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Independent Film Financing: Navigating the Challenges

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The halcyon days of big, vertical studios grinding out movies out of a well-oiled assembly line are over - unless you are a director for hire, working at Marvel-Disney or DC-Warner, working on the superhero racket. There are preciously few filmmakers in that group, and even fewer get to do more than one movie. That is why a classic director like Howard Hawks could amass a filmography of 47 films in 44 years. That's more than a movie a year!

Nowadays, even top-tier talent scrambles to find funding for film production. One of our best directors alive, Martin Scorsese, knocks on doors like any young whippersnapper. Only the big streamers have the cash to foot the bill for his magnificent vision. Netflix financed "The Irishman" (2019). His latest, "Killers of The Flower Moon" (2023), comes from AppleTV. His fellow Francis Ford Coppola is self-financing his dream project, "Megalopolis," currently in post-production.

The point is that most, if not all, filmmakers, indie or otherwise, have to push their projects through a labyrinth of financing opportunities, from conception to theatrical distribution. It is useless to pine for a long-lost past. As much as I would like to have a Scorsese movie every year, the studio system had its share of exploitative and cruel practices, balancing the sure employment for a handful of talented artists.

Francis Ford Coppola and wife Eleanor at the 2022 Academy Awards / Photo courtesy of Starstock & Dreamstime.

Francis Ford Coppola and wife Eleanor at the 2022 Academy Awards / Photo courtesy of Starstock & Dreamstime.

The New Order Of Independent Film Financing

It might look like we are all playing on a level field, but that is untrue. Established talents have a leg up. As much as I would like to tell you that Netflix and AppleTV will get into a bidding war for the script inside your drawer, chances are that will not happen. That is why it is urgent that you start amassing a body of work. Fire up that short project. Offer to direct a video clip for the indie band next door. Connect with talent around you to identify people you would like to work with on bigger, more challenging projects. The human element brings the building blocks of every film project.

Make a Project Portfolio (Or Rather, Many)

A project portfolio is like a blueprint for your film. Think of it as a roadmap to help you bring your vision to the screen. In a previous article, we offered some pointers on making a killer film project file. It provides a good starting point, but think of this as a living document that changes depending on which production phase you are engaging with.

Begin by doing a basic version for you and your team. If you pitch to private investors, you need to include detailed information regarding budget, sustainability, and sales projections. If you seek completion funds for post-production, you might prop up your creative credentials and the talent involved. Any fund you apply to might have different requirements, so read even the small text and include all the information requested.

Turn Yourself Into a Business

Being an artist is nice, but filmmaking is expensive, and it will only work for you if you strive for sustainability.

The first step is to make peace with the business side of this creative career. Yes, even your low budget film is a business opportunity, and you must treat it as such. Fortunately, it is easy to take the first step, that is, to open an LLC (Limited Liability Company).

Let’s say you want to make a documentary. You don’t need to establish an LLC to begin shooting, but you most likely will need to create a company to apply for funds and request donations. It’s helpful for tax purposes and protects your assets if you face a lawsuit. If your project has a controversial subject matter, this is a possibility! Usually, each project has its own LLC.

Follow The Development / Production / Post Production Pathway

An indie production can rarely run the gamut, from conception to projection, with all the money in place. Chances are you go in jumps and starts, applying for funds covering every step of the production. With careful planning and some luck, you might roll along the process with no interruptions. But you have to be prepared for every scenario. This process can take months or even years.

Isel Rodriguez faces cancer and colonialism in Glorimar Marrero's "The Fishbowl" (2023) / Photo courtesy of Sundance Film Festival.

Isel Rodriguez faces cancer and colonialism in Glorimar Marrero's "The Fishbowl" (2023) / Photo courtesy of Sundance Film Festival.

Puerto Rican filmmaker Glorimar Marrero premiered her drama “The Fishbowl” this year at the Sundance Film Festival. Development took eight years. She began the process as a screenwriter and, along the way, assumed the director role. Production and post spread over two years, with Mother Nature throwing roadblocks along the way.

