Monday, September 27, 2010

Ask-an-Expert: Steven Beer on Packaging and Financing Films in the Age of Empowerment

Packaging and Financing Films in the Age of Empowerment - by Steven Beer

Last December I penned an article entitled “A Decade of Filmmaker Empowerment Coming” for The article presaged an era of empowerment for independent filmmakers; an era in which the filmmaker or producer takes a hands on approach to marketing and distributing their films. In this new era of empowerment, the antiquated industry standards for success like “all rights” deals from mini-majors are supplanted by the filmmaker’s unique definition of success—they are no longer tethered to the industry’s traditional priorities and requirements. Producers today are now able to establish customized and scalable distribution plans to snugly fit their production, rather than endeavoring to fit a round peg in a square hole.

This empowerment theme infused the Packaging and Financing “Ask-An-Expert” panel discussion this weekend at the 2010
IFP Conference. The panel, on which I served as moderator, included CAA agent Stuart Manashil, Paladin distribution exec Mark Urman, Fortissimo international sales VP Winnie Lau, and SAG Indie Rep Michael Sladek. The panelists’ candid comments based on their extensive experience confirmed that the traditional approach to packaging and financing films is under scrutiny. An array of novel alternatives to the traditional model is now at the empowered producers’ and filmmakers’ fingertips.

While the panelists acknowledged a shrinking market in which fewer traditional distributors are releasing independent films, they also noted the opportunity this created to synergize packaging and financing in order to help get a project off the ground. Given the higher bar to the traditional “all rights” distribution deal, Mark Urman of Paladin advised audience members to consider raising funds for P&A along with monies to finance production. With funds in hand, empowered producers can leverage these monies to raise the profile of the film with a theatrical release and increase the value of the film’s ancillary media and international sales.

Winnie Lau reported that the international marketplace faced competition from increased local productions and more selective buyers. Over and over again, Winnie said, these buyers seek films with strong packaged elements such as recognized cast and a proven director. The relationship between finance and package is becoming increasingly intertwined; a valuable package of elements (cast, script, director, etc.) facilitates production finance through reliable sales estimates and pre-sales. A strong package is the empowered producer’s key to a tool chest filled with viable financing methods.

Panel guidelines required a constructive approach from both the experts and the audience. Problems were viewed as challenges to be overcome and there was a genuine appreciation for positive trends over the past year. Stuart Manashil from CAA shared that, due to market realities and technological developments, the common $3 million dollar independent feature budget is now reduced to $1 million. For many filmmakers, getting their package financed is becoming easier.

On the subject of packaging, Michael Sladek from SAG Indie discussed how SAG’s reduced scale requirements for modestly budgeted films afford filmmakers the ability to work with skilled and recognizable talent at minimal cost. The panelists all agreed that the presence of established names in the package translated to greater value in terms of raising equity and leveraging international sales into production dollars. The higher quality of the SAG talent adds a material selling point to the package for an empowered producer, and as Sladek stated, it will no longer cost you an arm and a leg to get it.

The panelists also lent their thoughts on the market for short films. The panelists agreed that the market value for short films was limited. With a few exceptions, such as when the short film generated interest for a feature adaptation, short films were mostly viewed as calling cards for the directors. The experts also urged filmmakers just starting out to work with experienced producers who could leverage their credibility to heighten the project’s file and accelerate both the packaging and finance process.

I pressed the expert panelists on the ultimate “chicken or the egg” question: What comes first, packaging or financing? According to the panelists and other experts who weighed in on-line, the answer is unclear. On the one hand, the limitless bank account can purchase the most valuable properties and talent. On the other hand, according to an experienced and successful film financier, a valuable package is an essential condition to a finance commitment. No matter which side you fall on, today’s empowered filmmakers and producers have a bevy of tools at their disposal with which to put together a valuable package or secure financing. It’s a bright future full of opportunity for innovation, and the empowered filmmaker will be on the forefront to meet it.

