I recently wrote a post, The 100% guaranteed sure fire way to get your screenplay made into a movie. In that post I recommend that you go out and raise the money for your screenplay yourself. The post seemed to generate a lot of questions about how to actually go out and raise the money for a film and what you would do once you had actually raised the money. I’m a big proponent in making things happen for yourself so I figured it was worth trying to answer these questions in a full article.
My good friend, Nathan Ives, recently raised the money for a feature film that he wrote and directed and he was gracious enough to write a post about how he did it. If you haven’t read it, check it by clicking here. His article illustrates real world implementation of the things recommended in this article.
So there’s good news and bad news. The bad news is that there is no magic bullet for raising the money for a film. There is no one size fits all, easy to digest template that you can apply to your project for easy results. The good news is that if you want it badly enough, it is possible. But it’s most likely going to be a brutal, painful, humiliating dogfight with a ton of rejection. Again though, if you’re willing to do the work, it is possible, and you can forge your own destiny.
So let’s begin…
Steps 1 and 2
Before you start trying to raise money you’re probably going to want to do two things:
#1 Get a production budget created by an experienced line producer
#2 Write a business plan for your film (optional)
You have to know how much money you need to raise before you start, so getting a professional production budget done is absolutely essential. You’ll want to make sure that the line producer has a lot of experience working with the sort of budget that you think you can raise. You’ll typically start out by telling the line producer roughly what sort of budget you’re thinking about and then he’ll try and back the budget into that number or let you know that your original budget ideas aren’t realistic. The line producer will work with you to understand costs so you’ll have a good idea of where the money is going to be spent. The whole point to getting this budget done is so that once you raise the money you can actually shoot the movie for the money you have, so make sure your line producer knows what he’s doing, even if that means spending a little extra money.
While it’s not going to be free, you can probably find an experienced line producer who will break down a feature film screenplay for less than $1,000. If you don’t know any experienced line producers you might try putting an ad in the Los Angeles Craig’s List Crew gigs section. I’m sure you’ll get many responses. Just make sure you vette the responses thoroughly and find someone who has a decent amount of experience.
Also, I have a friend who is an experienced line producer and will create a full and complete production budget on a feature screenplay at a very reasonable price. So if you would like this done, and don’t want to find someone yourself, let me know and I’ll refer you to him.
The next step is writing a professional business plan. This step isn’t necessarily mandatory, but you’re going to want to do it if you’re going to be pitching to people who you don’t know very well. With family and close friends, they’re going to care less about formality and will probably overlook the fact that you don’t have a polished business plan. But if you are going to be pitching people who you don’t know well, having a good looking professional business plan can make a difference.
It’s behind the scope of this article to explain all the ins and outs of writing a professional business plan for an independent film. In Nate’s post he mentions a book, Bankroll by Tom Malloy, that explains how to create a solid business plan for an independent film. Check that book out if you want to try and create a business plan for your film. Again, if you don’t want to create your own business plan, let me know and I’ll happily refer you to a producer who can create it for you for a very reasonable fee.
There are some legal ramifications when seeking investments and writing business plans, so please seek the advice of a qualified entertainment attorney to fully understand how to legally approach people.
One word of warning: Getting a production budget and creating a business plan are the easy parts of this process so don’t get distracted by them. These first two steps, while important, can be a way of putting off the real work – asking people for money – so be mindful of that and set firm deadlines for yourself so you have plenty of time to actually do the hard work that’s going to be required to pull this off.
Pitching (the real work)
So now you have a production budget and perhaps a business plan. It’s time to hit the streets and start pitching.
Make a list of every single person you know with phone numbers and emails. Family, friends, business associates, co-workers, Facebook “friends,” literally every single person you know. And start pitching them your project. Phone calls are best but emails can work, too, as a non-invasive conversation starter. But don’t rely solely on email, especially with people you don’t know well, as they’re very likely to ignore an email but will have a more difficult time ignoring your phone calls. Even if they can’t help you, ask them if they know anyone else who might be interested in investing in your project. You’d be surprised how many people might not be willing to invest in something like this themselves but might give you information about a wealthy relative or friend who might be interested. Keep pitching and keep following up. Pitch to everyone and anyone you meet and don’t stop until you’ve raised your entire budget. I know this may not sound like great insight, it’s not, but this is the unglamorous part of independent filmmaking that will separate you from the wannabes. Are you serious about your career or are you a wannabe?
