Tuesday, January 8, 2008

Indie Film Financing...fantasy or reality?


Raising money sucks. Few filmmakers will tell you otherwise. So, of course, there are dozens and dozens of classes, seminars, workshops, panels, etc. to tell you how to do it - and for us to hear the "success stories" of those who did it. Most of them are crap. You'll either hear that you just need "stars" and the heavens will open up for you or you WON'T hear that most of these "success stories" are from people whose connections and/or family background are no stranger to wealth. You will rarely hear a true step-by-step formula (there is none) nor will you be handed a list of potential investors to contact. Well, you might get a list, but it will probably be a list of a whole bunch of people eager to get off the list.

Why does raising money suck so badly? Because most of us have money issues...that are tied to self-worth issues...that are tied to family issues....that are tied to spiritual issues....that are tied to money issues...and round n' round it goes. Even the most talented, accomplished and educated filmmaker can reduce themselves to feeling like a desperate, worthless free-loader when it comes to asking for money.

Also, filmmaking is not cheap. So, we have to raise rather ridiculous amounts of money - which turns the process from merely painful to painful AND grueling.

However, people do indeed raise money. It is not just an ever-elusive fantasy. I did it. Others did it before me and others have and will do it since. How? Well, apart from all of that (totally valid) psychobabble, most of us are simply lacking two things: knowledge/experience and access. And there are two approaches to moving past those formidable barriers. One way is to develop them for yourself and the other is to link up with someone who already has them.

I, of course, chose to develop them for myself - which I can't necessarily recommend, but which I was, as usual, compelled to do. I marvel at filmmakers who have the talent, confidence and/or sense of entitlement that attracts others to successfully raise money on their film's behalf. Maybe there is some luck involved, but I don't believe too much in luck. Yes, there is luck, but luck just provides timing/opportunity. The rest we filmmakers have to bring to the table.

So, what is it we are bringing to the table? Well, the biggest mistake filmmakers make is that they think that the most important thing to bring to the table is the ability to prove their film can make money. Wrong. Investors aren't stupid. They know in the back of their minds that most films are a bad business decision (although we don't need to say that aloud). They invest for other reasons - because it seems like a "cool" and unusual addition to their investment portfolio, because they are secret cinema junkies, because the movie biz is "sexy", because they love you (and are related to you), and many, many other non-business reasons.

No, the first and foremost thing to put on the table is your passion. Your passion is your greatest sales asset. And that is not a difficult thing to summon up even if you are the most jaded, misanthropic, nihilistic filmmaker on earth. The point is, you are making a choice to do something creative. Something both creative and difficult. Something is compelling you to do it. Something will push you through all of the obstacles. That something is "passion". That passion may manifest itself in you as an ardent belief/desire, it may manifest as obsessive-compulsive energy, it may manifest as an annoyingly bubbly enthusiasm, it it may manifest as steely determination or it may be some combination of all of these and others at different times. It really doesn't matter how it manifests, just that it does indeed manifest. Your passion will make investors feel like they are investing in something that matters and in someone who will make sure that investment is not wasted.

The next thing we need to bring to the table is a point of view. Why must your film exist? How is it different than any other film out there? How is it exactly like other successful films out there? How does it look in your head? You must not only be able to clearly communicate the benefits (not just financial benefits) of spending all of your time and their money making this film, but why your film and no other must be the one in which they invest. And that is all about your unique point-of-view.

Next, we need the sales tools. Yes, this is the "hammer and nails" stuff that must always be done. But it can be fun and creative. Basically, you need a business plan that outlines how the film is going to be made and how it is going to make money (yes, they know films are bad "business", but they are wealthy for a reason and don't want to be complete suckers). It should be loaded with lots of pics and graphics and as little text as possible. It does need the synopsis and background on the major creative players, but should also have lots of stills that create the look and feel of the film as well as some cool logo/graphics for the film. Storyboards are great, too. And if you can devise a compelling poster prior to making the film - that is a huge benefit. The package should also have a budget topsheet, a production plan (how, where it will be shot), along with some financial comparables (to other, similar films - both in style and budget) and a detailed distribution plan - I mean beyond the film getting picked up for loads and loads of money by a major distributor - which pretty much NEVER happens these days. And all of this should be available as a digital file AND a hard copy (although you will need far fewer of these, thankfully - because they aren't cheap to print).

Perhaps the most important of these sales tools is a website for the film, which should include much of the above as well as many community-building elements like message boards, blog and an email opt-in tool. Building a good film website is a whole course in itself. And your website will change as the film evolves and be very different when the film is finished. But you can never start building a website for your film too early.

Lower on the list of things we bring to the table, believe it or not, is a great script. Yes, you should ALWAYS have a great script (a whole separate discussion) because it will prove an important sales tool with many others who will be involved with the film. But rarely is it important for investors. Few investors read scripts. But you do need one. If only just to insure investors that you are indeed making a movie with their money and not remodeling your home.

Finally, we need some kind of creative history. Why should any investor have confidence in our creative ability if we have nothing to demonstrate it? If this is your first film...perhaps just a short film...how do you prove your creative abilities? There are many ways. You can show any other creative work you've done - painting, photography, music, whatever. The more visual, the better. But any demonstration of creative ability is important. You can also do a no-budget video shoot - something brief and inexpensive (on DV with minimal resource demands) that demonstrates your visual style. If you are raising money for a feature, you should have at least one (and probably many more) short films in your creative resume. But stay away from trying to make a trailer of the as-yet-unmade film. They are very difficult to do and even more difficult to do in a way that does justice to the film you will eventually make - unless you do a more "artistic" trailer that does not try to tell the story and merely replicates the energy of the film. In any event, stick to your creative strengths. Just remember, It's not enough to just "feel like" a creative person. You have to BE one. You have to demonstrate your creative energy to investors, to filmmaking partners and to yourself.

So, you pull all of this together and...now what? Well, here is where luck begins to play a hand. But you can stimulate "luck" through action. Start building a list of all the people you know who have money. And all of the people you know who know people who have money. It should be noted that nearly all first films (lower-budgeted indie first films, anyway) are funded close to home - meaning friends, family, business associates and.. *gulp*...credit cards. So, don't be surprised if your list is small and close to home. Then, throw your money issues and ego issues out the window and start asking for money. Or ask to be shown where to find the money. And if someone can't help, ask them to recommend three people who can. Chase down every lead. Promote the hell out of the website. Draw people to you by hook or crook and let your preparation and passion do the sales work without you feeling at all like you are "selling".

If you do all of this, "luck" will find you. And if you have the goods, eventually, the investors you need will find you and support your film. If you don't have the goods, maybe you are not ready to make your film.

And even if you are successful, that doesn't mean that all of it won't suck. It will, no doubt. But if you have a burning desire to make films, you ignore that fact and just put one foot in front of the other until you have what you need. Of course, the other option is to just write (or acquire) a great script and then just pass it around, waiting for someone to champion your fundraising efforts. That happens, too. All the time. Yes, it does....somewhere over the rainbow.....



  1. Great post, Jacques, I agree it's a dangerous world out there for filmmakers who want to raise money. (And is there any other kind?) I've been raising movie money since I was 14, and I'm 51 now. I've identified the money-raising mistakes to avoid, which I've seen over and over, and finally got tired of re-telling, so I wrote them down. They're free, and I invite you to read 'em, and more safely shake the money tree. http://stprods.com/10mistakes Hope it helps. Best to you, Sam Longoria.

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