Breaking and Enterting, Part Two: A Map To Finding Feature Funding

If you didn’t read part one of this article, stop now and go back to the Winter 2019 issue of MovieMaker.

There, we broke down how to find the right project to make, what it takes to get your career going, and how to survive (as in, pay for food and shelter) while you’re making your movie. I know you’re anxious to get your project made, but if you don’t build the foundation well, the house falls apart.

Financing

OK, so now you’ve got that all figured out. You wrote a script and you’re ready to raise money. I’ve worked on a wide budget range—from projects that cost $20K for 90 minutes to projects that cost $1 million for 60 seconds. The disparities are huge and there are so many ways to go about it.

Traditionally, you would attach a producer who packages the film and pulls the money together from a studio or financing company. For better or worse, that was never the case on my first projects. I didn’t want to wait around for someone else who promised to do it, so I had to be directly involved in securing the financing. And while this didn’t come easily, I don’t regret doing it.

I hit the pavement looking for money. It went something like this: “Do you know someone who knows someone who knows someone who might want to invest in a feature film?” It doesn’t matter if the person has invested in films before. Get creative. It’s amazing what kind of responses you get when you start putting your project out there. One of the executive producers on my last feature was the creator of the gamePictionary. On another project, there was a dermatologist from White Plains and an Italian diplomat living in Bangladesh. I met financiers through somewhat random connections. After a year or so of building a relationship, trust, and confidence in the project, they decided to invest. Some of them I keep in close contact with, and some have gone on to invest in future projects of mine. Now, they’re like part of my family. They believed in me and gave me a chance to make something when I had very little to show, and for that I am forever grateful. So here’s the first lesson in financing: Never take it for granted.

When Life Gives You Lemon: The bumpy, five-year road to financing her 2017 debut feature Lemon taught writer-director Janicza Bravo (L) the importance of working on more than one project at a time. Photograph courtesy of Magnolia Pictures

Finding the right financing partners can take years. It did for Janicza Bravo on her 2017 debut feature Lemon: “The road to money is bumpy,” Bravo explains. “But the more you have going on, the less painful that part of the process will be. Developing Lemon took five years, and during those five years, I was supposed to make it three times, but none of those three times were for real. Lemon was my only focus—I put every egg in that basket and when the news came that it wasn’t going to be made, I was gutted. I swore to myself that I would never do it like that again. Every ‘no’ cuts deep. But when the next no comes, I will be more equipped to pivot.”

Moviemaker and actor Quinn Shephard had a different kind of turbulent experience funding her 2017 debut feature Blame. After being ghosted by her initial investor a week into production, Shephard had to scrape the money together from different sources in small chunks. Her father even took a third job to help them finish shooting. Her advice? “Wait until the money is in the bank before you start spending it.” It’s hard to stop once the ball is rolling and it could lead to desperate and risky financial decisions. Shephard adds, “While rustling up money from grants proved pretty impossible (we were rejected from many of these), it was much easier to convince post houses or rental companies to give us discounts on equipment or services by explaining our financial situation to them. Companies like Panavision in NY and Post Moderne and Audio Post-production SPR in Montreal—I did all my post in Montreal to save money. They gave us huge discounts after hearing our story. Without their support, the film would never have looked or sounded as good as it did.”

Ghost Story: After being ghosted by a no-show investor, writer-director/producer/star Quinn Shephard (C) turned to family and friendly film companies to fund her 2017 debut feature Blame. Photograph by Nikolai Vanyo

Like Shephard, I also scraped money together from different sources. And raising the money also meant I was later involved in distributing the money once the project was sold. I was the one cutting checks to investors, doing the accounting on the film’s LLC, keeping track of sales, and all the annoying paperwork that I hate doing. But that experience was invaluable, because now I know when a possible deal doesn’t look quite right. Believe me, there are a lot of bullshit talkers making empty promises out there… or worse, forging documents. On my first feature, I had to take legal action against my foreign sales company because they stopped reporting and never paid us our MG (minimum guarantee). Another producer on that same project promised to cover all our post costs, but then disappeared. It was all super messy. So, when it comes to financing your project, my advice is to stay informed, even if you don’t have to.

Getting It Seen

You finished your movie and you think the work is done? Oh, no. You’re only halfway there. Getting it in front of an audience is a big part of the job. Unless you already made a deal with Universal Pictures, you need to figure out how you are going to get your baby out there, because it deserves a life.

