Monday, July 28, 2008

The Myth of Film Financing

Every once in a while people make the mistake of asking me for advice, which I freely and longwindedly give. A question I've been asked through making my shorts and especially while making this feature is about money, namely, where do you get it?

Unfortunately, my answer is the one you already know. To my knowledge, there is no secret to it. The money you have to make your film is the money you are able to get from family and friends, money that they should never expect to see again. Depending on the people you know, your connections, or your family's financial situation you're in better or worse shape.

The best advice I could offer anyone is to take whatever amount of money you're able to get from your loved ones and make the movie as cheaply as humanly possible but with talented people who will perform above and beyond their meager pay (which will probably be nothing).

It helps if you've created an honest and detailed budget aimed at your ideal shooting circumstances. Are you going to shoot the film yourself using your camera phone or do you see yourself leading an army of skilled technicians? No one likes it when the answer to the question "How much do you need?" is "How much you got?"! A budget will force you to consider the reality of the production and will also give people the opportunity to challenge you on the necessity of shutting down twenty blocks downtown during rush hour to get your tour-de-force steadycam/helicopter combo shot the likes of which have never been seen before. Maybe your parents are right, maybe the scene would be just as effective if you did it in the living room. Besides, your mom will bake everyone cookies.

If you have people outside of your circle of loved ones who you think may be interested, you should seriously consider creating a business plan. I've never actually had one, but once people start looking at your film as an investment you need to have something to show them just how and when they can expect to see the money coming back, if ever. I understand many investors are willing to do it just for the tax breaks. I have no idea why.

Finally, if you don't know enough of the right people to finance the dream version of your project you should seriously consider scaling the project back to a scale that you can accomplish on your own dime. It's always better to make a movie than not, even if it isn't everything you ever dreamed of. I don't know if it's true or not, but I remember hearing that William Faulkner, when he was starting out, was frustrated that nothing came out as he imagined. He would start over and over throwing out page after page of disappointing text. Eventually a mentor of his told him just to write, not to worry if it was perfect or not, but to just let it out. And he did. And he improved. And eventually he reached the point where he felt he was able to accomplish EXACTLY what he set out to accomplish.

Don't let your immediate limitations prevent you from being what you want to be: a filmmaker. If you something small and you're talented and it's good, people will want to see more. Eventually you may find yourself in the position where you have the experience, talent and recognition to do your next movie EXACTLY the way you wanted to. But until then work hard and use what you can.

The most honest account of film financing I've read is in the Polish Brothers book, The Declaration of Independent Filmmaking. Before a producer - who they had an existing connection to through Jon Gries (the actor), who happened to be a neighbor, who they happened to strike up a conversation with while walking down the street with a print of their short film in hand - magically swooped in at the last minute to finance and produce their film, they had planned to self-finance. They didn't have any money to put up themselves, so in a prior fit of luck, their friend randomly won a free car, sold it and put up the $20,000 that was to be the entire original budget for Twin Falls Idaho. The money that came with the producer was significantly more, but still, I can't think of a bigger chain of chance that better illustrates the illusiveness of film financing.

If there's a moral to their story, it's that you should leave the door open so that a miracle can walk right in if it chooses to, but until it does plan to do what you can with what you got. And stick to it! You can't depend on others to make your dreams a reality.

Now, if you're still actually reading this, and you're still thinking, "there must be SOME way," there are plenty of film markets, like Independent Film Week and AFM. Just fill out the application, write the best project description, pay the application fee and wait. Repeat as necessary.

There are also mentorship labs like those at IFP and FIND (Film Independent). They may not directly involve financing, but if they believe in your project enough to accept you, they'll do their best to get you in touch with people who could make your film a reality.

I've actually applied to the FIND mentorship programs a few times with two different screenplays. The first time (with The Mountain, The River and The Road, actually) I was rejected, but the application fee was well worth the coverage they provided on the screenplay (not every organization does this). It was insightful to read the thoughts and opinions of the reader. Remember they're reading a shit load of screenplays, so they see the patterns of trends and themes that we thought were uniquely our own. They can be jaded and at times overly critical, but it's good to hear early on. If you don't hear it now you'll hear it later. Even if you don't agree with it. Just as importantly they'll zero in on what makes your script unique. The part that you're taking for granted, but they found to be a breath of fresh air. On my second application, on a completely different screenplay, I made it to the final round and was invited to an interview. Again, I didn't get in the program, but it did give me a little glimmer of hope - someone, somewhere along the line, thought this script was promising and worth considering. A small, but significant step in the right direction.

And that's it. That's what I know. There are certainly more organizations of interest, and if you know of any I'd love to hear of them, I'll add them to the list. Also, if you think I'm full of shit and that there really is some secret to the whole fundraising thing, let me know! I'd LOVE to hear it!


Chance Shirley said...

Nice post, Mike. I'd only add...

don't forget MasterCard!

Mike Harring said...

Good point, Chance! Actually, that opens up a whole new can of worms. Credit cards are a classic form of independent film financing, and maybe the easiest way to deal with that pesky financing problem. But I do want to warn people to watch out for the APR and consider looking into the possibility of a bank loan, a 2nd mortgage or anything else you could put up for money. Depending on the person's assets they may be able to get just as good of a loan without having to pay as much for it. I think it's at least worth crunching the numbers to see how much that credit card loan is going end up costing you and for how long. At least you'll know what you're getting into. If you're really tight and the movie doesn't sell, you may find yourself paying the minimum balance for the rest of your living days! Or falling behind on payments. Not that it wouldn't be worth it, but understand the risk.