There are many ways to finance a film. In some cases, financiers want to get involved because the material has touched them in a certain way. Other times, they’re intrigued because they always wanted to work with the director or an actor. Then there are people with money and want to get into movies. The hardest part, of course, is finding the people with the deep pockets. Sometimes it takes months, sometimes years, but that’s the rush of the moviemaking process.
Standing in the Shadow of Adversity
Pitching a movie about a group of background musicians doesn’t tend to get financiers excited enough to open their checkbooks. But Allan “Dr. Licks” Slutsky was committed to getting the story of Motown’s hit-making machine, the Funk Brothers, on the big screen, even if it meant committing financial suicide.
In 1989, Slutsky was awarded the Ralph J. Gleason Award (for best music book of the year) for his biography of Funk Brothers bassist James Jamerson, Standing in the Shadows of Motown: The Life and Music of Legendary Bassist James Jamerson. With the surprising success of the book, Slutsky started shopping around the idea of making a film about the Funk Brothers. “I made over a thousand pitches. We went to every record company, every film company, nobody was interested. [They would say] ‘Who cares about background musicians, we want to know about the stars.’”
What no one realized was, the Funk Brothers were the stars. Creating most of the beats and riffs to some of the most famous songs of all time, the Funk Brothers have more number-one hits than the Beach Boys, the Rolling Stones, the Beatles, and Elvis Presley, combined.
But a few people did commit to the project and drove it forward. Veteran rockumentary and music video director Paul Justman signed on early. And in 1997, the film caught the eye of entertainment lawyer Sandy Passman, who jumped on as a producer.
Through the years, Slutsky, Passman, and Justman received more rejections than they can count, and saw a lot of near deals turn sour. At one point, an Oscar-winning actor offered to play Jamerson in a feature film. But there was a catch: The actor wanted to produce the film, and Slutsky, Passman, and Justman would have to bail out. “I called [the actor’s agent],” recalls Passman. “I said to him, if he makes this the very, very, very next project and guarantees he’ll green-light this movie, then we will seriously consider it. Well, that was the end of that conversation.”
After that, the three decided their best chance of getting the film made was as a documentary. The Motown project had come to its eleventh year of searching for financing when a good friend of Slutsky’s, and a major supporter of the film, died suddenly. Another close friend flying back for the funeral ended up sitting next to a man named Paul Elliott. That seating assignment changed everything. “They strike up a conversation and find out that they’re both musicians,” Slutsky remembers. “[My friend] told him about the movie, and the guy said, ‘Have him call me,’ and my friend said, ‘Well, they need $3 million, are you in a position to help on that level?’ And he said, ‘I wasn’t last week, but I am now. I just sold my company for half a billion dollars.’” Elliott and his business partner, David Scott, funded the entire film. “The only way I can look at it is, my friend left me a going away present,” Slutsky says.
“The film is so emotional for us, because when we look at the movie, we see the men who are no longer there. We see the struggle we went through and the bullshit that was heaped upon us, and we’re proud of ourselves in the sense that we were able to overcome great adversity,” says an emotional Passman. “We already got our reward.”
Slutsky spent over a decade to get Motown made. He liquidated his life’s savings and logged over 30,000 hours to pull one of the last unmined stories of the sixties up onto the big screen. Why go through all that for a movie? “I was once in a supermarket with [Funk Brother] Joe Hunter,” Slutsky remembers. “We’re standing there, and on the speaker is Shop Around, and a girl next to us is singing it, and here’s Joe Hunter, the guy who played it, and she has no idea. They’ve had to endure that their whole lives, the obscurity.” After forty years of playing, the background musicians finally have their time in the spotlight.
Big Hit for a Low Budget
When you’re hungry to make a movie, most up-and-comers don’t mind that they’re not going to see a dime for their hard work. To make Manito, the producers did a lot of begging and pleading for money, and tried to get everything else they needed for free.
