10 Financing and Producing Tips from SXSW

As a filmmaker you were surely scouting locations or enveloped in the dark lair otherwise known as your editing room during the week of SXSW. It’s okay, because Filmmaker Magazine has condensed the important talking points of the panel “Making it Happen: Financing an Independent Film,” hosted by Aaron Kaufman of Troublemaker Studios. Troublemaker Studios is owned by Robert Rodriguez, director of Sin City and Desperado.

1. Juggle

Kaufman: “People think about producing like it’s sequential.” For example, you develop a script, attach actors, and then go out for financing. “But it’s really about keeping all the plates in the air at once,. The people I see who are getting projects up and going are the ones thinking about them in a fluid way.”

2. Think about the ticket holders

Garrick Dion, Senior VP of Development at Bold Films: “[Make] smart genre, what I call ‘elevated popcorn.’ That’s what I tell independent filmmakers. I like relationship dramas and small road-trip movies too, but try to make movies people will pay to go and see. Think of [your movie] as a campfire story where [the audience] always asks, ‘What’s going to happen next?’ and with a vision that elevates it above the rest.”

3. What do your potential collaborators want to make?

Katie McNeil, VP of Production at Electric City Entertainment: “We find out what filmmakers want to do. We talk to actors too, and sometimes [landing a project] is just about telling people we have development funds. We can pay to option a book and pay a writer. It’s a different way of putting things together, but it’s the smartest way for us — not spending a lot of money in development and then not being able to find a director.”
According to McNeil, Electric City prefers to put early development into filmmakers’ hands rather than use the ‘material first’ approach that most other studios employ.

4. Get popular people on board

Dion says it’s best to get a director or actor attached who can attract a lot of great crew members and producers. “Your filmmaker and and your material is your only strength as an independent producer.”

5. Beware of big kid movies

If you’re making a film for adults with a lot of main characters who will need to be played by child actors, know that financing will be a bit of a challenge to secure. McNeil said, “We have a couple of those projects, and they have been a challenge. You have play up [the roles] of the older characters in the stories [in order to attract name cast].”

6. Mix and match your cast for foreign markets

The lagging tastes of foreign sales agents mean that the international market is always, said Kaufman, “five years behind.” Names like Bruce Willis, Richard Gere and Jean-Claude Van Damme are highly meaningful for foreign sales agents while younger, newer actors who may be more exciting Stateside are not. “[As a producer] you’re always looking for an actor who is about to break,” said Dion, “but the foreign sales people come back and say, ‘Come back when they’re already a star.’

Ryan Gosling in Drive

Ryan Gosling in the film Drive, produced by Aaron Kaufman.

Blend name actors with new talent. “If you have someone strong on one side you can have someone [new] on the other,” said Dion. Sometimes, that person on the other side is not even the actor. “Even Drive was not an easy sell,” he said, “because Ryan Gosling has never done a Marvel movie. But in this case, the director, Nicholas Winding Refn” — who was seen as a rising star internationally — “balanced things out [for the foreign sales agents].”

7. Steer clear of the $3 million mark

“A $2 to $3 million budget movie is in a black hole. It’s too small to play wide,” and it costs too much to make its money back in a smaller release. If you can’t develop it for a larger budget with a larger cast, “a smaller budget makes more sense.” This argument works for larger budget films too, though. “Drive started as a $35 – $40 million studio movie. At one point it was a Hugh Jackman movie. But we wound up making it for $15 million.”

8. Put your best draft forward

“If you give someone at a production company your script, make sure you are ready and it’s the [draft] you’re most happy with. If they read something once it’s hard to get them to read it again,” advised McNeil.

9. Cameos are not a crutch

Cameos generally end up being too small to market effectively. “Figure out how to “make the actor more than a cameo,” said Kaufman, who cited Robert Rodriguez’s Machete, for which they only had Robert DeNiro for five days but were still able to make his part a major one.

10. Work on every project every day

McNeill says that in the Electric City office she stares at a board listing all of the company’s projects. “I look at the board and think, ‘What can I do for each one of our 17 projects today? Just one thing.”

As a filmmaker, if you have multiple projects in the work this will greatly help with your progress while allowing you to switch up your creative train of thought and keep from getting burned out on just one work in progress.

What’s the biggest lesson you’ve learned on the production end of filmmaking?

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