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:

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