Here’s something that gives me pause. I already know that most filmmakers have the business sense of a 9 year old (the ones who have NOT run a lemonade stand that is), but why am I shocked at the amazing demonstrations of their ignorance? About once a month or so, I get requests from filmmakers; usually amateurs who have not made a short yet, that ask me if I will PRODUCE or EXECUTIVE PRODUCE their feature film. They have, as always, a great idea for a movie, or a script that is amazing. When they want me to PRODUCE or EXECUTIVE PRODUCE, what they really mean is they want me to get them money to make their film without any interference.

Ironically, I am very much against criticizing other people’s movies at film meetings and I prefer the coddle approach rather than harsh criticisms when it comes to the “art”. I have often debated with many people the merits of the “tough love” approach to criticism versus the polite way. Ironically, with the same people I have often debated this with, when it comes to financing and money, I am NOT polite in my responses, and the people that want to criticize art publicly, would just politely tell someone asking them for money “no thank you” and I want to flog them for their ignorance and give them “tough love” and hope they at least learn something from my reactions. If all they hear are the polite “No thank you”, they might not ever learn what they are doing wrong, only leaving a trail of horrid first impressions with investors.

So I see a posting for an Ohio movie playing in movie theaters across the country and I take a gander at the trailer on YouTube. The movie looks good, but nothing out of the ordinary for an indie with no name stars shot on a camcorder. Regardless, I subscribe and favorite the trailer to be supportive. Next thing I know I get an email from the filmmaker.

The request states that they made a family oriented film and they see that I make family oriented material (first clue they really didn’t watch ANYTHING I made because neither HORRORS OF WAR or the deceptively titled UNCLE PETE’S PLAY TIME are anything near family oriented). They then proceed to ask me for money or to help them find investors to help them with distribution.

I respond sarcastically (and none too sensitive I might add) that usually distributors pay YOU, not the other way around. The response was then telling me all about their amazing plan to “four wall” their movie, that is rent the theaters and screen the movie themselves (as if I not only didn’t know the definition on four walling, but haven’t done it well over 30 times myself). The best part is the investment plan. He wants $20,000 for the investment in the screenings, and if you put in $2,500 you stand to get 1% (not a typo) of the profits. If you put in $5,000 you DOUBLE your profit percentage (that’s 4%). For the lucky investor who puts up the ENTIRE $20,000 you stand to make 10% of profits.

Okay, first time filmmaker mistakes a plenty. Number one: NEVER EVER ASK OTHER FILMMAKERS FOR MONEY OR INVESTORS. Why on God’s green Earth w they going to give you, especially someone they don’t know, access to money people they built their own relationships with? What the hell is going through these filmmakers’ minds? “Hey, I know you don’t know me, but can you let me have the opportunity to lose the money you’ve been working towards getting? Thanks, I really appreciate it.” Of course not, because every single first time feature filmmaker has the delusion that they will be making so much money, they are doing YOU a favor. You’d be amazed at how many times I receive such “offers” and “opportunities” from filmmakers across the globe. USE YOUR BRAINS, KIDS. I am not and never will share my financial resources with you even if we were good friends, nor do I expect that from my friends I know with investors.

Second mistake and one that was shocking in this deal, the profit percentages. 1% for risking several thousand dollars? Are you kidding me? A SAVINGS ACCOUNT with absolutely ZERO (0) risk of loss of principal offers 3.45% interest. Who in the hell is going to throw their money away on the off chance they might see $25 for risking $2,500 (if the screenings DOUBLE their money after expenses)? In the independent film realm where people are raising their own capital, the usual percentage points offered to potential investors is much more like 40%-60%. This was well established with the EVIL DEAD model from Sam Raimi which even the Coen Brothers modeled their financing with for BLOOD SIMPLE (Joel Coen helped edit EVIL DEAD and they are all still friends today). It’s very simple – high risk investment = high return).

It’s important to note a very dangerous mistake was made in this email to me by phrasing things as “the investor will get 10% profits” without using the qualifiers “can”, “should”, “could”, “may”, etc. By phrasing things this way, the investors can sue you for guaranteeing a return which is also ILLEGAL in the SEC (Securities and Exchange Commission) laws.

