The true story of acquiring the funds for the full dance/drama/musical feature film Back To 1.
by Doug Penikas
The reason I decided to share this journey is to inform filmmakers of the potential challenges they may face making their own independent films. So many factors come into play and it is easy to get lost in the different promises that are presented to you by people willing to help for a price. I hope my experience is educational and eye-opening to others.
During the final week of the 2018 Indiegogo campaign, I already began sharing ideas to composer Bryan Arata about the story and what original songs would be needed for specific scenes and production numbers. He would work at his day job during the day, and at night begin working on the album. I told him to only focus on creating each song with piano instead of diving into full orchestration. The reason behind this was to avoid unnecessary changes, and actually save time. If it sounded good on piano, it would sound even better with a full orchestra.
I contacted the lyricist whom had worked with Bryan Arata and myself on the Proof of Concept Trailer, and made the best offer I could for the songs with the recent budget that was left over from the campaign. Ultimately, my offer wasn’t enough and the lyricist decided to move on to other projects. I respected that decision, as I can only work with what I have. I had just finished an intense fundraising campaign, had some money to pay for music, lyrics, as well as perk manufacturing and shipping. That all adds up extremely quickly. Now, I had no lyricist and decided to cut the original three demo songs and start over. This also meant that the Proof of Concept Trailer was no longer a valid pitching tool for investors, which is why it’s no longer available for others to see.
All that time and money spent, poof. Gone in an instant. Much like when you hear other filmmakers talking about how they worked for half a year on visual effects that appear for less than a minute in a big Hollywood blockbuster.
For the time being, not having a lyricist anymore was all right, as I needed music first anyway. I know tons of composers and singer/songwriters prefer to write music and lyrics at the same time. That wasn’t this project, as the real challenge was that these songs had to fit scenes that weren’t even shot yet. I knew that getting a piano version that captured the emotional feeling of the scene was crucial. So, that’s where Bryan Arata and I started.
During the day I would organize and oversee all the perk logistics as well as shipping with help from family, and then would work with Bryan Arata from about 7:30 pm to 10:30 pm on the album through FaceTime. I give massive props to Bryan Arata for pushing through on creating the piano version of the demo album after an already long day at his day job. I set up dates with each of the actors to have them sign all promised artwork that I had to ship and drove to each one on different days, working around their schedules, to get everything sent off as quickly as possible. I actually had to do that twice with the leading lady as there was a miscount. That was embarrassing, but nonetheless still needed to be completed.
The New Lyricist
As songs began to form, I still needed to find a lyricist. I decided to ask leading man Drew Seeley, if he’d want to take a crack at it, considering he is a great singer and songwriter. He asked for three songs to be sent to him to see if he could work on them and he got back to me in the same day with a yes. It became extremely exciting for both Bryan Arata and myself to see an email from Drew with a new draft for a song. On December 31st, 2018, Drew sent in a song, which I loved. I was surprised by the fact that he was working on New Year’s Eve, considering he has a family. I highly recommend anyone to work with Drew Seeley and Bryan Arata for music related projects. They’re fantastic, and I couldn’t be happier with them.
The year is now 2019. Songs were being created and coming when they could as I didn’t have enough funds raised to book everyone full time. Some songs had to be completely rewritten after the fourth draft as it just didn’t have the right tone, or match the quality of other songs I had approved. There’s no way to know until you hear it fully in context.
After my previous experience working with Producer #1 and the distributor, I was in no hurry to seek help from another company like them. I just knew I would get the same “Come back to us with name talent and the budget already raised.”
Instead, I needed help finding accredited investors that understood the kind of movie I was producing. Luckily, our top donor from the 2018 Indiegogo campaign, was willing to help me on this quest.
I met this person with our choreographers not long after the campaign ended and we all got along very well. On July 11th, 2019, I woke up to an email from Drew with the final song in piano form. It was incredibly exciting. I also ended up booking a live musical for the summer which happened to work out, as our top donor needed more time with their investor contacts. I was scared and very saddened to hear that our top donor had become incredibly ill. It was worse than I had imagined, and the funding hunt came to a halt.
