Getting Financing for Your Independent Film: Ensuring Distribution and Choosing Scripts

by Christina DeHaven

 

There are many different ways to fund a film, and not necessarily out of your own pocket. You have to start by preparing yourself for an effective fundraising campaign. Arm yourself with a few basic tools:

1. A strong business proposal, complete with references and samples of your previous work.
2. A network of friends and colleagues in the industry to support your cause.
3. The natural ability to lure people to your project with your confidence and enthusiasm.

 

Number three is the most important tool to have in your arsenal, because in a world where thousands of independent films rarely ever get distribution, you must learn how to be convincing. If you want to find companies and individuals to invest in your film, be prepared to be a social butterfly. The common cliché still applies here as it does throughout our industry: It’s all about who you know.

Most individuals who can invest do so to be a part of the fascinating process of filmmaking. The prospect of owning a piece of a motion picture is still sexy and alluring to many who have the capital for it. It goes without saying that a good script is very important to an investor, as well as their confidence in the director’s storytelling ability.
One of the biggest ‘pros’ about this fundraising model is that a private investment portfolio typically allows the filmmaker to retain full creative control over the picture. Investors sign on the dotted line knowing that they will have little to no say in the outcome of the finished piece. This is good news for you, but again keep in mind that there is a lot of trust that goes into such a deal—trust that you will stand and deliver a great film.

While there is, of course, hope of getting a return on their investment, all of those involved should be well aware of the fact that investing in a film is extremely risky. Since we the filmmakers are in no position to guarantee the profitablility of the film, no matter how good the story is, we have to make sure this is clearly stated on the front cover of our business proposal (and in the kind of font that does not require glasses to read). We, as filmmakers, would love to strike gold at the box office, but this is not our first priority. Our goal is to make the best film possible, and to give that film the best future possible—making the most out of a strong run through the festival circuit, followed by a solid distribution deal. That is the goal.

Despite the risk, there are plenty of investors out there with an instinct for great stories and will share in your enthusiasm for your project. If you are successful at financing your film this way, you are one of the lucky few—and don’t take it for granted! With this success comes great responsibility—to look out for your investors’ best interests as well as your own.

Another way that indie filmmakers find funding is through partnership with an established production company. Just like there are private individuals out there looking to invest, so are companies seeking to build their success on an ever-growing slate of projects. It should work both ways: hopefully you get a significantly large amount of funding and production support, and they get another great film to add to the company reel. But as in most cases where we are using other people’s money to get it done, there will be certain limitations. Depending upon the production company, you may have to relinquish a large amount of creative control over the outcome of the film. It’s their money so why wouldn’t they have the right to control it? Everything from script rewrites to casting choices, to direction and final cut. These days there are so many companies out there that have built their success on the talent of independent filmmakers. But where big money is involved there are bound to be considerable limitations put upon the filmmaker. Before you enter into this type of deal, you need to consider how much control you are willing to sacrifice in order to fund your film.

Small amounts of funding are also available through the non-profit route, like grants and fiscal sponsorship through a non-profit organization. The amount of funding obtained through these methods are often smaller and don’t involve investors so much as donors. People and entities donate to your film, and do so for the cause, not for the profit potential. Becoming a member of a non-profit organization is a great way to network with other filmmakers and gather information on applicable grants, and other fundraising options for your project.

And another great research tool is to simply watch independent films—stay for the end credits and see who some of their biggest supporters are. Most of them will be given proper screen credit, or listed in the ‘special thanks’ section.

But whatever you do, never, never, ever fund your film on credit cards. I don’t care if this is project is the ‘opus’ of your film career – no film is worth getting yourself into personal credit card debt.

Important Elements to  Consider when Working  to Ensure Distribution for  Your Independent Film

Attaching stars to your film is one of the key elements to help ensure distribution of an independent film. Finding a reputable casting director to partner up with you is a huge asset for an independent filmmaker. There are many notable, award-winning actors out there that have tremendous respect and appreciation for independent cinema, and the many wonderful and challenging roles that it produces. The only hard part is getting access to them, and this is why you need a good casting director.

Also, do your research. If you haven’t already, become an avid reader of the trades. Keep a close eye on the market and trends. What type of indie deals seem to be the most successful and where does your film fit into the demand? This information will help you gain insight into what distributors are looking for in the current movie-going environment and will strengthen your distribution strategy. Producer’s reps and film sales agents do this for a living, so if you have the good fortune of coming into contact with one of these individuals seize the opportunity to engage them on your project.

And another thing: Budget for a high-quality end product. These days there are many cost effective ways to shoot a film besides celluloid. With the advent of better technology such as portable HD and better, more accessible editing software, the possibilities are endless. But don’t skimp on the quality. Festival programmers and distributors do care about quality, almost as much as they care about a good story.

Also, don’t plan a budget that anticipates that cast and crew will work for free, and will gladly eat peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. Plan on the most professional yet practical budget possible. We must be realistic—movie making is a very collaborative and expensive process, so you have to be prepared to spend some money.

Choosing Projects and Scripts

If you’re going to produce a film, you’d better love the script. You have a long road ahead of you and there is plenty of work to do, so this had better be a labor of love. You’d also better like the director, because this is the person you will be spending most of your waking hours with. You must ask yourself, are you confident in this person’s artistic vision and determination to make a good film? Also, will this person respect your feedback and your authority over the production?

Do go with your gut…always.

Don’t be a ‘yes’ person when you know you have to say ‘no’. While it is a producer’s job to troubleshoot and put out fires, you cannot save the world’s problems. Better to be honest and say no, walk away if need be, but never move forward on anything if it doesn’t feel right.

It’s a tough uphill road to climb, so make sure that you make it worth your while.

Christina DeHaven is an independent producer and adjunct faculty member at NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts. Her credits include commercials, music videos, episodic television, documentary, and over a dozen short films. Her first two shorts were accepted to the Sundance Film Festival and recent projects include two feature-length documentaries, “My Uncle Berns” (directed by Lindsay Crystal, HBO), and “761st” (directed by Pete Chatmon), about the first African-American tank battalion to enter combat in WWII. Christina has also recently produced several music videos for the Grammy Award-winning band, The Black Eyed Peas.

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