November 2, 2015

Embracing the 'No': 5 Lessons on Fundraising for Your Low Budget Film

It may not be as creatively exciting as setting up shots and hitting record, but fundraising is an integral part of the filmmaking process, and oftentimes it can also be the most stressful and disheartening.

However, Noah Lang, producer of the low budget horror feature HERE ALONE, is here to offer some tips on how to not only secure money for your film, but how to also prepare yourself for a potentially long road full of no's.

So your 'aha!' moment has yielded a script and it's one that people (other than your better half) think is pretty damn good. You've met a DP (a talented one) who you vibe with and is willing to break their back to make this film with you for no money. On top of all of that, you have producers on your side ready to get their hands dirty to let you make your film. You've also carefully designed your budget with a keen eye on what you can get for cheap or free. But despite all of that traction, that final budget number still sits in front of you, like Sisyphus' boulder at the foot of the mountain, and you have to find money to make all of this a reality and push that boulder up the hill.

This is one of the many circumstances that filmmakers share – the necessity to effectively raise financing to craft a film. In more ways than one, it is the most daunting and anxiety-provoking steps in filmmaking. You have an escrow threshold (that budget number) to reach and a whole lot of paperwork and meetings to muscle through to make it happen. 

The materials for HERE ALONE, which I produced alongside my now close friends David Ebeltoft (who also wrote the script) and Rod Blackhurst (who directed the film), were some of the more impressive and thoughtful I had seen. Everything I was presented showed that they could make this film for this number -- they just needed help getting to that number.

Over the course of three months, we scratched and clawed our way to our budget with more than a few bumps in the road, many unanswered phone calls and emails, and a significant amount of pitching, contextualizing, and game planning. Here's some of what we took away from that roller coaster.

Have Your Sh*% Together

I love a great look-book and a great script as much as the next person, but that does little to assuage the doubt any savvy investor will have about your ability to execute something great on a shoestring budget. Basically it comes down to this -- the creative component is great and incredibly fun, but when it comes to dollars and cents, logistics and planning are king.

HERE ALONE, a post apocalpytic horror thriller Kickstarter feature film starring Lucy Walters, Gina Piersanti and Adam David Thompson
Three pages from the HERE ALONE pitch deck. On the far left, some concept artwork for the film on the cover of the deck. In the middle (and on page 28 of our deck!) some comparable film financial/business information. On the right, a page of visual and tonal reference images.

Absolutely design a killer look-book and a deck, but also build out your schedule and budget down to the last dollar. Have an answer for every question a potential investor will have. Know why you're spending every dollar, down to craft services and walkie rentals. Know what you want and how you are going to get it for every line item in your budget. Be ready for any and all questions a potential investor might have. Having a quick and thoughtful response will remove the opportunity for that investor to say 'no'. If you've moved a conversation far enough along to be talking about an equity investment with a company or institution be fully prepared to answer 'how' in addition to 'why'.

Ask for money and you’ll get advice. Ask for advice and you might get (or find) money.

One of the most humbling lessons you learn when you set out to produce a film independently is just how run-of-the-mill you really are. You quickly learn that everyone, with even an ounce of capability to invest in films, has been approached to do so before by folks just like you. And they are probably a little sick of hearing the standard I-want-money pitch. So, straight up soliciting for money when you first reach out to someone, whether they're seasoned film financiers or high net-worth people in your greater network, is a bit like trying to have the first date take place in your bedroom with the lights off. Investors are people who are just as hesitant and skittish of aggressive soliciting as anyone else would be.

What I mean by this is that we approached our fundraising as another step in a learning experience. We were telling every person we sent materials to (who explicitly requested them) about what we wanted to do, our greater goals and why this mattered so much to us. We also asked them about best practices and advice from their own experience. As a result, doors opened, calls were answered, and emails were returned.

Be prepared to find open doors where you least expect them, then be prepared to walk through that door.

"The creative component is great and incredibly fun, but when it comes to dollars and cents, logistics and planning are king.

Demonstrate value as both a potential return and as an experience

From day one, when development on HERE ALONE started, we took the approach of building a core team and cultivating an experience devoid of ego. To us, this approach would not stop when it came to finding investors. We were transparent and opened up everything to the people we talked to. Sure, we built this film, as well as our vision for its distribution, to be contained, intimate, and with a genre slant because we wanted to position it in the best possible way for investment recoupment. But, we also felt that when you get down to it, to be a financier of independent film is to invest in a creative endeavor, its team, and the experience of building something collaborative.

Whether they had a question about our G&E department or the recoupment waterfall structure, we were always transparent and stressed that that there was nothing secret between production and our investors. Creative input and logistical advice were always welcome and more than once, it benefited our approach to production and post. Just because someone has disposable income to help you realize your film does not mean they are not creative, savvy, and sophisticated problem solvers in the same way independent filmmakers are. And hey, if things go well, a festival premiere after party is a pretty damn fun experience, especially when you can say that you helped the film make it to the screen.

Learn from every NO

For every person who commits to investing in your film, you will have a whole slew of 'no's'. Some of those will be curt and polite to long-winded creative notes of dubious nature at best. You will hear the word NO a lot and you will have to get accustomed to it, but you can also learn from hearing it.

If you pulled the trigger too early, exposing materials to someone, and didn't have the information or answers they needed to warrant continuing the discussion, make damn sure that you have that locked and loaded for the next volley of submissions you make. Have you promised (or even hinted at) something you could not deliver (such as credits, perks, supplemental rights and conditions, etc.)? Then don't ever make any promissory statement without knowing for sure again. Use the 'no's' you encounter on the road to make the asphalt smoother as you press forward.

Noah, Rod Blackhurst (director), and Adam McDaid (DP) on the set of HERE ALONE.

You won't know if you don't ask

Discussions of money is one of the great and enduring taboos in film (and life for that matter), so you have to get comfortable talking about it and asking for it. The other part of this being that you really don't know if that cool uncle of yours who has a couple of jet skis and a lake house (wish I had an uncle like that...) has $12K of disposable income to purchase a share in your LLC unless you ask him. That guy who runs a post-production house that edits corporate videos who has mentioned he wants to break into independent film might be able to come up with a share if you let him work on the edit with you.

Everyone has different mandates, goals and interests in the production space and you will never know if they can be of assistance in your fundraising efforts if you don't ask. Cast a wide net and don't be afraid of being gauche. You can always apologize if someone is taken back, but you can't rewind time if someone you didn't ask says down the line, “Why didn't you call me?” (Strangely enough, that's how I became involved in HERE ALONE in the first place. Rod reached out to me cold on Slated and we got to talking. Now here we are six months later with a Kickstarter and a 75% finished film.)

Finding financing for your film -- it can be done, despite the many obstacles that will get in your way. I have been doing this for the better part of my 20s, so I know it all too well.


Noah is a producer on the upcoming dramatic thriller HERE ALONE which he made with Rod Blackhurst, David Ebeltoft, and a rockstar bunch of actors and crew from the greater NYC area. He was a member of the inaugural Dogfish Accelerator and his films include SUN BELT EXPRESS, BAND OF ROBBERS, and the upcoming sci-fi drama DIVERGE.     

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