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Balancing Risk and Responsibility While Making Great Films.

By Esther B. Robinson

Risk. It’s part and parcel of the heroic filmmaker narrative: pulling that boat over the mountain. Chasing the dubious lead that results in narrative gold. Putting everything on the line to make our movies happen, against all odds.

If you don’t crave risk on some level, then you’re likely not a filmmaker. There is that perfect moment on every film where the impossible becomes real. That’s our addiction, the moment we all chase. Some filmmakers (often with help from their producers) know how to balance risk down to the perfect ratio. The best are uncanny in their ability to know just how much they can spend to get that shot, to track that subject, to make their vision unfold and let the crazy magic happen intact. And they know how much to wager so that leftover financial problems from one film won’t swamp their ability to make the next one.

Part of good risk assessment involves understanding your own skill set as well as the needs of your film. But another part of good risk assessment requires knowledge of the back end. How much cash can you expect to get back once your labor is finished?

What do we do now that the collapse of the theatrical distribution model (and all of modern media distribution for that matter) is unfolding before our eyes? How do we begin to make sense of what constitutes good and bad choices in this era? How does the collapse that we see around us change the way we assess risk?

We can’t let go of risk. Without it our movies won’t get made, and if they do, they won’t have what makes our best movies sing. But we must also make sure that the thrill of the impossible doesn’t also sink us financially. And frankly, there’s no way for us purely independent filmmakers to know what to financially count on from our movies right now.

Some independent filmmakers — mostly those making medium-budgeted narrative films — are adapting to these times by considering whether or not to lower their quote or to agree to work for DGA scale. But most others, including new directors and many documentary filmmakers, are self-financing or scraping together meager budgets from disparate financing sources. For them, directing fees are often low on the priority list, and remuneration arrives long after picture lock, if at all.

So for those of you forging ahead on your filmmaking dream without a director’s salary wiring to your bank account every two weeks, here is a modest proposal: make work that matters while following The Big Art /Little Debt Plan.

The theory behind the plan goes like this: We can’t tell exactly where our industry is headed or how our efforts will be monetized. We can however control the artistic ambitions of our work and we can control our personal finances. And we can make work that uniquely illuminates our moment and highlights the singular strengths of our medium.

The Plan:

The Big Art /Little Debt plan has three commandments and five steps:

First commandment: Make work that matters.

Second commandment: Get right with thy personal cash.

Third commandment: Know and keep to thy limits.

Step 1. Find the film that must be made. Start by finding the story you must tell, one that satisfies as many of your creative ambitions as reasonably possible. Chuck the film ideas you had to make money or soothe broadcasters or woo that star. In a world of big budget studios and YouTube, the only thing that sets you apart is your cinematic ambition and artistry. You can’t make the most expensive movie. You can’t make the movie with the biggest stars, and frankly these days, you can’t make the cheapest movie. You can, however, make a movie that engages the issues of our time with both cinematic rigor and financial acumen. Scope out the parameters and talk with your friends and colleagues. Is your idea relevant to this moment in history? And is it a story you are uniquely qualified to tell? If so, then push yourself. Dig in artistically. Then dig and dig more. Do not settle for anything less than the best you are capable of achieving.

Step 2. Face Your Finances. Find out where you stand financially. Right now. Then improve it. This is the biggest step. It’s broken into substeps, each of which will move you a little closer to your goal.

A: Assess your finances. First, make a list of all the loans you have outstanding, except school loans and mortgages (these loans generally have long terms and low APRs, so for this plan, we ignore them). Figure out where you stand; write down the balances, interest rates, and monthly amount due for each of your debts. If this panics you, look to the debt sidebar for immediate assistance.

Now, look at income and expenses. How much money did you make in the last few months? How much will you make over the next six months? How much did you spend on your rent/mortgage, utilities, loans (credit/student/car loans etc.), insurance, groceries, equipment? After you total the expenses, subtract that from your income and see where you stand. This is the amount you can use to pay off your existing debts. If your debts are low or non-existent, this is the money you can put into savings to float you during production or cover you during the inevitable crises.

Nothing left after you total everything up? Take a minute to visualize your movie. You are going to make your film. And in the same weird way that you will achieve that impossible goal of making this film, you will figure out how to get this debt down or get your savings up. Approach it from your surest, toughest most inventive self.

