How I Made an Independent Feature Film on My Own Terms
“The Financing of the Thing”
This is the third article of a multi-part series dedicated to the genesis and creation of the independent feature sci-fi film Mad Genius. It is both a personal expose as well as educational article series with the intention of sharing creative business lessons through the transparent obstacles and successes of the project.
“All we had to do, was make the thing.”
But wait. We’re not quite there yet are we? No, we needed the money to make the thing. So, how did I get the scrill?
First, let me say there are a million ways to finance a creative project. What I chronicle below is the unorthodox way I financed MAD GENIUS. The only way I was able to accomplish this was after some incredible lessons I learned early on in life about business and finance. As a creative, you don’t need to be an expert business or finance person to use these fields to your advantage, but I highly recommend you attain the basics of these fields to empower yourself as a creative force.
My goal with these articles is to help you on your creative entrepreneurial journey, and the number one way I think you can empower yourself as a creative is to learn the basics of business and finance. The more knowledge you have, the more powerful you are. And you don’t need an MBA to do so. I highly recommend checking out Finance For Creative People for an incredible set of simple lessons about increasing your financial intelligence for an amazing creative career on your own terms.
Before we dig into the details, you might first ask, why didn’t you look for financing from Hollywood or smaller financing company? Why go about these crazy shenanigans to do this thing? Here’s the truth. The movie business (and other creative industries) by no intentional fault of its own can suck the soul from a creative project. Also, for the movie business to give you the budget needed to make a film, they need to feel very confident you can deliver. They want to be “safe” and rightly so. I had to prove myself. That’s what this film was. And I can happily report that I’ve since met with major movie producers who’ve seen and loved Mad Genius. We’ve screened at Cannes, in London, Austin and San Francisco. I’ve been in talks for three other movies. My new script is about to be shopped as we speak. And I am no longer just a “guy with a script” – I’m a proven feature filmmaker who’s done some real sh*t. I’ve proven myself as someone they can trust with their money.
Another benefit of my zaney fundraising methodology is it allowed me to contract every funding deal so that my company still fully retained the movie and its rights. I am going to make residuals for the rest of my life from this film, because my company owns it. This is unheard of if you are working with movie business money. Again, my approach with MAD GENIUS is more as a creative entrepreneur, than as a creative gun for hire.
Okay! So how did I financeMAD GENIUS? Let’s break it down.
I INVESTED IN MYSELF
Quick backstory on me. After college, I worked as an assistant editor for director Yarrow Kraner. Then I went out as an independent director and made my first documentary film for the Wounded Warriors Foundation. That film kicked off a span of years where I produced and branded content for major brands like Intel, Virgin America, the Olympic Games, etc.
So I made some money. I had $75,000 cash in my bank account at the start of 2014. I put $10k down on a new car. So I was at $65k. Then, I took $50k and bought an investment property outside of California. I got tenants, and their rent check paid the mortgage costs of the investment.
Then 2014 turned out to be the worst year of my career ever. I signed with a big commercial company… and literally hit a glass ceiling.
I lived cheap, so my remaining nest egg was still there. And I did have some jobs so I wasn’t completely dying. But 2014 ended and I had a decision to make. As you’ve heard in previous articles, I chose to move into a warehouse artist collective in downtown Los Angeles to make my damn movie.
So, after a few months of rewriting the script and bringing on my team members and producers what was the second investment I made?
SPECIAL NOTE: As a creative, when you talk to people about coming onto the project but you say, “I am thinking about doing XYZ…” It means nothing. Instead, the way I approached people was by saying “I am going to do this thing, no matter what, and I’d love to have you join me.” Everyone said yes.
I INVESTED IN WHAT WOULD GAIN MORE INVESTMENT
Okay, so my money is draining. I certainly don’t have enough to make the movie with. What did I do?
I invested my own money into an amazing casting director, Tineka Becker. Tineka had just worked on the X-Men Apocalypse movie. How in the hell did I get her to work on my non-existent movie at that point?
- I had a decent reel as a commercial director. This made her feel good about reaching out to talent and agents, that I could get the job done.
- She loved my crazy ass script.
- I spent two weeks creating a 3 minute pitch video from stock footage. I wish I could show it here, but I don’t own the rights to the footage. But essentially it was a pitch of the film and the style.
- I had enough money of my own to guarantee paying the actors according to the SAG ULB contract, even if it meant I had to shoot the movie on my cell phone.
In the movie business, cast is everything. The reason you hear about these massive salaries for actors is that they often are the reason a film gets the “green light.” So, I knew my business well enough to know I needed a great cast to get more money. It all started with the investment in Tineka and the pitch materials.
I asked Tineka, “How are we getting these incredible people, for almost no money?” She laughed and replied, “It’s because of your reel, pitch video, and mostly the script. Most actors have to read bad scripts. Mad Genius is something cool and unique.”
So after about 6 weeks of casting, we booked our final cast. This allowed me to raise private money to shoot the thing. But it wasn’t exactly easy.
