Indie Film Financing and Movie Distribution – Dancing Nude

Indie film financing and movie distribution reminds of what it would feel like dancing nude on stage (much respect for exotic dancers at Larry Flynt’s Hustler Club!). You show up to pitch your movie project and need to be able to dance to a film investor’s music. It’s their stage and not yours as an indie filmmaker seeking film funding. They want you to make a sellable movie which appeals to movie distributors so the production can make money.

Most investors I’ve met with are not interested in putting hard money into indie art house films because those are tough sells to movie distributors and overseas film buyers aren’t usually interested in seeing them. The dialogue and scenes of certain art house type films don’t translate well to foreign buyers and movie viewers. Action, horror and skin does not need subtitles for people to follow the story is what I’ve been told by distributors. Talking head movies can make no sense to viewers that don’t understand subtle lines spoken in a foreign language.

Independent film financing continues to change as indie movie distribution gets more financially shaky. The place it’s hitting indie movie producers hardest is right at the source – film financing. Film investors right now aren’t feeling excited about putting money into movies that do not have bankable name actors. This is not like so-called indie movies that have A-list actors or are produced for millions of dollars. Those type of indie film passion projects you can make once you’ve made it in the entertainment business at the studio level.

Indie film investors and movie distributors won’t expect you to have an A-list actor, but they do want producers to have actors (B-list or C-list or D-list) with some name recognition or celebrity. The first question film investors and movie distributors ask is who the cast is. This is where most indie movie producers are blown out of the water because they have an unknown cast of actors. Plus there is a glut of indie movies being made because technology has made it more affordable to make movies.

The bright side is that entertaining indie movies are being made that might not otherwise ever have seen light of day before. The downside is meaningful movie distribution (getting paid) for indie produced films continues to shrink as indie films being made rises (supply and demand 101). I talked to one movie distributor that caters to releasing independent films and they told me they receive new film submissions daily.

They were honest saying they get very sellable movies and ones that are less than appealing, but with so many movies out there they no longer offer a majority of producers advance money against film royalties or pay a lump cash “buy-out” to secure distribution rights. Their business viewpoint is most indie filmmakers are just happy seeing their movie released. The term they used was “glorified showreel” for an indie filmmaker to display they can make a feature film. So, they acquire many of their movie releases without paying an advance or offering a “buy-out” agreement.

Not making a profit from a movie does not make financial sense for film investors that expect to see money made. When people put up money to produce a movie they want a return on their investment. Otherwise it’s no longer a movie investment. It becomes a film donation of money they’re giving away with no expectations. I’ve been on the “dog and pony show” circuit meeting with potential film investors and learning invaluable lessons.

I’m in the habit now of talking to indie movie distributors before writing a screenplay to see what types of films are selling and what actors or celebrity names attached to a potential project appeal to them. This is not like chasing trends, but it gives producers a sharper picture of the sales climate for indie films. Sometimes distributors will give me a short list of actors or celebrities to consider that fit an independent movie budget. Movie sales outside of the U.S. are where a bulk of the money is made for indie filmmakers.

Movie distributors and film sales agents can tell you what actors and celebrity talent is translating to movie sales overseas at the indie level. These won’t be A-list names, but having someone with some kind of name is a great selling point to help your movie standout from others. Brief cameos of known actors or celebrities used to be a good way to keep talent cost down and add a bankable name to your cast.

That has changed lately from my conversations with distribution companies. Movie distributors now expect any name talent attached to have a meaningful part in the movie instead of a few minutes in a cameo role. Cameo scenes can still work if there is a visual hook that grabs the attention of viewers in some way. But having name talent say a couple of lines with no special hook won’t fly anymore.

Another way to make an indie film in need of funding more attractive to investors is to attach talent that has been in a movie or TV show of note. Their name as an actor might not be that well-known yet, but rising stars that have appeared in a popular movie or TV show can give your movie broader appeal. If you cast them in a supporting role keep working days on the set down to a minimum to save your budget. Try to write their scenes so they can be shot in one or two days.

When you’re pitching to serious film investors they will want to be given a detailed movie budget and distribution plan on how you plan on making money from the film’s release. The Catch-22 that happens a lot is that most movie distributors that cater to releasing indie films won’t commit to any deal until they’ve screened the movie.