I know a lot of people will simply say to themselves, “I don’t feel comfortable trying to get money out of my friends and family.” That’s certainly okay. We all feel that way. But realize that’s a decision you’re making. It’s not that the movie industry is stacked against you, it’s that you aren’t willing to do what is necessary to succeed. Now of course this isn’t the only way to succeed — certainly people have succeed without begging from their friends and family – but at some point to be successful, you’re probably going to have to step outside your comfort zone and do some things that make you feel uncomfortable. It’s just a fact of being successful. If you’re unwilling to step outside your comfort zone, what are you willing to do to bring about success? Most of the screenwriters I meet simply want success to come to them. They think that writing a “great” script is enough. For some lucky people it is. But for most of us it’s not. You can’t count on luck. What I’m recommending here is removing luck from the equation so that your success, or failure, rests squarely on your shoulders. If you want it badly enough you can have it. You just have to go out and get it.
Crowdsourcing (kickstarter.com and indiegogo.com) is another way to pick up funds from family members and friends who might be willing to donate a small amount. I feel like crowdsourcing, like the business plan and production budget, can be a major distraction for putting off the real work which is pitching people your project. People spend far too much time creating clever videos and making their Kickstarter page look great when they should really be spending their time pitching their idea to people and trying to get people to pony up some cash for the production. Don’t let this be you.
While crowdsourcing can work, what you’re going to find is that 99% of the money you collect is from people you already know, so it’s really just a shopping cart for your own network of people. Don’t think that just putting up a campaign is going to somehow bring in lots of money, because it’s not. I would say in general, if you’re looking to produce a feature film, crowdsourcing is going to be a very minimal part of your overall fundraising strategy.
For a feature film I would recommend using this after you have completed principal photography to help raise post production money or a marketing budget. By the time you’re done shooting the film you’ve pitched a ton of people so you’ve personally started to build awareness of the film and many of those skeptical people will now see how serious you are with a nearly completed film. It’s much easier to get people to give money to a project that’s nearly done, as opposed to something that hasn’t even started. You can set up your crowdsourcing project to collect very small donations, so sometimes the people who you have pitched who didn’t actually contribute, are willing to then go ahead and give a little bit later.
Hiring a Casting Director
One thing that you might consider once you’ve started to raise some significant funds is to hire a casting director. A good casting director has relationships with actors and can get your script to them. Getting some talent attached can bring some real legitimacy to your project, which might help you raise more money. Before you do the production budget you should talk over your ideas for talent with your line producer so that he knows to budget enough money to hire the caliber of talent you’re looking to attract as well as a casting director. The cost of talent can explode a budget, so if you’re looking to make a film on a shoestring budget (less than $100,000), you’re probably not going to be able to afford name actors. But you’d be surprised how many very famous well known actors are willing to work for less than $1,000 per day.
On some of the independent films that I’ve worked on we’ve been able to find good casting directors for a few thousand dollars so plan on spending probably $2K – $4K for the casting director. You can find casting directors very easily by researching them on IMDB Pro. Simply choose a movie that you like that is similar in tone and budget to your film and drill down into the credits and find the casting director. In many cases you’ll be able to find a telephone number or email address for the casting director by clicking on their name. But if not, most casting directors are in the Casting Society of America (CSA) and you can find their contact information at their website: http://www.castingsociety.com/
You don’t want to go cheap on this step because a good casting director has a lot more clout with top actors’ agents, which is what you need to get your material considered. There is also a lot of subtle things that a good casting director can clue you in on like what actors will sell your film overseas, what actors do these types of independent films, etc. Knowing who can sell your film overseas is going to be important and it’s not always as intuitive as you might think.
The casting director will help you come up with lists of possible actors who would be right for specific roles in your film. Then, the casting director will submit your project to these actors.
What you’re really hoping for is that an actor will read the screenplay and like it so much that they’re willing to sign a letter of intent without making it a pay-or-play deal. What’s most likely going to happen, however, is that some of the actors will be happy to do your film and their agents will quote you their daily and weekly rates, but they won’t sign a letter of intent unless it’s a pay-or-play deal, meaning that they get paid even if you never make your film. These are professionals with lawyers, so you don’t want to sign a pay-or-play deal with them unless you really can pay them.
While not ideal, even if they won’t sign a free letter of intent, this still may be useful. Some good work has been done. While you wouldn’t want to put it in writing (i.e. in a query letter) that these actors are “attached,” if an actor has said “yes” but won’t sign a letter of intent, you can certainly tell people that so-and-so is interested in the project when you’re pitching your project in person. This can add some legitimacy with potential investors.
Again, don’t let this be a distraction from the real work of pitching people your project and trying to get money out of them. There is a common myth that it’s going to be easy to raise the money once talent is attached. While it might be a shade easier, it’s still going to be hard, so don’t let this be another thing that puts off the real work.
Doing an Email and Fax Blast
In my post, The 100% guaranteed sure fire way to get your screenplay made into a movie, my main point was that raising the money, or at least a significant portion of the money, is by far the hardest part of making a movie. So if you’ve raised a lot of money, but not the entire budget, you might consider sending out cold query letters in an effort to find a producer who can get the final bit of funding in place. You would basically want to follow my guide, How to Sell Your Screenplay (in a nutshell). The only slight modification from this guide would be that in your query letter you would make it very clear that you had already done some of the producing. You would mention your total budget and also tell the producer how much you had raised. And if you had talent attached (with a letter of intent) you would also mention that.
