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.
Back To 1 is my second feature film, but it is the first one that has required me to seek outside funding to bring the story and vision to life. I knew searching for funding would be a new kind of endeavor, but I never expected the trials that were ahead of me.
THE FUNDING HUNT BEGINS
I’m pretty sure my hair became even more curly than it already was due to the state of confusion from the recent meeting with the Packaging and Sales Representative. They weren’t willing to make intros with all the producers, distributors, or investors they represented because the budget was too high? Nothing was mentioned about the story, the songs, the pitch deck, the people I had attached to the production. It didn’t matter. The conversation didn’t get that far.
The movie was budgeted as a full union production, and I was proud that my budget was the cost of two musical television episodes. That’s a savings compared to huge studio movies and streaming originals. But it didn’t matter. I was stuck and unable to move forward in this direction.
I was told to get the budget to one million or below, then…maybe they would contact their people for an hourly rate. Keep this in mind as this, “Get the budget to one million,” will come around again in the future.
Did I mention, knowing the budget and filming schedule?…One million barely covered half the shooting schedule. “Well, cut your days in half then,” I was told. Which translates to film half the movie. This advice, or consultation, was counter productive to serving the most important thing about any movie ever…the story.
On a logistical level getting the budget down to half the scheduled shoot days made literally zero sense. If I did that, I’d have half a movie and it wouldn’t be able to be released. This was one of the worst suggestions I had ever heard. It also completely erases the most important thing filmmakers are told…story is king.
Write a good story, get the money, make the movie, broadly speaking. That’s what everyone says in the industry, mainstream or independent. Of course, this is also a business, and people need to be paid. However, I began to realize the people I had been meeting didn’t give a single care in the world about whatever story they were working on. As long as they were getting paid for meeting with you, pitching for you, consulting on your project, it was another day at the office for them. Every single one of them cared about budget. That’s it.
I’m no stranger to compromise. I witnessed many on previous projects I worked on, and made plenty on my first feature, but the key to a good compromise is to still get your story made. My first rule to compromise is get the core moment of the scene filmed. Okay, so it takes place in a different location, does the scene still have the necessary emotional impact? Yes, great! Let’s do it and save money. No? Don’t do it. Find another way to get the scene moment. There are plenty of ways to tell the story and save money. The current compromise I was presented would require a completely different story than the one I wanted to tell. More on that later.
THE PRODUCER SEMINARS
There are tons of “How to Finance Your Feature Film” seminars, mostly online now, and I definitely went to a few to figure out this challenge. The one thing I hadn’t done or added to the pitch package was what is called a sizzle reel, pitch reel, or proof of concept trailer. I figured this was what I needed. This was the missing piece. I needed to visually show to these people why the budget was at its current level. This wasn’t an independent horror film with a few actors and one location. This was a dance film with actors, dancers, singers, rehearsal costs, there’s a lot more to it.
For the proof of concept trailer, I wasn’t interested in making an edit using already famous footage from comparable films. Instead I decided to do original footage to tell this story. I would contact dancers I knew who also had the look of the characters I had envisioned. It was time to go all in. Time to showcase bits of the three demo songs, grab the choreographers, and make a proof of concept music video of what the movie would look and feel like, and it would be fully self-funded.
THE PROOF OF CONCEPT TRAILER
I knew I couldn’t shoot dialogue scenes. I didn’t want to confuse anyone seeing the proof of concept trailer with actors that weren’t going to be the actual leads in the film. This was my thought process. The entire idea was to pitch people to make the full feature. I needed to create a trailer so that actors I would pitch could see themselves in the role.
As an actor, that’s one of the best things you can receive. A director wants you to be the lead role of the movie, you read the role, you see the role, hopefully, you’ll want to do it. Plus, for me, as a writer, it’s always easier to write a role for an actor than it is writing a role, than trying to cast someone who fits it. That’s just me, as I don’t speak for other screenwriters.
I worked with Bryan Arata and the lyricist on choosing bits of each of the three demo songs that would be used in the order I needed. I won’t go into specifics of the proof of concept trailer, but I will say it showcased the heart of the movie like a silent film, with songs. Kind of an Alice going down the rabbit hole scenario for a life decision.
