. Costumes and sets can be, and often are, re-used over and over again.

Actors and Locations

Another cost factor is the big names used in films as opposed to those who star in television. Studios try to use the big names to draw an automatic fan base, whereas a TV series doesn’t require such tactics. The quality of a performance on TV will grow on viewers over time, creating a stronger draw in the end; for a lot less money. Then we have locations, which dramatically increase production costs for motion pictures. Television uses the location card sparingly, and in the case of Sci-Fi and Fantasy stories, networks rely on green screen technology to invent whatever they need in-house.

The Final Word

Does it really have to be this way? I’m not sure. Not a lot of nice things are being said about Hollywood these days, and that’s not surprising. When it comes to costs, however, try Googling “Hollywood Accounting” and see what you come up with. The overall picture I noticed was that the studios historically adjust their budgets, costs and profits to get exactly what they want in the end.

Maybe it’s not that movies cost more—but that TV costs less: Regular employees, regular props and sets, and a formula structure to work by. My guess here is that TV simply uses resources more efficiently.

No one is arguing the validity or entertainment value of either industry, but they are two different beasts altogether, with very different cost factors involved. A top notch film may have a total production cost of that $100 million, but a well scripted and planned out TV series can accomplish more, for much less. Even with an episode budget of $1.5 million, a full 23-week season in the U.S. means the total output would only be $34.5 million. When you consider the growing fan base, interaction, merchandising and potential ongoing sponsorships, TV seems to be a perpetual cash cow.

If you feel I missed something or you have other information to add to this article, please post your comments below.

Stephanie Caldwell is a screen-junkie from Salt Lake City and writes for


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