December 10, 2019
Sundance 2020

An Overview of Funding a Sundance Feature

What are the key steps to financing a Sundance feature?

I'm here to shed some light on the steps to funding and producing a film that potentially can make it into the Sundance Film Festival. I'll attempt to be deep, candid and honest in my details so that you can learn or at least gain some valuable information as to how you might be the next producer of a Sundance darling.

For years, I’ve been perplexed as to what is the entry point to Sundance. Who stands behind the programming controls and what is the combination in cracking the Sundance entrance enigma?

I've been to Sundance with films, been rejected by Sundance, and also have been frustrated with Sundance. I've chased the gatekeepers only to discover more gates with more gatekeepers behind them. I've read the writings on the wall that warn of the disappointments even if you prevail. Yet, with all this, I didn't give up. 

The process

I'm one of the few lucky ones who get to have an Executive Producer credit on a Sundance film this year (The Killing of Two Lovers).

I'm lucky. I've spent 15 years chasing the dragon by the tail in order to conquer the beast. It's an honor, a personal journey, and a bucket list item. But the luck I mentioned is not the one that you find in rubbing the Blarney Stone. It's the sort of luck found in the good fortune of timing and following a blind pursuit of cinematic lust. 

Let me begin with how this all worked for me...

At the beginning of each year, I travel to a small farmhouse in Bavaria. It's quiet there. This helps me escape the constant noise of production and the everyday stress of the industry. This is my quiet place for 3 weeks while I drain my batteries and then recharge again to find the energy to create for another year. I pull out dozens of notebooks, drafts of films I've written, scripts that have been passed to me by directors, and treatments I've collected from a plethora of meetings. Some of these films fall into my lap, others are optioned, and some projects are hard-earned victories - they all are possible projects in my mind.

I order the projects from most exciting to least desirable. Then I begin to sort everything, creating two piles. One pile gets my heart, the other gets my common sense. Films I want to make for personal passions and films I want to make because I believe they will be successful.

I know by instinct I will have bills ahead, but I also know I must have the true desire to work on these projects. With this, I'll create my slate of films that I target in either producing, directing or development. With each project, one thing is consistent; there is no funding. As in, no money and with no money in sight. 

I focus on what feels right. This means, my gut instinct. But then even once I've settled on a project I have a new problem in front of me:

Finding the money to make it all happen. 

The "funding fathers"

Investors need confident producers and filmmakers. You will have to show them you're unbreakably positive and determined. That you can answer all the questions. You must be comprehensive about your own story, understanding your tone, and lastly, knowing where this film will be seen. 

Of course, there is another tough aspect to it: you have to make a great film. 

Director, Robert Machoian, reviewing the script.

Here comes to part you'll need to know no matter your choice in funding strategies.

Study it, know it by heart, and what it all means. Know what are you asking for, because funding comes in a variety of shapes and sizes. 

Here are some ways to fund a film:

Free Money

A) Grants  

- A great way to avoid paybacks or profit shares. You make your own calls creatively and stay focused on your vision. 

B) Peer-funding  

- Get your fans, friends, mom to finance your movie with incentives and prizes. Another way to make the movie you want. 

C) Donations 

- This could come in the donation of gear or locations. This is key and with all productions, they rely on this on a sliding scale. 

D) Tax Incentives 

- Whether state by state or country to country, tax incentives offer a way for investors to see back their investment after wrap and before distribution. 

Investment

A) Studio/Production Company 

Most likely they have a pool of interested investors for genre films that are packaged with A-list actors. A few companies, of course, make exceptions to this rule and have been very successful.  Have a famous actor friend and you're in luck maybe. 

B) Private loan 

There are private equity firms that will still risk a loan to filmmakers. 

C) Private financing 

This usually comes from outside the industry who has some extra cash who's looking to play producer or get a foothold higher up the ladder. 

D) Minimum Guarantee 

A minimum guarantee is an initial sum that is paid to the producer by the distributor irrespective of how the film performs. Typically, large producers command a high sum due to their brand that pulls in crowds into cinemas. It's upfront money paid on the potential of the project. 

