Monday, June 30, 2008

Dear Indie Producer

A follow-up question from Kat in Austin, Texas:

Dear Indie Producer,

How do you find financing?

Doggedly. Persistently. Tirelessly.

Oh, Readers, we'll be talking about this one A LOT. Forever.

The answer is, it depends. On about a billion factors. But, let's just start with a couple.

Do you anticipate a theatrical release for your film? Whether to aim for a theatrical release for your project is a whole subject in and of itself (there are many, many paths to audiences, and theatrical is WAY expensive and absurdly competitive). But, if so, it further depends on whether you're aiming for a Hollywood indie budget (and their notice/possible acquisition), or a truly outside-the-studios indie budget.

There's a big shakeout happening in Indiewood right now, with studio specialty divisions being shuttered or reabsorbed into the mother ships. In his LA Film Festival June 21, 2008 financing conference speech, The Film Department's Mark Gill offered that to be viable in the marketplace, an indie film's production budget needs to be in the $15-$50M range to stand a chance (more money equals more "name" elements, like actors, director, producer, and/or special effects). In other words, if you've only got $10M to work with, you're looking at sorry chances to recoup enough revenues for your efforts.

Isn't that just nutters?

On the other hand, if you're working outside of the studios, I've read that a $100,000 budget (not including distribution and marketing costs) is the sweet spot for a tiny indie film to possibly recoup its money. Even if your budget is merely $500,000, and you've shot a genre movie (horror, action, sex-comedy, urban), you're still facing a stiff challenge these days to sell your film to distributors and audiences. This info comes from an experienced international film sales rep I know who produced an indie horror feature late last year. Even with his knowledge of the markets and his contacts, by the time his nearly $600K horror film was completed, the market had finally reached its saturation point. Any way he looked at it, his film would likely lose money, given what it could sell for. He wished he'd made it for $250-$300K instead. And, this was his second outing as an indie producer.

ADDENDUM - checked my anecdote above with my friend and he replied, 'What you wrote about our movie was correct in terms of emotion, the numbers were just a little bit off. We spent $2.3 million, and would have been in great shape if we had spent something in the neighborhood of $1.2 (ish).'

So, finding financing depends upon what you anticipate your budget will be, that's a big thing.

For the sake of brevity in the rest of this posting, let's assume you'll be producing a tiny, truly indie project for $200,000. You know who your audience is (and don't say "everybody," because you're not aiming to make Shrek IV, are you?), and you know who will pay to see your movie. You have to have a grasp on the endgame of your production, before you raise a cent, before you shoot a frame/pixel. Since you've done your homework, while you're raising money for your project, you really should be raising at least $400,000, in order to support a small theatrical release yourself (or be able to pay a distributor a service fee to release it, plus provide all the marketing money for its ads, etc. yourself), and/or to pay the deliverable expenses of presenting the finished film to a distributor that acquires it.

So, $400,000 smackeroos.

Got a rich uncle? Got a trust fund?

If not (even if so!), make a list of all the family, friends, and family friends you can think of whom you believe might be game to invest in your film. Identify any grants, endowments, fellowships, etc. that you might qualify for and apply to with your project. Identify all the distributors that might be interested in your finished film, as well as any domestic and international film sales reps, too.

Be sure that you're working with an entertainment attorney who can help you frame your solicitation in proper legalese before asking anyone for money.

Briefly --

Make a spreadsheet of all your contacts and start calling them. Practice your pitch so you sound polished and confident and informed. Tell them you're seeking investors for your project. Ask them if they might consider making your minimum investment (determine this with your attorney), and if they'd like to review your business plan. Make a note in your spreadsheet what their response is. Whether they say 'yes' or 'no,' ask for referrals. Do they know anyone else who might be interested? Would they be comfortable with you mentioning their referral when you contact that new person? Be prepared for 99 out of 100 people to say 'no.'

Set a deadline for yourself to meet your financing goal -- this won't be an open-ended process. You'll have to state in your investment memorandum (among the necessary legalese) what the time frame of your solicitation will be, and what effect on the project's future there'll be if a certain minimum number of funds are not raised within that time frame.

Do as much homework as you can about each contact before contacting him, her, or them. Keep in mind, "what's in it for them?" when you're communicating with them.