When my sophomore feature M.F.A. got accepted to premiere at SXSW 2017, the producers, writer, cast, crew, and I were ecstatic. We got into the competition section of an already very competitive festival. Prior to the premiere, we secured a sales agency, Visit Films, which would be responsible for selling the film to distributors. We felt ready. When we got to the festival, we realized that being in competition and having a good sales agent was not enough. We had to fill a 300-plus seat theater for our middle-of-the-day premiere slot, and there were a million other exciting things happening during that time. It was so important to make that premiere screening count.

Every street sign in Austin is covered in film posters during the festival. It becomes white noise for people walking by. We had to think of something that would really grab people’s attention. We needed a strong, eye-catching flyer, so we came up with this:

In the movie, Peter Vack plays an art school kid who rapes his classmate, played by Francesca Eastwood. Peter was kind and brave enough to let us plaster his image with the word “Rapist” all over Austin, specifically in women’s bathroom stalls. (This was pre-#MeToo movement.) It stopped people in their tracks and got people talking, and on our premiere day we had a sold-out theater.

When it comes to marketing your film, get creative and have fun with it. Think about the audience for your film and connect with them directly. With M.F.A., writer/producer Leah McKendrick and I also did a college tour, sharing the film with universities and hosting post-screening discussions. A movie lives for its audience, who are an extension of the work. Your audience will carry your work to other places and transform it in new ways, and that’s an amazing part of the process.

Reality Check

What happens if you made the thing you thought deserved an Oscar, and then… crickets? Nothing happens—it doesn’t get into a major festival, no distributor buys it, it gets terrible reviews, and no one even cares to write about it. What now?

Go back to square one and do it all over again. And don’t whine about it. You’ll look back and be grateful one day, because your failures only made you stronger and better. You’ll have a solid foundation to stand on once you do get the recognition and financial rewards your work deserves.

Some people make one movie and it’s a hit. Others make 20 movies before they get their break. It doesn’t matter. Time is relative. Go watch some of the early works of your favorite moviemakers (if you can find them). It’ll give you a lot of perspective. Consider yourself lucky if every film you make is better than the one before. It’ll mean you’re actually growing and it’s not by chance that your work is good. Nothing is worse than having a killer first film and then never being able to live up to that standard again. Stop putting so much pressure on yourself to make a masterpiece and just make the damn thing.

Enough of me preaching. I’ll let moviemaker Erin Lee Carr, who’s directed some of the best true crime documentaries out there, give you some concrete examples.

“My first film, Thought Crimes: The Case of the Cannibal Cop, played on HBO and was received well by critics, but not a ton of people saw it,” Carr says. “There is a tremendous build-up when it comes to showing your work, but then suddenly it stops. The party is over and you’re the only one left, putting the red Solo cups in the recycling.”

Chaos Theory: Though “it makes for a chaotic personal life,” constantly developing ideas keeps opportunities coming, says moviemaker Erin Lee Carr. Photograph courtesy of HBO

Carr’s 2017 documentary feature Mommy Dead and Dearest, was seen by millions of people and is now a scripted series on Hulu. Her highly anticipated documentary, I Love You, Now Die: The Commonwealth vs. Michelle Carter, will premiere on HBO this summer.

Katja Blichfeld, co-creator of the HBO show High Maintenance, reminds us about the X-factor in a project’s success: timing. As Blichfeld says, “It’s important to remember that the market fluctuates. I have old rejected ideas that I think might do better now, for example, due to the cultural conversations we’re having, and the current political landscape.”

For that same reason, Carr keeps multiple projects going at once. “I tend to stack anywhere from four to six projects. Be constantly developing other ideas,” she says. “A lot of films can depend on access, so you need to stack work to make sure you always have one project in the hopper to do next. It makes for a chaotic personal life, but I have been working steadily since 2013.”

Representation

You made your movie and it’s out in the world. Congrats! That’s huge. So many things have to line up in order for that to happen. Now, you want to keep going: You want representation to help you take the next step. How do you get that?

While I’m a big proponent of being pro-active and in charge of your own destiny, when it comes to finding representation, I like to take the backseat. You don’t need to find your agent. If you’re searching around for an agent, you might seem desperate, in which case you’ll likely end up with someone who isn’t right for you. If you keep making good work, an agent will find you when the time is right. That’s their job.

Blichfeld agrees: “It might take some time before the right people recognize your talent, but having some solid examples of your work is really the first step. Managers usually want to work with someone who has something to ‘manage,’ so sometimes that component takes a bit longer. Trust that if the work is good, someone is going to want to represent its maker. It just may take a little time and persistence.”

