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in Filmmaking
on Feb 4, 2010

In the new issue of Filmmaker, Esther Robinson penned “The Big Art/Little Debt Plan,” which discusses the relation of filmmakers to risk, their films, and their money. She reached out to several filmmakers by email, and their responses helped shape her article. We are running several of the responses Esther received here on the blog. Below is the one from Thomas Woodrow, producer, Bass Ackwards.

With the current environment/budgets you are seeing, do think there will be more financing gaps than usual? If yes, do you think this might create an uptick in personal debt (both for you and the filmmaker) to fill the gap? If no, how are gaps traditionally-weathered/weathered-in-this-moment?

The most straightforward solution is simply to make better movies for less money. People have an antiquated notion of what it is to “make a movie,” believing that somehow it involves HMIs or a bond company or huge “stars.” It can, but it doesn’t have to. Really, making a movie involves four things: an actor, a camera, an environment and something like a story. if we are truly imaginative, that is more than enough.

Do you think filmmakers are realistic in their expectations of financing?

I think expectations are changing. The fact is that nobody is really getting “financed” in the way they used to. Or, rather, so few people that it’s not worth talking about. My own conversations with filmmakers suggest that people are starting to be deeply empowered by the technology that is now available. Red cameras. Final cut pro. It is possible to make a film of amazing scope, both texturally and thematicaly, for almost nothing. To me, the invention of the Red is the key new component here. It is constantly being improved, but it represents a radical step forward: high value, low cost.

Do you think filmmakers are realistic about the amount of personal debt they acquire on behalf of their films?

i think going into personal debt is an extremely dangerous proposition. Going into debt tends to lead to less personal freedom down the line if you accept the responsibility to pay it off. We should focus on doing things that will allow greater freedom in the future rather than less. If we make movies of substance and value for very little money, then we have the possibility of monetizing them down the road. This influx of resources can then pave the way for further freedom and greater creativity. I call this the “Mark Duplass effect.”

Are you realistic about the debt you acquire on behalf of the films you produce?

I have made the mistake of leveraging more capital than turned out to be really necessary to make films in the past, but actually most filmmakers I know do that when they take their first swing at bat. Because they’ve never actually made a movie, they don’t know what is most integral to the process. It would be cool if young filmmakers could realize from the start that that wasn’t necessary (learn from others’ mistakes) and feel secure in the capacity of their own imaginations to enthrall. Perhaps this is the province of producers.

Has your relationship to this kind of personal debt changed over time?

I have a fair amount of student loan debt, which used to cause me great anxiety. Now, less so.

Would you categorize the average filmmaker’s relationship to money as: healthy; slightly unhealthy; troubled; oblivious?

We all have anxiety about money, not just filmmakers. It is important at such times to take a step back and ask ourselves: what do i really need? The answer is, actually, not a lot. If you think you need something, i would challenge you to be like a child and relentlessly ask: “why.” And when you get to the answer, whatever it is for you, then ask yourself: is that more important than making my movie? If not, give it up. Or, having discovered that it really is important (probably having to do with being responsible for another person), find a way to address that and your movie. And give up everything else. Or be willing to. The acknowledgment that you could if you had to is very freeing.

What are your thoughts on going into a film with a “no personal debt/ coming out with manageable debt” plan? Do you think this is realistic? Provide details if you can!

Nobody should go into substantial personal debt to make a film. A small amount might be necessary, but no more than you think you can pay off with a few weeks back at a job. If your lifestyle is too expensive to sustain while making an inexpensive movie, then scale down. If you’ve scaled down as far as you think you can, scale further. Move in with a friend. A relative. Good food and water are not expensive. And if you are not willing to go that far, then i would ask how badly you want to make films. I make the point very extremely for the sake of argument, but thinking this way can help set our priorities.

To be clear: I do think that filmmakers should be rewarded for their work and that a system is needed to help finance, distribute and monetize the work they do, so they can actually be paid. Not primarily to get rich, although that may be a side effect, but more importantly to enable the making of more work. We are working on this. — Thomas Woodrow

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