How They Did It: I Set a Start Date for My $250,000 Film, September Morning, and Stuck to it No Matter What

“How did you find the money?” That’s the question I’ve gotten most from my fellow indie filmmakers the last couple of years.

It’s usually asked with a tinge of awe mixed with a sprinkling of envy and a healthy serving of skepticism that suggests I’m going to advise people to bet their student loan bill on blackjack.

The easiest explanation I have for successfully financing my film September Morning is that my screenplay, which is about a group of college kids living through 9/11 in a dorm, was put on by a national theater company in 2014 to commemorate September 11. This event, which I documented in pitch video form along with interviews, and a talkback that university professors and community members participated in, gave me the cache and legitimacy to stand out among thousands of other first-time feature filmmakers with scripts vying for financing. That was one of the final stops in my fundraising journey, but getting to that momentous event was preceded by adopting a particular attitude.

Run the Numbers and Stick to Them

My film cost just north of $250,000. The truth of the matter is, though, I would have made this film for far less. When I completed the script and set about doing what I had not been able to do with my other scripts (i.e. make a movie!), I asked myself about the absolute minimum amount of money it would take to make this film, and a realistic time period to find these funds. The number I came up with, for which I could do my script justice, was $50,000. And a realistic time period to come up with this amount was one year.

Then I added three months to that time period as a start date for production, figuring that if I was going to spend a year of my life seeking out money and investors, I best leave myself additional time to not only adequately prepare, but also for any additional funding or grant money to come through. Money and success begets more money and success, which I’ll get to later.

It should be noted: I had a few other budget numbers in my head. $50K was the absolute, bare-bones minimum I needed, but I made a budget for a $100K film, a $200K film, and even a $500K film. The important thing here is that the length of time (one year + three months) did not change. I knew that if I allowed myself to go down a road of “I won’t make my film until __________”—whether or not that blank stood for money, a certain actor, a location, a sales rep, etc—I’d be heading toward a self-fulfilling prophecy.

With a realistic “no matter what” mindset, I was over one hurdle. Yet while $50,000 might not seem like a lot for some, to someone who directs freelance and is carrying a fair amount of student loan debt thanks to my prestigious film degree from USC, it was a mountain to climb. I needed to convince people that they were investing in more than a film, which brings me to the second principle I followed.

Make Sure Your Film Has Something to Say—And is Effectively Saying It

The writer of Moonlight had something to say about the harsh American reality of growing up poor, black, and gay. The filmmakers behind Equity had something to say about Wall Street’s glass ceiling. I had something to say about what it meant to be a college freshman away from home for the first time on 9/11.

I wouldn’t have written this story if it didn’t mean a great deal to me, but I still needed to be able to describe why I found it to be important and relevant to society today. What initially inspired me to revisit this very personal event was the 9/11 memorial in New York, and the debate about whether souvenir sales were honoring the memory of our nation’s tragedy or profiting from it. It occurred to me that history books and museums offer a perspective to those not present during the events, while simultaneously serving as a touchstone for the memories and experiences of those who were. I realized that in a few years time, students entering colleges across the country would have been born after the events that were so unforgettable in my mind. 9/11 was quickly becoming history, and elements of history can be quickly forgotten if they are not shared and passed down with future generations. It was important to convey to potential investors that I would add another voice and perspective to a greater historical narrative while examining how our worldview had been shaped by 9/11.

Once I was able to articulate why I thought this film was important, I needed to do something to express that beyond saying, “Please read the script.” Once upon a time I had submitted to some of the prestigious writing competitions. But if you think about it: 7,048 hopefuls submit scripts to the Academy Nicholl Fellowship. Thousands more submit to the Sundance Screenwriters Lab. There are a few success stories, but if you are relying on competitions and contests to make your film and catapult your career, I suggest going to the local gas station and buying a lottery ticket. I was one of those shortlisted folks a few years back with a different script, which got me into the room with some dreamweavers, but nothing came of it, and I wasn’t going to put this film’s fate into someone else’s hands like I did before.

September Morning is Ryan Frost’s directorial debut

My script is heavy on character and dialogue, which made it a natural fit for theater. So I reached out to a number of national and regional theater companies with the script and the idea of staging a workshop. As it turned out, one theater company was not only interested in workshopping the script but putting it on as a commemorative event on September 11, 2014. I filmed the event, recruited college professors from universities to speak alongside myself at a talkback, recorded interviews allowing people to share their own stories about 9/11, and managed to receive some good press in the process. From this outpouring of support, I formed a partnership with a number of 9/11 organizations that supported the mission. Finally I had the ammunition I needed to seek out investors who believed in the film.

Find Momentum: Money Begets Money

I applied for a number of monetary and equipment grants. I was fortunate enough to receive the Panavision New Filmmaker Program grant, which supplied the production with a camera, lenses, and a bevy of necessary equipment. When I initially applied, I was rejected. Months later, after attaining additional funding, attaching actors and maintaining the same start date, I went back to Panavision touting our trajectory and, well, they changed their minds.

Shut the Doubtful Voices Up

I’m not going to lie. Even while achieving a goal five times beyond the minimum amount I set out for, it never felt like there was enough money or time. There was always a voice nagging me to push back the shoot: “You’ll be better prepared. You’ll be able to hire bigger actors, or get better locations.”

I started thinking about the nature of this voice, and I realized that it had nothing to do with time or money. It was self-doubt. I was in uncharted territory. Making a film was becoming more than just a pipe dream and I could no longer hide behind my monetary excuses. I was going to put a film out into the world for others to see and it would be judged accordingly. That was the last hurdle to overcome.

My film is complete and I’m proud to be sharing it with the world on September 8, no matter what. MM

September Morning opens in theaters and On Demand on September 8, 2017, courtesy of Candy Factory Films. Visit its official website for more information.

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