B: Get yourself a crazy plan. No one said you had to do this the normal way. If you’re a filmmaker, you’ve never done things the normal way, so why start now? You should tackle this problem with the same crazy can-do attitude you display when marshaling your resources to mount a movie production.

What can you sell, rent, reduce? Can you sublet your place for a quick chunk of cash, can you eBay the cool clutter you’ve been storing? Can you let the demise of modern broadcast delivery work in your favor and use Hulu instead of cable? Buy less clothes? Cheaper tuna? Remember ramen?

Channel all your intelligence and strength into making your film happen by getting lean and mean and ruthless. You can do anything for eight to 12 months. Consider this the film version of premarathon training. Yes it hurts, but you have a goal. And you are training your mind and your stamina, which you’ll need in fighting shape to finish that film.

C: Settle your debt/start to save. If you are carrying debt, take the money you save and attack the credit card with the highest interest rate and the biggest balance. This is the fastest way to get to zero debt. You’ll lower the amount of money that the credit card companies are making off you and you’ll start to feel the rush of making your film happen. For great online resources to assist this process look to my last Filmmaker article for links.

Next talk those credit card people into a lower rate. Okay. Yes. The hubris enveloping the banks is insane. They may say no but you should try. Anyone who can get free catering, film, actors, access, has a shot at getting a rate lowered. Plus it will feel great if you can get them to do it and if you can’t, well, you can use your anger to fuel your spend down.

For those of you in savings mode, take the money you get and put it in a savings account with the highest interest rate you can find (just make sure they are FDIC insured). Also, be clear about when you’ll need access to the cash. If you know you can wait six months or a year before you need it you might consider placing the money in a Certificate of Deposit (CD). CDs are different from savings accounts in that the CD has a specific, fixed term (often three months, six months, or one to five years) and, usually, a fixed interest rate. This means you agree to not withdraw the funds during the set interval but the bank has usage of your funds and can, thus, offer you a higher interest rate.

D: Celebrate success. Each time you pay down half the balance, celebrate. Each time you hit a savings goal, celebrate. Each time you talk a bank into lowering your rate, celebrate. Candy, cupcakes, beer (the delightful but cheap versions). Take time to remind yourself that you are unstoppable; those evil home-evicting banks aren’t getting rich off you; and most importantly, you’re on the verge of making your film.

Step 3. Build your favor bank. How can you help others make their films so that once you’re in production you have people to call for help? Whose script can you read so that you can also get notes when the time comes? Be explicit: Put out a call to folks offering to barter. Can you turn your new thrift into a lifestyle of meaningful exchange?

Step 4. Research the back end/hone your film for max savings. Now is the time to learn what folks are paying or not paying for films like yours. Be realistic. Ask people who know. Attend panels. As you pay down your debt, be clear with yourself: How much new debt can you realistically take on after you start production? Does your schedule make sense for maximum savings? Anything you can do for less money? What if no one buys your film? Do you really need that helicopter shot? Also, remember that sometimes having to really reimagine something can make it better as it strips away the most obvious choices.

Step 5. Know thy limits throughout and don’t be afraid to slow it down. For the lucky folks who have full financing going in, you must be ruthless about sticking to your budget and artistic ambitions. Be clear with yourself about what you will sacrifice and what you won’t — have a Plan B for everything you care about that might get challenged by the financiers. Remember that the fully reasoned Plan B can kick just as much ass as the first-choice Plan A.

For those of you without full financing, your job is to really understand the budgeting and scheduling needs of your proposed film and to be hyperrealistic about its back-end prospects. You also need to be really clear about fear. Do not let the fear of not having enough money make you ignore reality and over or underspend. Instead make the fear work for you. Make the fear part of your adrenaline fix. Use it to build out a plan that works against crazy odds, fit it neatly into your handcrafted risk niche.

Also mine the lulls. If you find yourself approaching your predetermined spending limits, slow down or take other work until you’re back on track. If you don’t have enough money for post, schedule a time-out from the film to make money in the months leading up to the edit. You must also see this as PART of the production process. Do not waste a minute on guilt or depression about “being away from your movie.” This IS making your movie.

You have a plan. Now, make your own path. There is no single way of applying this plan. No guru, no method — just what works. The way forward will be charted by your friends and colleagues. Bounce your ideas off others. Get new ideas. Keep talking and listening. Your way forward will be idiosyncratic, an amalgam of many people’s plans.


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