Fade in rushing mountain streams, snow-capped peaks and clean, sweet air. Dissolve to rustic architecture, fabulous food, first-class accommodations.
All of this is the setting of Sundance Institute, a holistic retreat center where industry moguls and wannabes met last July at screenings and receptions. It's an atmosphere where barriers were lowered and connections welcomed, and folks shared openly in workshops and small groups — just as Robert Redford, who founded Sundance in 1981, intended.
As I stood in line checking in at the Independent Producers Conference, I felt a cool, mountain breeze. I was one of a hundred participants who had paid $600 to hear and meet about 30 panelists, all with something vital to relate from their experiences. My mission? To make known—and have made— two of my fresh-off-the-laser-jet screenplays: one a sports drama and the other a thriller/romance.
The opening reception Thursday evening was relaxing and elegant. A laidback crowd. Smile. Shake hands. Exchange names. A sizeable number of participants hailed from places other than New York or Los Angeles — Minneapolis; Atlanta; Cincinnati; Orlando, FL; Salt Lake City; San Francisco; Chicago; Houston; Phoenix; Nashville, TN; Toronto; Boston; and Detroit. After a screening of Living in Oblivion (a comedy about low-budget film making), we walked to our cabins and cottages in the bracing mountain night air to dream of distribution deals and financing agreements.
Hope is a producer's power. The minute you stop hoping in your project, it ends. Your power is in never giving up. Amy Robinson, producer (With Honors, White Palace and Baby It's You)
FOLKS JUST LIKE US
Cut to the screening room the next day, now jammed with 100 of us and eight of them on stage. There they sat, the names behind the names — representatives of distributors like Fine Line, Miramax, Sony Classics, Samuel Goldwyn, Fox Searchlight and Strand, and of producers like Oliver Stone, HBO, United Artists, Boyle-Taylor, and Grainy Pictures. These were the Wise Ones, a homey bunch, really — approachable, willing to listen and open to dialogue. Folks just like you and me.
As I listened and absorbed, it occurred to me that their voices sounded different. My mind jumped to a comparison of this conference to a real estate conference, where producers are like building contractors and the panelists are like real estate agents. They talk a different language, but we both talk houses. What we think makes a great house may not be (and often is not) what they think will make a house that sells.
For participants like myself from Minneapolis and sites other than NY or LA, the distance widened further because of geography. Although many of our cities and states have established themselves as first-rate production centers (below the line), the decision-making and deal-making (above-the-line) has remained on both coasts. (Have you had any good financial/distribution conversations with locals lately?)
It became clear right away that both Hollywood and New York are centers of independent film making or decision-making. What I came to call the "New York presence" lifted my spirits. I had been under the preconception that only one venue existed for marketing and distribution, but here were friendly, funny, free people whom I sensed would readily meet me halfway. The East Coast and West Coast style differences were refreshing.
So, for the 100 participants, these challenges were all the more reason to connect face-to-face with panelists as well as fellow participants (many of whom are verging on a big break themselves). Which is what I started doing during breaks and meals. It was, after all, my mission. My key strategy was to engage a person in his or her view of movie making, then, if appropriate, inform them of how one or both of my projects fit. It worked over a dozen times.
"You are one `yes' away from radical career changes. It's why we're here — to find you. You may have just the project that turns our careers around, too." Jonathan Weisgal, distributor (Scent of a Woman and Reality Bites)
RED LIGHT, GREEN LIGHT
These workshops were not on how to write or direct or edit or act, but a forum on how to finance and distribute and partner at business and marketing levels. The current term is to "green light" a film. My two favorite large-group presentations were the Financing Panel, where 45-second pitches were shaped and enhanced by panelists, and the Creative Production Panel, where problem case studies from actual movies were revisited by panelists.
One key to a good return-on-investment has to do with matching the anticipated audience with the size of budget. For example, Living in Oblivion was sized at $1 million based on its appeal to a limited number of potential art fans. Things To Do In Denver When You're Dead was at $11 million, scaled for audience members who flocked to Pulp Fiction, Reservoir Dogs and Natural Born Killers. This $1 million to $11 million range represents the two ends of the spectrum on which the Sundance Independent Conference focused. No-budget films (less than $100,000) and studio-financed films (more than $20 million) were covered lightly.
"I feel a responsibility to give back, whether it's financially or as a mentor, a supporter, an encourager or a partner. I find it unusually rewarding, and it's something I'm going to keep doing." Steve Tisch, producer (Forrest Gump, Risky Business and Corrina, Corinna)
There are more than 450 independent movies made every year. Only about 30 get theatrical distribution; the rest are seen at festivals or not at all. One trend that spells good news for industry professionals regarding an improvement in this ratio is the mentoring of first-time producers by such long-established producers as Oliver Stone and Steve Tisch. In effect, they are open to shepherding "independent-spirited" productions. For outstanding projects, they are willing to use their clout with studios and/or connect producers to funding sources. Other producers, like Barbara Boyle and Amy Robinson, also are willing to help.
FINANCING NOTES AND FINAL THOUGHTS
On the financing side, production companies are not a source of money — they only move a project along toward money and the development process. Four elements must be in place, or packaged, for a green light to occur: the script, the talent (preferably stars), the director and a producer with a track record. When these four elements meet the approval of the distributor funder, a pre-buy will most likely take place.
A pre-buy simply means that the cost of production is covered in full before shooting. When these elements are not in place and the filmmaker, most often motivated by passion, moves ahead and shoots his or her film, the completed film becomes what is sold. Although the latter eliminates risk for the distributor/funder because the end product is known, it greatly heightens the risk for the filmmaker. This is why festivals, attended by distributors, are so crucial to the independent filmmaking process.
In marketing a complete film, the importance of showing it at markets vs. festivals was debated. Markets such as Independent Feature Film Market (IFFM) show more films but are less selective. Such festivals as Sundance and Telluride and Cannes are more influential because of their selectivity, and the tendency of the viewer is to watch the entire program rather than a sample. I wondered whether my sports drama or thriller/romance would ever be applauded at these events.
"Don't leave the industry. If you do, you won't be around when success is ready to grab you. When you're at your lowest, that's the time to stay, not leave." Tony Safford, distributor (The Piano, Passion Fish and Sirens)
The importance of international financing was also stressed. Revenues can be as high as 65% from foreign sales. In the past, revenues topped out at about 40%. Therefore, this is a growing and vital source of production funding.
Finally, for filmmakers outside New York and Los Angeles, there's a likelihood you'll be heard and taken seriously. A majority of longtime producers are aware of the growth of production centers nationwide and of efforts by national groups, such as Independent Feature Project (IFP), to encourage productions. Speaking of Orlando specifically, Tisch said, "It's becoming more of an above-the-line participant, and I think that's terrific. There are opportunities for people like myself to share in the evolution of what could be a productive, lucrative joint venture. I think independent producers [outside LA] will have a lot of very receptive ears."
This article appeared in Video Systems Magazine— February 1996