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Marlett & Me: Kissing Dragons and Fighting Frogs

Marlett & Me: Kissing Dragons and Fighting Frogs

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The more difficulties arise in financing my film, I try to remember to: Fight the dragons, kiss the frogs and be humble and wise enough to know the difference. It’s really helpful to ye ol’ psyche to come here and vent, especially after another week of funding struggles. Damn, is anyone else feeling the heat of the economic meltdown? Whew! But we keep standing up, yes? You are getting back on your feet each time you get whacked down, aren’t you? Hey if I can, so can you.

Back to the mantra: Fight the dragons, kiss the frogs and be humble and wise enough to know the difference. Now, this applies to lots in life, but here we’re focused on getting your film made, and that starts with getting it financed. The dragons in the indie film finance arena are all the people who say you can’t do it, who gleefully piss on your parade. They include soon-to-be-ex-friends/girlfriends/boyfriends and even spouses (do I need to go further?), jealous lazy associates, scared agents who won’t give your script to their clients, producers whose sole existence seems to revolve around telling people why their project just won’t fly and the occasional actors who are so self-righteous that they’ve forgotten that this is all collaborative art, all cooperative creation. Fuck ‘em. Fight ‘em. Never let them pin you to the mat. But do, my friend, be sure you know who you are fighting.

The frogs are the good guys. These are the people who might invest or act in your film—or help produce it—but ultimately they don’t. They aren’t out to get you and really could be your friend. But for their own reasons (mostly financial these days), they pass on your project.

The problem is that we (yes, I am very guilty of this myself) have a tendency to mix these up, to get them confused. We seek the approval of the dragons, keep slobbering kisses on them and only get burned. Then we fight the frogs, mistakenly placing our anger and frustration on them. Ever done that? Come on. Sure you have. And then we find that we are the jerk, not them. Making a film, your own film, is a very emotional process. You have a lot out there on the line. And if you’re not otherwise employed right now, then you have even more stress to get your film underway. But we should take a deep breath and be as kind as we can. Especially to the frogs.

It will take about 500 frogs to find that one who will help finance your movie. Don’t get angry at them for passing on your project, just keep moving. When they don’t turn into investors or otherwise actively join your merry band, then set them down and move on. Don’t get angry at them. When one passes, just mark it down as another of the 500. Great! Now go find the next one.

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But do know the difference: Though both groups won’t help you in the end, only the dragons can seriously hurt you (if you let them). Don’t listen to their negativity and moaning and second-rate criticisms. Don’t let their doom and gloom get to you. And never let their seeds of self-doubt take root in you. It is an illusion that you need their approval or blessing. Fight back. Unleash your inner Bale on them if need be, but do not let them win. If this is your art, your passion, what you must do, then do it. With great zeal, vim and vigor, do it. Get back on your feet and keep moving.

But be sure that you, fellow moviemakers, discern the difference between the frogs and the dragons. When in doubt, assume they are frogs, pucker up—heck get some tongue in there—but if (when) they pass, then you should simply move on. (But keep your dragon sword sharp and nearby.)

Now for some Q&A. I get a lot of e-mails from you guys asking questions, and that’s really cool. But I can’t answer them all. Having the degenerative “must please everyone” disease shared by a lot of actors, I do want to try to be responsive. So, I am including several of the questions that I’ve been asked in the past week or so and then my answers. Hopefully this will help answer a question or two in your mind. But if it doesn’t, continue to send me your thoughts and feedback and questions.

(Before I start: A lot of the questions are about my current film in progress, Of Kings & Cowboys. We started developing this film nine months ago and it has been a whirlwind ride so far with some terrific progress and serious setbacks. I am blogging the making of that film at www.OfKingsandCowboys.com. On that site you can go back and read from the beginning. You’ll see a lot of ups and downs and behind-the-scenes mumbo-jumbo. So if you have questions about it, please go through that blog first, then ask. OK?)

Your upcoming film Of Kings & Cowboys has a budget of $30 million? Did you raise this money yourself? If so, how did you go about speaking with investors, especially foreign investors?

Well, first, I am currently not sure what our budget will end up being. I had a preliminary budget done (spent too much on it) that has us at $38 million, but it doesn’t include all the tax incentives, strategic locations, condensed-game stunt work, etc. (This film is set in the world of polo.) I am insisting we get the budget down closer to $20 million, which would be amazingly-low considering Seabiscuit was about $80 million and we will be raising the bar on filming equestrian action. I am working my butt off to raise the $20 million myself. Of that, we currently have a pledge for $5 million. As for how I spoke to investors, especially foreign investors… Well, that is sort of the subject of my whole blog/column. It is all about having something they want and effectively communicating that to them. And it begins with knowing their POV. Also, it helps that my genre has a specific following, and thus I was able to tap directly into their interests.

