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From Plastic to Pleas: The Evolution of Indie Film Funding

Sept. 21, 2011
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If you want to make art, don’t go into film. If you want to go into film, don’t expect to make art. Any old jaded Hollywood veteran will tell you that. Whether you like it or not, the film industry is primarily concerned with generating revenue, tailoring movies to appeal to the largest possible audience. That doesn’t mean art films are never made. But it means if you want funding for an art film, it has to be profitable, and they rarely are.

Safety first

Everyone wants to make a movie. Everyone has a screenplay. Everyone could be the next Steven Spielberg if given that one little opportunity. Unfortunately, there just isn’t enough money to fund every wannabe filmmaker’s startup passion project. The pool of potential investors is tiny compared to the enormous community vying for that precious cash. Investors invest because they want to see profits. To ensure a maximum return on their investments, they dump money into films they know will make an easy buck. These are films with a preexisting built-in audience: sequels, remakes and screen adaptations of novels and comics. Investors like directors who have proved profitable in the past and stories that follow a tried and true moneymaking formula.  In the world of feature films, there is little room for new blood or experimentation.

Maxed out

So how do Hollywood hopefuls go about procuring the funds for their first big project? Once upon a time, some answered that question with credit cards. Most notably, such films include Clerks, El Mariachi, and The Blair Witch Project. In the production of Clerks, Kevin Smith maxed out 10 credit cards to procure most his funds, his total budget landing at $27,575. He grossed $3.1 million in the box office, obliterating any and all debt he incurred.

One of the more recent examples of credit card financing is Spellbound, a documentary that follows 8 children competing in a national spelling championship. The makers maxed out a grand total of 14 credit cards to pay for filming expenses. Spellbound went on to earn $6 million domestically along with an Academy Award nomination.

While maxing out credit cards can be a highly rewarding financing strategy, the odds are not in your favor.  Making money on independent films is not easy, and distributors aren’t always looking out for your best interest. If your film does not prove profitable (most don’t), you’ll be steeped in debt and bad credit that will probably take a long, long time to climb out of.

Additionally, the rules have changed even since the release of Spellbound. Credit is not so readily available, and it would be near impossible for a filmmaker to put $2,000 on 14 separate cards.  With lower credit limits and harsher punishments for missed payments, credit cards have ceased to be a viable solution for independent filmmakers.

Beggars and choosers

While it saddens the heart to think of a world without Clerks or Spellbound, filmmakers are hard at work finding effective alternatives. One of the more popular platforms can be found, not surprisingly, on the Internet. Websites like Kickstarter and IndieGoGo provide a fundraising medium for artists trying to gather the necessary production resources. Filmmakers post the goals and details of their projects online, and people can make donations to films they’d like to see produced.

In the few years it’s been around, “crowd fundraising” has become an immensely popular tool for underfunded artists. This year’s Sundance saw its first film funded by Kickstarter donations. The Woods, a story of disenchanted youth in search of modern utopia, raised $11,584 using Kickstarter. While the film did not receive the most favorable reviews, its acceptance to Sundance was a monumental event, proving the possibility of an alternative fundraising model for independent films.

Unlike credit card financing, crowd fundraising won’t leave you suffocating under a heap of debilitating debt. And with technology becoming evermore advanced and affordable, independent filmmakers are finding the means to pursue the projects audiences will actually pay to see. Amongst all the brutal competition inherent in the industry and the countless closed doors of stingy investors, the evolving artist-consumer dynamic offers a ray hope for passionate filmmakers.