The making of an indie: producing an independent film requires more than talent. Get a close-up look at the development of these movies from idea to screen.
Jamal knew his movie would have a fighting chance to gain distribution if he could get some well-known actors on board. Jamal approached Loretta Devine, known for her roles in the films Crash and Waiting to Exhale, and she loved the script. "It's an unusual story, and I knew a lot of people would want to see it," Devine says. She has a starring role in the film, due to hit theaters this fall.
Jamal and his executive producer, Nathan Hale Williams, were then able to persuade Prison Break's Rockmond Dunbar to join the cast, making the film even more marketable. After meeting the casting challenge, however, they had to leap over a higher hurdle--that of raising roughly $1 million to complete the project.
Welcome to the world of independent filmmaking, so-called because these movies are financed apart from major Hollywood studios. Visionaries produce these films on micro-budgets--typically $3 million or less.
What qualifies as an independent film has blurred a bit over the past decade. Hollywood studios have released films traditionally deemed "art house" fare through specialty divisions. Though tagged with the indie label, films developed by these divisions have budgets well north of $5 million, feature A-list stars, and receive huge marketing and publicity push. For example, the Fox Searchlight Pictures unit of 20th Century Fox released the 2006 hit Little Miss Sunshine, which cost an estimated $8 million to produce. With Fox's marketing muscle behind it, the film has grossed more than $96 million worldwide and won two Academy Awards. (Several indies have been awarded the Oscar, including Crash, the 2005 winner for Best Picture.)
Most "pure" independent films, however, are produced by renegade auteurs fueled by the prospect of bringing their story to the big screen. Instead of using film, some make movies using less expensive digital camera technology, which is applicable to a variety of platforms, and the demand for original entertainment across platforms--movie theaters, television, the Internet, and mobile devices--continues to increase.
Jamal and Williams pulled everything together to get Dirty Laundry made, determining the budget and forming the production company. An entertainment attorney, Williams was charged with drafting the private placement memorandum, the document that outlines the financial projections and risk analysis for potential investors. The team also tapped a line producer experienced with working on small-budget movies to manage the film set.
Williams' deal-making began to gel in September 2005 when he gave a copy of the script to Crystal McCrary Anthony, a best-selling author with a roster of well-heeled contacts. She liked the project so much that she agreed to serve as executive producer. By November, Williams and McCrary Anthony had raised only 10% of the budget. McCrary Anthony brought in another partner, Adrienne Lopez, and later Triple Threat Films, a New York City-based film financing company.
"I laughed out loud when I read the script," says Lopez, an author and television executive, who along with Triple Threat's principals, entertainment industry vets Maria Weaver Watson, Gabrielle Glore, and Yolonda Baker Marshall, joined the film's ranks as executive producers. They were drawn to the project by Jamal's intense passion to tell this story. "He was infectious when we met him," Watson says, citing an important quality filmmakers need in order to communicate their vision to potential investors.
To woo investors, the new team held a series of pitch meetings but also stressed the inherent risks of the film business. "Most films do not recoup their initial investment, and you must communicate those facts to investors," advises Williams. Over the course of a year, the producers raised another 38% of the budget, enough to start filming. McCrary Anthony then offered another 40% out of her pocket in the form of a bridge loan, which the movie would have to repay. Triple Threat would eventually raise nearly 50% of the film's budget.
Jamal's goal of making a film that cost less than $1 million look like a $5 million movie seemed nearly impossible with a mere three weeks to shoot--a major Hollywood flick takes several months. On average, independent films are shot quickly, in 12 to 18 days, points out Robert Townsend, filmmaker and former CEO of the Black Family Channel. Major studios can shoot for up to five months because they may shoot one script page or less per day. "They take their time, shoot in different angles, with better equipment," says Townsend. "An indie may shoot seven pages in one day because time is money."
With the average movie budget topping $60 million, not including the $40 million-plus needed to market the film, even blockbusters produced by major studios have a tough time competing in the global market for huge box office receipts. Independent, niche films--sans big name stars--have even more of an uphill battle getting to the multiplex, particularly when competing with star-laden indies like Crash. "Consumers want a good story, a recognizable cast, and good production quality," says Jeff Clanagan, president and CEO of Codeblack Entertainment, a Sherman Oaks, California-based distributor of urban film content.
Dirty Laundry underwent one month of post-production editing, music arranging, and color correcting--the normal edit time would have been several months--before it was ready for its first private screening in the spring of 2006. With its public debut at the American Black Film Festival, the filmmakers sought to secure what is often most elusive to indie filmmakers--distribution.
"We won the festival and got offers from several distributors," boasts Lopez. The producers found themselves in a situation most filmmakers only fantasize about: a bidding war resulting in a deal for an undisclosed sum with Codeblack. Clanagan is sanguine about his plan to release the film on 100 screens in Southeast markets that are heavily populated by African Americans, such as Jackson, Mississippi; Shreveport, Louisiana; Charlotte, North Carolina; and Norfolk, Virginia. "It's almost like promoting a gospel play," says Clanagan, who will use ad campaigns in print, television, radio, and on the Internet to reach the film's intended audience.
The distribution deal generated a healthy return for investors. "The stars really aligned for this film," exclaims McCrary Anthony. "And what's great is that we kept it in the family. I like being in business with my folks."
HARD KNOCK INDUSTRY
While the producers of Dirty Laundry found a pot of gold waiting for them at the end of their festival run, it doesn't happen that way for every indie film. Writer, director, producer, and actor Ty Hodges still hasn't signed a distribution deal after touring the festival circuit with his film, Miles from Home.