Please share opinion and your experience. I hope to see you at industry events in the months to come. Feel free to email me with questions and comments:

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Ask-an-Expert: Cinereach's Reva Goldberg on Fundraising Strategy

In my previous post I shared some fundamentals of the fundraising landscape I wish someone had told me when I was getting started. If you’ve been through it once or twice, this post will probably cover some things experience has already taught you, or simply reassure you that you’re not alone! If not, I’d love for you to comment and let me know some additional things you learned-by-doing. In future posts I’ll move on from covering the beginning of the fundraising process for projects in their early stages, to tackling more advanced tips for further progressed films.

So I’m guessing you have a specific documentary film you’re about to produce, or you’ve already started making one. You’ve already encountered access to a fascinating subject at an important time and you jumped at the chance to tell this story as only you can. You have to get (and keep) moving. It’s not a question of whether, but of how, you will fuel your project.

This post also assumes that because of your passion and commitment to this project, your primary goal is to complete this film as you envision it, and without driving yourself to financial ruin. [For some useful insight into the financial realities of a career in independent film, I highly encourage you to read Esther B. Robinson’s posts for Filmmaker Magazine, including this one, and this one].

In my experience, your strategy for getting your film made should stem from three key things: the resources you can access independently; the stage your film is at (i.e. development, pre-production, production, post, etc.); and your track record as a filmmaker.

Understanding and embracing this triumvirate will help you: figure out which funders to approach and when; create a working (living, breathing, evolving) budget and cash flow plan; anticipate where you may hit bumps on the way to completion; and figure out what to say if/when someone asks you that all-important question “what do you need to get this done?”

Your existing resources help propel your project forward through each stage of production, regardless of whether and when you receive donations, grants or other financing. As you advance through the stages of production and get closer to completion, it becomes easier to gain funder confidence in your ability to complete a good film. The better your filmmaking track record, the earlier in your production you can inspire funder confidence.

Each funder has its preference for how early in the life of a project, and in a filmmaker’s career, it prefers to become involved. Understanding your own triumvirate, however, along with researching your fundraising targets well, will help you crack that code. I hope to focus on this specific point more in a future post, and/or during the panel I’ll moderate at this year’s IFP Filmmaker Conference (Tuesday, Sept. 21 at 12pm). I also hope to discuss the idea of approaching funders who are less familiar with the film industry, and who may have some different priorities when it comes to confidence in you and your project. Even given the two x-factors I just mentioned, I think the triumvirate is a helpful guide.

I also recommend taking full inventory of your existing resources, estimating what you’ll need and when, as you move from production to post and beyond. Taking an objective look at where you are in your career as a filmmaker will also be helpful. Have you completed a work (of any length) that demonstrates what you can achieve and somehow resembles (thematically, stylistically, or otherwise) the project you’re currently working on? If not, it may be more productive to recognize that your current project is an exciting new proving ground, for itself and your future work.

Resources is a broad term I’m using to cover anything and everything you can put towards this film. I suggest that you view any resource you can invest in your project as an integral piece of your funding pie, not valued more or less than donations, grants or other financing that comes your way. It’s all part of getting it done. This pool includes everything from the personal cash you’ve put aside for your film [and please be smart about doing this so you don’t crash and burn!], to the camera and mics you can borrow from “the cage” at your alma mater, to the friend who owns an Armenian restaurant and wants to offer free catering for your first fundraising party because your film follows a family of recent Armenian immigrants. Think creatively about this one. There are more options than you think!

Each type of resource you can inventory deserves its own post, if not its own book, but in my experience as a fundraiser and a reviewer of grant applications, the resources that are most valuable and get you furthest over time are 1) your passion and commitment to your project 2) ownership of the technical and creative skills and tools of production and 3) the people who love you, a lot.

