Lots of things pile up after a shoot. For Steve Gentile, producer of Loaded Gun: Life, Death, and Dickinson, the end of post-production brought a surplus of bills and lots of beer.
“When we were premiering at the Museum of Fine Arts [MFA] here in Boston, they said, ‘Hey, can we help?’” recalls Gentile. “And I said, ‘It’s so expensive to go with the MFA’s catering, can you provide the spirits?’”
He laughs. “And, well, they came through. I couldn’t believe how much they donated.”
Afterwards, the filmmakers still had several unopened cases of wine and untapped kegs. These, with the bills that were still coming in, gave Gentile an idea. “We went around a couple venues in New England. We’d screen the film, and after it was done, roll out the wine, the keg, and some cheese. I think we charged sixteen bucks a head.”
Financing independent films is tougher than ever. A rickety economy can mean strapped foundations, hesitant donors, and brutal price tags on equipment, rentals, and crew.
But with a little creative thinking, it is still possible to get your independent film made. This month, The Independent speaks with filmmakers who have approached paying the bills in a variety of different ways. Some worked with foundations; some had creative ways of attracting crews and talent; some just came up with entirely new approaches to fend off the repo man. More than anything else, these are people who combined creativity, business savvy, and stubborn optimism, and came up with cash.
“We didn’t make a lot of money,” says Gentile of the mini-tour. “I don’t know how great a story that really is. We didn’t sell any organs or anything. But the spirit of that kind of donation—I don’t know how to explain it, really. It’s just a nice thing to do. It was a way of raising money at the last minute that I didn’t think we could do.”
HEART OF THE SEA
Sometimes, the impetus—and cash—that carries a project to the next phase comes from an unlikely place. “I’ve never had to look for funding before,” says Charlotte LaGarde, co-director of Heart of the Sea. “It’s really an interesting way to approach filmmaking. I spent about eighty percent of my time working on this film, raising money.”
LaGarde started working on her documentary about legendary female surfer Rell Sunn in November 1997. A woman who had appeared in Swell, LaGarde’s prior documentary short about surfing, sent her “$1,000 on the spot” when she learned that LaGarde planned to interview Sunn. “She said, ‘You’ve got to go do that!’ So that paid for our trip, and let us stay there for ten days.”
Although other chance encounters would shape the final film, much of the fundraising took the mundane form of churning out grant proposals. LaGarde estimates that she applied for over fifty grants. Only sixteen actually panned out.
The first to yield results was the Pacific Islanders in Communications (PIC) fund, which was developed to promote films by and about native Pacific Islanders. Heart of the Sea received PIC funding, with the condition that they find an executive producer who already had a film on PBS. (This is a requisite of any film with PIC funds.) LaGarde contacted Janet Cole, executive producer of POV-screened documentaries Promises and Regret to Inform. “When I applied to PIC my budget was not even $190,000,” says LaGarde, “but when Janet came on, we went up to $300,000, partly because I had to pay her. It was interesting how suddenly the prices were up for everything.”
With assistance from PIC (and Janet Cole) secured, other funding came easier. “Because we were already in bed with PBS, we applied to the Independent Television Service [ITVS],” says LaGarde. Though the film was rejected twice for ITVS’s Open Call funding, it did qualify for ITVS’s LInCS (Local Independents Collaborating with Stations) fund. Ultimately, more than half the budget came from either ITVS or PIC.
Most of the rest came from private donations. “It’s all luck, actually,” LaGarde says. Once, while on a plane to Hawaii, she recognized one of the subjects of Surfing for Life, a documentary on senior citizens who surf. “I just approached her. I said, ‘Hey, I saw you in Surfing for Life—what a great film—I was wondering if you knew Rell Sunn,’ and she’s like, ‘Of course!’ and starts crying. So I said, ‘We’d like to ask you some questions about Rell,’ and the next thing you know, we become friends, and blah blah blah—and she’s the one who got us in with the Campbell family.” (The Campbell family preside over the Estate of James Campbell, a large Hawaiian private trust.)