Hodges, who starred in MTV's reality show 24/7, was hungry for material that would fully display his artistic gifts. "I grew up as a child actor, but I was looking to make the transition to adult actor and I wanted a role that would challenge me," says the 26-year-old.
Instead of waiting for Hollywood to give him his next break Hodges created his own. "Most stories about African Americans show us in a narrow way," states Hodges. "I wanted to show us in a different light." His provocative film tackles male prostitution.
Hodges' initial goal was to make a short film, "but when people read the script, everyone said it should be a feature." His godsister, actress Meagan Good, agreed to star in the film and serve as a producer. The two, along with Marlon Ollivierre, Todd Segal, and Ellen Bukstel, financed/produced the film. "Our plan was to shoot the short for $10,000, then use it to raise funds for the feature," says Hodges. "However, once we got started we decided to just keep going."
It took an arduous nine months to complete the film--the average indie is shot in days. The budget of roughly $40,000 was funded largely by the producers; the actors worked on a deferred basis under the Screen Actors Guild's low budget agreement.
With such a long shoot and low budget, the production encountered significant challenges. "I was shooting two other films over the course of Miles from Home, so I had to make tough choices," says Good. "I had to pay my bills, but I was not only an actor in the film--I was a producer, so I had greater responsibilities."
Making Miles from Home was a true test of willpower. Good laments about not being able to pay cast members and how demoralized they were. "We had people who had shot several scenes then didn't want to continue. We ended up having to cut certain scenes," she says.
As shooting continued, the budget escalated. Hodges made the film his first priority. "One day I headed out to get [coffee] and my car was gone. I thought it had been stolen, but it was repossessed," he recalls. "It was either pay for the film or pay for the car. I chose the film."
Miles from Home would go on to win top honors at some of the smaller film festivals showcasing black talent, including the Independent Black Film Festival, the Washington D.C. Independent Film Festival, and the San Francisco Black Film Festival. "I was running the Palm Beach Film Festival when I heard that Meagan had produced Miles from Home, and I wanted the producers to submit it," says Damien Douglas, who now serves as president of Mandalay Alliance, a division of Mandalay Entertainment. The film was an audience favorite at the more mainstream Palm Beach fest, bolstering the filmmakers' belief that Miles from Home has viewership potential beyond the African American market.
When the film was screened at the Urbanworld Film Festival and the ABFF, distributors expressed interest in releasing it as a direct-to-video feature. So far no distributor has stepped up with the right theatrical release opportunity. "Because of the film's edgy subject matter, distributors think the film is hard to market," says Hodges, who formed a production company, Freedom Bridge Entertainment (www.freedombridgeent.com), with Good, Ollivierre, and Tamara Bass.
In a strategy to get Miles from Home released in theaters, Hodges and his team have partnered with Mandalay Alliance's Douglas, who will serve as executive producer, and invested an undisclosed sum in post-production to upgrade the film's look. Mandalay Alliance will also sponsor a 12-city tour of the film with a strong radio campaign and premiere-style events to generate buzz and interest from distributors. Nevertheless, should Miles from Home not find a suitor, the producers are prepared to go direct-to-video. If successful, Hodges will have completed his goal of bringing his vision to an audience.
Where Does the Money Go?
Many variables go into the cost of making an independent film According to Robert Townsend, filmmaker and former CEO of the Black Family Channel, these include how many cast members there are and if one or several are big stars that command more money. It also depends on where the money is coming from and when investors want to recoup their funds. The writer and director must also get paid, generally based on a percentage of the budget and according to a union pay scale. Paying for a location, equipment, and various production costs (such as food) also chips away at the budget,
"Independent films usually don't include marketing in time budget," Townsend reveals. "Once [a filmmaker sells] the film a marketing strategy comes into play because most likely the film is being sold to a studio that already has relationships in place with radio stations, television networks, etc."
Maurice Jamal, writer, director, and producer of Dirty Laundry, says that for a film with a few recognizable actors and a $1 million budget, the funds are generally allocated as follows:
Everything that goes into making the film. including equipment, film stock, wardrobe, set design, etc.
Overhead and Above the Line Costs
This includes compensation for the producers, the executive producers, director, and writer, and should be capped at between 10% and 20%.
After the film, is shot, it must go through editing, color correction, sound mixing, etc.
Savvy filmmakers remember to save a portion of the budget for film festival fees, various press junkets, press appearances for the actors and director, and creating art, such as photo stills and posters.
The Distribution Hustle
With so many independent films being made today. distributors are dearly in the driver's seat, Before inking a deal, filmmakers must evaluate their options. To do that, they must have a solid understanding of how the distribution process works, says Lisa Davis, a partner at the New York entertainment and media law firm Frankfurt Kurnit Klein & Selz. There are a few primary distribution models available for independently financed films, if the producers want to retain copyright ownership of their film:
* The exclusive distribution agreement with a major or mini-major: The distributor gains rights to a film for as long as 20 years and, in turn, pays the producer an advance. The distributor splits time net profit with the producer after recouping the advance and its print and advertising costs.
* The exclusive distribution agreement with a small distributor: Time distributor gives a small advance, at best, to the producers; handles the marketing strategy: and negotiates a split of the box office receipts and/or proceeds from DVD sales and rentals.
* The Internet and iTunes. "While it's not at time point where large numbers of feature films are being viewed through those channels, these can be avenues for short films and audience builders for feature films," Davis adds.
Additional reporting by Nicole Marie Richardson