Saturday, September 25, 2010

The Troubled Indie Film Business

Getting money to make a movie has never been easy, whether it’s getting your script to the one studio development exec in the entire universe who will put his or her career behind it, or piece together the distribution deals, investor equity, tax subsidy on the indie side, a process which often takes years.

And now, like the old stoner movie says, things are tough all over. In Los Angeles, one couldn’t drive around without seeing the familiar sight of grip trucks parked almost illegally on the street, with PA’s yapping into walkie-talkies and grips milling around with all kinds of hardware hanging off their ratty shorts. Now, production is down by more than fifty-percent. And state governments are reevaluating their policies for dispensing subsidies to producers, and talking about repealing the programs altogether.

In the UK, the government has not only abolished the UK Film Council, but is now targeting every organization set up to dispense the Queen’s shilling to starving British filmmakers. Before long, films like the much-lauded THE KING’S SPEECH will be fewer and farther between from Old Britannia.

David Bergstein’s offenses are not criminal merely because he stole from investors who trusted him, but also because he has sullied the ground for earnest producers seeking funds for their quality projects, who really value creative vision over profit. And the sick thing is Bergstein might still turn it around; crazier things have happened in Hollywood. And in that case, no example will be made.

In distribution, the last Toronto produced a healthy round of big deals for high profile projects, but we won’t know until the next AFM, one of the “real” marketplaces, if the volume of deals is finally rebounding.

The time is coming for the few people who still have money to invest in film production and have the will to do so to rise up. The investors who had to make non-recourse investments into films before the talent deals were all signed can now take the place of gap financiers, recouping their money right after the banks. Or with fewer and fewer banks loaning to productions, private investors can now sit at the head of the table where previously they were lucky to sample the scraps.

It sounds so simple, but everyone needs to tighten up their game. Writers need to take more time to get their scripts to that place where the story really clicks. And producers need to be more diligent in finding scripts that are worth putting three-to-five years of their life and other people’s money into. And when they go into production, they need to look farther and deeper for the deals and discounts that can affect the bottom-line markedly. Films aren’t producing the sexy returns that once justified excessive spending and padded producer- and chain-of-title fees.

There is still room to fund, produce, and distribute independent films, but there is no more room for bullshit. If you’ve got a truly good script with a bankable cast, figure out what it can make in the worst, adequate, and best scenarios, and find a way to make it for a reasonable price. Net profits are ever-mythical, but great movies make money in the short-term and okay movies are bankable as library assets in the long-term. If you’ve got a movie that you can make for $5 million, odds are you can make it for 2.5. Producers need to think like someone who lost their job and is living off savings: Do I really need to spend money on this, or will someone else give it to me for a credit? Business is so bad for vendors, post-production houses, and camera rentals that all kinds of deals are possible.

With the biggest stars reducing their fees for the studios, common sense is currently taking hold in this “New Economy”. People are waiting for the recession to magically be over and for happy days to be here again. But when were days ever really that happy for film finance and production. Even in the early days of Sundance, when were the production companies and distributors ever flush? Distributors have always used producer profits to keep their own lights on, and with recourses like innocuous IFTA arbitration and producers that can’t afford to sue, why should this practice ever cease? When profits are being doled out, there needs to be transparency at every level, from exhibition to distributor to producer. The Weinsteins perfected the the hiding overages in P&A spends to a science, and now they can’t even buy back their own library. Lies and deceit will only bring down what is left of the independent film market.

The road from script to screen is rockier than ever, and instead of counting on things to get easier, everyone needs to reevaluate the habits and practices that brought us here.

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