I also halted any more progress on the music as the money that had been raised from the 2018 Indiegogo campaign was getting low, and my options were becoming extremely limited once again.
Even the leading lady reached out to a producer friend of hers and was given the “Come back to us when you have one million raised,” speech. This of course, was from a producer that had already worked with the leading lady.
I kept in contact with our top donor checking in on their health, while I searched for different ways to meet investors.
The answer to what I had always suspected
I ended up having a general meeting with a top representative of a film private lending firm, and discovered what I had suspected years ago to be true. “We don’t care what the story is or who’s in it as long as the money is in place and that the film will be released.”
I learned some of their detailed requirements and payouts, which was pretty standard for most film lending companies I had met over the years. They were the last in, and first to be paid out. That would push any potential private equity investors farther down the list to getting their return on their own investment.
So, I was stuck. Another year was practically over, the person I wanted to be in business with and our top supporter was very ill. I didn’t have any minimum guarantees or tax credits to work with lending companies, and pre-sales agents weren’t willing to take on Back To 1 because of the name talent and not enough money in place thing.
I had a piano version of the entire demo album, minus one song that still needed to be written, and the pitch package with a proof of concept trailer I could no longer use.
Toward the end of summer I discovered the distributor, who was really an aggregator, of my first feature Blood Type: Unknown, went bankrupt and didn’t tell any of the hundreds of filmmakers they represented. That had a huge effect on how I wanted to make Back To 1, as a lot of aggregators began to go out of business, and the aggregator model wasn’t looking like a smart business move anymore.
I ended up coming across, I’ll call it Production Company #2, that had their own built in film lending firm, so to speak. They advertised and I’m paraphrasing a little here…“We can help get your movie funded.” To be fair, a lot of the films they had advertised working on did have big movie stars in them. So I was intrigued, as this appeared to be the most legitimate service I had found that could help Back to 1, even though the red flags were still going off.
They offered different priced bundles for their services that you could hire them to do. Create a budget, pitch deck, script coverage, all the basics that anyone that hasn’t produced a film before would need.
The one thing they did provide was a financial model, and I was very curious to see how they would do it. Of course that one item was part of the most expensive bundle. I contacted the company letting them know that I had already done the majority of stuff they provided and they offered me a discounted price for the bundle. It was still expensive.
Remember by this time, my options were incredibly limited, and I didn’t want to hire another company. But maybe they knew something I didn’t. I had name cast attached already, so maybe this would work out, and they’d help with the financing.
I spoke to a family friend about this new option and they were generous enough to fund the bundle. So I didn’t spend more money on a test out of what was raised. This family friend said it was cheaper than what they would normally spend in Vegas.
On October 18th, 2019, I signed a six month contract with the company to assess the Back To 1 film package. After the payment went through, I was told it would take two months to get back to me. RED FLAG.
I was reassured that I was simply in the queue of projects to be assessed. Uh, huh. The contract was also very strange. Saying that all the heads of the company would get Executive Producer credit on the film, even though I only spoke to one person. That seemed weird, but I went along with it.
In February 2020, four months later, I received the documents that were promised, and to my disappointment, they had changed the photos of the pitch deck, but kept roughly 90% of what I had originally written in the pitch deck I gave them.
They gave me a new budget that wasn’t anything special compared to what I had already done. A new shooting schedule, which was literally mine with a couple of scenes in a reversed order for some of the shoot days. I was given a four page document of script coverage notes that were the worst representation of script coverage I had ever seen.
I had been accustomed to receiving pages of incredibly detailed notes and summaries for each character and story moments, with graphs showing the emotional impacts of the story at certain times.
This four page document read as if the reader that did the coverage had never read a script before, let alone knew how to critique. Instead it read like a conversation you have with friends leaving the movie theater after the film ended. There was nothing constructive that would improve the story.
I was very upset, realizing yet again, I could’ve saved thousands of dollars. They did say the project was a good, and there was an audience for it based on the financial model and projections they devised. Research showed it actually appealed to a big audience. Great, so they’ll finance it right? They have the built in private equity lending firm, and it’s a low budget.
“Well, we need a pre-sales agent to attach and should probably get one more name actor attached to the project.”