Third crucial mistake was not saying what exactly the money is for. Not a peep other than the theater rentals. How much is P&A budget? That’s Print and Advertising, an age old technique that is proven to be still effective today. Here’s a harsh reality, a small local arts paper is much more likely to write a story about your movie screening locally if you BUY an ad with them. Welcome to the realities of the world, kids. If you ask a newspaper about buying some ad space, they even sometimes OFFER a story as a bonus for spending money with them. The delusional of “journalistic integrity” died years ago. For some reason we didn’t read about it in the paper.

Everyone gets excited about their first feature and the over zealousness takes over, superseding common business sense. When you want someone else’s money, you have to be always wary of the old business adage “what’s in it for me?” attitude that every investor has. Getting their name on screen as “Executive producer” is not always worth the loss of thousands of dollars, especially in the harsh economic realities we face today. If you really have a prayer of ROI (Return on Investment), you need to outline in great detail how you are going to do that. They (and I) have no motive to really care about the artistic merits of the project; we’re simply interested in how much do you want and how much more can you get me for taking all the risks with MY money. 1%-10% ain’t worth it.

In this case, we have a first time filmmaker with a first time feature with no name stars. There is no empirical data that shows that this person makes anyone any money from their film work. EVERYONE thinks their ideas and movies are good, and thus will make money.

Why should an investor take this chance on you? Now, the creative yet business minded individuals can answer this question. To say you’re passionate and creative doesn’t really make anyone any money. You can cite several examples of successful first time features such as CLERKS, BLAIR WITCH, etc. and use hard numbers and data to appeal to the business side of the table. You can outline a true business plan and present a prospectus with all the things you intend to do to combat the odds of ROI. Marketing, promotion, press, Internet, and all the things available to an industrious filmmaker make for someone you may want to give money to. The likelihood of ROI is still low and the odds stacked against you, but I’d be more comfortable with someone who wasn’t just wanting my money so they can throw it away on a wing and a prayer that maybe people will flock to see it just on faith.

Be prepared in every way to deal with the non-artistic mindset of investors. You can appeal to their checkbooks by having some business-sense and a solid proposal as to how you are exactly going to make them their money back & profit.

Even yesterday I got an email from some guy asking for help. I’m all for help, but it was this entirely too vague “I need help making my first feature. Can you help me?” and that’s akin to asking “I want to make a building. Can you help me?” So I ask for clarification and something more specific and that’s when he said he was looking for an EXECUTIVE PRODUCER to raise the funds for his first feature.

That’s not always what an EXECUTIVE PRODUCER does, but that is one formal interpretation of the job title. In the Indie world, that’s often the trade you give to an investor; executive producer credit on screen and the DVD art for cash. I am not interested in being that kind of producer for anyone. Why would I?

I am not investing in anyone else’s feature films, nor am I going to introduce anyone to the investors I know, especially not first timer’s who I have never met, worked with, and more importantly, have never done squat for me. This is like some guy on the street asking me if I’d let My Sexy Fiancé Veronica ™ give them a hand job. I’ve spent years cultivating relationships with investors and working hard to make a profitable venture with my filmmaking. These guys, without having lifted a finger to do anything for me nonetheless having MET me, then to ask me to use a decade’s worth of work and contacts for them is offensive. Surely you can see where I am coming from; I don’t know you and you’re asking me to get you thousands to millions of dollars so that you can make a movie.

Sorry folks, but it it’s called the “Movie Business”, so why do so many people forget that second word? I’ll give you a hint it’s BUSINESS. This is why 90% or more of the independent films fail miserably – they don’t run it like a business.

Because the investment and financing aspects are in no way artistic, I have no problem being blunt and brutally honest in my responses. Some jackass approaches me wanting money but can’t tell me the most rudimentary ways they will return on investment don’t deserve a polite “No thanks”; They deserve and ass beating because they can poison a well for other filmmakers.

Categories: articles

Peter John Ross

A filmmaker, a dreamer, and the world's only Dan Akroyd Cosplayer


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