Climate Change: It may take time for the cultural climate to catch up with your good, yet previously rejected ideas, says Katja Blichfeld (L), who starred alongside Dan Stevens (R) in High Maintenance, the HBO series she co-created with ex-husband Ben Sinclair. Photograph by David Russell

When you do get interest, how do you know if it’s the right match? What should they actually be doing for you? Shephard shares her experience:

“I moved to William Morris Endeavor after my Tribeca premiere. I am so glad I waited, because I started getting meeting requests and interest as soon as word spread about the film, but it wasn’t full-swing until the festival. I met with almost every major agency, but I felt a special connection with the agents I met at WME. My team is almost entirely women, and every single person has a key strength. I know exactly who to call for any issue or question. That’s what you should look for—a balanced, specialized group. Know who is going to make you feel better when you get bad news, who is going to be brutally honest with you, who is going to get you more money, and who is going to fight for your artistic control. Look for who is being straight with you, and follow your gut.”

I feel similarly about my reps. They get me and my work. They won’t bullshit me. They understand it’s a long game and we truly feel like a team together. But I only found my dream team mid-2017. It took some time. It’s like dating—you might not find the perfect match right away, and that’s OK. Don’t rush the marriage.

Longevity

It’s no surprise that the film industry is very volatile. People are hot and then they are not. Projects, genres, styles are all subject to unexpected change. As someone who works in the horror/thriller genre, I can’t tell you how many meetings I went to last year where the executive said, “We want to make the next Get Out.”

As you start riding the bumpy road of the film industry, how do you stick it out for the long run? I turned to my partner in crime on M.F.A., Leah McKendrick, to answer this one. McKendrick wrote, produced, and starred in the feature. She’s a true doer and collaborator—she knows how to make impossible things happen without steamrolling.

McKendrick says: “Build your community. Back up other filmmakers. Be a team player. With indie film, it takes a village. Surrounding myself with other creatives that I love makes me feel less alone and less lost, insecure, and burnt out. The saying is so true: When you’re tired, learn to rest, not quit. Resist the urge to be the person with the 10 unfinished scripts or 10 projects ‘in development.’ Done is better than perfect. What burns people out is feeling like they are waking up every day to tread water. They aren’t getting anywhere. But when you complete something and put it into the world, you’re sending out ripples in all directions. You have no idea who is becoming a fan of your work. So, create, release, and repeat.”

I’ll wrap this up with some words of wisdom from other brilliant directors and creators on what it takes to keep going.

“Read the newspaper. Date someone who challenges you. Be on the lookout constantly for stories, on the street, at your job, and in your relationships. Don’t be a hater. Always put money aside for the tax man. Be grateful. What an incredible time to be alive.”

—Erin Lee Carr

“Don’t think at all about relevance. That’s in the realm of shopping for disposable fashion. What should drive you is that you are the only you that there is. You’ve got to have a certain amount of chutzpah—which is a sweet way of saying ego—to be in this. Every time you go out and get that script that you’re after, or you’re trying to get your own work up on it’s feet, you are essentially saying that how you’re gonna do it deserves not only a spotlight, but funding.”

—Janicza Bravo

“Get comfortable with the unknown and the in-between phases of things. In this business there are no guarantees—really, there aren’t many in life—and even if you think your project is up and running, there might still be periods of waiting around or inactivity. There’s no reason to do any of this if you don’t absolutely love it.”

—Katja Blichfeld

“As someone who just turned 24, I’m not sure I can speak to the ‘long run,’ but I know that in my short life I’ve seen some truly ugly sides of this industry. I’ve definitely had times where I’ve burned out and had to work really hard to motivate myself to get up and keep going. Staying kind and passionate is the only way to survive. Never forget that every single person that you deal with—your execs, your actors, your crew, your competition—has feelings. And never forget why you’re doing this insane thing in the first place: to make art you love. If you don’t feel good about it, don’t do it. And try to have fun!”

—Quinn Shephard MM

This article appears in MovieMaker’s Spring 2019 issue. Featured image photograph: Rest Is Gravy: While carrying M.F.A. from development to their 2017 SXSW premiere, co-writer/director Natalia Leite (C), star Francesca Eastwood (R), and co-writer/producer/star Leah McKendrick (L) learned to rest, not quit, when tired. Courtesy of Natalia Leite.

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