By 2017, we were ready to shoot. But Hurricane Maria destroyed the country and the possibility of shooting. However, my producer supported the project, and we kept presenting it in development forums. We got funds through a co-production with Spain, and the pandemic rolled in. Then, an earthquake hit Puerto Rico.While things settled, I worked on other interdisciplinary projects to keep myself busy. It was like having two jobs at the same time. I did consulting jobs to pay my bills up to the moment when we rolled cameras.

It takes a village to raise a child and to make a movie, too. Depending on the scope of your project, you might start with your resources. You may write the script in your downtime if you are doing fiction. Or, if you are doing a documentary, you shoot with your camera and a skeleton crew.

That was the case of Chilean director Maite Alberdi. The follow-up to her Oscar-nominated documentary “The Mole Agent” is “The Eternal Memory,” an intimate look at journalist Augusto Góngora and his wife, Paulina Urrutia, as they deal with the effects of Alzheimer’s disease. Most of the movie was shot in their home by a crew composed of Alberdi, a camera operator, and a sound person. When the Coronavirus pandemic hit, and Chile’s health authorities decreed mandatory house confinement, Urrutia took on the challenge of shooting herself with a camera provided by Alberdi.

"I think the blessing of this movie was that we never had any pressure from any film fund or producers, nor deadlines to deliver rough or final cuts. We did it ourselves, going to record with our camera, which we eventually passed on to Paulina. I appreciated that freedom because we were not accountable to anybody."

Not everybody has the resources or the kind of project to follow this path. Film funds and state-sponsored subsidies are nice, but bear in mind accountability comes into play. You have to abide by their terms, conditions, and schedules. They might be flexible if disaster strikes, but nobody gives you a blank check to do whatever you want, whenever you want.

Be Willing To Travel

It is nice to work close to home and sleep every night in your bed, but sometimes, it’s better to travel. Most states in the US have Film and TV production incentives that can help you foot the bill for part of your production expenses or give you some tax breaks. You can even amplify your search to other countries. The European Union has generous incentives to promote film production if you can engage local talent in some capacity. Are you doing post-production in the Old Continent? It’s nice work if you can get it!

The arrangement is attractive even for established talent. Eli Roth established his career as a successful horror director with “Cabin Fever” (2002), “Hostel” (2005) and its sequel (2007). He gained visibility in a showy role in “Inglorious Basterds” (Quentin Tarantino, 2009). For his return behind the camera, he established alliances with Chilean filmmaker Nicolas Lopez and produced “The Green Inferno” (2013) in South America, shooting in Peru and Chile.

Actors De Armas, Reeves, Izzo, and director Eli Roth at the Hollywood premiere of "Knock Knock" in 2015. / Photo courtesy of Featureflash & Dreamstime.

Actors De Armas, Reeves, Izzo, and director Eli Roth at the Hollywood premiere of "Knock Knock" in 2015. / Photo courtesy of Featureflash & Dreamstime.

His follow-up, “Knock Knock” (2015), transcends the border further. It’s a remake of the Grindhouse cult classic movie “Death Game” (1977). Keanu Reeves is cast against type as a milquetoast family man who, one stormy night, open the doors of his home to two provocative girls, played by Ana de Armas in her first role in a U.S. production, and Chilean actress Lorenza Izzo. They claim to be stranded, needing help to call a ride-share car, but promptly take the good samaritan hostage and torture him.

The movie opens with aerial shots of the Hollywood sign, flying over to a well-to-do suburb where the action occurs. Alas, the film was shot in Santiago. The transplant is rather convincing, except for a late scene in a park surrounded by apartment buildings that no one would place in Los Angeles. The movie was produced by Sobras International Pictures, the company Roth founded with Lopez, and three more outlets. Eventually, Lionsgate south the distribution rights.

