Thursday, June 12, 2008

Indie Film Financing - No Magic Bullet

Last week-end, Filmmakers Alliance hosted a seminar on indie film financing given by Suzanne Lyons, who did a great job presenting some of the realities of financing a feature film that face emerging filmmakers. I've been through the fund-raising process a few different times for different projects, so much of what she presented was not new information for me. But it was great to hear it coalesced and clarified - and there were many who hadn't heard or experienced any of it at all.

Unfortunately, however, I did hear a few folks - both those who knew this stuff and those who were just learning it - grumble about the fact that they didn't hear anything that blew the lock off the closet - the closet that holds all of the mystical secrets to film financing success. Well, here's the news, gang: There is NO MAGIC BULLET for indie film financing. If you look at case study after case study, you will see that there are some recurrent, inescapable truths about raising money for films - especially first and/or small films - that define the process. And sadly, there is no secret list of hungry investors. There are no magic words. No "perfect" business plan. No mystical alchemy that guides investors to you and makes them inexplicably hand over their hard-earned profits.

So, I'm just going to list some indie film financing facts. Embrace them and figure out how you can exist within the bounds of these realities or save yourself heartache and go become great at something else. Can't say it anymore plainly than that. Here goes....

- Most first and/or small films are self-funded or funded by friends and family.

- Most films with a budget of over $1 million cannot be self-funded or funded by friends and family. In fact, most cannot even be funded by private equity. That means they must be financed by companies/institutions.

- High net-worth individuals are difficult to meet. And it's even more difficult to make a meaningful connection with them even if you do meet them - unless you have a direct connection to them or through someone close to you. It can be done, but it takes a lot of work, hustle and confidence.

- There are probably many people better than you at fundraising, but none will have your level of passion. Besides those people are as hard to find as actual investors. They exist - lawyers, agents, financial managers, etc. - but they are needles in a very prickly haystack. More often than not, you will simply meet scammers who will promise you the world while chiseling you out of the few pennies you do have to cover their "expenses".

- NO ONE (or no company/institution) - outside of those who love you unconditionally - will give you funding for a film (and allow you to direct it) without a solid script AND at least one very good film you've already made (short or feature).

- If you contact 30 potential private equity investors, whom you did not know previously, count yourself lucky if 1 expresses interest.

- If 10 private equity investors, whom you did not know previously, express interest, count yourself lucky if 1 actually invests.

- Most private equity investors, whom you did not know previously, will not read the script and rarely invest because they like the script or even because they want to make money. They invest because they like the idea and/or have faith in you as a person/filmmaker and/or are looking for a fun, exciting experience.

- Most investors are not idiots, however, and do not want to feel like they are throwing away their money. This is why you need a thorough and realistic business plan that details distribution options that will insure the film reaches the film-going/film-buying public.

- Negative pick-up deals and foreign pre-sale deals are VERY hard to do and are usually only accomplished by producers who are unbelievably tenacious or have pre-existing relationships with buyers.

- Having a "name" in your film does NOT guarantee funding from any source - private, corporate or institutional - unless you have A-list talent. And even then, it can be difficult, depending on the material. And I assume we all know how hard it is to get any kind of "name" to commit to your film without the funds to lock them in or without a personal connection to them.

- There is almost no grant funding for non-documentary features. ITVS is an exception. There may be a few others. But this landscape is, understandably, insanely competitive.


There are many more fun facts like this, but these should do nicely in getting my point across. Yes, there are execptions. But please know that they are extremely rare. I know someone who did one mediocre short and her next film was a huge success starring a major star. I know someone else who managed to get their feature funded by a Small Business Administration loan. The Coen brothers first feature film cost 1 million (many years ago when 1 mil was worth, well...1 mil) and they raised it by barnstorming across the country soliciting doctors and dentists.

So, if these examples are rare and the facts above hold true most of the time, where is the good news for filmmakers who don't have two nickels to rub together and don't have great personal contacts to money, "name" talent, foreign buyers or any other useful vehicle to funding? Simple. It is in your talent and desire. Because here is the one fact that rises above all other facts - the fact that obliterates all other ugly realities:

- Talent and hard work pay off.

Yes, if you simply develop your filmmaking skills/talents and continue to make films as well and as often as you can. If you write, write, write and/or create, create, create. If you hustle your ass off and sniff out opportunities wherever they may exist and do the prep work necessary to make use of those opportunities. If you determine to find support for your work and make that a goal on a daily basis. If you do any or all of that work, funding will find its way to you. I have seen this to be true 100% of the time.

Digital tools and communal support (such as Filmmaker Alliance, but many other groups, too) can allow you to make films for almost no money. Filmmaking is now affordable to almost anyone. No, I take that back. It is indeed affordable to ANYONE with just a modicum of initiative. Your talent and ideas are the gold for which investors and film professionals are constantly mining. Put them on display consistently and they will be found. If you do a short and no one responds. Do another. And another. And another. And if you can afford to do a feature. Do it. And if no one responds, do another. And another. And another.

And if you have the chutzpah, then do the business stuff, too. Find ways to meet investors. Build a meaningful business plan. Meet lawyers, managers and agents and see what they can do for you. Go to film fests and markets and learn how the biz works on that end. Take a page from Joel and Ethan and barnstorm across the country soliciting doctors and dentists.

No matter which of these roads you choose, if you commit yourself to it fully and you take the time to learn the craft of it (yes, filmmaking AND fundraising are both crafts) you will find the money. Or someone will find it for you. Either way, you will have the money you need to make films. And you will have the filmmaking life you want.

There is no magic bullet for unlocking the secret formula for film financing. But there is something better because it is something you already have. Stop looking for the Holy Grail and grab the brass ring that's already in your pocket.


  1. TRUER words have never been spoken, my friend!!!!

    that's exactly what I believe and do!!!

  2. God, I love you.

    Will you marry me???


    p.s. Thank you for laying the cards out on the table. This info should be required reading for filmmakers everywhere. Your blog is in my top 5 absolute must-reads.

  3. "Talent and hard work pay off."

    This is the saccharine bullshit that all creative people feed each other. I know of 2 filmmakers off the top of my head who work hard as hell, have various features under their belts that went to Toronto & Sundance and they're still tempting at offices to make ends meet in their late 30s.

  4. Ah, this is your own cynicism talking, Scrappy. Nowhere do I suggest that talent and hard work pays off in terms of income and lifestyle. That is indeed a saccharine fantasy.

    It pays off in the continued ability to be creative and make films (and finding the money to do them) . I am always speaking from the perspective of that life goal.

    Do we all wish we didn't have to do bonehead jobs? Yes, most of us do (although not all). But from my perspective, the gift isn't in living comfortably, it is in creating lucratively and that doesn't necessarily mean without struggle or without doing a bonehead job.

    I do a lot of shit I truly don't enjoy. It is part of the "hard work" I have done and continue to do. And I feel like it pays off daily.

    And I bet your friends feel the same way. Are they bitter and unhappy? Are they sorry that they put so much talent and hard work into their films. Do they not feel any kind of pay off? Do they think it was all a waste of time? Hell no!

    Those peeps should count themselves very lucky and blessed. And if they don't, I feel sorry for them.

  5. Great post Jacques! And as someone who saw the presentation you mentioned I have to say, it definitely blew open some barn doors for me, at least. I didn't know any of that stuff and it was a great breakdown of the process.

  6. Great info, especially for new filmmakers.

    I think there is a ton of potential on the Internet to bring people together to support projects.

    I posted this to my Twitter feed.


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