"I was reminded that independent filmmakers are, unanimously, a motivated group of optimists. In my experience, it’s only the optimists who ever get anything done! Despite experiencing setbacks, this group was no less determined to figure out how to get their films made. So, what movies do you love? Interesting to note that very few of you actually named any movies.[IndieWIRE photo by Brian Brooks]
However, every one of you said, “character-driven movies.” When I scratched the surface of what character-driven meant, for the most part it was a way for you of differentiating your movies from “HOLLYWOOD” movies. We’re going to come back to this later.
The first person I spoke to was Susan. The first thing she said to me when I asked her what she wanted me to talk about was priceless: She said “Please tell me how I can get paid.” She told me about a Punk Documentary she had produced that ended up with 98 music cues in it and wanted to know why nobody warned her ahead of time how much money that would cost. Susan, we’ll talk a little later about putting together a plan before you get started. Then she told me that when she didn’t like the offers she’d received on the documentary - she distributed it herself. I asked her, “Did you do better distributing it yourself instead of taking one of those offers?”
She said quite proudly, “Yep.” And then she said, “Am I still in debt? Yep.”
Then she asked me how to get her next movie financed. I love it. Despite the obvious bumps in the road, she still wants to figure out how to do again and do it better.
I spoke to Lulu. She said, “There are a million people happy to tell you “no” in this town. I want to know what makes people say yes.”
...So, for all of you who want to ask me, “How do I get my movie financed?” Part of the answer is this: Forget about all the reasons not to do it. Forget about all the films that failed. Forget about all the films that didn’t get into Sundance, or got there, and didn’t get a distribution deal out of Sundance.
Choose instead to focus on what has worked and learn from opening your eyes up to the marketplace around you. The challenges of mounting a project are always unique to the specific material, so I can’t tell you what it takes to get your specific film financed. But I’m going to attempt to share a set of principles today, a sort of perspective for creating and maintaining traction in this business. Call it my version of a Field Guide to being an Independent filmmaker…
A producer friend of mine tells a story that gets to the heart of the matter. In the story Lena Wertmuller is answering a question about her movie. The movie is about a young boy who witnesses the murder of his uncle. Years later when he is a grown adult he sees the murderer and goes through hell and back to bring the murderer to justice. When asked what the movie is about the director simply says, “It is about a boy who has a long, long, love for his uncle.” For any project to deserve your time, you have to ask yourself, whether you have that kind of true long, long love for the project. To love it in a way that will last for years if that’s what it takes to bring it to the finish line.
Just as important, to win in this business you have to ask yourself if you have a true long, long love for the process of learning it. Let me define long for you. In his book “Outliers,” Malcolm Gladwell looked closely at the specific characteristics it takes to truly master any complex task. His findings apply to everything from becoming a musician, a world-class athlete or mastering the art of financing films. In describing musicians, Gladwell said, the research suggests that the primary thing that distinguishes one performer from another is not innate talent, but rather simply how much intense practice they’ve had. That’s it. In fact, researchers have settled on what they believe is the magic number of hours of practice that are required to achieve expertise: Ten thousand hours of practice.
What’s really interesting about this 10,000-hour rule is that research shows it applies virtually everywhere. Their findings show that almost without exception the people at the very top of every profession don’t simply work harder, or much harder - they work much, much harder than everyone else.
Last week I did my own mini survey of successful people I know in the industry. Not surprisingly each one had worked in this business between 8 and 12 years of very full days before they could point to the milestones that validated they had mastered their craft. I did the math for myself after I read the book. I was in this business for 12 years before I had mastered enough disciplines to pull together all of the pieces, including a team of very gifted people who had the skills that I lacked, to fully finance my first film. During those years I did everything from international and domestic film sales, film acquisitions, contracts, collections, servicing, even a little physical production. Over that period I did a lot of:
- Learning, Failing - Digesting, Failing - Listening, Failing - Experimenting, Failing - And, Being Mentored
I had put in my 10,000 hours over 12 challenging but equally fulfilling years. And it paid off. Here’s what’s interesting: After financing our first film, that team was able to put together the financing for 3 to 6 films every year thereafter. One of the most important lessons I learned over that time is that getting movies financed is a team sport. There are far too many disciplines involved to master them all yourself. So your next challenge is to indentify the parts of the equation that you love and excel at, and start to build a formal or informal team of people around you who are equally driven and excited about the parts of the business you don’t relish.
It might sound a little overwhelming, but remember, this industry is filled with the most passionate people in the world, who are as passionate about their piece in the equation as you are about yours. With leadership, they’ll happily follow you into your mad adventure.
There’s a quote I love: “Hard work is a prison sentence only if it does not have meaning. Once it does, it becomes the kind of thing that makes you grab your wife around the waist and dance a jig.” If the prospect of 10,000 hours of work in pursuit of financing movies makes you want to dance a jig with your partner, then you’re in the right room. If not, I just did you a huge favor and you should go find that thing you love.