No doubt you’re so fired up about your current project that you will dedicate the next several years of your life to birthing it. Luckily, your perseverance is the single most important force in getting to the finish line. The fire in your belly is also the emotional glue that keeps everyone you rely on to help you (crew, subjects, even donors and funders) “on the bus.”

I know this one is especially hard to hear, but the sooner you embrace it the better: if you and your team have the means to shoot and edit yourselves without having to hire out (even if your skills are limited), you won’t have to miss capturing any of the important moments that are critical to realizing your vision. That footage in the can is your holy grail! You’ll hone your skills as you go along, and you’ll be able to cut selects together for potential funders, too.

And finally, your inner-circle, those you know you can count on. These are the first (and probably also final) people you’ll ask for donations (cash or in-kind) because they already believe in you and are invested in your success. You will have to ask explicitly (they’re not mind-readers), and time your asks sensitively and strategically, but they will do what they can to help you. They will also be the people who help you gain momentum when it’s time to conduct crowd-funding or audience building campaigns on the Web [see the great resource page Ingrid Kopp created for her ‘Digital Bootcamp’ if you have no idea what I’m talking about]. I also recommend applying for fiscal sponsorship so that you can offer proof of a tax-deductible gift when friends donate to your project (that fiscal sponsorship application is also great practice for grant writing).

All this is to say that it is truly very hard for an inexperienced filmmaker to gain funder confidence during the earlier stages of a project. I promise, though, as a project nears completion, the playing field becomes more even, especially if the project is really, really awesome. What this means for you is that the less experienced you are, the more progress you’ll have to make on your own before you attract their attention. It may feel unfair, that so many supporters want to be there for the glory, and not for the gritty struggle. Yes, it can be a very lonely trek sometimes. But then again, it’s your movie, you own it, and you’re the one who will feel the greatest reward when the thing you crafted makes it all the way home.

You’ll also find that the further along you get, the more the project crystallizes for you, theoretically and physically. When you start to see where you’re going you won’t struggle as much to talk and write concisely and compellingly about it. You’ll know what your best footage is and what emotions it illicits. These are highly powerful tools of influence. With them, you can rally excitement, confidence, and finally cash.

Reva Goldberg is Communications & Fellowships Manager at Cinereach (, an NYC not-for-profit film foundation and production company that champions vital stories, artfully told. There she heads up the Reach Film Fellowship program which provides a grant and seven months of mentorship to emerging filmmakers producing socially conscious short films. She also handles all public communications, as well as serving on the grants selection committee. Reva has an extensive background in film production, fundraising and audience building. Before joining Cinereach, she was a producer at Pureland Pictures where she produced the documentary All of Us (which aired on Showtime in 2008) and co-produced Pureland’s Toe to Toe, a narrative feature that premiered at Sundance ‘09. In 2004, Reva was Associate Producer of an Emmy-nominated History Channel documentary on the 9/11 Commission (produced by CBS). She has worked with TLC, UPN, Discovery, The Travel Channel, Washington Square Films/Arts and Cronkite
Productions. Reva likes to tweet about opportunities for independent filmmakers via @RevaGoldberg and @Cinereach.

Monday, September 13, 2010

Ask-an-Expert: Basil Tsiokos on What NOT to do for Film Festivals

Dear Filmmakers:

I recently launched a documentary focused blog entitled “what (not) to doc” where, among other topics, I discuss things filmmakers should (and shouldn’t) do in their documentaries, from my subjective viewpoint of course. For this month’s IFP blog post, I thought I’d take a similar approach, and address some of the things filmmakers in general should (and shouldn’t) do when dealing with film festivals, especially when you’re seeking your premiere festival screenings. This advice comes from years of dealing with film festival submissions and should serve you well to keep in mind. While you might think some of these tips sound like personal pet peeves, believe me, programmers talk to one another, and I’ve heard similar opinions from a wide range of fest staff.