I OFFERED AN INNOVATIVE FINANCING IDEA
I approached a wealthy private individual who I knew owned a variety of real estate property. I had been talking with them for awhile about what I was doing. I had planted the seed long ago. I developed the relationship. Now I had something to show them with this stellar cast we had secured. Finally I said, “Look, I’m doing this crazy movie. I need $125,000 to shoot it.”
Let’s stop for a second. Asking someone, even a multi-millionaire, for $125k in cash is insane. Movies are terribly risky. And this would be like me coming to you and saying, hey, you’ve got $10,000 in your bank account, can you give me $1,250? You’d be like, “F*ck off! That’s 12% of my hard earned money!”
So what did I do? I said to the wealthy individual, “What if we take out a bank loan on my investment property, would you co-sign?” Now, instead of asking them for $100k, worst case, they would only be responsible for a $500/mo payment. They would also get my property. I essentially gave them a “no brainer” offer.
They said “Deal” and I had my $125k. Essentially, I turned my $50k initial investment into $125k of cash to redeploy. I also kept my investment property, instead of having to sell it to finance the film with the cash. Essentially, I was doubling up my investments. See how that worked?
Of course, there was risk to me, as I was settling myself with a loan/lien on my investment property. The loan payment would be about $500/mo for 20 years if the movie didn’t generate money. Or I would lose my $50k investment in the house. But I believed in the film, and I was going to make this thing no matter what.
Is this particular strategy advisable to the average Jane? No. But what it shows is that having Financial Intelligence can greatly empower you to be creative, and allow you to get your projects done.
I SHOWED THE MERITS OF THE PROJECT
Whew. After a year of development and prep, we shot the movie. You can get those gritty details in our next article Part IV “The Making of the Thing: Prep”
But now what? I had a movie, but only about $5,000 remaining to finish the film. Of course I knew I would need more. About $100k to be exact. This would be for music, VFX, SFX, color. I was operating on some risky business here. After exhausting my network of potential investors initially, I knew I needed a full cut of the film to show them.
I also learned one of my biggest lessons here. I thought my cast, having been in Iron Man, Tarzan, Emmy winning TV shows, etc. + my high end production value from the shoot would be enough to get the rest financed on just a teaser. I was wrong. I met with a big sales company executive and she said, unfortunately, movie stars have to be HUGE now in order to get money these days. Instead of getting this data ahead of time, I had used faulty knowledge or intuition. That is why I recommend getting as much data and future forecasting as possible in Things You Must Do Before Making Your Creative Project.
So I had to get a cut of the film done. This would then hopefully inspire an investor to deliver the rest of the financing needed. I ended up having to cut most the film on my own. This was terribly difficult, but in the end, empowered me again to control the destiny of the film. Because of this, I was able to tweak the edit all the way until delivery. But, that first cut got us our finishing funds.
Over the course of prep and production, I had some interest from mentors, who I had been sharing the film and my doings with along the way. One of these folks introduced me to big private tech money. They saw the cut, which, let me remind you was without VFX, SFX, music, color… It was over two hours long… But they invested, and the money had no strings attached and my company still owned everything.
In my financing pitch, I made the case that this type of story was missing from the marketplace and that it captured the spirit of a generation who could change the world from their bedrooms. My hypothesis was confirmed when Mr. Robot became a hit TV show right as our film went into production. Instead of trying to sell some “old folks” on my crazy ass story, I sold the bigger societal movement, the “trend” behind the film.
Why did they invest? Mostly, they invested in me. I’ve since heard this a million times about entrepreneurs and start-up founders. The same thing applies. Private money invests in you. Institutional money, invests in your business or your assets.
Another big lesson I learned in this process was that, despite some ill advised actions on my part, it was my continual perseverance and aim for excellence that saved the project and made it what it is today. My persistence and belief are the things that were necessary. I think, no matter how gracefully you plan and finance your creative endeavors, you will need these qualities to succeed.
HOW I WILL DO IT NEXT TIME
At the moment (7/11/18) we’ve made most of the film’s budget back in foreign sales and cable deals. The icing on the cake, (my portion), will come from the digital VOD sales and merchandising. But the main ROI I will gain is the countless doors that have opened for my creative career. And not just in the movie industry either. From the new business acumen and connections I’ve gained along the way, I’ve encountered several other creative business opportunities which I would not have gained otherwise. People know what I’ve done, and they have confidence in me.
My next film project will be financed more traditionally. I want the support, I want the baked in distribution. But what has this process given me? I now have a huge advantage over other filmmakers who simply are creative “guns for hire.” Why? Because the money people can’t push me around because I probably know their game as well as they do. I’ve been in the nitty gritty of film finance. I know both tricks of the trade, and tricks of the maverick. I have the knowledge, the acumen to be a major player in the entire process. I offer so much more. This experience has empowered me to do just that.
How I Made an Independent Feature Film on My Own Terms