Film Fund-amentals: In Search of Funds

There are many ways to acquire money for a small-budget film. For example, selling your organs on the black market. That should be good for a few thousand bucks. But once you run out of spare kidneys, you’ll have to adopt an alternative strategy.

Thank the lord for Google and the Internet. There’s an unlimited number of people out there just waiting to give would-be filmmakers advice. There are even a few sites out there that actually know what they’re talking about. Not many, but a few. OK, a couple of these sites sound as if they’re operated by the same “bankers” in “Kenya” who send out those e-mails about the millions of dollars they’d like to transfer to your bank account. So always keep in mind the key rules concerning everything on the Internet: 1) Never give out personal and financial information, and 2) Don’t believe much of what you read or hear.

Oddly enough, one of the better sites for a general guide to this issue is Ideamama’s Blog, specifically the entry titled “How to Raise $5,000,000+ For Film Production Without Committing Neither Crime Nor Suicide?” (sic).  It’s a long piece that covers a wide range of possibilities, including a link to John W. Cones’ extremely useful article, “Five Most Common Film Finance/Distribution Scenarios,” which is another highly recommended must-read.

Some of the best ideas are primarily rooted in attracting financial support from a major studio (idea number 13 in the piece). OK, it may indeed be a case of placing the cart before the horse. Basically, you’re not going to get the time of day from any major studio and/or distributor until you have a “finished” product ready for them to see. Sure, they may be willing to then finance some costly changes in order to make the movie presentable in a theater. A good example of this process was the 2004 release of the documentary Tarnation.  Made for a mere $218.32 (I love that 32 cents) through a combination of old Super 8 footage, VHS tapes and an iMac, it earned the reputation of being the first feature film made solely by computer. However, the distributor had to spend another $400,000 on lab expenses in order to upgrade the film to theater level.

Of course, this is all based on getting the funds to make the movie in the first place, which takes the independent filmmaker back to the cart and horse issue. One thing mentioned in the Ideamama blog is having all the people involved in the movie contribute money to its production. So you have the screenwriter, the cinematographer, the editor and the pastry lady all chipping in for the greater good. That will probably get you to the three-digit level. So you’re still short about $5,000 to $10,000 (if you’re lucky).

One suggestion is to raise public money. Sometimes this can be done, but I wouldn’t really bet on it. Some of the funding for the old Brian De Palma film Obsession was provided by a group of dentists in Cincinnati who were looking for a tax shelter investment. These things can happen, but finding such investors will be a more painful process than getting a root canal.

However, if your film has a focus that might just be of interest to either a social or civic organization, it may be possible to link with that organization for production support. Last year, when I interviewed Dave Boyle, he talked about how he was able to get some financial support from various Asian-American organizations for his production of Big Dreams, Little Tokyo. Obviously, these groups had a distinct interest in the movie’s comic presentation regarding East/West cultural collisions.

Only a small percentage of movies are ever going to have something inherent to them that could work for this type of funding. But that still means some films do, so it’s worth pursuing. Besides, I don’t think there are any dentists left in Cincinnati who are looking to finance a movie.

So the Ideamama article is actually reasonably useful. But there are a few suggestions that are, at best, loony. One is the concept of raising funds through product placement and sponsorship. Actually, it can sort of be done with some movies. For example, if you wanted to do a whole movie on the greater glories of snowboarding, I have a suspicion that you could indeed get various companies to help finance the dang thing. Heck, you’re basically giving them a 90-minute commercial, so the least they could do is cough up the dough. But I don’t think a movie like Paranormal Activity was going to pick up any cash from the sleep-aid industry. The same will be true for the vast majority of independent film projects.

Another suggestion is to pre-sell the DVD to your audience. I suspect that the author of this piece is not an attorney. Neither does it sound as if he or she has ever met an attorney. Personally, the whole idea sounds to me like a one-way ticket to small claims court (if not worse). Pre-selling your DVDs would involve the ability to guarantee that you’ll not only finish the movie, but have it ready for delivery within a specific time span. You would have to be a foolishly confident filmmaker to make this promise. Which is half-OK, because anyone willing to buy a DVD this way would have to be a foolishly confident filmgoer (or else your mother). Either way, my advice is not to do this form of funding. Legally, you would probably be better off sticking up a bank or something. If you don’t believe me, then ask your lawyer.

Likewise, there are potential legal issues with another idea: Ask your fans for a loan. Obviously, you would first have to have fans, which sounds like we’re back to that damn horse and cart thing all over again. Then you would have to have fans who are either generous and/or gullible. In turn, they would also have to have money (and oddly enough, a lot of film fans are almost as poor as the filmmakers). Then you would have to watch what sort of promises you’re making while getting these little “loans.” Also, you’ve got the question of repayment, and the whole thing sounds like another quick trip to small claims court (and by this time, the judge is getting to know you all too well).

But if you do have any fans who are pretty free and easy with their wallets, please don’t be stingy. We could all use their name, address and phone number.