Wednesday, September 28, 2011

who the *!%& do you think you are...? pt. 2

I’ve been writing this stuff in the mornings on the train on the way out to Shepperton, so it’s taking rather longer than I’d hoped. We’re three days out from the start of the shoot, and there’s a surprising aura of calm among the team. This is principally because we purchased a little more prep time at enormous cost both our budget and to our rectal integrity vis-a-vis our financial overseers, but here we stand on the cusp and so far no one’s died or been arrested, and nothing’s exploded. Given our previous production, that goes down as a pretty good start.

I seem to remember I was partway through the process of justifying my existence, when I was rudely interrupted by having actually to try and produce a film, so I’ll try and pick it up...

Financing: The Snake Oil Salesman

An experienced producer has described the job as follows: "You’re like an emergency room doctor and the movie is like a patient in the operating theatre. Every minute of the process you’re doing everything you can, fighting to keep the patient alive. Except that the patient wants to die..." 

This seems pretty fair. The gear shift between the fantasy of development, and the soul crushing economic realities of actually trying to finance what is effectively a fairytale in the mind of a writer/director/producer is vertigo-inducing.

One thing that becomes clear is that you are actually selling a puff of smoke. To resort for a moment to nauseating marketing speak, at this point you may have a bucketful of sizzle, but precious little steak.

This is an absolutely terrifying concept. You’re asking people to part with potentially millions of pounds of public, private - and sometimes even more thrillingly their own - cash to finance a project that could end up being worth little more than a few rolls of celluloid. [Although actually these days it’s more likely to be a couple of hard drives - whither the romance in the digital age?]

The things that traditionally serve as an indicator of a film’s future performance can be roughly broken down into in the following list - what might be referred to as the ‘Mitigation of Terror Schedule’.

1. Who’s in it.
2. How much it’s going to cost
3. The genre.
4. The target audience.

We as producers are tasked with convincing potential investors that these are irrefutable facts - like gravity, or the story of creation. Addressing No. 1 is a process of creating wildly optimistic casting lists based on the fact that ‘my third cousin once urinated next to Brad Pitt at a baseball game, and so he’ll definitely read the script for us as a favour to Bob‘.

Number 2. It’s a bit like estimating how many grains of sand there are on a very small beach. It’s a small beach, but that’s a hell of a lot of sand. What happens in reality is you hire a line producer, who has a quick look at the script (probably the first ten pages as they tend not to be great readers) and like Dustin Hoffman’s character in ‘Rain Man’, tells you how much it’s going to cost. However, unlike Dustin, they’re very unlikely to be correct. What actually happens is you will estimate a number that you think the financiers will want to hear (and which you think you might be able to get your grubby hands on), and then spend the next six months working out how to raise the rest of the money you need actually to make the film. 

To illustrate, here’s a scene from Rain Man (Line Producer version).

A box of matches falls to the floor, spraying the contents.

Line producer: 412 Matches.
Me: Huh?
Line producer: There’re 412 matches.
Me: Wow! are you some kind of savant?
Line producer: 412 matches, give or take.
Me: What do you mean give or take?
Line producer: Well, it looks like around 412. Actually it think it’s gonna be closer to 450. If you give me ten minutes and a hundred bucks, I could count ‘em for you. *

What you actually do know at this stage (if you’re lucky) is (fanfare...):
3. The genre

No. 4 - Some movies have a fairly clearly defined target audience, hard men movies, kids movies, rom coms, the Human Centipede. But in reality the target audience is initially made up of people related to you, and you hope to god it expands from there.

You’re never actually going to have enough money to make the film - but the trick is to raise enough to make people think it’s possible and work from there. Independent movie financing is a jigsaw of oddly shaped pieces. It’s a bit like one of those ones where if you’re the first person to solve it they give you a million quid. Actually it’s exactly like one of those ones where if you’re the first person to solve it they give you a million quid. And the rest.

UK Tax Credit: The government effectively gives you back 20p in every pound you spend in the UK, as an incentive for the gigantic Studio movies to shoot here. Every so often the government decides it has run out of money and immediately cancels the UKTC. The studios immediately threaten to shoot everything in Bulgaria from now on, costing the UK economy roughly $78673bn, and the government decides to reinstate the credit, during which time several indie movies have fallen over financially, never to be heard from again. Then the next government decides the UKTC is costing our economy rather too much, and so continues the merry-go-round of idiocy.

Pre sales: Very occasionally you manage to convince someone to stump up a bunch of cash before you’ve even made the damn thing to distribute your film in their country. This is awesome as it means that someone else believes in your movie too and is lovely enough to put their dinero where their boca is. We did a bunch of these at Cannes this year (hooray for Pathé), so it seems rather easy. Actually, it’s not. Years ago this was they way you funded independent movies but these days the pre-sales market is, if not dead, then pretty comatose. 

Gap Financiers: I have to be careful here because it’s hard as a producer not to be rude about these delicate souls. They are Tony Soprano. They lend you money for a short time with an enormous vig, and then when you don’t pay, send neanderthal types around to rearrange your knees. (fyi - I may be lying about the second part, but probably not).

Equity Financiers: These people exist. They live on a large farm surrounded by dodos and unicorns, and holiday in Atlantis. They have money and are willing to put it all on ‘red’, and wait for the wheel to stop. We have one of these too. I hope he’ll let me ride his unicorn.

Broadcasters / BFI: This is the holy grail of independent film finance. They are like equity financiers, but are genuinely knowledgeable about films, and really want to help you get it made. Given that everyone who has filmed his or her cat playing the tuba on their iPhone, is trying to extract money from these guys for a feature, it’s a hell of a process getting them on board, but once you do, wonderful things can happen. (the BFI just rather helped us out of a medium-capacity hole btw, hence the eugoogly...)

‘In kind’ finance: Sometimes people give you stuff for free, and charge your budget double what they would have charged if you weren’t some broke-assed independent producer and could afford it in the first place. These folks tends to be services companies such as post production houses.

The fun part starts when you have all of the above, and you’re trying to get them all together to agree on how this mythical pie that is ‘the film’s net profits’ is going to be split. This involves the idyllically monikered ‘recoupment waterfall’, which demonstrates how the piles of cash, as they pour in to the collection account, will be apportioned among the financiers. The producers prowl among the table legs, looking for scraps.

The nightmare for the producers is the ‘closing’, which is a three-to-fifty week process of financiers fighting over the pie. You’re in the middle trying to be the voice of reason and compromise (wonderfully easy to do with other peoples money), while at the same time trying to stop the film from collapsing horribly on some tiny technical point of law or gigantic difference of opinion. This is not good for the blood pressure, and is about a complicated a process as I can imagine (which arguably may say more about the limits of my imagination). 

Ideally you want to close as early as possible, so you can start paying people thereby minimising the risk of being held hostage by the crew/varied creditors (which has happened to us previously). But these days often films don’t close until well into the shoot. We had to close early on LP as a condition of one of the financiers, and we are all the better for that. If there’s one thing to strive for as a producer, an early close is pretty near the top of the list.

My proposal to simplify the closing process is this: lock everyone in a room for three days with a can of baked beans and a loaded gun, and winner takes all.

*[Note: I showed this to my line producer, who responded as follows: Where’s the blog? I want to show it to my lawyer... I think you forgot the line where where the line producer asks how many matches are in it for them and then proceeds to tell you how you’re going to lose your house no matter how successful the film is.]