When You Find Sponsors in the Neighborhood

Classic horror films don't get more indie than this. "Carnival of Souls" is one of the creepiest horror movies ever made and an interesting case study in low-budget production. Director Herk Harvey had a day job, making films for the Centron Corporation. The Kansas-based company produced institutional and educational films. Traveling through Salt Lake City, he came upon the Saltair Pavilion, an abandoned structure that inspired the ghostly plot of the film: a young woman survives a car accident only to be haunted by mysterious specters. The story culminates in the ruined glory of the venue.

Herk wrote his script, secured the use of the pavilion for $50, and raised the $17,000 needed to shoot by selling $500 bonds to Salt Lake City businessmen keen on bringing film production to their home state. He took three weeks off work and made his first and last feature film. The indie roots of the movie kept it in the margins of theatrical distribution. Worse yet, Harvey did not include a copyright claim in the release print, which made the film fall into the public domain. It took decades for the movie to be reevaluated and recognized as an indie classic.

But that is history.  The "Carnival of Souls" case illustrates how you can pull an indie production off the ground. Reach out to friends, relatives, or strangers who might be interested in your work or whose interests align with yours.

Everybody Does The Crowdfunding Hustle

Every indie movie fan should be knowledgeable in the works of Hal Hartley. The Long Island filmmaker rose to fame in the late eighties and early nineties with a string of distinctive, prickly comedies that called to mind the works of John Cassavetes, Jean Luc Godard, and Preston Sturges. Unlike generation fellows like Quentin Tarantino and Kevin Smith, he never crossed to the mainstream. Rather, he dug in his heels in his particular style.

Hartley’s projects attracted big stars, happy to take on small roles: Isabelle Huppert (Amateur, 1994), Julie Christie, and Ellen Mirren (No Such Thing, 2000). He also jumpstarted the careers of distinctive talents, like Adrienne Shelley and Martin Donovan (Trust, 1990) and James Urbaniak (Henry Fool, 1998). The roster of great character actors in his films is long. Yes, that is a pre-Carmela Soprano Edie Falco in “Trust” (1998), “Lost”’s Harold Perrineau, and “Mindhunters”’s Holt McCallany in “Flirt” (1995). Jeff Goldblum was a huge star when he took a small role in “Fay Grim,” with Parker Posey in the titular role. He was not slumming but having a ball.

Actors and indie movie buffs love Hartley. Still, after scoring his biggest hit with "Henry Fool" (1998), which won the Best Screenplay Award at Cannes, his commercial cinema work became spare. I don't know if the market turned its back on him or if he followed his inspiration elsewhere. He revisited the characters of "Henry Fool" in a trilogy completed with "Fay Grim" (2006) and "Ned Rifle" (2014) - with our favorite Aubrey Plaza! -. Besides that, he dedicated his efforts to short films, a TV series of monologues about America, and staging and filming operas.

If you are not familiar with his work, you are in luck. The Criterion Channel offers a retrospective of his career, including his biggest hits and many of his shorts. The timing could not be better. Hartley just launched a crowdfunding campaign via Kickstarter to raise $300 thousand to finance the production of a new feature film titled "Where To Land." This is the second attempt. In 2020, he used the same funding mechanism, reached the goal, and was ready to start preproduction when the pandemic shutdown forced him to suspend the project. He first used this financing tool for the short "Meanwhile" (2011).

Hartley has a loyal fan base - he is a cult figure in Japan, where he shot part of "Flirt" -. A pioneer of the online realm, he cultivated fandom since the internet was in its infancy. I remember the "Ned Rifle" newsgroup and web letters in the mid-nineties, obsessively analyzing his movies and whipping up anticipation for "Henry Fool." Today, he distributes Blu-rays, discs, and downloads of his films, music, scripts, and books via halhartley.com. He has advantages when courting virtual sponsors, but if the method is good for him, it certainly is good for you.

Parting words

Yes, to finance an indie film is a daunting project as hard, or harder, than doing the movie itself. But keep your eyes on the prize - and the price! -. The reward is to fulfill your life mission as an artist. The return on your investment of time and effort is guaranteed. There is a long and winding road to the Art House, but it is worth it every step of the way. Good luck!

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