If you’re a seasoned filmmaker who’s submitted work to lots of festivals before, this first point is probably not for you. As I mentioned in my first blog post for IFP: you have to do your research. Make sure your film is eligible for the festival to which you’re submitting. You shouldn’t blindly submit to any festival – not only is that expensive and time consuming, it could be a big waste of time if the festival won’t ever consider showing your film because it doesn’t fit their criteria. Visit the fest’s website and read their submission guidelines first. I repeat, READ the guidelines first. Do this before you email the festival to ask them questions. I can’t tell you how many times I would get a message from a filmmaker asking for such basic information as what my festival dates were or when the submission deadline was – information that was always available on the website and in the submission guidelines. While programmers are going to judge your film on its own merits, you are making a first impression of sorts personally when you send that email asking really basic questions.

Now, of course, if, after reviewing their website, you still have questions that are unaddressed, by all means, contact the festival. While this is an opportunity for you to potentially whet the programmer’s appetite about your project, it’s a good idea to keep your message brief. Often, but not always, the general informational email addresses that festivals use are answered by interns or administrative staff, and they may or may not have a role in programming, so attaching electronic presskits, photos, and going into great detail about your film is probably not a good idea.

Related to this is the generally na├»ve advice I’ve heard propagated many times over the years – that filmmakers should contact a film festival in an attempt to establish contact and “get to know” the programmers to give their films a better shot of being selected. Typically this has taken the form of a cold call – an awkward cold call. An awkward phone call that does you no good and, in fact, may have the opposite effect you’re intending, depending on your approach. A lot of festivals receive hundreds, if not thousands, of entries. Programmers simply don’t have time to get on the phone with every single filmmaker submitting a project in order to hear their sales pitches, essentially. I don’t mean that to sound as dismissive as it might – programmers of course should be excited to find out about new films: that’s part of their jobs. However, if you’re going to submit your film already, or if you already have, the festival’s going to see your film. Calling up a programmer to sell him/her on your film almost never results in you forming some special bond – the most the programmer can say is “sounds interesting, I look forward to watching the screener,” and s/he was going to do that anyway. The programmer doesn’t know you or your work, unless you have a track record of which s/he’s aware, and a single phone call isn’t really going to solve that, and, in fact, could take time away from the work the programmer needs to be doing. If you’re especially aggressive or too persistent in calling or emailing, it could also have a reverse effect than what you intended, and make the programmer remember you and dread your project.

A variation of this which I wouldn’t exactly say to do for every festival or for every film, but is a lot more sensible, is to have one of the programmer/festival’s known, trusted advisors (or a filmmaker who is an alumna/e of that fest) contact the fest on your film’s behalf. This is a lot different from you making a cold call – and it’s not because your advocate is someone famous or one of the programmer’s friends, it’s because the programmer has some sense of their taste and can judge accordingly whether to pay attention to their opinion or not. Hearing about a project from them is more of an informed endorsement than a self-serving sales pitch, provided your advocate has actually seen your film - a must before asking them to make contact! Keep in mind you are calling in favors here, so be careful about whom you ask and for which projects.

Once again, ultimately, always remember: your film is going to have to make its case for itself, separate from whatever praise your advocate or you yourself heap upon it. The proof will be in what’s on your screener, and how a programmer reacts to that.

In my next post, I’ll address a few more bits of advice regarding what (not) to do during the submission process, including the role of promotional materials/presskits, how to respond to rejection and to acceptance by a festival.

This issue and many more will undoubtedly come up during IFP's Independent Film Week, September 19-23. Join me on Wednesday, September 22 at Noon as I moderate the panel "Positioning Your Film for Festivals and Buyers."

