Times are tough and the movie industry, from the glitz and glamour of studio projects to even the grittiest of indie shorts, is not immune to the financial tightening and penny-pinching our economy has created. The question for many moviemakers, especially those just starting out, is not, “What opportunities are afforded to me on my budget?” but, instead, “Do I have a budget at all?” Luckily, Thomas J. Chavez has come up with the perfect answer to the aspiring moviemaker’s financing troubles: T-shirts.
Well, it’s more than that. Faced with the problem of funding his own movie, Look Forward to a Bright New Past, Chavez created Strikeset, a company that sells everything from T-shirts to greeting cards that sport “designs for filmmakers, by filmmakers.” With all of the profits of the very clever and truly funny accessories being used toward fundraising his own project and others to come, Strikeset has not only spiced up the typical moviemaker’s wardrobe but is giving aspiring moviemakers the chance to get his or her work off the ground, creating a form of alternative funding in the process.
MM recently talked with Chavez and got his take on the funding problems facing moviemakers, what Strikeset offers aspiring indies looking to create short movies, the typical moviemaker’s boring closet and the future of movie financing.
Doug Polisin (MM): What problems do you see in terms of the process of financing a movie in today’s economy?
Thomas J. Chavez (TC): No two ways about it, the film industry is going to tighten. Studios need credit to operate, banks are hesitant about lending and hedge funds are fast falling out of favor. There’s certainly opportunity, but as credit lines dried up, slate financing went along with it. Studios are going to have to produce the same number of films with less available cash, and that means taking fewer risks. As an industry, we’ve (unfortunately) sometimes relied on what has worked in the past—sequels, remakes and adaptations are popular for a reason—even though this is the time to give the public something wonderful, a new Wizard of Oz; something to take them away from the unpleasant realities of the everyday. We’re entertainers, that’s our job.
But in all honesty, I see a big opportunity for entertainment as a whole. Movies tend to do well in tough times. Hollywood was never bigger than in the Great Depression, and the recession of the 1970s produced some of cinema’s greatest visionaries. As studio cash gets tight, they may indeed turn to independently-financed productions to fill their calendars. That means a lot of opportunity for indie producers, but as usual, a lot of competition. What may result is a more independently-minded Hollywood and, ironically, a more commercially-minded indie world.
MM: Strikeset basically plays the role of a financier. What sets it apart from other financing companies? Who is the company looking to help?
TC: To tell you the truth, I actually started the company as a way to fund a single project for myself when I saw an opportunity with the filmmaker T-shirt designs. We have a lot of products, way more than I needed to make a single short, so I started thinking about funding other projects as well. Along the way, it occurred to me that a commercially-viable project has a lot of financing opportunities, but for promising filmmakers who have no track record, financing’s a lot more scarce. Even grant programs are often too limited in scope to help a first-time writer-director who wants to make narrative films.
We don’t fund feature films, TV pilots or any “commercial” programs. Strikeset is strictly for shorts, and we don’t intend to make a profit on the films. Creative contributors keep their copyrights. All we ask for is some credit and an invite to the premiere.
MM: So the company uses its profits to further aid independent film. That isn’t a business model used too often. What’s the catch? What are you getting back?
TC: It was certainly a unique approach, I’ll give you that. That was the idea. But I’ll admit, we have selfish reasons, too. Every set I’ve ever worked on has been a great chance to meet great people, and I hope to meet more as the films get made. Not to mention making the shirts is just plain ol’ fun. We’re all creators at heart. I’ve seen our shirts go out to some pretty awesome names—people I’d give my left arm just to meet, let alone work with, and they’re out there in L.A. or London or Toronto or Sydney or somewhere wearing a Strikeset shirt. It’s a pretty cool feeling.
MM: You’ve said that Strikeset is a fundraiser that is “complex, more involved.” How so?
TC: Well, I wouldn’t recommend building a line of products to fund a single short film—that’s a bit excessive, even for me. But more to the point, I wanted to “earn” the right to make films, either my own or those that we sponsor. Selling a product is a good way to do it; whether it’s candy bars or “Fix It In Post” shirts, the concept is the same, the execution a little different.
MM: As an indie moviemaker with this great idea, do you feel you have a responsibility to help other indies get their projects off the ground?
TJC: Everybody needs a break, even if it’s a small job on a small film. The Weinsteins started Miramax with concert films and look what they grew that into. Jobs change, roles change, and someday I may need a job from somebody I hired a year ago. We just want to give someone a break, and that includes us.
