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.
Three years of working, researching, pitching, and networking on the then named The Dancer & The Composer project, had happened, and finally another break-through happened. People started reading the script. Finally! It was like the film gods zapped their brains, or something in my pitch finally clicked, or at least intrigued them enough to read it. Some people took days, others months, and some I never heard from at all. The ultimate verdict…pass.
This was enlightening to me. They all loved the proof of concept trailer, loved the demo songs, and passed on the opportunity to make it? Not enough money already in place, no name stars attached, but they loved the trailer? Why were they passing? Script feedback was 50/50. This one company liked it, this other one didn’t. So script coverage wasn’t the answer here. I was being asked to make changes for one company, then to change the story back to what I originally had by another company.
By now my hair was giving painter Bob Ross a run for his money. I had invested years and thousands of dollars in this project already. What were they loving about the trailer and not the full story? It finally dawned on me. The proof of concept trailer didn’t show any of the really expensive locations required. There wasn’t any way I could show the scale I was going for with the trailer budget I had at the time. If the trailer was gaining interest, then the script wasn’t reflecting it. I resisted, but after a nice lunch in Culver City with a family friend, I decided to do a complete story rewrite starting from page one.
I kept replaying my past meetings in my head as I rewrote the story. “Get the budget to one million. Get name actors attached, and or get 30%-50% of the financing already in place.” This would still prove to be difficult to accomplish.
My rule for compromise is get the emotional core of the story filmed, and I was now creating a brand new story from scratch that had a dancer and composer as the two leads. I wasn’t sure how to tell the same story without the main set pieces I had already created. The entire essence and feel of the story would change. Finally one morning, a specific scene popped into my head, and I discovered how to stay true to the soul of the movie and knock down the cost, by eliminating the most expensive shooting locations.
I kept one big musical number idea from the early draft and was able to make it work within the new narrative, but all the other dance numbers were scrapped, and new ones had to be created.
The story took on a much more real approach. It wasn’t as light-hearted as some classic Hollywood movie musicals anymore, which was the original inspiration. I spent another three months on the new draft of The Dancer & The Composer. Character motivations changed, as did their occupations. I adapted the story to fit the already written demo songs, and proof of concept trailer. It felt like I was working on this project backwards. From screen to script instead of script to screen.
I hosted another table read in Culver City, and this time I invited some acting friends, and dance friends to attend the reading. I needed to make sure the story resonated with dancers and non dancers, one of the biggest hurdles I had been facing while pitching in the past. I even had the proof of concept trailer looped on the TV while we read the new draft of the script and by the end there were some tears of joy from both the dancers and actors. Success!
Of course the story needed some tweaking but the heart was stronger now and practically matched the emotional intent that inspired me to write it.
I polished the new draft and got it ready to pitch “number people” again.
THE MARKET EXPERIENCE
It’s near the end of the year 2014 now. I knew movies were being made, small films, with no name talent for four times my estimated budget, and I had to meet people that were used to working in that budget range. People that spoke the same language as me, so to speak.
The only place I knew to go was a film market to meet these people. My pitch was basically here…I’m making a dance movie musical with two of the top choreographers in the industry, original music, and I can make this dance movie for a fraction of a big studio cost. I’ve worked in the industry enough as a dancer to know the right people who can get the job done.
“Who are the actors? Who’s in it?” was the second question I was asked. This was coming from people who were selling horror films with no name actors and their past five films didn’t have names either. I was baffled.
“I haven’t attached any actors yet as the funds aren’t in place to make an official offer. That’s why I’m here.”
“Come back to us when you have actors attached,” they said. No guidance of how to do that.
I couldn’t believe it. I felt like my curly hair was growing bigger than any chia pet by this point, with all this “come back to us” when you have the funding and actors already attached talk. The entire reason I was talking to any of these people was to help me do exactly that. Again, it makes no sense to offer someone a job without having any funds to pay them. You can’t compete with other jobs that might come their way. It’s not smart. Yet, that is exactly what I was being told to do by people who were advertising, “We’ll help you get your movie funded.”
THE PRODUCER AND THE DISTRIBUTOR
Enter…let’s call them Production Company #1, represented by Producer #1. This person knew the dance world, and a lot of the people I had already worked with on previous movies and TV shows. Already things were looking up. Producer #1 was saying everything I had suspected and believed in, loved the trailer, and the story, so I decided this person was the one who understands the kind of movie I’m making.