D) Backstop Funding 

A contract entered into by an independent producer and a movie studio wherein the studio agrees to purchase the movie from the producer at a given date and for a fixed sum. 

E) Match Funding 

One investor agrees to match the initial investment of another. 

Understand and research these principles. I know, this sounds like a job for a producer, yet, a savvy filmmaker goes a lot further in navigating these waters. 

The finance puzzle

So much of this is showing up and knocking on doors, never giving up, and knowing what to say and when to say it.

I'll be honest, I've been told by some of the biggest financiers in the business this year that "I'm sniffing glue", that "I have no f*cking idea how to make a film" and been ghosted after one call or pitch.

Now, that doesn't contend with all the positive interactions, though it does point out you need to know how to handle defeat/negativity. Sometimes you need to stand your ground and other times take the water off a duck's back approach. 

The practice

There's a secret sauce to all this in finding the funding. A good part of is patience, another part of it is being persistent. The two create a tug-o-war and keep you guessing as to how you move forward. Move too fast and you look desperate, move too slow and you look disenchanted giving off a false sense of confidence.

When you know its right, the next steps come easy (before they get harder again). 

The film I produced at Sundance was exactly that and all of the above. It had hard days and successful days. The way the film found funding might surprise you and might even encourage you to follow the same path.

I'm going to get into the specifics of how I funded this film in my next post where I'll breakdown the play by play.

One more thing. Leave your comments below and I'll attempt to get back to you!

Your Comment

12 Comments

Thank you for this article - it's great to see this demystified like this. Looking forward to the next installment.

December 11, 2019 at 7:16PM

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Carl
81

Thanks Carl. My hope is to put a positive spin on all this. There are so many ways to make a film and I hope to offer a few suggestions to inspire your next film.

January 8, 2020 at 7:19AM

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Oden Roberts
Writer
Writer/Director/Producer

"I've spent 15 years chasing the dragon by the tail in order to conquer the beast." That is some terrible purple prose, there. Perhaps this is a subtle-beyond-recognition bit of satire? The Bavarian farmhouse bit suggests so.

December 14, 2019 at 1:47PM

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Thanks for the comment, Colin. Perhaps the prose is bit purple, but i'm here to have some fun and help where I can. Happy New Year from my cabin in Germany. Check out my IG for pictures. :)

January 8, 2020 at 7:21AM

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Oden Roberts
Writer
Writer/Director/Producer

cool, i agree with The finance puzzle
So much of this is showing up and knocking on doors, never giving up, and knowing what to say and when to say it.

December 18, 2019 at 4:03AM

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Mary R. Rodriguez
Chemical equipment tender
118

Thanks, Mary. Words that my father passed onto to me. Applies to all businesses, create and or not.

January 8, 2020 at 7:22AM

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Oden Roberts
Writer
Writer/Director/Producer

Thank you for this great and wonderful piece of information. I really appreciate the way you have truly explained these things, so briefly and so minutely

Regards

December 23, 2019 at 5:01AM

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zahidkk
74

Thanks Zahidkk. Trying my best to assist filmmakers where I can. Such an exciting time to be telling stories.

January 8, 2020 at 7:22AM, Edited January 8, 7:23AM

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Oden Roberts
Writer
Writer/Director/Producer

A very good discussion on this page. Thanks

December 24, 2019 at 4:17AM

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Aaron Earnest
English Writing Expert
84

Thanks Aaron. It's great for all of us to engage in this to help promote creative thinking and ways to fund our projects.

January 8, 2020 at 7:24AM

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Oden Roberts
Writer
Writer/Director/Producer

Best article in No Film School since, hum, a very long time. Can't wait to read the rest (well, I can wait, but not too long).

December 30, 2019 at 3:45AM

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Vincent Galiano
Filmmaker / Screenwriter / Photographer
344

Thanks Vincent. Kind words. I'm a huge fan of NFS and find it's great to be a contributor but I still use it as a source of info for my daily routine.

January 8, 2020 at 7:25AM

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Oden Roberts
Writer
Writer/Director/Producer