Film Journal: Philosophies for Financing Your Film
In the second installment of filmmaker Valerie Weiss's film journal, she offers advice on an ever-important, much-talked-about topic: how to successfully finance your independent film.November 4th, 2009 | Valerie Weiss
In the last installment of my film journal for The Independent, I wrote about the various circumstances that facilitated the raising of $200,000 to direct my feature film, Losing Control, a quirky romantic comedy about a female scientist who wants proof that her boyfriend is “the one.” In this installment, I write about how I raised financing – a topic that is likely on every independent filmmaker’s mind.
I would like to start by discussing my philosophy for financing independent films. I touched on this a bit in the last journal, where I wrote the following: “Ten years ago, it was a lot easier to attract stars to independents without studio involvement or financing, in place with a good script. Now, that has all but dried up… as financing has dwindled generally in Hollywood for all but big franchise movies such as Iron Man. The $2 million budget has become a studio movie. The new, truly independent movies are now priced much lower and made much more creatively in terms of resources and talent.”
Indeed, as the economy took a nosedive, so did much of the independent film industry. Many independent distributors have since gone out of business and many independent branches of studios have closed their doors as well. The effect? Less money for purchasing and distributing films. That said, independent filmmakers who have the intention to return their investors’ money through the sale or distribution of their film must consider what price they might receive for their film. It behooves filmmakers to think like business people with products in other industries. A first-time shoe designer, for example, can almost never, especially in the current economic environment, expect to sell a pair of shoes for $400. It would be imprudent for a new designer to manufacture shoes that cost anywhere near $400, even if more established brands such as Manolo Blahnik can command this price. However, if this designer creates a shoe with an amazing design, that makes the wearer feel good for $20 a pair, and he or she knows that there is a target market that would pay $40 for these shoes, then this designer not only makes his or her investment back, but also turns a profit that enables him or her to continue to design shoes. In the event that these shoes make a splash and the price goes up to $400 a pair, all the better.
Similarly, the filmmaker raising independent financing should consider the price point at which he or she is most likely to make his or her investors’ money back. Success stories such as Swingers, which was made for $200,000 and sold to Miramax for $5 million, according to www.the-numbers.com, are inspiring, and what every filmmaker hopes for in terms of financial success. However, at $200,000, the budget for Swingers was a very manageable amount to recoup, making it an attractive budget level.
Another reason why a $200,000 budget is smart is because it happens to be the cut-off for the SAG Ultra Low Budget Contract. Independent productions in this budget range can hire SAG actors at a rate of $100 per day. Employing a favored nations approach to hiring, a producer might decide to have actors and crew make the same amount. If the budget goes above $200,000, then according to the SAG rules, the actors’ rates jump to almost three times as much – and so would crew rates based on a favored nations approach. Depending on the size of the cast and crew, this might increase your budget significantly, without necessarily changing the final product of the film. In effect, you are paying more for the same film, and therefore, increasing the price that your film must command in order to recoup the investment and make a profit.
Not every film is suitable for a $200,000 budget, however. Some films are inherently big-budget, due to their logistics, sets, special effects or "A-list" stars. If your script is such that it could be made well on a $200,000 budget, however, then this is, in my opinion, an ideal budget for an independent film.
So that is why the first thing to do is think philosophically about your budget. Is your film a $200,000 film? It is not merely a question of can you make the film on this budget. It means that odds are, you will not be attracting “A-list” talent whose name alone attracts audiences. Rather, your film must live and die on the quality of your script, the originality of the story, the ability to garner enough word-of-mouth to get people to see it (independent advertising budgets can be as small as independent film budgets), and the uniqueness of the director’s vision. Examples of successful independent films such as Waitress, Little Miss Sunshine, Napoleon Dynamite, and Swingers all have an artistry and uniqueness to them that make them standouts apart from what “names,” if any, are in them.
My first step in raising money for Losing Control was the determination that the story, tone, and point of view I would be using in my directing was unique enough that, regardless of the profile of the actors I cast, and the production values I could obtain on this budget, the story could be told in a compelling, memorable way. There were three films that informed the tone and look of my film – David O. Russell’s Flirting with Disaster, Pedro Almodóvar’s Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown, and Mike Leigh’s Happy-Go-Lucky. While the casting was pitch-perfect in each of these films, it wasn't the profile of the actors that made these films so captivating, rather it was the complete commitments to vision, style, and tone based on foundations of smart, keenly-observed scripts that made these films standouts for me.
Once I had honed in on my vision for making Losing Control in the $200,000-budget range, I modified my business plan to reflect this, and made clear to my potential investors that it would not be the inclusion of celebrities that would sell the film. This is an incredibly freeing notion for a director to have when casting, and is distinctly un-Hollywood. According to my business plan, I would simply cast the best actors for the roles without worrying about their IMDb Star Meter.
Armed with a business plan and clear vision for how to make my film, I set out to raise $200,000. In addition to looking for investors, I also obtained fiscal sponsorship from the 501(c)3
Filmmakers Alliance, which allows one to accept tax-deductible donations for one's film. (Filmmakers Alliance benefits by receiving five percent of all donations.) I took a two-pronged approach of networking with prospective investors from my alumni networks and also contacting friends and family for donations.
After several years of trying to raise money for a $2 million film, the adjustment to a $200,000 budget had incredible results. In fact, I raised the money in just one month. My husband had been telling me for quite a while to re-watch Field of Dreams, a movie which held the message, “Build it, and they will come.” That was certainly true in my case. Once I wrapped my head around the philosophy of making my film and visualized the process all the way through the sale of the film, set up my LLC, modified my business plan, formulated my investment documents, drafted a proper budget, and envisioned a potential cast and crew, the money came quickly, and from sources I hadn't imagined.
I am very fortunate to have an incredible investor pool that is passionate about the script and on the same page with me as far as the philosophy of making this film. Once I could see it clearly, it was easy to communicate it to others and get them excited and on board. This clarity of vision is serving me well in the casting and pre-production process, too (which I will discuss in the next installment of the Film Journal).
There certainly are sacrifices when making an ambitious film on a $200,000 budget, but there are consistent principles that I defined early on for making Losing Control a successful film. Faced with the myriad of choices, suggestions, and obstacles that come with independent filmmaking, it is much easier to make constructive decisions, because I put an abundance of serious thought into the nature, size, final product and target audience of the project.