I needed a crew and contacted some of the original crew from my first feature. They weren’t available for the scheduled dates. Luckily, I befriended a production designer on a short film I did as an actor, and members of that crew were available.
I scouted two locations, a mini stage space in Burbank, and a dance studio in Newbury Park. I hired a buddy to storyboard the trailer. I contacted the choreographers, asked my agent to help find a few dancers, cast the ones that were closest to the look I wanted, booked a dance studio in LA for two days of rehearsal, rented costumes, did fittings for all on screen talent, rented top of the line equipment, had one camera blocking day, and shot the trailer in two days.
FILMING THE PROOF OF CONCEPT TRAILER
Day 1 of filming went extremely well. We had parts of all three demo songs to film, costumes to change, sets to change, a lot of angles to capture, and everyone brought their A game. Thankfully the camera blocking day helped so much as the shoot went as scheduled. It was long, but overall, everyone had a good time. It felt like we were filming the movie.
Day 2 was great in the beginning, but then we were hit with a shocker from the location saying we had two hours less than promised to film everything. I found out during lunch, and isolated myself from the dancers and crew to think how I was going to get the rest of the shots I needed in less than half the time.
We had built a false wall in the dance studio, and that had to be removed entirely within the time limit. The crew still had to set up a green screen. It was a lot. I had about an hour and a half to actually film everything, and about thirty to forty-five minutes to tear down sets and equipment to get everyone out of there on time.
Instead of pretending things were fine and dandy, I asked all talent and crew into the holding area and explained the situation. I needed everyone to focus, as the only way to get everything we still needed was to do it in one take. No second takes. They all agreed and it was truly amazing watching everyone work. There was a shot in the dance studio of spectators watching the rehearsal performance. Instead of letting the dancers go to the break room, which would take about ten minutes to let them leave, and then ten minutes to get them back in the room, I asked all of them to lay on the ground while we got the reaction shot. It worked!
The last shot of the day was from the same angle. It was the green screen angle. We had to shoot clean plates for the background part of the effect, and then shoot the two characters on the green screen. We got the shot, and there was a thunderous cheer from the entire cast and crew. Then we all raced to tear everything down and leave the location on time. It was very exciting, actually. The slight issue was getting the dancers to leave because they had a blast and didn’t want to leave. I remember saying, “Leave and say goodbye to each other outside the property gate. Go, go, go. Love you all. You did a fantastic job.”
The next day I got a phone call from one the choreographers and he drove down to my house and watched me edit the trailer. It turned out great for what it was meant to be. I sent off the green screen shot to my brother to add the effects, the director of photography did the color correction, and about a month later the final trailer was ready to be added to the package.
Armed with my new proof of concept trailer, script, pitch deck, budget and schedule, it was time to resume the funding hunt to make this movie.
One of the biggest things I learned at this time was independent films were being financed by private equity, tax incentives, grants, and getting minimum financial guarantees from foreign distributors through pre-sales agents. You basically pre-sold the movie to a foreign distributor, took the amount promised from that pre-sale to a bank or private equity firm as collateral and would raise your budget that way. At least, that was one way people were doing it, and what tons of books said to do. What I had no way of knowing, unless I spoke directly with the independent producer, or director, were the budget sizes of the films that were being financed that way. If I learned this information a long time ago I would’ve saved myself a lot of time.
I contacted pre-sales agents and sent the link to the new proof of concept trailer with the script available upon request. The majority of responses I got were the following… “This is one of the most professional looking concept trailers I have ever seen.”
“Great,” I thought. All the money and work put into the trailer was paying off. Excellent. This will get the ball rolling in the right direction.
“Come back when you have name talent attached,” they said.
This would go on for months.
Everyone I spoke with said, “You’re stuck in the classic catch 22. No name talent, or not enough funds in place already.”
The entire point was to have these people help me get out of the catch 22. The majority of them didn’t even read the script. They loved the trailer, but wanted money and name talent already in place. I felt like I was chasing my tail. There had to be a way out of this, a way to break through.
The Journey To 1 Million continues with THE REWRITE AND THE MARKET.
For more about Back To 1 be sure to check out backto1film.com