Actress, writer, producer, and changemaker Naomi McDougall Jones is trying to solve the Rubik’s Cube that is indie filmmaking.
In the latest episode of Demystified from StudioFest, the producer and star of films like Imagine I’m Beautiful and Bite Me explains why she believes that success for indie movies actually starts at the script stage.
Jones is a co-founder of Constellation Incubator, a film-focused incubator designed to disrupt, change, and foster diversity in the film industry. The first annual event took place this weekend, helping 60 selected filmmakers teams overcome roadblocks and challenges commonly encountered in the indie filmmaking process. Jones is also a co-founder of the 51 Fund, a private equity fund dedicated to financing films made by female filmmakers.
“This came out of my women in film activism work, and the recognition that women’s films are chronically underfunded, because there’s this refrain that was never true but is still spouted, that they don’t make money, right? That the reason that we have to keep making films about men is that they just, that’s what makes money. And that’s just, the data does not remotely show this. But we want to be a living example to say like, you can find these films and make money,” she told Demystified.
The 51 Fund has given her unique insight into distribution and financing that Jones says she wouldn’t have gotten as a filmmaker alone.
“It’s sort of on the other side of the veil,” she says. “So, as a film fund, our entire goal is to demonstrate that films by and about women make money, and we’re dealing with many millions of dollars. So, you know, we have to be a serious film investment. We have to make money. How do you do that? Here’s what’s interesting — the only way to actually make real money on indie films right now is through a very small set of distributors, either the streamers buy it directly right so Netflix, Hulu, Showtime… either you sell it directly like that, or you’re talking about A24, Neon, Bleecker Street, a very small number of high-level distribution [companies]. Okay, well how do you actually make those sales? Basically, the system. The Hollywood system has to choose you, because they’ve got those connections wrapped up, more or less. But the system chooses a film not when it’s finished — it chooses a film at the script stage, which as an investor is fantastic, because when we get a project we know at the script stage 90% whether that film is going to be in Sundance, and whether it’s going to make money.”
Through the 51 Fund, Jones is beginning to crack the code and find out how to fast-track indie films to success.
“These projects are getting on elevators that they’re riding directly to the top floor, which is an investor is wonderful, because there’s almost no risk. Because instead of us having to try to guess what audiences actually want to see, that’s actually irrelevant to us. All we have to know is has the industry, has WME, has CAA, has Sundance already selected this film for success? Because if they have, it’s going to sell. It’s going to make us money,” she says. “But what filmmakers don’t understand, and the mythology that is sold to filmmakers is that you can somehow get on that elevator later. That once you finished your film you can get on an elevator… that if you’re in production, you can get on, and that is not the case 95% of the time.”
So what does that mean for independent film? Jones questions whether it even exists.
“That’s really important for us to know because that also means that we don’t actually have independent film, right? Because in order to succeed, the system has to pick you. Which, fundamentally, is not independent. So, we don’t have an independent film system, we need to create one.”
So, how does one find success in a broken industry? That’s what Jones and her Constellation Incubator are trying to figure out.
“Maybe it means that we somehow find a way to get audiences to pay enough to make it sustainable financially. Or does it mean that we say, you know what, independent film is like theater, you can’t make money at it and we’re going to turn it into a nonprofit model? Does it mean getting companies to use, actually, ad dollars to pay for films and they don’t care about a financial ROI, they care about an eyeball ROI?” she says. “I think we have to be open to all of those possibilities because maybe the investment structure is the wrong structure for independent film. I don’t know… these are the things we’re exploring at Constellation Incubator.”
Main Image: Naomi McDougall Jones, courtesy of Demystified.