Now let’s get into more of the specifics. The best salesman I know has a saying that in my experience is gospel. “90% of your success is what you have in your briefcase,” “10% of your success is how effective you are at influencing others to act on your behalf.”
If 90% of your success is going to depend on what projects you choose to devote your time to, you must have a rigorous process to evaluate both the creative and financial merits of every project you allow in your bag. I am not just talking about your subjective view of quality here. I am talking about developing a view of your project within the context of what the market is telling you it actually wants, and what it is willing to pay for. I am telling you it’s not good enough just to be passionate. This business demands a combination of passion and intelligence to succeed.
So my answer to Susan’s question earlier about, “How do I get paid,” in a sentence, is simply this: Develop something that has extraordinary market demand, in which your contribution is essential.
I believe if you open your eyes and ears to the market, there is a systematic way to improve your chances of doing both of these things. If you can learn to listen to the market, you have the chance to choose how you want to play in that market, not have the market choose it for you. You may think you are doing this already. Let me ask you a question: How much are you reading? And where are you getting what you read? Let me paint a picture for you of what I mean by listening to the market, because it is somethingevery one of you can do. Create a current list of 10 current movies you love… Call the producer of each. If you can’t get the producer on the phone, get a creative executive on the phone. If you can’t get the exec on the phone talk to the assistant. Tell them you loved their movie and want to know if you can read the script. Then ask them if there is anything else they’ve read lately that they love. Get that script too. When you call the next person repeat the same thing…
Do this ten times a day for the rest of your life. In no time you will be:
- Reading everything that is trafficking in town that the town thinks is great. - You’ll be building the relationships that will grow the rest of your career. - You’ll be finding material that you want to put in your own bag. - And most importantly, eventually you will have read enough material to truly measure the projects in your bag within the context of everything trafficking in the market.
Another way to look at your material is High Concept versus No Concept: How easy is it to describe your movie in a way that makes your movie sound exciting and appealing? How easy is it for the person you just described it to, to turn around and describe it to somebody else?
You may have a condescending attitude about high concept, but you have to understand why it’s so successful. Because the movie has to be described by a lot of people in the process of getting it made and marketed, and it creates a simple relatable digestible way to envision the movie. The first movie financed by my company, Mandate Pictures, was “Harold & Kumar Go To White Castle.” Here’s the concept - It’s the epic story of two stoners who are just trying to get to White Castle to get a hamburger.
It’s so simple that the whole concept is actually contained in the title. We’re working on a movie right now called “Pride Prejudice and Zombies.” Guess what that’s about?
The opposite is a movie like “Precious.” I suspect the more you tried to describe this movie to a financier the more difficult it was to get it financed. It’s a brilliant movie I’m incredibly proud to have been a part of, but ask Lee Daniels about the process of getting it financed and he’ll tell you a story of climbing Mount Everest a dozen times. I’m sure he’ll also tell you every one of those steps was worth it. My point is not to tell you that one kind of movie is better than another. I’ve been involved in all kinds myself.
It’s just to point out that there is greater demand for certain kinds of movies than others. As a result, some movies are infinitely easier to finance than others. The obvious conclusion is that one way to get movies financed is to be smart about putting together movies with higher demand.
Either way, its important to know where your movies live on that spectrum and what kinds of challenges and opportunities you will have in working to get yours financed.
Another way to evaluate your film is to ask yourself honestly how people describe your project within the context of the market. Words that you hope no one uses to describe your film:
- Sweet - Cute - Nice - Darling - Amusing - Touching - Depressing
Words to hope for:
- Exciting - Hilarious - Provocative - Terrifying - Can’t stop talking about it - Heartbreaking
This is very subjective, but the more you read and the more you hear people discuss what is being read the more clear this nuance will become to you. Now ask who is the audience for your film? You want to define your target, but don’t limit yourself to thinking that your audience is only the one in the theater. Your most immediate audience is your potential financier or distributor.
-What can you learn about them? -What is their agenda? -What have they bought lately? -What can their current slate of movies tell you about them?
Have you done a hard realistic analysis of who finances and distributes the movies you want to make? Are the companies who financed and distributed movies like yours in business anymore? It will tell you a lot about what work you have ahead of you and what your chances are of success with that project. Equally, there is a lot to learn from the “Nos.”
So what are you learning from the financiers and distributors who have passed on your projects? Lionsgate and Mandate combined, look at over 3,000 submissions a year. 99% of those projects just aren’t right for us. But here’s the interesting thing. I asked our team, how many of the 3,000 people who submitted projects really challenge us to figure out why we actually passed? The answer is, almost none. Almost everyone who submits a project accepts a polite pass via email or phone call without ever fully understanding why it doesn’t work for us or more importantly, finding out what does work for us.