ABOUT THE WRITER: Basil Tsiokos is a Programming Associate, Documentary Features for Sundance, consults with documentary filmmakers and festivals, and recently co-produced Cameron Yates’ feature documentary “The Canal Street Madam.” Follow him on Twitter @1basil1 and at

Ask-an-Expert: Liz Ogilvie and Paola Freccero of Crowdstarter on the Plus Side of Free

FREE does not mean the end of the world for your film

We’re writing from the Toronto Film Festival – which basically is the first week of school for the film industry each year – and in between soaking up English language remakes of festival darlings, eating popcorn for breakfast and air-kissing the same the 200 people we saw at the last festival, we went to check out a panel on marketing independent features and docs. The panel talked about all the usual stuff – social networking, grassroots outreach, materials, PR, etc. But at one point, the topic of “free” came up. As in, should you give away your film for free in the interest of promoting it? As usual, this started a lively back and forth between the traditionalists (“piracy!” “lost profits!” “de-valueing the product!”) and the modernistas (“word of mouth!” “audience building!” “if they want it for free they’re going to get it anyway so why not give it to them!”).

This debate got us thinking: why does everyone think that giving away a film for free is a new idea? It’s been a marketing principle since, well, since there were such things as marketing principles. Sure, it looks a little different now, but really, this is NOT a new concept and, frankly, it’s nothing to be afraid of…

Back when we started in the industry (scarily enough, 20 years ago!), independent films and docs were the next big thing. It was the era of Sex, Lies and Videotape and Roger and Me. These films did not have marketing budgets. They had publicists and occasionally a young person working at a distribution company who answered the phone and organized promotions at the same time. Back then, we called them “Word of Mouth” screenings, and when we wanted radio stations to talk about the film on-air, we gave them “Run of Engagement” passes. Basically, we gave away the film for free. Why? For the same reason people do it today – to get people talking. Back then, we didn’t have social networking and blogging – we didn’t even really have email. But the concept of getting a core audience to be early adopters of a film so that they could “evangelize” was exactly the same as it is today.

This is the moment where some of you will say that screening a film in advance of releasing it is very different from giving someone a free DVD. True, you can’t copy or upload a screening. Back to that debate in a minute… So, if giving the film away in a hard format freaks you out but you can’t afford to rent theaters to show the film, use one of the many secure streaming platforms, show it on a flat screen in your living room, bring it to some bar on your Mac. There are ways.

But let’s go back, as promised, to the notion of giving away the film on DVD. We always have to restrain ourselves from chuckling when we have this debate with filmmakers. “There is no way I am going to give out DVD’s of my documentary on the ancient art of eyebrow threading!! What if someone puts in on Bit Torrent? Or sells it on the street?”

Wanna know our answer to that? CONGRATULATIONS!! If your film is compelling and distinctive enough that someone wants to post it to Bit Torrent or sell it in Times Square then you have done something right. That means people are talking about it. That means people want to see it. And THAT means that the honest, law-abiding entertainment consumers of the world will pay for it.

Ok, so you’re the filmmaker who’s thinking “but MY film is WAY more interesting than a doc on the ancient art of eyebrow threading, so it will definitely get pirated if I give away a DVD.” To that, we say, in the nicest possible way, don’t fool yourself.

You know what – unfortunately -- ends up on Bit Torrent? Avatar. The Expendables. Toy Story 3. Why? Because they are seen as highly valuable commodities. How did they get that way? Marketing, and LOTS of it. And stars, big giant super stars.

You have to create value and demand for your film if it doesn’t have a $50 million marketing budget or the most famous actor in the world in it. If you’re one of the lucky people to have made a $100,000 indie starring Meryl Streep and Matt Damon, awesome! YOU have to worry about piracy. But for most of you, your biggest fear, at the moment, should be OBSCURITY.

So, back to where we began. Let’s not fight about “free” anymore. Let’s not even spend time discussing it. Free is not a new concept. It’s a time-honored tradition. Now can we please get back to our popcorn and air-kissing?

Editor's note: Liz Ogilvie and Paola Freccero will be speaking further about Marketing at IFP's Independent Filmmaker Conference. Comment now and join the conversation online and in person.