The aptly named Dream Downtown Hotel, in the hip meatpacking district of New York City, hosted Winston Baker’s 7th Annual Film Finance Forum East on April 14, 2015.

Managing partners Katherine Winston and Amy Baker designed an intimate and informative conference, aimed at industry professionals and hopefuls who dream of making it big in the movie business.

Forum chairman John Hadity, executive vice president of EP Financial Solutions at Entertainment Partners, led panels of industry experts, who spoke for 45-minute sessions before audience Q&As. Breaks between panels were topped off by a meet-and-greet luncheon and a closing reception in the hotel bar, fittingly named the Electric Room.

The scene itself was electric, especially when keynote speaker John Sloss of Cinetic Media took to the podium, moderated by Greg Clayman, general manager of audience networks at Vimeo. When Sloss grabs the mic and speaks, aspiring filmmakers and seasoned veterans alike listen. He, along with such notable panelists as producer Christine Vachon and Slated co-founder and CEO Stephan Paternot, shared wisdom and practical advice on all topics related to financing independent film over the course of the one-day event.

Katherine Winston and Amy Baker of Winston Baker

Katherine Winston and Amy Baker of Winston Baker

Business Savvy Remains Key in a Changing Industry

“It is an exciting time,” said Sloss, “because so much is up in the air.” With that spirit permeating much of the day’s discussion, Sloss and others offered up observations of an industry on the cusp of great change.

He talked about the myriad of opportunities on the small screen as a viable alternative to film. “Not too long ago the two-hour narrative was king,” Sloss pointed out. “Now you can have an 11-hour narrative and view it all at once. This creates an irresistible opportunity to tell a more involved, complex story.”

That said, whether writing for television or film, Sloss had cautionary words for emerging content creators: No matter how great the story, one has to pitch, package and ply investors before selling it. “It’s not enough to show up with a script under your arm and expect to make in the independent film business. You’d be better served if you had a Masters in Business Administration under your other arm.”

Anne Carey, president of production at Archer Gray, agreed. Compelling narratives and authentic voices are always in demand, but she admitted that she has had to abandon plenty of pet projects along the way because no big names would attach. Even indies, she warned, need stars, and not in secondary roles but principal ones. A legitimate star will not orbit around an unknown lead; many agents consider that a lose-lose proposition for their talent.

Daniel Steinman, co-president and COO of Black Bear Pictures and former agent at CAA, echoed Carey on this point: “It’s a good agent’s job to protect their talent from such scenarios. Can you blame them?” So how does one secure a major star for their indie film? “Offer them a role outside of their sweet spot,” Steinman suggested.

Alison Cohen, EVP of business and legal affairs at FilmNation Entertainment, concurred. Actors will do a movie, she said, if it is challenging enough and goes against typecasting. “Don’t offer an action star an action role.”

The Nuts and Bolts of Financing

The critical question Sloss posed to the audience was “How do you optimize and monetize your content?” When it comes to financing your project, do your homework. Sloss was like a schoolmaster urging his charges to pay attention—after all, the true test was whether or not his students got their films financed and turned a profit in the process.

“You’d be crazy not to find soft money,” he said. “One needs tax rebates to make it in this business. It’s hard to rely on single buyers. It is incumbent upon all of us to understand the various windows and platforms.” Stressing Video on Demand, he talked about traditional windowing, cost/benefit analysis and proprietary information.

Steve Kovack, CFO of Vine Alternative Investments, also urged resourcefulness. “Turn over a lot of stones,” he said. “You’d be surprised where you find money.” He stressed having a clear, articulate business plan, a one-minute pitch and setting money aside to invest in exposure. Remember, he advised, to utilize such avenues as tax subsidiary money (a great form of equity), gap financing and foreign presales.

Speaking of presales, “hire a sales agent,” FilmNation’s Cohen advised. “I always tell people that our company is not in the sales business, we’re in the presales business.” Navigating the film terrain without a sales agent is like flying a plane without a co-pilot.

Slated’s Paternot broke it down further: “Secure a credit score using objective data to create a risk profile for your project. Then find key presales yourself, because no legitimate sales agent will get involved without currency.”

The Pros and Cons of Crowdfunding

Though Sloss proved optimistic about new, crowd-based funding methods (“Crowdfunding is the sleeping giant of content finance”), Paternot disagreed, pointing out that the average amount of money raised through crowdfunding was a low $12,000. One has to do an inordinate amount of work crowdfunding, he said, unless you have someone else to manage that aspect of financing—unlikely on an indie film.

“And that’s before you’ve shot one single scene,” said Paternot. “And if you raise five to ten percent of your budget using crowdfunding, you still have to go out and raise the other 90 percent with due diligence.”

Dominic Ianno, founder and CEO of Indomitable Entertainment, pointed out too that major talent did not like associating themselves with projects reliant on crowdfunding.

Christine Vachon (second from right) speaks on a panel

A panel with the Fyzz Facility’s Wayne Marc Godfrey, Slated’s Stephan Paternot, Killer Films’ Christine Vachon and Indomitable Entertainment’s Dominic Ianno

However, Christine Vachon said that although some talent will always consider crowdfunding as begging for money, “15 years ago, the same artists were refusing to be on HBO.” According to Vachon, “I take the elements that exist instead of trying to make it look attractive, and I speak to the relevance of my film in the marketplace.”

Vachon stressed that despite her success, she still sees herself as an independent filmmaker. Passion is key. “I treat each movie like starting over again.” For aspiring moviemakers, new beginnings are a good place to end. MM

The Winston Baker’s 7th Annual Film Finance Forum East took place in New York City on April 14, 2015. For more information on future events, visit Winston Baker’s website here.