Don't give up. Okay, give up for a day. Go have a mocha. Then go back to not giving up.

There's so much more to say about this topic, but I'm going to leave this post at that.

Like I said, we'll talk financing, money, legalese, and more in future postings!

Thanks for the questions, Kat!

Sunday, June 29, 2008

Indie Film & The Edge of Doom

Been reading a lot the last ten days about the demise of independent film.

Check out these links.

Indie Film Is Dying - Unless It Isn't

Yes, The Sky Really Is Falling

Art Houses Are Empty - But, It's Summer

Indie Sector on Shaky Ground

I agree with Dylan Leiner of Sony Pictures Classics who said that the end of indie film is pronounced about every 17 years -- yet, it survives. But, the current teeth-gnashing in the indie film industry is something to track, to be aware of, because when it comes time to raise money for your indie film, you'd better have an idea what you'll be up against.

Finally, here is an article about Paul Mezey, an indie creative producer on the East Coast.

The New American Realism

I like this article a lot, because I think he's representative of what indie producers can be. He's talented, determined, and charismatic, but he's in the same spot we all are: recreating the wheel with every project. Yet, he has to keep doing what he does, because he loves it (that's my interpretation, at least).

Dear Indie Producer Intro

Dear Readers,

I've been remiss in posting. Forgive me. Summer has sprung here in the Great North (Minneapolis/St. Paul), and I've been playing hooky with my toddler and husband in the glorious weather.

Let's see if I can do some catching up here.

I've had this idea for a format to include in this blog, and it's a feature along the lines of "Dear Abby" for fellow creative producers. I'm not the end-all, be-all of advice for all things indie producing, but it'll give me some structure to work with to get at all the thoughts and experiences I've had (or would like to have) out of my head and here for you to cogitate on. Plus, I'll pose people's questions to fellow producers over time and present their answers, too!

So, our first question is from filmmaker Kat in Austin, Texas:

Dear Indie Producer,

How do you find projects?

Truth be told, Kat is one my former partners in an indie film production company in Austin, Texas, Storie Productions. Together with our fellow partner/producer, Stacy Schoolfield, we produced Kat's feature drama, jumping off bridges, which premiered at the 2005 SXSW film festival.
  • I got involved with job because I believed in its writer-director, Kat's, directing skills and in her script.
  • I recognized that our team brought formidable skills to the table, and that we were all hungry and determined to get a small, indie feature made in 2004 - come Hell or high water. I knew we could hustle our asses off to break down the script, create the business plan, secure attorneys, secure equipment, secure investors, cast actors and deal with SAG paperwork, secure locations, crew, and the billion other details it took to pull a film together.
  • It was a script that could be shot on an ultra-low budget (few locations, no big effects, no cast of thousands) and in our immediate surroundings, Austin. We had a great pool of crew and local acting talent to work with, most of whom had worked with one or more of us before, and who wanted to support Kat's project. There was a lot of goodwill in the local film community for us.
Looking forward, how I seek projects still comes down to the script - it has to grab me. I know when one has me when it gets under my skin and I can't stop thinking about it. Also, scripts that leave me with lots of visual recollections of the story and characters get me excited. If I'm seeing scenes in my head from a script, that's a good sign.

Where do I find them?

I've found them by running a statewide screenplay competition, seeking out filmmakers whose films I've liked (that's how I met Kat), by teaching workshops and coaching filmmakers and writers, by querying screenwriting/filmmaking instructors about their students, and by reading scripts for national screenwriting competitions. I can also contact fellow producers, writers, production friends, and so on and tell them the genre and budget level I'm seeking and ask for their referrals/recommendations.

So, how did this first question and response strike you? Too much, too little?

By all means, send me questions you'd like to see addressed, and I'll add them to future postings. :)

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Where things are at...?

I read a lot of trade press, trying to keep a finger on the pulse of current financing and distribution trends. Like that's possible: but, I try.

Per Jon Taplin's blog, I agree that we appear to be experiencing an interregnum:
"As (he) said before, the notion of an interregnum has classically been tied to those periods when one king has died and there is no clear successor. But for our purposes, the notion of interregnum refers to those hinges in time when the old order is dead, but the new direction has not been determined. Quite often, the general populace and many of its leaders do not understand that the transition is taking place and so a great deal of tumult arises as the birth pangs of a new social and political order."