Having done a few shorts together, filmmaker Eric Eason and producer Jesse Scolaro decided they were ready to embark on a feature film. Manito follows two brothers, Manny (Leo Minaya) and Junior (Franky G.), who are on two different tracks in life. Manny is graduating from high school and headed to the University of Syracuse in the fall, while older brother Junior tries to stay on the straight and narrow after a childhood of crime and jail time. On the night of Manny’s graduation, a chain of events destroys both their dreams and leaves their family in disarray.
Manito was made on a tight budget. Financing for the film we realized with the help of donations from family, friends, and a lawyer from Queens—who they would return to throughout the film’s production. Using every budget-saving methods they could think of, the filmmakers put what money they did have to careful use. “We had one cargo van, which was also the van Junior uses in the film, and transported some of the cast and crew to and from set. We shot in real locations. We shot in the actors’ homes. We used their children. They wore their own clothes. The art director went to each actors home and literally went through their closets and told them what they were going to wear for each scene. So everything was on the cheap,” says Scolaro.
Scolaro says from the start no one had a problem contributing, knowing that they weren’t going to get anything in return for the work they put in. “Everyone knew what kind of project they were getting involved in. We basically said, ‘If you’re going to do this film, you’re going to do it as a collaborator to help us pull this off.’”
At times it meant going to extreme measures to get the shot. One scene takes place during Manny’s high school graduation. Of course, they didn’t have the budget to create their own graduation ceremony, so the cast and crew just went to one. “You need invitations to get into a high school graduation, so we kind of went in with the crowd and acted like the person ahead of us had the tickets. They were so overwhelmed that they just let us in,” explains Scolaro. And thanks to the miniDV cameras they were using, they looked the part. “We borrowed some kid’s uniform and just threw it on the actor. [We just looked like] a family videotaping one of their family members graduating.”
But the search for financing did not end once the film was finished. When Manito got into Sundance, there was a major festival trip to pay for. Money was needed for hiring a publicist, making prints of the film, throwing in subtitles, and paying for all the miscellaneous things you need to get your film noticed at a big festival, such as flyers, press packets, etc. Scolaro found two AOL-executives-turned-producers to help the film get over this second financial hurdle. “I showed them the film and told them we got into Sundance. They basically said, ‘How much money do you guys need?’ They each gave us $25,000.”
Currently finishing its festival run, it has just inked a distribution deal with Film Movement. Though it’s unlikely anyone involved in the film will make a profit, they are pleased that their film has caught the attention of so many people across the globe. “We’re still playing in other places in the world, because we feel like the film is never going to get a chance to be seen in some places,” says Scolaro.
Courageous look at an Uncourageous Moment in History
When Tim Blake Nelson’s The Grey Zone was playing off-Broadway in 1996, people asked him if he was planning to turn the play into a film. He’d made the transition from stage to screen with his last play, Eye of God, but The Grey Zone wasn’t the intimate Southwestern story Eye of God was. This was a story about the Holocaust as told, in “a very frank, unflinching, and unsentimental way.,” as Nelson describes it. If he ever did consider making it into a film, he had no clue how to do it or who would pay for it.
Based on a book Nelson read in the mid-nineties, titled Auschwitz: A Doctor’s Eyewitness Account, the film is about the Auschwitz’s Sonderkommandos, a “special squad” of Jewish prisoners who helped exterminate fellow Jews in exchange for a few more months of life. Chronicling the only attempted revolt, the film highlights two different groups in the camp: those who want to revolt so they can escape, and those who want to use the revolt as a way to destroy the camp.
Making the World War II epic The Thin Red Line with director Terrence Malick in 1998 gave Nelson the tools, and the confidence, to start our own film. Four months after The Thin Red Line wrapped up, he had written the script for The Grey Zone.
