This article appeared in the February 2011 issue of KC Stage
In the wake of Missouri Governor Jay Nixon proposing to cut funding for the Missouri Film Commission, and Kansas Governor Sam Brownback seeking to eliminate the Kansas Arts Commission budget, it seemed appropriate to look at the financial side of independent, local filmmaking. Whether the budget is large or small, financing an independent film is always a daunting and difficult task, especially in the Midwest. I asked a few local producers how they went about raising funds for their film projects.
Aaron Laue is a producer and actor who has two feature films due out this spring. He’s currently helping to put the finishing touches on Ty Jones’ Last Breath to give to the distributor, and is working to get Patrick Rea’s Nailbiter ready for the Kansas City Film Festival. His advice in dealing with investors: “It’s always good to be honest in all your attempts to raise money. Never promise something you can’t deliver on. Be sure to include the ‘facts’ of movie making. The ‘fact’ that the likelihood of them making any money on their investment is perhaps less than zero.”
|Matt Connolly [second from left] working on “A Good Crease.” Photo by 2sday Productions.|
“We had a successful fundraising night at Hamburger Mary’s via a charity bingo night. I’ve also been very lucky with supportive ex-in-laws. What doesn’t work is thinking you can raise money from your immediate circle of fellow artists. I love them all, but they are looking for the same thing I am. You have to look outside your circle of comfort and approach avenues you don’t normally tread.”
He’s also turned to the online fundraising site IndieGoGo to help raise the $7,500 he needs for the production. As of press time, www.indiegogo.com/AGoodCrease had only accumulated $285, but the online campaign continues throughout February. Sites like IndieGoGo and Kickstarter have helped local artists set project-specific fundraising goals without developing their own elaborate online fundraising mechanisms.
Rossana Jeran’s first feature film Godhead was released in 2007, and the project was not easy to get off the ground. “I tried for years both locally, nationally, and internationally to raise private funds for my first feature to no avail. I didn’t have much luck until I participated in the Panic Button program through the Independent Filmmaker’s Coalition, which gave us a 501(c)3 status to raise productions funds as tax-deductible donations.”
Once the initial funding came in, she turned to more creative fundraising efforts. “I came up with the idea of throwing a fundraiser and ‘prop drive.’ Everyone had to bring a prop that they would want to see in the film, but not get returned. We also sold ‘credits’ in the film for $25 each. It was great. I didn’t have to spend any money on props or furniture for that entire film, and we created two different apartments. In the end, we raised about $3,000 with various other levels of donation that evening, and one very kind donation of $20,000 which funded the film’s production costs.”
Jeran’s company Blurgirl Productions can be found at www.blurgirl.com. She has recently set aside her work for Blurgirl to create a series of fitness and spirituality videos and digital products called Fit Conscious Happy, which currently has two iPod apps. You can find out more at www.fitconsciencehappy.com.
Why do Films Cost So Much?
Regardless of the budget, making a film involves a myriad of tiny details, each of which can drive up the costs of shooting. When I asked Jeran what was the biggest cost factor in independent film, she said, “locations and insurance.” She added, “I think feeding the crew well is very important, especially if they are working for less pay or deferred payment. Insurance is by far the biggest cost factor, though. You must have a $1 million policy to rent a grip truck and to rent any type of commercial location. That alone ate up $2,500 of my budget, but it lasted one year and insured other projects.”
She offered some tips on saving money: “Get local restaurants to donate food for film credit. Same with using locations — get to know new local businesses, and you can use the marketing and exposure angle to help get free locations. I have always found people and businesses very receptive and open to the film process.”
For Connolly, a major expense is food. “If I can’t pay people for time or equipment, I’m sure as hell going to honor the golden rule of indie filmmaking and feed them. And I’d have to say that, so far, I’ve been able to excel in at least this aspect. For this project, if everything goes according to budget, my biggest cost will be cast and crew.”
To that end, he suggests, “Find people who are willing to work for free in exchange for experience. Ask for food donations in exchange for credit endorsements. Use what you have, not what you want.”
Laue insists that most production budgets on feature films go to pay workers. “The human capital is always the biggest cost. People’s time. You can feed the crew really good for three weeks (twenty people, three times a day, for 18 days) for about $2,000. However, those 20 people will cost you $2,000 a day at $100 per person. So, you have to provide a wonderful experience, otherwise they will want $300 a day the next time. And then one day of shooting will cost you $6,000 as opposed to $2,000.”
But Connolly added this valuable insight: “The single biggest surprise came in a cost that is difficult to calculate — the amount of time you will spend on your project. Once you decide to make a film, when you are not working on it, it is still never very far from your mind. You start viewing the world you live in as a series of shots, your day job as a set and your stuff as props.
