How To Return Investment In First Features To Something Other Than Philanthropy, Pt 1 of 2
Our ecosystem needs a steady flow of new filmmakers, but the industry blocks it.
If you’ve been reading HopeForFilm since I launched in November on Substack you probably recognize I have a soft spot for first features. First films are often financed by folks who know the filmmakers. You see the problem right there, right? That means that generally the folks that get to have a career, have to come from a fairly privileged background just to know folks who might finance their first film. But it wasn’t always that way, and it doesn’t need to be that way now.
I believe my career as a producer was made by three first features: Hal Hartley’s, Ang Lee’s, and Nicole Holofcener’s. Hal’s we made for next to nothing ($55K to get it “in the can”) on loans that he and his cousin took out that were supposed to be for home computers. Ang’s won a screenplay prize that gave us $350K to make it. Nicole’s we got a film production company to fund on the hopes that we could sell it for more than the $1.1M it cost to make (we did — but it wasn’t easy).
Since those films, I have been involved either as a producer or executive in over 30 first features. On all of them, we found ways to demonstrate that the business was such that we could reasonably hope to sell them for more than we made them for. Some had no stars and some did. They generally all were either dramas or comedies. Probably close to 90% made their money back, if not more — and that certainly helped us keep doing them. I don’t think any of them would get made today.
Pause, and contemplate a world without those directors all working today.
When I was offered the job at Amazon Studios, one of the reasons I initially was excited to make & acquire movies for a Global Streamer was the promise of unlimited capacity. I felt with all that real estate to fill, amongst other things, I might get to put together a “first feature” label that would introduce new voices to fans. I figured since budgets would be lower, and it would be more difficult to attract the usual marketing hooks — I mean actors, I mean stars —-to these films, they should probably riff on a commercial genre: horror, thrillers, scifi, comedy.
But I didn’t want them to be just good stories with hooks, well told. They had to be authored; you had to see the personality behind them. And not just authored, but ambitiously authored. A strong voice helps a film get into festivals. A strong voice reaching high helps a critic support it. And critics are still the cheapest way to drive audiences to engage. And ambitiously authored work is what I generally dig and know how to do well. It was approved for a few days but then it was cancelled. It happens. So it goes. That was then. Where do we go now?
We did acquire a handful of such gems without the “program'“ and got to prove the principal worked — highly authored films with a genre hook made for a low cost can attract a good-sized and predictable audience. I believe in all the filmmakers we helped at Amazon. One of the films totally kicked ass on the platform and performed like a movie twenty times its size. When we funded them at reasonable budgets, we were able to get stars into the films too. Those really worked too.
Recently I came across a first feature that resembled the film we had done that had way over performed. I offered to help introduce it to different potential buyers in the streaming world. I did and although everyone was impressed, no one bought it. They were willing to believe that it too may perform at 20x level compared to its budget, but it wasn’t going to be worth it in terms of opportunity cost or bandwith/real estate to go there. It had no stars, but it was definitely ambitiously authored and had a strong hook and genre base. That was then. Where do we go now?
Even though that film did not sell, I’d still be willing to bet on that filmmaker’s future, particularly if we get them to make another film and another film and maybe another film after that. The more you work, the better the work gets (until….). That’s how talent works: it needs to be exercised regularly to improve.
If you are family and friends of the filmmaker and you fund the first film and it doesn’t make it’s money back, but the filmmaker goes onto to have a career, you still feel like you won. You started something for someone you love, or just like, or just like their parents. You didn’t just invest your money to make money. You had other goals. It wasn’t really investment; it was philanthropy.
It’s kind of shocking that Hollywood & LA, tinseltownincarnate, doesn’t really even offer a showcase of new global talent. Where is our New Director/New Films? It says a lot in its silence.
Can’t we build something that our industry commits to, that also assures a regular cadence of new talent directing their first films, all armed with unique ambition, voice, and perspective? I think so. I have some thoughts to share on this.
I didn’t intend this to be a two-parter, but my goal with HopeForFilm is to be part of your morning inspiration. I fear going 16 paragraphs becomes a TLDR scenario. I will post the solutions for this tomorrow. Stay tuned!
If by chance you haven’t yet read ALL the HopeForFilm posts, please allow me suggest a few from a little while back.
Life/Work Hacks & Strategies For The Film Professional or WannaBe
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I have developed a methodology to work with filmmakers to teach them how to raise funds - partly in the philanthropy side and partly in the investor side - and make their own films. I was so excited to read about one of your successful films being made for 55K. My clients have raised 50, 60, 70K from friends and family and more from investors. My clients choose to invest in working with me and just that commitment propels them to getting their films made. I had not realized that you had used genre filmmaking as part of your process; it's a foundation of mine. Part of my process is to deliver the film to the distributor without the filmmaker owing any money to anyone else OR to themselves. This method allows filmmakers to go through that first feature process without digging themselves into a financial, mental, emotional or spiritual hole. By now, I have clients on the second, third, and fourth films with me, because if you can make a feature without going into debt and without killing yourself emotionally, then you can live to make a second feature. Love this article!!!!
I definitely will tune in for the next part as well. I'm very familiar with the first time filmmaker investor pitches. It's odd that more filmmakers can't come to grips that what their pitching isn't primarily a potential profit making venture, but, something else. They don't like it when I tell them to equate it to buying a race horse. The thrill of ownership, the pomp and circumstances, even the mucking of the stables is all part of the experience they're "investing" in. So few people invest in horse racing and make tons of money. But very many invest in horse racing and have the time of their lives. As a purely financial investment, the film business really sucks.
But, if you can get investors to take a new tack, figure out a way to get them buying in (literally) to the birthing of the future of cinema and the satisfaction that goes with, "I was there when we discovered them," then you're on to something great.