His entry goes on to discuss the social and political histories and ramifications of this assertion; but, it can also be applied to the movie-making industry. Not only has the standard capture technology evolved from film to digital, but the financing, distribution, and revenue streams for both studio and indie films are convulsing from old paradigms to grasping guesses and bold experiments. Fun and terrifying stuff if you're trying to get a movie made.

One resource I'm excited about recently finding - Wonderland Stream magazine - frequently posts on both business and technical developments in the movie-making world. I liked this posting on it, an interview with Ira Deutchman, "A Strategy For The Little Guys." Check it out to read his take on the status of the distribution market for indie films.

Monday, June 16, 2008

Something from nothing

The first real job I had out of college was as an Instructional Designer for an industrial training software company. I remember sitting in my office (my own office!) facing my tiny Apple McIntosh box-shaped personal computer and the grey-white expanse of a new document, blank. Blank, blank, blank. I was surrounded by notes, stickies, reference manuals, old training manuals, and piles of technical specs and manuals, and I couldn't think of where to start. I'd get up, go to the bathroom, stop by the kitchen, kibbitz with an office mate for five minutes, then return and sit down. The screen was still blank. I stared at it and felt a sucking panic. They're totally going to fire my ass.

Panic, dread, desperation, futility all knocked up against the knowledge that I had all the info I needed to write something. I knew I had the answers; I was just paralyzed in getting it all out of my head and onto the page.


Finally, I typed a word. Then I backspaced over it and typed a different word. Backspace again. Third try. Okay, that'll work. Jesus, Lorie, just keep typing. Anything, nonsense, just type!

And it worked. I eventually created enough momentum to get into a flow and generate real content.

And, they didn't fire me.

This was a good precedent for creative producing - you gotta make stuff up as you go. :)

Monday, June 9, 2008

What is a creative producer?

When I was little, I loved playing pretend. My family lived on the edge of a forest preserve, and my young friends and I would race through its foot paths playing "SWAT" or pretending that we were on dangerous quests. Said quests usually required hiding, climbing trees and chain link fences, running across fallen logs straddling small streams, skipping rocks, finding crawdads, and kicking the caps off the giant mushrooms that dotted the forest floor.

I started my first business the summer I was 18. My family had moved into a town-home community in Colorado Springs that was bordered by busy roads and heavy traffic. I didn't have a car, and the closest commercial establishment within walking distance was a Circle K. If I was going to earn any spending money, it was either Circle K or start my own gig. So, I made fliers, got clients in the town-home community, and cleaned houses for the summer.

I didn't know it then, but I was laying the foundation for a future of creative producing in movies. Dream things up; make things happen.

There are all kinds of producers. Presently, I consider myself to be an entrepreneur whose business is independent movies.

It's taken me about 12 years to figure this out, because I didn't know if I was an actor, writer, director, producer, or something else entirely. I had co-founded a software development company in my late 20s, which was the most exciting, ambitious thing I could think to tackle. And, it was. And, then it wasn't. Long story short, making a go of that company (and it still exists, as part of another software development company these days) made me realize it wasn't truly my heart's desire.

My heart's desire was movies.

So, I tried on every artistic hat (except cinematography - I know my technical limits) over the years, while founding and running separate businesses on the side to subsidize my "education:" a gardening/landscape design consultancy, a non-profit screenwriting contest, and finally, an independent film production company with two partners.

I love all of it, especially directing. But, what I've learned I love most of all is the one thing that always came so easily to me -- producing. Making it all happen. Seeing the big picture. Bringing all the pieces and personalities together toward a common goal: a movie that inspires, that entertains, and that hopefully, is timeless, too.

Presently, I'm "on sabbatical" from actively developing any projects. My current full-time production is parenting my year-old baby daughter. But, I teach classes and coach indie filmmakers and screenwriters. And, I can't stop reading about, talking about, and thinking about producing, making movies, finding cool stories, raising money, what's going on in the industry, etc. So, my outlet's going to be this blog.

I hope you'll join me in my obsession and check in and comment occasionally. :)