When he passed the screenplay on to his agent, Nelson was told it would take seven years to get the movie made, if ever. Since Nelson also wanted to be a producer on the film, he began searching for a producing partner who could lessen the load of finding financing. The first on his list were already Pamela Koffler and Christine Vachon, copresidents of Killer Films. Known for taking on films that have trouble finding financing (Series 7: The Contenders, Happiness, and Storytelling) Koffler and Vachon jumped on board as producers for the film. “[We] pretty much agreed that it was going to be one of the hardest movies to get money for because of the nature of the material,” says Pamela Koffler. “We got consistent refrains of, ‘It’s a fantastic script, but it’s just too heavy.’”
At the end of 1999, Nelson, Koffler, and Vachon were still looking for a backer when Nelson took a meeting about possibly directing a film for action/adventure production house Millennium Films (The Peacekeeper, Platoon Leader, American Ninja 2, 3 and 4, and Replicant). After declining to make their film, he soon heard back from Avi and Danny Lerner, the owners of Millennium Films. The Grey Zone script struck a nerve with the Israeli brothers, and they were willing to put up the cash to get it made. “Once Avi and Danny had read the film and put it in the context of their having grown up in Israel around a lot of Holocaust survivors, I think they found the subject matter irresistible,” says Nelson.
“We made the movie for our souls,” says Danny Lerner, who told Nelson, Koffler, and Vachon at their first meeting that he and his brother never expect to make any money on this movie. “I wondered even to believe it, because here was a financier saying point-blank to me that he would subsidize the insane vision of this movie,” says Nelson.
The Lerner brothers not only brought money to the film, but a location to shoot it. Their production apparatus in Bulgaria, where they film their action movies, was a blessing for Nelson, whose only other location option was Canada. “I did not want to shoot in Canada,” says Nelson. “I wanted to take a cast and crew to film at least in the region in which these events occurred.”
After shooting forty-one days in Bulgaria, Nelson had his vision on screen. He even went as far as giving up his screenplay fee to build the second crematorium building. Now it is in the hands of the public to see if they are ready for a Holocaust film that doesn’t have a heroic or uplifting theme. “I think there is an audience out there which has been waiting for this kind of film,” says Nelson. “An audience that is tired of Holocaust films, even the extraordinary ones, which offer cheap redemption out of an event that had few, if any, cheap redemptions.”
High Credit and Waterlogged Dreams
Financing your film with credit cards is the film business version of hand-fishing, better known in Oklahoma as “noodling.” You stick your hand in the water and wiggle your fingers to entice the prey. You’ll either get your fingers repossessed, or you’ll catch the big fish. Luckily for Okie Noodling filmmaker Bradley Beesley, it was the big fish.
After two summers in the murky creeks and backwaters of Oklahoma, chronicling the art of noodling, Beesley had to figure out how to pay off the four credit cards he maxed out to shoot his documentary. With most of the project shot and $40,000 in debt, Beesley just hoped that he would get the grant that he applied for six months earlier to cover the bills.
The idea of shooting a documentary about this peculiar hobby first came to Beesley when he was fourteen years old, listening to the adults in his family talk. “I had gone to family reunions when I was a kid and met some fourth and fifth cousins that did it,” he explains. “I was just fascinated by it and knew it was bizarre. I figured that if I thought it was bizarre, being from Oklahoma, that people from other parts of the nation and the world would think it doubly as bizarre.”
The idea brewed in his mind for years, and in 1999, he finally decided to make the film. Beesley put together a ten-minute trailer and sent it out on the fundraising rounds, hoping grown men getting their hands chewed on by catfish would intrigue someone. With ITVS showing the most interest, Beesley applied for their LiNCS program (which helps join filmmakers with PBS stations) and waited in anticipation to start shooting. “We were not going to find out for six months, and I decided to make the movie, funding or not.” With a restlessness to get his film made, Beesley did the only thing he could think of: Charge it. Charge everything.
