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in Filmmaking
on Feb 5, 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 Dan Cogan of Impact Partners.

What drives most filmmakers, and especially documentary filmmakers, is their deep passion to tell a story. It’s not about money or about a career for many filmmakers — it’s about the story. This is very much a good and a bad thing. The passion is the good part — the refusal to think about money or budgets in a practical way is a bad thing.

Many filmmakers, especially first-time filmmakers, are definitely unrealistic about financing. The thing is, it’s easy to write a budget for a film. The problem is, that budget is irrelevant if you can’t raise the funding.

When we finance films at Impact Partners, we start from the point of passion — do we think this could be a great film? And if the answer is yes, then we quickly move to the most practical question: what is the revenue that we can project for the project? After all, if we invest money, we need to know how we can earn it back. We think about the state of the U.S. and international TV markets — the most important sources of revenue for docs — and then also if there are educational and niche markets that can be served by DVD, downloads, etc. We then work backwards from the revenue that we think the film can generate to figure out how much we think we can invest.

Filmmakers can do the same thing. They can and should write budgets, but then they also have to look at what they can realistically think they can earn at the back end. If their budget exceeds their projected earnings, they need to figure out sources of soft money to close the gap. If they don’t think that can be done, they need to consider bringing the budget down.

Of course, none of this is easy for filmmakers who are near the beginning of their careers. How do they figure out what the market will bear? The answer is: get help early on. Knock on doors of experienced producers, sales agents, and directors whose films you like. Submit your project to Independent Film Week, the IDFA and Hot Docs pitching forums. As you approach filmmaker for help, maybe you’ll even find an EP who can help you put it all together. You may also find crucial bad news early on — such as the film you want to make was just made last year by someone in France and all the int’l buyers bought it, so you’ll never do any sales outside the U.S. This isn’t fun to hear, but better to learn it now than when you’re done and have sunk all your own money into a film you can’t sell.

Depending on the film, I do think it’s possible to self-finance and then come out with manageable personal debt — but you need to think from the point of view of “earnings”, not just what your dream budget says you need. When push comes to shove, independent filmmakers can figure out how to do things cheaply — that’s what we do. But it helps to do this from the very start. — Dan Cogan

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