I offer an email/fax blast query letter service, so if you don’t have time to build your own database of contacts, you’re welcome to use my service.
There is some potential downside here. By bringing on an additional producer who’s bringing money to the project, you do stand the chance of giving up some significant control of the project. So be careful when taking on any partners.
Presale a Few Territories
If you have your budget raised and have also attached some significant name talent to your project, you might be able to go out and pre-sale a few territories. This is your best chance for recouping your budget.
It basically works like this: With 100% of your budget in place and name talent attached to your project, you approach international film distributors and try and presale some large international territories. For instance, if your project is strong enough, you might be able to pre-sell theatrical and cable TV rights in Germany. Then as soon as your film is finished you would deliver it to the distributor and they would pay you the agreed upon sum.
Ideally you would presale enough territories to cover your entire film budget, but that probably won’t be the case. That’s okay. Even preselling 50% is a huge help as it means that your financial backers will be at least assured of recouping that much once the film is completed. You still have to go out and sell the film elsewhere, but at least some of the work is already done.
You’re going to need a strong project for a distributor to be interested in it. These types of distributors are probably only looking at films that are budgeted at well over a million dollars and with some significant name talent. I have heard of smaller films, with budgets as low as $250K, getting some pre-sales, but that’s pretty rare. The great thing is, though, there is really no downside to trying to make a few pre-sales once your package is complete. The worst these distributors can say is “no.”
In my database I have hundreds of distributors, so if you get to the point where your entire budget is in place and want to try this, I’m happy to help using my email/fax blast query letter service.
A Word of Warning
I would like to temper some expectations. Many people think that once they get their first screenplay produced their career is going to take off like a rocket ship. Unfortunately that’s probably not going to happen.
The main reason it’s so hard to raise money for an independent film is because it’s so hard to sell and ultimately turn a profit. Think about it: if it was easy to make money from independent films it would be easy to raise the money to produce them. It’s a fun, glamorous business, and if there was an easy way to make money with an independent film, there would be lots of people eager to invest their money and earn a nice return for doing something cool.
Everyone hears about the home run hits that make millions of dollars. Hopefully your film will be just such a hit, but in order for that to happen you’re going to need an incredible amount of luck, I don’t care how good the screenplay is. And you can’t count on luck. Luck is not a business model.
There are literally thousands of films that never see the light of day. Check out Eric Roberts’ IMDB page. He’s notorious for being willing to star in low budget independent films for a nice pay check. Look at the dozens of films he’s done over the course of the last few years. Yep, Eric Roberts has starred in literally dozens of films over the last few years! Surprised? Don’t be. You’ve never heard of most of them and most of them never found any significant distribution and probably lost money. It’s a brutal business.
But that doesn’t mean making your film isn’t worth the effort. There are a lot of intangibles for you as the writer and for the people who invest in the film.
I had a friend who wrote, produced and directed (and raised the money for) a low budget feature film recently. The film was pretty good but it didn’t take off. He’s a digital artist and the company he works for decided they wanted to produce films. When the CEO was looking around for a director he called upon my friend since he had directed a feature film before. So while the independent film he did didn’t directly get him his next directing gig, I’m pretty sure he wouldn’t have gotten this recent opportunity without doing his first film.
While investing in your film may not be a sound investment form a strictly business perspective, there are other things that you can offer your investors that give them value. For instance, you can invite them out to the set. For many people just being on set and seeing how films are made is exciting. You can offer the investors small extra roles, or even small speaking roles if they can act. You can invite them to the premier and the film festivals that you get accepted to. All these things are fun and interesting and have some value.
I had a friend who invested in an independent film and while the film hasn’t recouped all of his investment, he was able to get free “industry” passes to the large Comic-Con in San Diego for several years in a row. So be creative and give your investors as much value as you can and realize it doesn’t always have to be in the form of dollars. People don’t (and shouldn’t) invest in a film because they think the financial upside is great, it’s not, they do it because it’s fun and exciting and they want to be involved. Don’t lose sight of that.
Perhaps you could partner up with an aspiring director, producer, and actor. All four of you could bring one quarter of the budget to the table. That way you would all be getting a significant career boost from the film without having to raise the entire budget.
The key is to plan for the worst case scenario and make sure you get something out of it even if the worst case scenario becomes a reality.
Your film doesn’t have to be a megahit like The Blair Witch Project to be worth doing and help your career. Every film credit you get adds to your experience and resume and has value, no matter how small. Getting your screenplays turned into films is really the goal (or should be) of every screenwriter no matter what the budget. So go out there and make things happen for yourself. Good luck!