Fortunately, Beesley did get the grant—$128,000. Beesley recalls the concerns he had going to San Francisco to sign the deal: “I was quite pleased to learn that all the money I spent on credit cards I was able to pay off, [but] I kind of had to be careful and not divulge the fact that I was ninety percent done with the film, because ITVS doesn’t fund completed projects.”
The money from the grant was more than enough for Beesley to pay for his debts and finish editing the film. But he soon realized he wasn’t out of the woods (or creeks) yet. To show a clip of a noodlers who had gotten national attention, Beesley bought one minute of footage of the hand fishes on The David Letterman Show, which cost $3,300. And getting Oklahoma’s own Flaming Lips to do the good ol’ boy soundtrack took a $6,000 bite out of the budget.
By 2001, not only was Okie Noodling selected for the South by Southwest Film Festival, but it left with the Audience Choice Award and first runner up for Best Documentary, which launched the film on the festival circuit, including Toronto and AFI.
The ITVS money may have covered his debts for Okie Noodling but Beesley is still $53,000 he is in the hole for projects he has done in the past. “That’s sort of my problem in life, I’ve never had a budget for anything. In fact, I just get big credit cards and buy what I want.”
Guess it’s back to sticking his hand in the water to test fate one more time.
Standing in the Shadows of Motown
Budget: $2 million
Cost of Principal Photography:
Much of $2 million
Length of Principal Photography: Music: 1 week
Doc: 3 weeks
Cast: $90,000, including travel
Concert: $1 million
Transportation: Included in
Cost of Postproduction: $800,000
Length of Postproduction:
Film Editing: $75,000
Insurance: Albert Rubin package, standard fee
Cost of Principal Photography: $24,000
Length of Principal Photography: 4 weeks, plus reshoot week
Cast: $10 per diem; $25,000 deferments; SAG experimental (when distribution deal comes, SAG gets paid first)
Screenplay Fee: Deferred
(after everyone gets paid back)
Director/Producer Fee: Deferred
Set Construction: none
Wardrobe: none (provided by actors)
Props: gun rental: $175;
party misc.: a few hundred dollars
Transportation: subway fare out of per-diem; whoever wanted could pile into the van
Catering: Out of $10 per diem
Total Postproduction: $125,000, including editing, film transfer,
original music, sound mix, sound edit, three prints, subtitles, publicity, posters, post cards, press packets
Length of Postproduction: 5 weeks
Music and band performance: $30,000–$35,000 deferred
Number of staff:
Film Editing: $400 a week
The Grey Zone
Budget: $3.8 million, with a $200,000 contingency
Length of Pre-Production: 3 months, 6 days a week in Bulgaria
Cost of Principal Photography: Around $2.7
Length of Principal Photography: 41 days (originally 45)
Cast: SAG scale (four actors with top billing received slightly more)
Transportation: $1,500 a person. “We did not fly people first class.”
Screenplay Fee: Used to build the second crematorium
Special Effects: $80,000
Set Construction: $250,000
Total Postproduction: $200,000–$250,000
Length of Postproduction:
14 weeks editing
Number of staff:
Preproduction: 5-member core for 3 months
Postproduction: 3 people
Film Editing: Done in New York for less than union scale
Insurance: The Millennium package self-insures everything
Cost of Principal Photography: $38,000
Length of Principal Photography: 2 summers, with interviews
in spring and fall.
Director/Producer fee: $2,800 “[What] I had left after I paid everyone and paid everything off.”
Transportation: helicopter rental $600 an hour, with pilot
Postproduction: “It was supposed to be in-kinded to us, but the
station didn’t give me much time, so I just bought a G4 Mac and some software and a couple of drives, and just cut it in it my bedroom.”
Length of Postproduction:
Video to Film Transfer:
Number of staff: Principal Photography: 3 (camera assistant, audio engineer,
Postproduction: 4 (editor, assistant,
business manager, and Beesley)
Insurance: Errors and omissions, $3,000
Archival Footage: $3,300 for one-minute clip from David Letterman Show
Music: $6,000—Flaming Lips soundtrack