Let’s face it, the indie world is both very competitive and very cooperative. It seems like a paradox, but when you’re starting off with no budget, no equipment, no cast, no crew, you have to pay in favors. Strikeset’s financing takes that element out of the equation. I don’t know if it’s a responsibility, but if we make one awesome short, if one of our films was the start for one awesome DP, if one actor gets a role based on his performance in a Strikeset-produced film, it’ll feel worth it.
MM: Why are you looking to fund short films and not larger theatrical features? What specifically does Strikeset have to offer short independent movies?
TC: It’s very difficult to fund a short film. Realistically, festival shorts don’t make money. They have limited viewing potential and traditional funding sources simply don’t fit the model. If I have a great idea for a feature that has distribution potential, there are investors and studios that I can seek out for funding. Documentaries have a number of foundations, grants and programs (as well as traditional commercial sources, depending on the project). Short film has very little, and it’s such an important first step for so many filmmakers.
As to what we offer, I’d say a lot. Strikeset is mostly a funding source, but we would like to be a good resource for production staff as well.
MM: How will you decide which movies to fund?
TC: As a matter of fact we’re working on our first. Do you mind if I plug it? A Bright New Past… Financing Available is Strikeset’s first project. It’s an exciting film that addresses the future of race relations in this country by asking, Would there still be racism if there were no race? It is [set in] 2018 and a series of new laws make the mere fact of one’s ethnicity illegal.
Like everything Strikeset does, this is a pilot. Once we get this project out, we’ll be opening up a call for scripts/pitches. Our own slate depends on our projected earnings for the quarter, but we want it to be a quarterly selection process. Filmmakers can pitch us with scripts and budgets and we have a selection committee that makes the final determination as to which projects to fund.
MM: Strikeset asks the key creative contributor to forgo any salary. That’s putting a lot of faith in writers-directors to follow Strikeset’s lead. Do you think a lot of writers and directors will be as generous as Strikeset is when it’s their idea on the line?
TC: Oh, good question. Well, the ideas are theirs and any net revenue they make off the film is theirs, too. When we’re talking about salary, we’re referring only to pay for their production work—they still own the film.
My background is in theater. I remember a mentor of mine told me, “You’ll make a living in theater when you’re passionate enough to do it for free.” I couldn’t agree more. We want to encourage talent. Maybe a filmmaker is fresh from film school—maybe they’ve never been to film school—but they have a great idea. As writers, we have to love our characters more than ourselves; as producers, we have to love our casts and crews more than ourselves; and as directors, we have to love our audiences more than ourselves. From our eyes, that means others have to be enriched before we will be. The filmmakers get a great opportunity and just maybe, a career out of it—even if we have to keep our day jobs for now.
MM: Why T-shirts first How did the idea come about and, of your designs, which is your favorite shirt or accessory on your site?
TC: Every DP, PA, AD, recordist and grip I know has a closet full of black T-shirts—that’s a uniform on set. But I had never before seen T-shirts made just for filmmakers. Sure, you have your branded products and production company tees, but nothing that spoke to the community, the fun of being on set and the ridiculous things that happen. Strikeset came out of that. Of course, I’ve seen “Director” or “Indie Filmmaker” shirts before, but crew members—essential crew members—had nothing. These folks make the film—they have a valuable asset, a trade that makes great movies happen. Could you imagine a Jaws without Verna Fields’ editing or a Star Wars without Ben Burtt’s sound? Every member adds something vital. I wanted to give them something of their own.
To me, that’s the most fun part. As I review the orders, I see names I recognize from IMDb, some big, some small, but all a part of the industry. My favorite? It’s a tie. We have one with the phrase “You Light Up My Life.” I’m also a big fan of “Writer. Director. Barista.” We all need a back-up plan while we’re waiting for Sundance to get back to us.
MM: You said you hope this encourages moviemakers to think outside the box when looking for forms of funding. Is this the future of film finance?
TC: Wow, I hope not. Strikeset is a lot of fun, but I have to remind myself that honing my craft is the most important part of my professional life. We filmmakers are so easily distracted by the non-creative elements of the business, we should take a cue from Musashi, and “do nothing which is of no use.” Building a whole company to pay for your film would be, in my mind, a gigantic diversion from a filmmaker’s true path.
Finance is going to go on the way it has. Film’s a risky business, but the risks entail great rewards when it works right and investors know that. I’d love to see more federal and state tax incentives, but the money for making movies is going to continue to come from banks, studios, advertisers and investors who rightfully expect something back. Strikeset isn’t going to change that; we never meant it to. We’ll fund the un-fundable and hopefully help encourage the kind of filmmakers who will keep the industry profitable and viable. Writers write, filmmakers film—finance is just a tool. We built Strikeset to get filmmakers on their way. They can pay us back by making great films… and by wearing our shirts.
For more information on Strikeset or to order their products, visit www.strikeset.com.