|"Look at Roosevelt. Look at Churchill. Look at that old fella whats-his-name in The African Queen."|
Schatze Page (played by Lauren Bacall) in How To Marry A Millionaire*
People often ask producers how low-budget indie films get funded. The answers are as diverse as the movies themselves.
A movie I did that won Slamdance was truly funded by friends and family of the co-producers. A horror film I did was funded by a couple of deli owners. Town Diary was funded by PSA's my partners and I did for the American Dental Association.
Dentists have been a joke answer to that question for years. I don't know why dentists would have a specific attraction to the film industry, other than maybe they are attracted to anything other than the boredom of being dentists.
Stan has a great story, which I have told before but is worth telling here. A dentist had put together enough money from his practice to fund his dream of directing a movie, which was shot on location. Stan had a full crew in the last week of prep when the dentist walked up to him and told him this:
"Last night, Jack Nicholson came to me in a dream and said, 'You're not a director. You're a dentist.' He was right. Pay everyone out. I'm going home." And that is what Stan did - a movie ended by a vision of Jack Nicholson.
There is another old cliche that is sometimes true. Stan, again, tells of a mob guy who funded a movie for his girlfriend. When she hooked up with the lead actor, he had one of his guys get on a boat with the negative of the film and dump it in the ocean.
This cliche is the premise of a movie that I think is under-rated called Mistress, where Eli Wallach, Danny Aiello and Robert DeNiro are men who invest in a movie by Robert Wuhl - as long as their girlfriends are in it. Stan and I watched the movie together, and he loved a moment when producer Martin Landau meets a potential investor in a meat locker. "I met an investor in a meat locker!" he blurted out, leading to some strange looks from the people around us.
One of my favorite moments was Wuhl and Landau chasing Ernest Borgnine (playing himself) around a parking lot to try to get him to do the movie. It was the perfect metaphor for the way producers and directors sometimes chase name actors.
Having struck out with that attempt, as Landau and Wuhl do with Borgnine, we hit unexpected paydirt** with the main premise of the movie.
Director Phil had been looking for the perfect person to play the Girl, and he found an unknown who he felt had exactly the quality he wanted. We will call her Abbie***, and as it happens, Abbie, in her early twenties, had an older friend, Mark.***
This is the point at which I should be clear that we never discovered that Abbie was Mark's lover; in fact, both characterized the relationship as a caring "older uncle," though they were not blood relatives. Our suspicions went in a more salacious direction, but those suspicions were never proven true nor proved false. This would also be the point where I make clear Mark was not a mobster.
I forgot the amount of money I had budgeted for the film earlier, but the top end that Mark, and more importantly, his lawyers, were willing to invest was around $300k. That was certainly less than our mark, but Phil and Donna were not about to walk away from a chance to make the movie. Once again, we were working with the budget we had, and not the budget I thought was needed to complete the film.
Once that lawyer got involved, actually getting Mark's investment became much more difficult. They insisted on doing a drawdown, which, to be fair, is not unusual in film financing, even on bigger budgets. People who finance films rarely want to put all the money up front. so they will want to work out a schedule of when they deliver the money, which means the line producer (me) has to come up with a cash flow.
In preparing a cash flow, it is essential that you always have the money in the bank before it needs to be spent. For example, I should have the payroll for any given week in the bank before the beginning of that week, not waiting on it when checks come due.
Financiers want to pay it as late as possible. Filmmakers want the money as soon as possible. One of the things you have to explain to first-time investors is that low-budget films are very front-loaded.
Let me explain.
Pay Me. Pay Me Now
Studios and large production companies keep accounts with major vendors, from grip and lighting to trucks to camera gear, and alike. A purchase order, which is basically a promise to pay, is enough to get equipment on set.
While low-budget films also use Purchase Orders to keep track of spending, the nature of working with start up LLC's - or other corporate entities - means they have not established credit, so everything will be COD - Cash on Delivery. Locations should be secured before shooting, and, again, payment usually goes along with a location agreement. Similarly, the costume designer has bought the wardrobe during prep, and art department will spend the largest portion of their budget before principle photography.
There are many analogies between armies and movies - feeding the crew, moving the crew and equipment - etc. Another one is that most of the money is spent before a single shot, such as it were, is fired.
First, We Kill All The Lawyers
Once we got the Mark's lawyer involved, convincing him of all this got messy. His lawyer and financial advisor was not from the film world, and was skeptical. Given the ways films are financed and the way investors see their money back, I can't say that I blame him. See Coming To America.****
When the Money Finally Comes
There were certainly moments where it seemed the movie might not get done, with a good deal of the negotiations centering on if and whether the investor, Mark, could actually take the movie from Phil and Donna, who could approve - or turn-down - a distribution deal, and, to a lesser extent, whether the investor had any creative control. Without getting into details, all of these eventually were settled to the satisfaction of both parties.
Phil and Donna were happy. The investor was happy. I was, well, satisfied. Sorry, I'm just not a glass-half-full guy. Too many years in this business
Surely, the Girl was happy. Afterall, she was going to be a lead in the first feature film she had ever done. Isn't that an actor's dream? She must have been thrilled, and, most of all, appreciative of the opportunity she was getting, and appreciative both to her 'uncle' and the producers, and certainly would not have wanted to do anything to disappoint them.
So you would think. That, however, is for The Girl in the Holograph - Part 3 - The Girl Can't Help It.
* Obviously, a bit of an in-joke that an audience would have been in on, as Bacall had hooked up with a married Humphrey Bogart (the 'old fella' she refers to) on To Have and Have Not, when she was 19 and he was 44. Photo above includes Bacall's How to Marry a Millionaire co-star, Marilyn Monroe.
** My apology for mixing my sports metaphors, using a baseball and football reference in the same sentence. Mea culpa.
*** - You know the drill. Protect people by using aliases, and all that.
**** Coming To America is probably one of the most famous cases of a movie that made hundreds of millions at the box office and showed a loss. Yes, I said one of.