I will also begin raising funds ($15 million, approximately) for my third movie later on this summer. Are there any tips or advice that you could pass along to me when it comes to approaching investors for large sums of money?

Yeah, best advice I know to give is to keep kissing frogs and never give up. Otherwise, yes, lots of tips… from focusing on their POV to building great business plans to queries to ROIs, etc. etc. Keep reading this blog and column, and other people’s suggestions. Also, there are many really great articles on this subject in the MovieMaker editions. And read some books on it (see other question below).

Did you already have a cast in place while you were raising your funds? If so, do you have any “name” actors in your film?

Ah, the conundrum of conundrums, the proverbial catch-22, the vomit-inducing merry-go-round. I have a couple of actors on board, but not “name” ones yet. Am working on our male lead and supporting lead simultaneous with doggedly pursuing financing sources. It is difficult. It helps that ICM (International Creative Management) gave the script such great coverage and that the roles are very unique. From there forward it is all blood-sweat and tears, and persistence, and creativity.

Was it difficult to get agents to pass along your script to their clients?

Was it? Still is! The script consistently gets their very positive attention, but they want to know the funding is in hand. You’ve all been there, too. So, you have to keep pushing. Every film is unique in this respect and all the same too. But look for your specific elements that make the key roles something fresh for your target actor. And then, always be looking for the rear window, the basement door… never ever accept the agency’s front door and huffy receptionist as your only way to an actor. In fact, if you’re an unknown with a very limited budget, such a frontal assault is probably a non-starter, so save your ammo and get creative. Also: Just as for investors, know the agent’s POV. They receive many, many scripts. They are in the business of saying “no.” Help them say “yes.” Driving straight at them with a pitch of “greatest script ever” will never work. Do your research. Learn about their client, explain why this film is right for him/her and learn all you can about the agent: Their work past, where they are from, etc. Relate, relate, relate. This is human-to-human, hand-to-hand combat. Every person you encounter needs to feel a personal connection to your script in order to be an advocate for you. And you can only do that if you learn something about them before you contact them. (Yes, I know the humanity of some agents is seriously in question, but what can we do?)

I’m on the eve of directing my first feature, and I would like to learn more about the ins and outs of investing. You mentioned hunkering down with a few books… and I was wondering… what are the top two books you would recommend?

The best I’ve seen is Louise Levison’s Filmmakers and Financing.

It should be studied with a highlighter in hand by anyone without a business background.Then, there are the funding/distribution chapters in Gregory Goodell’s Independent Feature Film Production.

He gives a good overview. There are others certainly, as you’ll see at your local Barnes & Noble.

What percentage of a producer’s investor’s funds is acceptable to pay yourself? And if a movie doesn’t make its money back, do the investors hold the producers accountable for the money they paid themselves?

Moviemaking is a business. It is the movie business. If you are asking about your producer’s fee during development or pre-production, well, everyone knows the business must pay some overhead even when it is trying to get started. But keep it transparent, up front and very reasonable. If you are talking about your producer fee from the actual production, then just be sure it is reasonable, especially in light of any other fees you might receive for the script, etc. And also, transparency is key. What makes investors grow sour quickly are the hidden arrangements and the double bookings. Don’t do it. And finally, if the film doesn’t make money, the producer’s fees were just part of the cost of making the film and thus cannot be re-claimed, etc. But, be sure the investors sign off on the budget, and be sure your fees are clearly stated in that budget. (There are many exceptions to this, such as for outright fraud, or due to any specific contract terms, etc., so you need to have your own legal counsel give you a definitive answer in your specific circumstances.)

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Hopefully that gives you a bit more info. See you next week, and keep fighting the dragons, kissing the frogs and, most importantly, knowing which is which.

Ride on.

David Marlett is a writer and director currently producing and directing the feature film, Of Kings & Cowboys. Marlett’s desire to direct and control his own work led him to create BlueRun Productions in 2007. He’s been acting for most of his life, and is also a non-practicing (“recovering”) attorney and CPA, with 20-plus years experience consulting and managing a wide assortment of companies in industries spanning from healthcare to entertainment. The Winter 2009 issue features his first installment of a new print column, Marlett & Me, with this sister blog on MovieMaker.com.



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