There are as many different ways to get funding as there are movies made, but the one thing all of those stories have in common is a pitch. No matter the size of your budget or the lucky individual you’re asking for money, you have to convey your passion and vision to people who can fund it.
As a moviemaker, I’ve been down the bumpy road of pitching before. It took me two years to raise money for my first film, a $1 million feature called Nonames, starring James Badge Dale and Gillian Jacobs. At the time, I didn’t have a clue where to find investors. I asked other moviemakers with a feature under their belts how they did it. “The money is all around you,” said my moviemaking mentor, Ali Selim.
Eventually his words sat with me long enough that I started to believe them. If others could find a way to do it, so could I. It helps to be competitive and stubborn and remind yourself that nobody asked you to make this film. Start pitching to anyone and everyone.
Thus began my own strange, sometimes desperate journey to find money. My film was based on a true story about my brother and set in the small town in Wisconsin where I grew up. I hadn’t lived in the area for over 20 years but still had connections through family and friends. Since I planned to shoot the film here, I thought I should probably talk to people in that area. So I reached out to the local chamber of commerce for guidance. Here are some of the various stones I turned over.
The chamber told me about an angel investor group in the area, so this was my first pitch. My producer and I flew from NYC into Wisconsin to meet with a very small group of high-net-worth individuals that typically funded tech and farming. We figured locals might want to support us spending money in their communities. These people were retired cranberry farmers, lawyers, and paper mill executives. The chamber told us that the group knew nothing about film, didn’t care deeply about creative elements, and would focus on numbers. So our presentation focused on return on investment (ROI) projections. They grilled us, trying to understand the potential profits based on films produced with similar stories, budgets, and cast. Although they didn’t love the schedule of profit participation reimbursements, they did see some appeal in being first in, first out.
The Pitch Focus: ROI projections
The Outcome: Partial funding—though they eventually backed out because it took us so long to raise more funds
We hired a woman in the Wisconsin town where we planned to shoot and called her our regional coordinator. She knew the people and businesses in the area that could potentially help support our film. One day she suggested we give an investor presentation to the rotary club, which had about 100 members made up of the town’s business leaders. So my producer and I flew in from NYC once again. Remember, I had lived in this town during my elementary school years and many people were aware of my family and the story on which the film was based. We pitched to two different rotary clubs in the area and hosted a banquet dinner at a local hotel.
The Pitch Focus: The homegrown connection; “Hollywood at your doorstep;” getting involved
The Outcome: Emotional support, future extras, crew members, in-kind donations and coffee. It was ultimately a smart move to get locals involved. Though we didn’t get equity, these people saved us thousands of dollars in locations, housing, casting, and creative production fees. Local musicians licensed us their music and caterers fed us on set.
My producer and I were both from Wisconsin and our brothers were both characters in this story. We felt a strong pull to find more local investors who would understand this small-town drama and the people. So we kept talking to our family and friends until finally one person agreed to review our materials. He loved indie films, especially indie dramas. He knew my producer and had worked with her before so they’d already established a circle of trust. He was a retired lawyer and although he was an accredited investor, he didn’t have the funds to make a huge dent in the budget. But he could help lead the way so that more money would follow.
The Pitch Focus: The story; a rare local film investment opportunity; being part of the team
The Outcome: Partial funding. He loved the script, and wanted to be involved with production.
After securing some initial investments, we started to secure our cast and crew. Once we had some key players in place, we reached out to production companies and producers that we could potentially partner with to split financing costs. We found the most relevant people via IMDbPro and emailed them our package.
The Pitch Focus: The story; appealing to someone’s film taste.
The Outcome: A lot of nos… and two producers who had years more experience making films than my producer and me at the time. They knew many people in the industry and helped us secure an amazing casting director that would be a key turning point in getting us more financing.
Now that we had so many creative elements in place, we took a stab at crowdfunding. We used Indiegogo the year the platform launched. Since the concept was such unfamiliar territory to most people, though, we weren’t having much success.
The Pitch Focus: Familiarity—“you know us, so please help us with our dream”
The Outcome: We pulled the campaign. It just wasn’t working. Our friends and family contributed a little, but ultimately it felt so impersonal (for such a personal story) that we decided to just call people instead. Since then, I’ve worked on successful crowdfunding campaigns and learned that the key thing that gets people to donate is a personal connection to the people or material. (Close second: rewards.) We raised about $1,000 from friends and family, and it helped us create our investor video pitch.
More Private Investors
For over a year we pitched to people all over the country, mostly in the Midwest. In between those pitches I worked as an assistant at a hedge fund in NYC. I’d never wanted to ask any of the people I worked with to invest, but eventually, I guess, I took enough time off of work to pitch elsewhere that they requested to see the script and materials. We had recently made our investor pitch video, which featured our first investor talking about why he invested. Also included were interviews with the producers, characters that the film was based on, and 35mm B-roll footage of our locations. At the same time, we were meeting with our casting director to discuss potential actors to reach out to. It didn’t hurt that some pretty big names were on that list and we got to share that information with these potential investors.