There is not built-in distribution like with studio budget films. Film investors that are not traditionally part of the entertainment business can get turned off when a producer does not have a distribution deal already in place. They don’t understand the Catch-22 of indie filmmaking and distribution. This is where a movie producer really needs to have a solid pitch that explains the financial dynamics of indie film distribution.

Most film investors will pass on an indie movie producer’s financing pitch that mentions self-distribution in it. From a movie investor’s business perspective it takes entirely too long for an indie movie to generate money going the self-distribution route. It’s like the old school way of selling your movie out of the trunk of your car at places, but now it’s done online using digital distribution and direct sales via a blog. That’s a long grind that most investors will not be interested in waiting around for. Moving one unit of a movie at a time is too slow of trickle for investors.

A possible way around the Catch-22 is to reach out to movie distributors while you are pitching to film investors. With a firm budget number and possible cast attached you can gauge to see if there is any meaningful distribution interest in the movie. It’s always possible a distributor will tell you that they would offer an advance or “buy-out” deal. They usually won’t give you a hard number, but even a ballpark figure of what they might offer can let you know if your budget makes financial sense to approach movie investors with.

I know one savvy indie movie producer that makes 4-6 movies a year on very reasonable budgets and knows they’re already making a profit from the advance money alone. The film royalty payments are a bonus. The producer keeps budgets extremely affordable and streamlined at every phase of production. Once you have a track record with a distribution company you know what you can expect to be paid. Then you can offer film investors a percent on their money invested into the production that makes sense.

Social networking with other indie filmmakers lets you hear what’s happening with movie distribution from other people’s real life experiences. A cool thing I’ve been hearing about is that there are film investors that won’t put up money to make movie that is going to be self-distributed, but they will roll the dice on a feature that is going to specific film festivals. Not the art house film festivals. The ones that are very genre specific like for horror or action films. Like Screamfest Horror Film Festival or Action on Film (AOF). Film buyers attend these events and meaningful distribution deals are made.

Independent film financing and movie distribution are areas of the entertainment business all filmmakers will have to deal with and learn from each experience. I was in the hot seat today pitching to a film investor. I’ve streamlined the budget as much as I can without making the plot lose steam.

The jam I’m in as a producer is there are hard costs that cannot be avoided that include lots of gun play including two rigging shots where baddies get shot and are blown backwards off their feet. Badass action films need experienced and seasoned film crews to pull-off hardcore action shots off clean and safe. The cast I want to hire has the perfect appeal and name recognition for this indie action movie to rock viewers. There is nothing that can get lost in the translation in this film for foreign film buyers and movie viewers.

What I think got lost in the translation with the potential film investor today is if I keep taking out below-the-line crew to save money I’m going to have to do rewrites to the screenplay to take out action scenes. These are selling points that will hurt sales if they are written out. But it’s my job as an indie filmmaker to balance a budget that appeals to film investors. We’ll see how this goes. This is indie filmmaker Sid Kali typing fade out.

Film Financing – Can Film Graduates Take the Challenge?

Graduates from a Film Studies program have a new opportunity in film & video production. Of course, with every opportunity comes a challenge – and in this case, the challenge is to find financing for your, or your employer’s, projects.

With the advent of digital equipment the scope of film & video production has widened. The usual Hollywood styled film production is no longer the only route to a career for film graduates. There are a multitude of opportunities in audio and visual applications throughout business, government and the entertainment industry. That means OPPORTUNITY for the keenest graduates to produce their own film & video projects, or to land the most interesting positions with leading film & video production companies.

Financing has been a dirty word for years in the film industry. The ‘Blue Suits’ and the cold heart of the banker are synonymous with the enemy of the creative. However, in this new era of opportunity you need to be both the ‘Blue Suit’ and the creative.

How do you find a way to learn about film financing, film budgeting, etc.? First let’s look at Film Studies programs.

