Film Fund-amentals: How (Not) to Raise Money For a Movie

There are many ways to raise money for a low-budget independent film. Bank robbery is one. Unfortunately, the current economic crisis makes it one of the less rewarding ways (unless you happen to be a banker, in which case you are already engaged in this pursuit).

That leaves open the more painful task of begging. It is a tedious process that has been best described as comparable to crawling naked through a field of broken glass. And that’s a description I’ve heard from those who were ultimately successful in this pursuit. Those who are unsuccessful tend to vanish into a silent mist that softly hovers just above the abyss.

There are no easy answers and no sure schemes for success. There are many paths toward failure, some of which are well lit and promising. Sometimes the successful road resembles a dead-end back street that no one in their right mind would ever have thought of. Don’t forget, the old De Palma movie Obsession only got made because a group of high-flying dentists in Cincinnati needed a tax shelter for their loot.

So I can make you no promises that I have a clue as to how to raise money (if I did, I would do it for myself). But I have a few clues how not to fund a movie.

Credit Cards: Personally, I never completely bought the Robert Townsend story about how he funded the production of Hollywood Shuffle back in 1987. Sure, he may have maxed out some cards on lab bills and basic production costs. But ultimately, the monthly repayment schedules, high interest fees and rigid credit limits would make this approach nearly impossible.

Grant Money: There are a wide variety of grants available from state and federal institutions. They tend to be extremely limited in the amounts available and at best, are mostly useful as a means of finishing post-production work on a small film. The whole grant process was once summed up to me by a senior VP at PBS: “Every year we have one grant and 100 applicants. By the end of the process, we will have 99 people pissed with us and one ingrate.”

George Clooney: Actually, not such a bad idea. If you can get George (or someone like George) to sign with the project, you’ve suddenly got some contact room. However, George is not taking our calls. I suspect he will not be taking yours, either.

Write a Really Good Script and Shop It Around: Great idea; get in line. Even the kid serving you latte at the coffee shop has a script to show. Heck, some of the scripts are even pretty OK. But it doesn’t matter. Producers don’t like to read scripts. Bankers won’t read scripts. Directors only “quote” scripts. The only person in Hollywood who is known to actually read a script is (oddly enough) Kate Capshaw. She filters them for her husband. If you have to ask who he is, you need to get another form of employment.

The Detailed Presentation: To approach anyone for funding, you have to do a presentation. Legends abound about the perfect pitch (e.g. It’s Charlie’s Angels crossed with Bonanza), but in reality the high concept pitch only works for a few occasional highs. Details are essential, as long as they are not boring and don’t involve much explaining — and definitely no reading. So how about some visuals? Sam Raimi got funding for the original Evil Dead film by first shooting a super-8 version and using that as a preview reel. Currently, people are peppering YouTube with various types of scenes for proposed movies (a French-based special effects artist is virtually creating an abstract science-fiction movie in this manner). So far, there has been no major success story from this method. But eventually, it will happen.

— Dennis Toth