Kevin asked me, “How to figure out how financiers think.” The concept I like to use here is that we all have two ears and one mouth because we were built to listen twice as much as we’re supposed to talk. When someone passes on your movie, dig in and find everything you can about why they passed and what they are looking for. If you ask smart questions and listen closely, a financier or distributor will tell you everything you need to know in order to put a movie together they actually want. You also need a simple way to evaluate your movie from a financial perspective. Here are some thoughts: Does your movie have a well known director, or is there a leading role or more than one leading role that might attract a name actor or actress? You might think your script contains great characters, but does it contain great parts? If your project will attract meaningful talent, study the historical performance of their movies. It’s a great way to get a perspective on how financiers will see yours.
Another way to get perspective is to grab the LA Times Calendar section and ask yourself honestly which movies in there most represent the movies you have in your bag. Is yours the full two-page four-color ad or the postage stamp-sized ad on page 10? Dig deeper and you will find a clear box office correlation between the two. Go to box office mojo online and track the box office in both North America and overseas for the movies that are most like yours. Are yours the movies that do a few million dollars or less, or tens of millions of dollars?
Be honest - and don’t say I have a hand-held horror film so it must be “Paranormal.”
I want to see a show of hands for this next one. How many people here have been in a Wal-Mart in the last six months shopping in the DVD section? You need to go into Wal-Mart and see where the kinds of movies you want to make are being sold, or if they are even being sold there at all. Do they have multiple copies facing forward in a prominent display or are they not represented at all? 40% of all packaged media sales in the US happen at Wal-mart. You don’t need to make films for the Wal-Mart consumer, but you ignore them at your own peril.
Kevin wanted to know what financiers are thinking about. They’re thinking about what sells at Wal-Mart. Now find the TV Guide Channel. Where are the movies that you have in your bag most represented? Are they on the major networks and major cable platforms that pay millions of dollars for movies, or on IFC who plays great stuff but pays a fraction of that amount? Again, I am not making a value judgment that one kind of movie is better than another. But there is a reality to the demand for one kind of movie versus another, and the answers to these questions will help you determine the job you have ahead of you and whether it is worth your time.
When you complete your financial evaluation, ask yourself, does the potential revenue stream for the movie you want to make support the budget of the picture? Are there adequate distribution options for your picture taking into account where your movie likely lives in the marketplace?
Susan had great passion for her punk documentary, but she didn’t have enough information about the budget of her movie or the potential distribution options for it. She needed to figure out ahead of time, the answers to many of the questions she learned the hard way. You can’t just have a dream, you have to have a plan, guys.
Lastly, keep your ears open for general marketplace information that might make your project more or less interesting to potential financiers. A look at the theatrical release calendar this year bears out our new reality. Studios and independents will release approximately 40% fewer films in 2010 than they did just 4 years ago. And 2011 is expected to see fewer releases still. The good news about that is there’s less competition. Over this time, box office has been healthy --but you may be surprised to hear who is coming back to the movies, and who isn’t.
According to NPD, an industry data source, between 2004 and 2009, the fastest declining demographic in North America in terms of theatrical attendance was males 18-24. Yes, the core demographic that everyone says is ravenous for movies. And according to the same source, the fastest growing demo was also males - age 55+! Now lay this math over some of this year’s successful releases and you find movies like Lionsgate’s “Expendables,” Warner Bros. “The Town” and Summit’s “Red.” As independents, you have an opportunity to stay on top of these trends, identify these opportunities and move more quickly than your studio competitors.
Your major asset is your creative agility. When you use it effectively, the marketplace will reward you like never before.
After putting your project through these creative and financial filters you should have a clear picture of where - if at all - your project fits within the context of what the market is telling you it actually wants, and what it is willing to pay for. And, it’s time to ask yourself again, ‘Should I really have a long, long love for this project?’ It’s OK to fall out of love with those projects that don’t make the creative or financial cut. The most valuable thing you have is an increment of your time. Particularly given the fact that you probably have to spend 10,000 hours of it just trying to get this right. Do not waste a minute of it. Once you’ve validated what’s in your bag, the only thing left is that last 10% - influencing others to act on your behalf. That last 10% is essentially sales.
Because we’re running out of time, I am not going to cover sales in detail today. Sales is really just listening, and then responding with some great storytelling.
-If we do the first 90% percent right. -If we know our project intimately and can answer every question someone might ask you about it. -And if we’ve asked enough questions of potential financiers to understand their agenda. It should provide you with all the information you need to tell a story about your project that inspires others to see in it the same value you do. When you’ve put in your hours and done it well, you’ll have the most rewarding experiences of your life...
If you are in this business because you have an insatiable curiosity about making movies… If you are willing to do what it takes to methodically organize yourself around that task… And if you are fed daily by the process of cracking this nut - then the only thing between you and getting your movies financed is the time it takes to gain the experience, knowledge and relationships to make it happen.