Ultimately, the film received $55,000 in private donations. A graphic designer friend of LaGarde’s made a brochure, which the filmmakers distributed. “I sent it to just a few, selected people in Hawaii, who I knew had money,” she says. “I closed my eyes with some of the places where we got money,” she admits, laughing. “I didn’t always agree with their politics, but as long as they had no requirements on the content of my film, I just went with that.”
LaGarde did encounter difficulties, though, with some large corporations. Quiksilver, a large surf-themed clothing manufacturer, offered to give the production $10,000 on the condition that they have their name in front of PBS. “And I’m like, there’s no way! My budget is $403,000—get in line! If you give me $150,000—yeah. But you’re not. And they’re like, we’ve never given that much money to a film. And I said, look at the films that you’re funding—they’re all shot on Hi-8 by a bunch of teenagers that don’t get paid, and they’re cut very quickly on Final Cut, with their friend’s band playing all over it. This film is going to be shown on PBS, which is the biggest audience you can have in the US [for a film like this].” Quiksilver ultimately did contribute $10,000 to Heart of the Sea, and LaGarde is working with them on an outreach program.
One especially fortuitous meeting occurred on the first day of postproduction. “At our first lunch at Skywalker Ranch, we met a sound editor,” LaGarde says. “She just happened to be really into surfing. She doesn’t even surf—she doesn’t even like swimming—but she knows more about surf culture than I do! She said, ‘I want to be your sound editor, and I’ll make you a deal’. . . . And not only was she doing work for us, but she had access to all the sound files at Skywalker! So we had water sounds from Titanic, and Cast Away—all sounds we ordinarily wouldn’t have had access to.”
Chance encounters aside, LaGarde credits much of her fundraising talent to pursuing many different possible donors. “Diversify—that’s the most important thing,” she says. “Go into huge foundations, medium foundations, small foundations, individuals. Don’t spend too much time on corporations. They don’t give too much, and it takes them a huge amount of time to get back to you.”
“And bullshit a little—it doesn’t hurt!” she says, laughing. “Don’t give the same proposal to everybody. Really rewrite it to fit their guidelines.”
Not every producer new to indie film is also new to fundraising. For Eric Koivisto, executive producer of Dopamine (the first film to go through the Sundance Writer’s and Producer’s Workshops and festival and be distributed by Sundance Films), approaching donors with a business plan was not all that different from his prior work in business and advertising. “[But] this was some of the most intimidating documentation I’ve ever seen in my life,” he says, “and this is coming from somebody who worked at Microsoft.”
Koivisto, director Mark Decena and Timothy Breitbach used to work together at an ad agency, where Koivisto was the “account guy” to their creative team. He has also worked a variety of corporate jobs, but after his last job, for Microsoft “ran its natural course,” Koivisto says he decided “it was time to go do something a little bit more creative and about the heart, rather than corporate and business concerns.”
The trio’s collaboration was natural. “Mark and Tim and I have worked together for a long time, and they’re some of the most business-savvy creative professionals I’ve ever met,” Koivisto says. “You need to pay attention to both the business and creative aspects associated with the film . . . I’m as interested in the creative process as I am in the business process. But you need to maintain your objectivity, and need to make sure you’re answering business questions with business issues, and you’re not answering business questions with emotions. Because everybody’s got emotions.”
And there were a lot of questions to answer when the film’s major investor (who “basically was going to write us one check to pay for the entire thing”) pulled out two weeks before the film was scheduled to begin shooting.
Left with no backers, Koivisto devised a new funding strategy. He broke the film’s budget in two, and began raising only enough money to finish shooting and get an offline rough cut. “It’s nerve-wracking, because all of a sudden you’re half-pregnant,” he says. “But it was kind of a smart way to do it, too, because we had quite a few people who said, ‘Listen, get this thing in the can, and if you do, you’ve got $500,000 from me. But if you don’t get it into Sundance—why should I invest?’ It was a pretty good business metric.”
Koivisto makes a distinction between “regular” investors, AKA friends and family, and what he calls “sophisticated money.” “Sophisticated money is industry money,” he says, “from someone who has invested in film before. Their business is to try to secure the best possible position and the best possible terms for their investment. When they’re dealing with first-time filmmakers, and they know that they represent the money that is going to get your film done, they start to be pretty harsh. They start asking for first position out, or a greater percent of the return.”
