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Thursday, 22 March 2012 13:39

Film Finance in the Digital Age: Getting Your Film Made with a Click or a Chat

Written by  Valentina I. Valentini
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pre_finance_christopher-neil-director-goats_creditbill-neillThe process by which studios finance their films is often shrouded in mystery. While it’s known that studios self-finance, they also structure funding from outside sources and private equities. Indie films usually take a different road to production. In the ever-changing world of American independent projects, these filmmakers realize that funding can come from a multitude of different places and their films can be seen in many different ways.

At the ground level of indie financing, when a director and/or writer has a project that he or she wants to develop, it’s all about the quality of the story and the script. “Get the script as good as possible because, at the end of the day, it’s the material that dictates everything,” says Producer Jonathan Schwartz at Crispy Films, the company behind all of Drake Doremus’s projects, including last year’s indie sensation Like Crazy. Once the script is in the best place it can be — and not every script will get there, as some stories just aren’t meant to be told — it’s advisable to reach out to people who are experienced in navigating the financing landscape. And if you don’t have the connections yourself, Schwartz recommends that you “partner up,” which is exactly what he’s done with Indian Paintbrush for the latest Doremus project. 

First-time Director Christopher Neil (pictured above) agrees that two companies can be better than one. “They might know better than you whom you should approach for financing and how to position your film to raise the funds,” offers Neil, who partnered with Red Crown Productions to finance his film Goats after championing the project for a decade. “But to me, the most important thing you can do as a filmmaker is show how passionate you are about your project, especially for first-time filmmakers. What people really connect to is the passion you are conveying when telling them about your story. The more you can get them to visualize the film you’re going to make, the more on board they’ll want to be.” A hit at this year’s Sundance, Goats was just bought by Image Entertainment for a platform release later this year.

With top talent like David Duchovny and Vera Farmiga attached to the project, one would assume that Goats could have been financed pretty easily. That scenario isn’t necessarily true for many independent films, as there’s a spreadsheet that lists actors along with their values for foreign and domestic revenue, with foreign sales really driving the process. “It’s pretty remarkable the list of actors that will get a film financed at $10 or $20 million,” says Neil. “It’s a list you can count on two hands. And the lead in [Goats] was really Ellis [who is played by Graham Phillips] anyway. This wasn’t a star vehicle; it was a breakout vehicle for Graham.”

The newest trend in independent film financing involves online fundraising Websites like Kickstarter.com and IndieGoGo.com. So far, these two sites lead the pack in terms of popularity and accessibility for no-name filmmakers to raise money to finance their projects, whether they’re big or small, finished or not, bad or good. Anton King, a first-time feature director and writer, successfully raised $100,000 on Kickstarter last year for his film Lust for Love. He has since completed production a few months ago and is currently in postproduction. “If you’re going to use Kickstarter, you should start building your social-media base now,” advises King. “You need access to a lot of people — a lot. And one mistake I see with Kickstarter is people using it for little projects, whether it’s a few grand to finish postproduction or a $5,000 to make a short film. You’re asking for money, for help. You don’t want to be going to Kickstarter over and over and asking the same people for help.”

King may have had a slight advantage when he was looking for ways to finance his project: The lead actors he partnered up with — Dichen Lachman and Fran Kranz — already had a fan base from their cult hit TV series “Dollhouse.” Nevertheless, raising funds via Kickstarter is no easy task. “It comes with a lot of pressure,” admits King. “I’m very aware I still have a lot I need to deliver. It comes to a point where you raise the money and then there are two choices: I either owe $100K back to the investors or I deliver the movie for that amount of money.”

Launched on April 28, 2008 by Perry Chen, Yancey Strickler and Charles Adler, Kickstarter was developed to combat the perennial problem of limited funding for creative projects. To date, it is the largest funding platform for creative projects worldwide in terms of the amount of money raised and number of projects funded. “I think technology has made everyone’s dream a reality,” says Schwartz. “In theory, anyone can pick up a camera, raise the money on Kickstarter.com, film a movie and edit it at home. Even at Sundance this year, quite a few films were financed using Kickstarter or IndieGoGo.” Indeed, 17 Sundance films (10 percent of the projects shown in January 2012) were funded all or in part by Kickstarter and two were financed by IndieGoGo, including the well-received documentary Escape Fire: The Fight to Rescue American Healthcare.

“Fundraising for a film can cost a lot of money, sometimes leading filmmakers to max out credit cards to see their film become a reality,” explains Slava Rubin, CEO and co-founder of IndieGoGo.com. “We enable anybody to raise money, making it easier for their passions to become a reality without going into debt.” Launched in 2008 at Sundance, IndieGoGo.com has a name that ironically sounds tantamount to independent film but it allows fundraising campaigns for any project, creative or not, while Kickstarter.com is solely for creative projects.
Ultimately, whether you’re financing a project via traditional avenues or using an online option, investing in films is a risky business. “People who invest in films have to understand that it’s not like buying a house,” Schwartz explains. “In that situation, if the market goes bad you may lose a few hundred thousand dollars of equity, but you still own something that’s worth something. With a film, when there’s no one to sell it to, it’s worth nothing. It’s incredibly risky territory.”
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