Film Fund-amentals: The Check Is In the Mail

Want to make a movie? Great! Just send me money and I’ll “produce” it for you.

Maybe I’m being too obvious with the scam, but there may already be several people anxious to know how much and where to send it. So let me right off make it clear that the opening sentence is not to be taken seriously. Unfortunately, there are scams real close to this that make these renewed warnings necessary.

Lots of beginning filmmakers haven’t a clue how to go about raising money. That is OK. There are some seasoned filmmakers who have much the same problem, especially in a financial scene that resembles a bad replay of the 1930s (minus the low prices). Everybody is scraping in a perpetual quest for the next buck, and the search for production funds has become an exercise in brutal desperation. The filmmaker starts to feel like a shipwreck survivor floundering in deep water. In many respects, they are floundering, and that is why the sharks start to circle.

But these days, the sharks do not come by way of water. They use the Internet instead. Especially social and business network sites. It’s easy. All they have to do is take out an account (sometimes even under their real name, though someone else’s name is even better), post some comments and set up shop. Once they’ve put out the bait, they just cast their line and wait to see who bites. It’s so easy they can do it while still making bogus solicitation phone calls.

Which is why a beginning filmmaker has to be careful. Over the past year I have read comments by and even chatted with a few young filmmakers who have gotten into “situations” caused by folks who were not conducting business in a completely legitimate manner. Fortunately, in many of these cases, the young filmmaker hesitated and checked around before doing anything foolish. In some cases, they didn’t. Either way, they shouldn’t have to be dealing with this type of nonsense, but it happens. Heck, even Steven Spielberg got fleeced by Bernie Madoff.

So it is important to follow some basic rules when in the digital jungle. First and foremost, never give out any critical financial or personal information to anyone online. I don’t care if they claim to be the director of the FBI (who keeps bugging me for my bank account information – odd, I didn’t know that the Feds used Yahoo for their e-mail). Yes, we all know this, but knowing something isn’t the same as not doing it. Remember what I just said about Steven Spielberg.

Second, try to establish the identity of the person you’re dealing with online. The Internet can be like a mask and you can never be too careful. This is especially important if the person has what appears to be a prominent name. You may actually be in contact with a Frank Marshall. It doesn’t mean that it is THE Frank Marshall. Heck, for all I know half my readers have me confused with the other Dennis Toth (the guy who sells real estate in Hawaii). Even worse, they may have me mixed up with the dead Dennis Toth in Northern Ohio (who was a lot closer to my age and had almost the same middle name – the Net can be really spooky sometimes).

It should also be noted that the more famous the person is, the less likely it is to be them. At one point, Tom Hanks had at least three different sites on FaceBook (not counting the fan sites) . Personally, I doubt Tom Hanks has ever gotten anywhere near FaceBook (except for the usual one-sided fan site normally run by a publicist). But some of these sites are bogus operations run by someone who’s still living in his parents’ basement. Or worse, they may be part of an IT boiler room in Minsk. Either way, don’t bother.

Admittedly, confirming a person’s ID online is near impossible in any real sense. On the upside, you shouldn’t have to be too concerned until you’re ready to deal, and at that point they have to (normally) establish their identity for the legal paperwork. By the way, since it is legal paperwork (which will need to be done before there is any type of financial transaction), you would be strongly advised to have an actual lawyer handling this work. It is then your lawyer’s job to establish this information (if not, then at least you can sue your lawyer – by the way, I got this point from my own attorney, who has an odd sense of humor). As always, my personal advice is to have a lawyer. Preferably an entertainment lawyer, but at the very least a decent business attorney. Yes, they cost. But getting robbed blind is even more expensive.

However, it might be nice before you even get to this point to learn something more about your potential online business partner. There are various sites such as Intelius that allow you to conduct searches on people. These searches will provide you with addresses (past and present), civil and criminal convictions (if any), and other details for anything from around $20 to $100 or more, depending on the type of search you request. Mostly they’ll provide you with a load of data that is largely worthless, and you discover just how many people in the country have the same name. Even when the search is narrowed down you’ll end up with references that are not related to the person you’re investigating, and the material has to be pruned very carefully after you receive your results. As a general rule, anywhere from 20 to 50 percent of what you get with this type of search will be garbage.

Likewise, online access to civil and criminal records is erratic at best. In some parts of the country, an incredible quantity of these records will be available online. Elsewhere, forget it. In truth, your attorney (if you have one) will have better access to online legal records and should be capable of conducting such a search. So leave it to the professionals. And by the way, forget the Better Business Bureau check. I personally know of several con artists who have good BBB references. Only dumb scam artists get poor marks from the BBB.

But in most cases you don’t have to go this far to discover a scam. As a general rule, scam artists are major greedy bastards, and they can’t wait long to fleece you. That’s why they pop up early with various “fees” for everything from script reading to talent scouting to bathroom breaks ad nauseum. According to the scammers, these fees are all normal to the business. They are not. The minute they ask you to send them money, drop ’em. The very second they start talking about fees, hang up. Better still, call the cops. Might not do you any good (the Internet and police jurisdiction is a tricky zone), but it can’t hurt.

Unless it’s me. In that case, just send either cash or money orders. Checks are too traceable.