There are so many Film Study programs available now that I find it confusing, and I’ve worked in the film industry for over 20 years. The Universities are taking a Liberal Arts degree approach to their curriculums, and the Colleges/Schools are primarily taking a hands-on technical approach. In either case, it is unarguable that Film Studies is big business. The following excerpt from The New York Times Company, published

March 6, 2005©, made it clear to me how big a business Film Studies really is:

“Some 600 colleges and universities in the United States offer programs in film studies or related subjects, a number that has grown steadily over the years…. At the University of Southern California, whose School of Cinema-Television is the nation’s oldest film school (established in 1929), fully half of the university’s 16,500 undergraduate students take at least one cinema/ television class.”

Which College, School or University will best prepare the graduate for a career in film & video? If a student has invested 2 to 4 years of their lives in this degree, how can they turn it into a worthwhile career?

Let’s see what the Universities say about their own programs, and the kind of results they expect – that is, what the Graduate will be capable of when entering the work force. This promotional letter, posted on one University’s web site, says it all:

“A major in Film Studies is not an occupational or professional degree. A sound program of studies in this discipline, however, should qualify a student for a variety of vocational possibilities. Obviously an individual will need to employ his or her knowledge about film in either a creative or a practical capacity and, in either case, exercise the judgment and initiative that a rigorous pursuit of a major in Film Studies should develop.”

The use of ‘should’ twice in three sentences tells the story – it’s up to you, Bud!

Film Studies programs (at any level) either don’t address, or don’t address strongly enough, the major force behind all film and video production – the MONEY! If the word money is brought up at all, it’s only a handshake and a nod. Most undergraduate programs have very little mention of Film Budgeting, and such things as Cost Reports and Business Plans are treated as foreign topics entirely. The Masters programs are only slightly better.

The reason for the void of information on such things as Film Budgets, Cost Reports, etc. in the academic sector originates from the big Hollywood production machine. The perpetual negotiations with the three big guilds (SAG, DGA and WGA), as well as with the IATSE & Teamster crew unions has forced the producing studios to be extremely confidential.

That era of total confidentiality isn’t over, nevertheless there is a huge demand to know more about film financing, film budgeting, etc. The new crop of Independent Film & Video makers want to make their own projects, find their own financing and do their own film budgeting and reporting of production costs. It is even increasingly possible for producers to distribute their own projects over the internet.

Believe me, the film school graduate who has a thorough understanding of their Film Studies program, AND understands the basic processes of Film Budgeting, Cost Reporting and Business Plans, is light-years ahead of the pack. A film studies graduate who can help prepare a financing package (that is, help to prepare a Film Budget and a simple Business Plan) would absolutely blow away any Independent Film & Video Production company. Can you imagine an Independent Producer who wouldn’t LOVE to have help with preparing and presenting a financing package?

I used to assume that the film students had a lack of interest in Film Budgeting and Costs (of any kind). Not anymore. I recently did a survey of film students at a respected film school. Here are the results of the survey:

Over 80% of the students said they felt it was important to know more about budgeting and how it affected their careers as filmmakers.

Film & Video production is one of the biggest industries in THE WORLD (next to weapon manufacturing, of course). The wide spread use of digital medium has created a new opportunity. That opportunity, although less expensive than the Hollywood style film productions we’ve grown used to, is still costly and requires financing. How do you get that financing? Where do you start?

Answer: You start with the basics of Film Budgeting, Cost Reporting and very simple Business Plans. If you can calculate a focal point, or learn how to operate a video camera, a Film Budget is a piece of cake.

Based on my experience over the past 20 years in the film industry, I can confidently say:

1. Graduates from Film Study programs who know the basics of film & video production money (Budgeting, Cost Reporting and Business Plans) will find they can take on more responsibility in their film & video projects, and

2. as a result will have more successful careers than their peers who haven’t learned to prepare Film Budgets, who don’t understand any production’s Cost Report and who never saw a simple Business Plan.

So how does a film student get familiar with Budgets, Cost Reports and a simple Business Plan? I’ve been a Production Auditor for 20 years and I’ve NEVER shown a crewmember a Final Budget or a Weekly Cost Report (the universally standard financial report card issued to the Financiers and Producers every week) in that entire time. They are considered sacrosanct by Studio Executives, Producers and Financiers everywhere.

Well, I’m about to tease you with some relevant articles that will open the door enough to let you walk through. They’re written for the complete novice, so be patient if you’ve already been exposed to budgets and cost reports.