He adds, “Film actually fits a high-investment profile. If you look at film, and you look at the time when we were raising money [in 2001 and 2002], people were looking for recession-proof, non-equity investment opportunities that were a little bit more like a hedge. It’s all highly speculative, but some people need high-risk returns that aren’t necessarily associated with the stock market.”
At press time, Koivisto was negotiating international distribution; (the film was released theatrically as part of the Sundance Film Series.) And he had started working on his next film as executive producer, a feature by Robert Humphreys, Dopamine’s director of photography. As much as he learned from his (in the end) positive experience with Dopamine, he is finding that asking for cash is still fundamentally awkward.
“I’m back in fundraising mode,” he says, “and it’s as hard as it was the first time.”
A DOG’S LIFE
Director Gayle Kirschenbaum has never planned a fundraiser quite like this, but then again, there probably never has been a fundraiser quite like this. Attendees will enjoy an evening at Biscuits and Bath, a Manhattan spa that caters exclusively to pets. The evening will feature, in addition to a screening of Kirschenbaum’s feature, A Dog’s Life: A Dogamentary, a pet portrait artist, a pet psychic, a song about Chelsea (the Shih Tzu star of Kirschenbaum’s film), and a red carpet “with newspaper on top for our four-legged guests.”
“I really could use fundraising advice,” Kirschenbaum says. “I could tell you how to make a movie with no money, but fundraising advice I could use.”
A Dog’s Life is the result of a massive amount of in-kind work and good, thrifty production prowess on Kirschenbaum’s part. “Very few people got any money, because I just didn’t have it,” she says. “One person got a little for the [website], but just a very little.”
The film “probably couldn’t have been made” anywhere except New York City. “I’m at home in New York,” says Kirschenbaum, who worked for several years in Los Angeles as an agent and producer. “To me, this is a community where people help each other. I don’t mean to rag on L.A., but L.A. is very competitive. At least from my experience, people are less willing to give you a contact.”
After selling another pitch to HBO, Kirschenbaum relocated to New York to begin work on her “dogamentary,” which she aptly describes as “Sex in the City meets Best in Show meets Lassie.” Her crew was largely culled from want ads online.
“I always say, if it wasn’t for Mandy, the film wouldn’t have gotten done,” she says, referring to Mandy’s International Film and TV Production directory (www.mandy.com), which, up until very recently, let filmmakers seeking crews post want ads for free. (They now charge a small fee.) “I got volumes of resumes, and was always up front with people about the situation, that I couldn’t afford to pay them . . . . I don’t promise something I can’t deliver.
People take money from other people all the time, and they know they’re never going to get the money back. So what I’ve offered people in exchange is to give [people working on the film] an opportunity they didn’t have before. There are people that shot on film that never shot [before]. No one would give them an opportunity to shoot, to do something that they want to do.”
Volunteers on the film ranged from college students transcribing interviews to some in-kind camera work and consultation from Albert Maysles, co-director of seminal documentaries Gimme Shelter, Salesman, and Grey Gardens. “The cameraman who was working with me initially had a friend who was working there [at Maysles’s office],” says Kirschenbaum. “Albert’s a very available guy. His door is always open. I called him up and told him I was making this film, and there was no problem. He was totally open to it.” Kirschenbaum was also able to save significantly on editing and post.
“Due to the fact that I didn’t have money for an editor, I was forced to edit it myself,” she says, explaining that she literally just sat down with the Final Cut Pro manual and figured the program out in small steps. “[As a filmmaker], you learn stuff on your own. I’m not a computer whiz, but it’s not brain surgery to learn how to do these things yourself. And your passion is infectious with other people. If you believe in what you do, people will come onboard to help you.”
Sure, it seems poetic that director Thom Fitzgerald, a dual citizen of the United States and Canada, made his most recent feature, The Event, a gallows comedy about AIDS, both in and with funds from his two countries. But more than anything else, combining these worlds makes solid financial sense.
“I think American and Canadian producers could actually learn from each other, interestingly enough,” he says. “Americans have such a fantastic entrepreneurial spirit that Canadians don’t. . . . While making a movie in Canada is about putting all these different funding sources together, and selling them all on the idea that it’s both a job creation project, as well as a cool movie.”
