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funding

Assume you will never get funding for your film: my key learning from making films

Assume you will never get funding for your film: my key learning from making films

Documentary funding is scarce or non-existent in much of even the developed world. If you live in a place like Denmark, Norway, or Sweden, you're at a statistical advantage. These are countries haverelatively small populations, a ton of funding for the arts, and each country maintains its own broadcast networks that can both fund and purchase projects done within their respective languages. But most of us don't have the Nordic heritage of our lucky brethren. 

What does this mean for non-fiction filmmakers? Well, there are options depending on who you are.

1. If you're independently wealthy, you're at a statistical advantage. You can fund your own projects and forget about this blog post. If you're among the lucky 1% go make a movie like Jamie Johnson, heir to Johnson & Johnson did in 2003! 

2. If you're not independently wealthy, this is going to be painful, like, very painful. Like, extremely mind-bogglingly painful. If you want to apply for documentary funds, you can do this. But my caveat is: as both a novice and (relatively) successful filmmaker, I have tried to apply for these funds and I have never been granted a dime. Not for a commercial success like Amanda Knox, or for an insanely timely and relevant piece like EuroTrump. I have applied with teams that are made up of women, people of color,  foreign -- it doesn't matter. However, it does help to look at the kinds of films that are funded by such grants as the one by the IDA and by Sundance. (Statistically if you are going for the IDA grant you will have much-improved chances if you are a woman or a person of color, or applying with one: As Deadline reports, of the 11 projects selected, 7 are directed by women, 10 have female directors and/or producers, 7 are directed by filmmakers of color, and 8 are directed and/or produced by filmmakers of color.)

3. But I believe there is a third option for the 98% of us who want to make powerful films, aren't independently wealthy, and won't be able to win a grant from a non-profit organization. You could spend your days applying for grants that you may never receive, but you can also spend your days in the field shooting. If you are making a film in your home city, amazing. You can have a day job (or a night job) and still work on your film. If you are making a film somewhere else, you will be okay too. My advice: First, save up some money while you are doing your pre-production. Second, plan a short trip to wherever you want to go as you must make sure there is a story as compelling as the one inside your head. Third, once you know you've got your story, put your place up on Airbnb and put your job on hold. Fourth, go and shoot. It could be years before you get a grant from the IDA or Sundance. But don't look at this as discouraging. In fact, look at it as a challenge for you to overcome. You're up against thousands of qualified people, so sometimes in life, you have to be a go-getter and reach for things yourself. The money may never come, but you will always have your product --your film-- to stand by. Plus, once you get your project off the ground, crowdfunding your post-production will be way easier. 

 

Every Film is a Startup: a look at the similarities and differences between films and startups

Every Film is a Startup: a look at the similarities and differences between films and startups

I have worked for startups (Seamless.com. Quirky.com, Skillbridge.co) and I have made films (Amanda Knox, EuroTrump, and Freedom For The Wolf). There are many similarities about these environments and many differences too. Here's some high level analysis on this topic: 

Similarities: 

1. A high failure rate: Today there are about 10,000 films made per year. Less than 10% of these films will get released in US cinemas; in 2016 the figure was 736. And about 100 of these films will be studio films from Warner Bros, Disney, Fox, Paramount, Sony and Universal. While this may seem like a lot, there are 1 million new businesses created every year. Of these businesses, about 50,000 in the United States raise funding from angel investors. But most films and most businesses will be destined to failure. In the indy film world, you are up against major odds. As Stephen Follows writes, "Over the past ten years, 74% of all the money collected at the UK box office has gone to the top 50 grossing films."

2. Dreamy-eyed people dominate the industry: In an era since Mark Zuckerberg first turned tech stars into rock stars, the tech industry has been dominated by dreamy-eyed people imagining Maseratis, private jets, bottles of Dom Perignon, and boating on the French riviera. This was already how most people felt about the film industry. As such, any industry with bling at the end of the rainbow will attract tons of hangers on, talentless people, and wannabes. 

3. You can bootstrap a startup or a film, and it's getting easier: Good news for the film world. You can buy an amazing $2,000 camera, $2,000 worth of lenses, and $500 worth of sound equipment and bing, bang, boom, you're in business to make a movie. And luckily, most Directors of Photography have already made this investment so it won't fall on you as a director or producer to make such a purchase. In the startup world, tools from Squarespace, Gmail For Work, and even Salesforce can now be modified to fit the "solopreneur" budget. 

Differences: 

1. At startups, the sky's the limit; with a film, you have limited upside: This is the most important difference between startups and films. Let's say you make an excellent indie film on a $1 million budget. You may sell it to Netflix in perpetuity (forever!) for $2 million. After you pay your sales agent (15%) of this fee, you're netting $700,000. And let's say you have you only had one private investor in this film who gets 50% of profits. That leaves you with $350,000. But let's also say you as the producer and the director are equally splitting this upside. That's $175,000 each. And finally, say sayonara to 50% of that money because it's going to the tax man. So, at the end of the day, you've netted yourself less than $100,000. However quite frequently, you will also have to pay out other investors, producers, or people working for your film who benefit from the upside. Sorry Charlie, but this is the harsh reality of indie film. 

However in the startup world, if you're decently successful you'll get acquired by a bigger company, and if you're extremely successful, you'll stay private and make a load of cash or go public and make even more cash. 

2. Startups are much more likely to attract heaps of investment: Some 50,000 startups each year receive "angel" funding in the US. This could be $50,000 or it could be $50,000. Either way, there's a heckuva lot more money being invested into independent startups than there is into independent films. 

3. In a startup you can pivot, in a film you cannot: The word "pivot," now frequently parodied on shows like Silicon Valley, is a very real thing, and startups do this frequently. For example, I have a friend who started an online retail company to compete with Etsy. After working on this for a couple of years, she realized that the advertising technology she had built was far more interesting than the store itself. 

Whether you are making a documentary or making a feature film, it is insanely challenging to make a true "pivot" once your project is underway. In a feature film, it is near impossible. And in documentary, if you are going to call it a "pivot" you might as well just say you are starting to make a film on an entirely different topic and not using any of the footage that you've already shot. This said, one example of a successful pivot in documentary is Bryan Fogel's film, Icarus, now on Netflix (an excellent watch!). In Icarus, Bryan starts off his film by trying to use illegal doping mechanisms to give himself Lance Armstrong-like superpowers. Ultimately he "pivots" and reveals a much larger cheating scandal leading all the way up to Vladimir Putin. Of course there's a bit of timing and luck involved with this pivot, but Bryan capitalized on it very well. This said, unless you "pivot" at the start of your documentary, chances are you are then wasting a ton of time that you will never get back.