Another pre-sales agent? I already knew one, but they would charge me for the hour. “Why not just take it to your internal private equity firm? You’ve done the financials and shown that the movie is a good bet and has a large audience, and have admitted that I have name talent.”
“Let’s see if we can get a different pre-sales agent attached first.”
“All right,” I said, and waited and waited and waited.
There were discussions about the “name talent” thing again, and frankly it was ridiculous. They wanted me to add one more name to the package without enough funds to make an offer.
In the meantime, Production Company #2 had given me a contract saying that should they help bring in financing, I’d also have to put their logo at the front of the movie. I was completely fine with this, but decided to look at the big films they had helped financed, or produced, to see other projects with Production Company #2’s logo…nope. Not on the big movies I had heard of at least. RED FLAG.
I was afraid of falling into the same trap, and yet I had, and I just kept falling. I had hired Production Company #2 to help me acquire the funds for Back To 1, under the belief that they were the one company that had built in financiers to do so.
Turns out this company outsourced the services they said they provided to different companies. I was being offered contracts for the movie, saying how much profit percentage this pre-sales company would get, compared to this other finance company, and none of these people talked to me. None!
It felt like putting the cart before the horse.
I did receive an email asking if I truly believed I could make the movie for one million dollars, a third of what the budget had been projected to be at this point. The reason, there was another company that would be willing to finance the entire thing, with some script changes.
I seriously thought about it, as this was the best news I had received in years. It would be tricky, but if I could figure out how to get the same movie made at that budget level, that would be remarkable.
After about a forty-five minute phone call discussing options on how to bring the budget down, shooting locally in California, not going to Utah, to save on travel and housing expenses, etc., I said yes.
“If we do that we can cut a lot of the budget,” I informed. “What script changes does this company want?” I received one paragraph of notes, that basically described the entire movie I had already written. I literally sent an email back telling them what pages to go to in the script that already had what they said was missing. “Who do I talk to in order to understand these notes? I need more specifics to be effective.”
“Well, they said if you rewrite it you can always re-submit to them,” I was told.
“Re-submit? So they don’t want to fund it all. They’ve passed on the project.”
“Well…yes it’s currently a pass. They were unable to go into details about story changes because they had to downsize their story department due to the virus.”
“WHAT?” These people were asking for changes without knowing what changes they wanted, and ultimately it was a pass in the first place? This was the end of July 2020.
I felt my time was being wasted, yet again. “Let’s find another company that understands making movie musicals.”
“Well, we don’t have those connections since it’s not a genre piece,” I was told.
“Back To 1 is a genre piece,” I replied “It’s a dance/musical/drama. Same genre as Dirty Dancing, The Greatest Showman, La La Land, Glee, High School Musical, etc. You don’t have those connections? What about all the contacts you advertised on your website? All the agents, pre-sales companies, foreign distributors?”
I’ve paraphrased the reply for copyright reasons…“Genre refers to action, thriller and sci-fi projects with a built-in audience that have an easier path to financial return. Musicals are a solid genre and quite successful recently, but they’ll never be as easy of a sell as an action film as it relies more so on cast, song quality and execution more than anything else.”
And there it was…the classic name talent comment once again. It only took ten months to arrive back at square one. Oh, did I mention none of these people asked to hear the demo songs?
I was beyond annoyed at the fact that I failed to do the one thing I needed, and that was listen to my gut. Production Company #2 could’ve just told me upfront ten months ago that they didn’t have the connections for a movie musical. That would’ve been fine, but that’s not what happened.
The contract with Production Company #2 ran out since they didn’t know who to contact, so there wasn’t any reason to continue going down this path with them.
Being honest, I was struggling with looking at the glass half full. I had literally been told by lenders and equity firms that they don’t care who’s cast. Just that the movie will get made and released, and they will get their pay out. Then, in order to release the movie all anyone cares about is cast, not story.
Trust your gut. Trust your gut. Trust your gut. I just needed to trust my gut.
The Journey To 1 Million continues with CREATING THE DONATION PAGE.
For more about Back To 1 be sure to check out backto1film.com