He adds, “It’s sometimes fascinating to see how various levels of government can’t work together.”
With its government-subsidized film industry, and what Fitzgerald calls “those famous Canadian tax credits,” (Nova Scotia film production companies get refundable corporate income tax credits), Canada has much to offer filmmakers. And, despite its unsentimental focus on euthanasia and AIDS, The Event’s content raised few eyebrows with Canadian donors.
“I’ve been pretty lucky, speaking as an artist,” Fitzgerald says. “One thing about the agencies and crown corporations [Canadian government agencies] is that they, by and large, don’t make critical assessments of the projects. I’m not sure if the Nova Scotia Film Development Corporation even read the screenplays. The question is, how many jobs are you creating for Nova Scotians? How much money is this film going to pump into the economy?”
Fitzgerald was initially refused by Telefilm Canada, a Canadian federal cultural agency, which had contributed to his earlier films, The Hanging Garden and Beefcake. “They said they would participate if I changed the story location to Canada,” he says. “But while we were in prep in Manhattan, Nova Scotia [Film Development Corporation] was sending down a contingent of movie producers to try and forge co-production relationships between New York and Nova Scotia. Their interpretation of what a ‘Nova Scotian’ was was a lot looser than what Telefilm Canada’s interpretation of what a ‘Canadian’ film was.”
Sometimes, these differences of opinion can stymie a production. Fitzgerald says that on The Hanging Garden, there was a dispute between SODEC, Quebec’s agency for cultural equity financing, and Telefilm Canada, another investor in the film, about terms of ownership and recoupment. “A philosophical difference,” Fitzgerald says. Eventually, Telefilm Canada increased its own investment and effectively bought out Quebec. “Which is fine,” Fitzgerald says, “but it’s really surprising that these two government agencies, which were set up specifically to work together, aren’t able to do so.”
Bureaucratic disputes and delays posed such problems for The Event’s production that Fitzgerald was forced to take some rash actions. “[During pre-production] we actually came to our wit’s end and just started shooting,” he says, “without having the money contracted to finish. Three days of rushes were compiled and sent around before a company called ThinkFilm thought it looked promising enough to purchase the rights in Canada and abroad.” (Coincidentally, ThinkFilm is a company with American and Canadian offices.)
He pauses and sighs. “It was a very risky proposition.”
But it was a risk that paid off. With the help of a handful of American Investors, (Covington International and Flutie Entertainment get major billing), Fitzgerald was able to finish the film. He credits much of the project’s momentum to the enthusiasm of the crew and their passion for the film’s often-taboo subject. “We didn’t pay for the cameras. We paid virtually nothing for lighting and grip,” he says. “The idea that it would be a high-quality project that people would need to be associated with [was important]; nobody making the film was doing it for profit. It was very touching.”
BE GOOD, SMILE PRETTY
Perhaps the biggest thing to remember about fundraising, however, is to stay flexible and keep one’s ears open. Odd problems—and anyone who has been on a film shoot knows that filmmaking often seems like nothing more than a string of increasingly odd problems—require odd solutions.
“The most valuable thing I solicited,” says Tracy Doz Tragos, director of the documentary Be Good, Smile Pretty, “was advice.” Tragos says an especially valuable bit of advice came from Hank Rogerson, codirector of Homeland, who told her to steer clear of throwing lavish fundraisers. “He said that when all the expenses were added up, he only made $35 [with his big party/fundraiser],” Tragos says.
But garage sales, she says, make sense for a couple of reasons. “When you say that it’s for a film, people aren’t as inclined to nickel-and-dime you. And it’s also, frankly, a good sort of weird publicity thing. I got a great piece in the local paper.”
The most practical advice Tragos received also might sound the most obvious, but it is invaluable. “I was trying to figure out what to put at the end of the trailer,” she says. “And my editor and I were worried that [whatever message we came up with] would sound too much like a ransom note, like, ‘Please send money now!’” A friend told her that she had to break down and simply not hesitate to “rattle the cup.”
“And I have to say that it’s my least favorite part of the whole process, but you can’t be shy about it. If somebody says, ‘Wow, this sounds like a great project, how can I help?’, you can’t pass up the opportunity to say, ‘Well, you could write a check.’”