The Pitch Focus: All materials, from creative to numbers
The Outcome: One by one, people invested until we raised the budget. After the “big money guy” was in, others followed. These people knew and trusted me. That was a significant investment factor. While some liked the story, others liked the idea of being a part of the creative process. Some probably didn’t care at all and only invested because others told them they should. Tax credits might have helped, too…
At the time, Wisconsin was a player in the film incentive program and allowed up to 25 percent credit back to qualifying productions. We were one of the first indie films to apply for the program. Using these numbers helped our pitch, as there was guaranteed money returned, which we’d use to finish the film and pay back investors pro rata. If we couldn’t raise the final money, this would’ve been the ideal time to talk to an investment company like Three Point Capital (more on them below).
Outcome: 25 percent in refundable credits back to our production company
And that’s how I tailored pitches to raise $1 million for my first feature film. It wasn’t easy, but I thought my story was worth telling, so I didn’t give up.
So what about you? We wanted to get a better idea of what film financiers look for in a pitch—so we asked four players in the financial world, who have invested in various indie productions, for their pitch priorities.
The Team: “My team and I have a good reputation, and are knowledgeable about moviemaking.”
Lois Scott, founder of Scott Balice Strategies—one of the largest financial advisory firms in the country—and former CFO of the City of Chicago, is fairly new to investing in films but is clear about what she immediately assesses: “First, I consider the people behind the project. Are they a trustworthy, business-minded team? Do they have a well-thought-out and reasonable plan for making, executing, and getting the film to a place where it can be considered by distributors? Do they realistically understand the way films are bought and distributed, and what the paths to investors recoupment are? If the team and their business plan seems viable, then and only then does it become a question of whether the project is of quality, whether the creatives involved are of the caliber and talent to execute it, and whether the story is something that will resonate with audiences.”
Ralph Reynolds, co-founder and chairman of Bienville Capital Management, adds that the clincher to investing in projects, for him, is if he “absolutely trusts and enjoys spending time with the team” behind a film.
The Value: “My film has creative elements attached that will sell in foreign territories.”
This is a key point on almost all film financiers’ must-have lists. Many stars, directors, and genres do well domestically but fall flat in other territories, and vice versa.
Viviana Zarragoitia is vice president of Three Point Capital, which specializes in film and television financing, advisory, and brokerage services and has funded films like Manchester By the Sea and Mudbound. She is part of a team that meets with producers when most of their budget is in place. At that time, she says, “We assess the collateral value of pre-sales and distribution agreements to potentially lend against. We lend on unbonded films with budgets ranging anywhere from sub-$1 million to $30 million.”
The Story: “My screenplay will hit home with you.”
While it’s important to add value to your production on every level, some investors—like Nicky Dawda, director of Indus Valley Partners—are more concerned with the story: “I would rather invest in an amazing script with good actors; they don’t need to be A-list. I am a big fan of European-style films that meander through an interesting, grown-up story scattered with humor and drama, without a single specific climax.”
Reynolds agrees that A-list actors aren’t a shoo-in: “I personally am more concerned about the script than who will be acting in the film. A good script and good production team can overcome average actors. Great actors die with pathetic scripts.”
The Experience Level: “Someone on my team has years of experience making films.”
If you haven’t made a movie before, make sure someone on your team has. Bonus points if those films have made money or at least recouped investments. Scott adds to this: “Do you have a track record of finishing projects with a high standard of quality and getting them out into the world? Even if this is your first feature, is there a track record with shorts or other media?”
The Originality Factor: “I have something unique to say, or at least a unique way of saying it.”
The most successful films are often the boldest, most creative ones. Look at this summer’s breakout hits Girls Trip and Baby Driver. Though many are calling this one of the worst summers in recent box office history, these two films beat the odds—and the big comic-book studio blockbusters. Girls Trip, a comedy with all black female leads, was made for under $20 million and went on to make $130 million. Baby Driver, a soundtrack-driven action flick, was made for $34 million and grossed a whopping $224 million.
We asked Scott if there’s a particular genre or story she supports more than others. “Certainly horror films and Christian films historically do better than other genres, but film is risky in any event and you never know what will be trending in a given year or what will hit the zeitgeist at the right moment. At this point, I’m only interested in investing in films with female-driven creative teams.
“My interest is largely in improving women’s position in the world by giving light to women’s stories. Additionally, all research points to the fact that films written, produced, directed by, and starring women have a higher average ROI, so investing in films by women is actually the best fiscal strategy.”
One last word of advice? Only present your best work. Make sure your script is ready and prove to investors that you are passionate about making your film. If you absolutely need to make this film, and find value in sharing your vision and story with the world, then go. Don’t stop. Keep talking and asking for money, and you will find it.
Your Pitch Checklist
- A polished screenplay
- Bios for attached key creative team members
- Past work samples for key creative team members
- A budget
- Full schedule for prep, production, post
- Financing structure and recoupment waterfall
- Sales and distribution plan
- Marketing and publicity strategies
- A demonstrated understanding of the film’s audiences and commercial viability
- Sales estimates (where possible) MM
The investors in this article do not accept unsolicited materials or solicitations of any kind. Any such materials will be returned or destroyed at their discretion. This article appears in MovieMaker‘s 2018 Complete Guide to Making Movies, on newsstands now. Featured image illustration by Courtney Menard.