From Post to Premiere
Shooting the movie is only the beginning of the filmmaking process. The road from final wrap to world premiere can often take longer and cost more than indie filmmakers anticipate. Jeran was lucky to strike a deal. “When making Godhead, I wasn’t even thinking about post production. I was just so excited to have the funds to begin shooting. In the middle of production, I got a call from Linda Buckner of Take2 Productions. They were interested in doing my post for deferred payment because they were just getting into the visual effects marketplace, and Godhead was such an FX driven story. They needed a feature film to cut on and I needed killer special effects.”
Laue agrees on hidden costs. “It always cost more in post-production than you think it’s going to cost. You have to keep making passes at the film, getting the music better, and the editing tighter; and that stuff racks up some serious costs if you haven’t worked out some sort of really great deal beforehand.”
Another factor for Jeran is simply time. “It’s amazing how long it really takes to get the film to where it needs to be for release. One of my favorite film people, and dear friend in Kansas City, producer Rick Cowan said, ‘Rossana, a film is never finished, you just have to abandon it.’”
Of course, after all the money’s spent, it’s time for the finished film to make its money back. Unfortunately, turning a profit is a hit and miss (mostly miss) proposition for the independent filmmaker, and it generally hinges on getting distribution.
Laue’s secret? “Connections! It helps to know someone or have a relationship with someone to get your film into festivals. I can tell you that has been my experience. So, take a year off and volunteer at 30 or 40 film festivals. Get to know all the awesome festival people; then go make your film. If you make it good it will get exposure. If you make it thrifty enough and good enough it might even make a profit. The movie should be able to hold-up in national and international markets. Bottom line, make a really good film and it will find an audience. It may take some time; but eventually it will find an audience.”
Laue acknowledges that not all films are destined to make money. “If you are making a film that has no real possibility for finding a mainstream audience, be honest with yourself.”
Jeran initially viewed film as purely an artistic medium. “When I began making films 18 years ago, my intention was never to make a profit. I approached it as an artist expressing herself through the lens and medium of film and video. But after eight shorts and two artsy low budget features, working a day job and using all my extra money to fund those projects, I decided it was time for a change. Hence, my reinvention. Locally made films have a chance if the film is clever or done really well. But the marketplace has changed so much. Filmmakers have to have some connections to get into festivals, or at least a sales agent. Of course, D.I.Y. is big now too, and if you can make a splash or statement with your film and get it noticed, it doesn’t matter where you make movies.”
Connolly approaches it from a more practical viewpoint “Determining where, by whom, and how you want your film distributed really should be a form of pre-pre-production. Too many films are made in response to a good idea, but then have nowhere to go. Hammering out where your film could go will tell you if it should even be made. It will also help you budget your post-production costs, which of course impacts the total figure you need to finance.”
So if turning a profit from indie film is so difficult, why would anyone invest in it? Connolly explains, “It is a way to ensure a community has a strong arts culture, which in turn ensures a strong community as art crosses barriers created by economic and social stratigraphy. That investment doesn’t always have to take the form of a check. Just buying a ticket to see a locally produced film is an investment in local filmmaking. Providing a location, helping on a set, cooking chili for a cold crew — these are all investments that have value beyond money.
According to Jeran, “Local filmmaking has an economic impact on an entire city, from cabs and car rentals, to restaurants, hotels, and the like. Investing in a local project also helps put a city on the map nationally and brings attention to the rich and talented pool of filmmakers in Kansas City.”
But Laue is cautious about dealing with big-time investors. “Good movies are art. If you buy local works of art, then investing in a locally made movie makes sense, but be sure it’s going to be art and not just product. I would also suggest that investors be leery of filmmaking movers-and-shakers. During my feature filmmaking experience, I have been the second in line to the movers-and-shakers. They come in and give a fancy resume and throw a bunch of star names around, but at the end of the day they don’t know much about storytelling — and at the end of the day it really is all about storytelling. So I would encourage investors to ask for three films over the last three years to see if there’s progress in the director or producer as a storyteller.”
Joe Heyen, producer and director of Cowtown Ballroom, put it bluntly. “Anyone who invests in film is really stupid.”
As Heyen explains, “Dennis Fallon probably understands film finances better than anyone. As I remember he made money on his first four films, and then lost all those profits on his fifth. So you can see there are no magic formulas. Cowtown Ballroom is close to being in the black, but I’m really fumbling in the dark. I do know that almost all filmmakers make a fatal assumption — that their goal is distribution. There is almost no profit in U.S. distribution, but most filmmakers still believe it is the Holy Grail.”
“Making a profit should not be the reason you make a film. The goal should be to make the best film possible, but if you don’t make a profit it is very difficult to raise money for your next film. You have a much better chance of making money by going to the boats — and they are heavily stacked against you. But if you have a track record of success, investors will at least listen to your pitch.”
Connolly summed up the whole experience. “The fascinating thing about filmmaking is that you can spend a lifetime learning about it. The challenge about filmmaking is that it might take a lifetime.”