Great Business Ideas: Finance Your Independent Film

Great Ideas for your Small Business:

Finance Your Independent Film

Powered by black coffee, peter hall raced downtown in New York City to pick up 10,000 slick postcards promoting Delinquent, his independent film that opened in September 1997 in Los Angeles and New York. Rushing back uptown, he double-parked in Columbus Circle, risking a ticket to FedEx 5,000 cards to Los Angeles.

“I have to pour it on the opening weekend, then go back into battle,” said Hall, a former financial journalist turned entrepreneurial filmmaker. While major studios spend an average of $19.8 million marketing their films, Hall spent about $5,000 on postcards, stickers, buttons, and tee- shirts to promote the film that had been his life for five years. After two years on the international film festival circuit, he finally found a distributor willing to give it a shot in America.

Like hundreds of other independent filmmakers, Hall personally raised the $300,000 he needed to write, produce, and direct Delinquent. He maxed out a collection of high-limit credit cards, directed karaoke videos, ghost-wrote articles, and cashed-in on a few high-flying biotech stocks. He had to do it all himself because “This is a movie full of people with no connections,” he said.

As tough as it is to make your own movies, getting them seen is becoming a bit easier. In 1997 actor and director Robert Redford teamed up with Newton, Massachusetts– based General Cinemas to open a chain of Sundance Cine- mas to show independent films. Redford’s Sundance Channel also is cablecasting independent films twenty-four hours a day in selected markets around the United States, and the Independent Film Channel has been showcasing entrepreneurial films since 1994. “Filmgoers are starved for new ideas, voices, and visions,” said Redford, who founded the Sundance Institute in Utah in 1981.

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Although the number of art movie houses is dwindling, the success of many bigger-budget independent films, including Like Water for Chocolate, The Brothers McMullen, and Sling Blade, inspires novice filmmakers to raise money any way they can. “It’s hard [to make a movie] even with $1 million,” said Caroline Kaplan, director of programming and production for the Independent Film Channel.

Across the country, Michelle and Michael Wehling from San Clemente, California, decided to make their own films through Cedar Creek Productions after struggling to find work as actors for ten years. “We had to treat it like a business to make it work,” said Michelle Wehling. But she admits making a movie is not the way to get rich quick. In fact, they had to sell one of their cars to pay a sound editing bill. “Still, nothing else was as fulfilling as this,” said Wehling.

In 1995 Michelle and Michael set up a limited liability corporation to raise about $180,000 from friends and family members to produce their first film, Out of the Darkness.

The R-rated psychological thriller stars Michelle, who plays a sweet but dangerous pregnant robber. “Our investors made a 55 percent return on their money on our first film,” said Wehling. They made money by selling distribution rights to about a dozen foreign countries, although the movie was not widely seen in the United States.

Cedar Creek’s investors stayed around for Time Shifters, which cost about $350,000 to produce. The film is a futuristic drama featuring television star Corbin Bernsen and his mother, soap-opera star Jeanne Cooper.

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Despite the expense and anxiety, independent filmmakers continue to thrive. Redford’s Sundance Institute receives 650 feature-length films, 200 documentaries, and 1,500 short films a year, according to John Cooper, associate director of the respected festival. About forty feature films are screened at the high-profile festival, but about 80 percent of those eventually end up in a theater somewhere, even if for just a few days.

“It gets harder every year to make a film, but at the same time, more get made every year,” said Cooper. “People used to put together grants to make these films; now private investors are big.”

That may give some hope to Peter Hall, who is probably still paying off the bills for Delinquent.