Funder FAQ: Thousand Words Finishing Fund

Editor’s Note: On April 13, 2010 we were notified that the Thousand Words Finishing Fund has been discontinued.

What is Thousand Words?
Thousand Words is an independent film production and financing company devoted to creating innovative and engaging entertainment. Most recently, Thousand Words produced and co-financed with Artisan Entertainment Darren Aronofsky’s Requiem for a Dream, his follow-up picture to &Mac185. Additionally, Thousand Words is producing and co-financing with IFC an animated feature, Waking Life, directed by Richard Linklater (Slacker, Dazed & Confused) and developing numerous new projects. This past winter, Thousand Words also launched a new $500,000 Finishing Fund.

Who makes up the company?
We’re made up of six people: Palmer West and Jonah Smith, co-presidents/producers; Alison MacDonald West, creative executive; Jesse Johnston, head of development; Brian Costello, finishing fund and new media coordinator; and Najeeb Rassie, story editor.

When and why did Thousand Words come into being?
Thousand Words has been in existence for nearly two years now. The company was started to be a producing and financial outlet for creative storytellers.

The driving philosophy behind Thousand Words is…?
The company’s mission is to help finance and produce projects led by innovative and daring directors with a good story to tell. Our philosophy on a daily basis is to be the protective shield for our directors, as well as the strong hand within the industry when it is necessary. We are able to do more for our directors since our means of financing are secure and void of a “bank board.” This allows us to roll the dice on projects that others may find too risky.

How many projects do you have in various stages of production?
Ideally, we’d like to have five projects in development, and about four projects in various forms of production a year. Our first film, Rob Schmidt’s Saturn, represents the types of films that need a finishing fund to exist. Even though we fully financed this movie, it harnesses the fearless story-telling aspects we look for in our finishing fund. Most recently, we are preparing the marketing strategy for Requiem for a Dream, which will be released by Artisan Entertainment this fall.

We are currently in the midst of a lengthy animation-intensive postproduction on Waking Life. We have our largest project to date nearing preproduction, and plan to shoot an additional film this summer with a first-time writer/director by the name of Michael Mabbott. We like to keep stories progressing on the sidelines, but we do not believe in optioning more material than we can handle. There are many writers and directors that get caught up in development with no end in sight. We are very aggressive with our projects, and when they are ready to go, we have the financial ability to make things happen quickly.

How did you acquire these outside projects (Saturn, along with Waking Life and Requiem For a Dream)?
We got involved with Requiem because Thousand Words’ co-president Jonah Smith was actually a co-executive producer on Darren’s first film, &Mac185;, and they needed some financial assistance to get the deal finished with Artisan. Both Saturn and Waking Life were brought to us by the filmmakers’ attorneys. The talent agencies wield a very powerful position in our industry. They have the material and reserve it for those they believe will make it happen for their clients. This is very admirable, but as a new company it is difficult to get their attention and their best material, because we are judged by what we have done. Hopefully this will change in the future, and the doors will open to more agencies. However, until then we continue to take no idea for granted, regardless of its source.

What made you decide to fund projects in the postproduction phase?
We are aware first-hand how difficult it is to raise money for independent filmmaking and we recognize and respect this passion for storytelling against all odds. Filmmakers have a knack for survival and have little fear that their work will not be finished. It is common practice to use all means possible to get the process started and build a film in stages. Postproduction is the toughest stage to raise money for because there is little glamor in an editing room. However, we see the passion in these young filmmakers and look to aid them in this project as well as their next, if all goes well.

What distinguishes Thousand Words from other funders and from other companies (like Next Wave Films) who provide finishing funds?
The difference we bring to the table is the ability to cultivate talent and grow with the filmmakers. If we help a young director finish their first project, we ask to be first on board both financially and as producers to help them with their next project. The Finishing Fund is a good-will arm of the company that hopefully will pay dividends by being the first to support an unknown talent as they gain momentum in the industry.

What qualifies a project for Thousand Words Finishing Funds? What types of projects do you seek to fund?
This is a difficult question to answer because of the wide array of material we are willing to look at. For feature films, we look for a strong story that separates itself from the pack—there has to be something that makes each film different in the market place. We do not choose to support films that are trying to be a studio film on a small budget. The gift of independent filmmaking is the ability to look at something we all may have seen before through a different set of filters. We do not shy away from risky material. If we see something special in a filmmaker, we will assist in finishing the project even if we see the selling aspect to be a difficult one. We invest our time and effort in people and their stories, not just in their individual films. We have expanded our Finishing Fund parameters to include documentaries and short films as well.

How many applications have you received so far?
Since we launched the fund last January, we’ve received close to 50 applications.

How many projects do you plan to award with the fund and what is the estimated dollar amount per project?
I love this question because there is no answer. We do not have a mandate or desire to use this fund for a certain preconceived number of projects. We have also been asked for financial assistance from as low as $500 to $500,000. If a project warrants our involvement, we will do whatever we can to see that the project is finished in the proper manner. We help finish films, period, whatever that takes. If one film took all of the fund money, we would simply start a new fund within a week or two.

What can finishing funds be used for?
Ultimately, the fund can be used for anything related to postproduction: editing, blow-ups, ADR, music rights, etc. Ideally, we’d like the fund to go to actual postproduction needs rather than bailing out production debts.

How involved do you get when you award a film finishing funds? If you get further involved, does the film become a Thousand Words picture?
We will use our resources to get the best deals within the film community for the filmmakers. We have many silent partners in the postproduction world that know we bring large features to them on a regular basis. Most want to assist us in the smaller ventures we take to them so as to maintain the relationship.

Our credits and control depends on the level of our financial commitment. We are very flexible and are willing to work with the filmmakers and the other financiers to come up with something that works. However we do want to be in control of all festival activity and the sale if the opportunity presents itself. But again, this is a good will arm of our company, primarily in place to scout new talent that we would like to continue to work with.

Explain your funding cycle and deadlines for the Finishing Fund.
Our fund has no deadline.

Are there time frame restrictions within which the funds must be used?
There is no time frame whatsoever. We are committed to spending this money.

Who makes the awards decisions?
Jonah and I have the final say in the matter of who gets the finishing funds. It is up to us to decide if the talented person presenting their film is right for the company to grow with. Brian, who runs the day-to-day operations of the fund, has the most important role: to lobby on behalf of the filmmakers that he feels are best suited for our fund.

What advice do you have for filmmakers in putting forth a strong application?
Presentation is everything. We do not have deadlines, so the filmmakers should not feel rushed through the application process. Take the time to explain to us why this project is special. You are the visionary; explain that vision clearly.

What is the most common mistake you’ve seen applicants make thus far?
In the words of Brian Costello: “Dot your i’s and cross your t’s!” Seriously though, oftentimes people will call me or send in applications that go right to the amount of money needed without really taking the time to present their film’s story. The story is the most important part. If we get on board with the narrative, then the money can be figured out as we progress.”

What would people most be surprised to learn about Thousand Words and/or its founders?
The fact that the mean age in the company is 26.

Other production assistance programs or grantmaking organizations you admire.
Next Wave Films are very strong, and they have a built-in distribution outlet with IFC (Independent Film Channel) as their sponsor. I think the Minnesota Independent Film Fund from the IFP/North (featured in the May 2000 issue, ed.) is a great plan. Search Party’s development/production program is interesting. We also admire the Northwest Film and Video Center in Portland, Oregon and Film Arts Foundation in San Francisco.

Famous last words…?
“If it isn’t on the page, it won’t make it to the screen.”

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