After the market, I kept in touch, sent the script, and they gushed over it. Loved it, and I knew they actually read it because they said what their favorite scenes were to me. They also liked how there were no typos. They said they could get the film into ten cities in the states, and presented a consulting contract to me saying they would help us acquire some of the budget and a whole bunch of legal stuff.
The ten city release sounded nice, but in reality it didn’t make much sense to me. Especially, when I discovered that what they meant was one theater in each of the ten states. Ten states, ten theaters. Hmmmmm…I don’t know many people are willing to drive three to five hours to see a movie in one specific theater without enough buzz for it. I personally am the kind of person who would do this, but I doubted the general public would be as determined.
Anyway, I felt we were getting ahead of ourselves talking distribution as I knew there were better deals to be made once the film was completed. I knew this as I had already sold my first feature film, and had numerous offers for it. With that experience under my belt, I knew it was better to look for a better distribution deal later, after we had actors attached and financing. Producer #1 agreed and I hired them to help me raise the funds, and contact their investors.
Then things started to get weird…
Producer #1 wanted me to have script coverage done, this would be the third time it was done on this story already. I didn’t understand the need for it as Producer #1 told me to my face they loved it. Gushed over it, remember?
“Well, its part of the process to have an unbiased opinion and would help them know which investors to contact,” they said.
Okaaaaaaaayyy…My warning flags were starting, but I didn’t listen to them as this was a different way of doing things.
I was told to remove all the credits of the people that worked on the proof of concept trailer from the IMDB page as well. “It will make the project more enticing for investors to jump on board.”
This didn’t sit right with me at all. Remove all the amazing talent & crew that worked their butts off on the proof of concept trailer? This was devastating to hear as all of them earned their credit. I foolishly listened to this advice from Producer #1. It went against all my morals. I figured I had hired this person, they’ve produced more movies than me, this is how it’s done. I had never raised this big of budget before, supposedly Producer #1 had, and I went along with it.
Did I mention, I never saw any of the movies Producer #1 had “produced?” This is already one of my big mistakes. I hadn’t made the time to research this producer’s previous films. Plus, Producer #1 told me they wanted to get out of producing horror films, and The Dancer & The Composer was the perfect opportunity for that. I wanted to get going on this movie, I already put three years into it. I should’ve been more patient.
Next Producer #1 wanted me to pay them to hire a Line Producer to do a budget. I had already done the budget. Producer #1 had seen it and said it makes complete sense. “The Above The Line section isn’t high enough. Let’s have a professional do it,” they said. “Maybe the Line Producer can get it to fit the standard budget sizes.”
I paid Producer #1 to hire the Line Producer. This took about a month, but guess what…the line producer’s budget was practically identical to mine. I had done my homework. I knew what I was doing. Producer #1 was beyond surprised. “This never happens,” they said.
Uh, huh…my suspicions grew as I began to feel my money and time was being waisted.
“Have you contacted your investors about this yet?” I asked. It had been about three months of meeting in person and conferencing over the phone.
“Not yet, we need to attach a distributor first before I can contact my investors.” That did make sense to me.
Producer #1 said I’d have to pay the distributor to take the time to read the script and come up with a distribution plan. I did, and a few weeks to a month later, I met the distributor who was extremely nice, LOVED the script, and was blown away there were no typos. They said they’d be happy to distribute the movie when completed. Great!
“What’s the minimum guarantee so we can start the funding process?” I asked.
“Oh, we don’t offer minimum guarantees.”
Oooookay? I don’t remember what I said next because that made no sense to me. Everything I had learned up until that point was interested distributors offer minimum guarantees. This meeting was set up by Producer #1 to help me get this movie financed and this distributor wasn’t living up to the definition of a distributor.
“So, what’s the distribution plan, then?” I asked.
“We need to get name cast attached and that will determine our distribution plan,” I was told by either the Distributor or Producer #1. Again, that made sense, but I didn’t understand why this meeting was taking place in person when it could have easily been done over the phone now.
We began to brainstorm name talent ideas that could fit the roles of the ballerina, the composer, and the second female lead. I already knew some name actors, but the ones Producer #1 and the Distributor wanted me to contact I wasn’t very close with. I did have their numbers, if they weren’t changed, but hadn’t spoken to these actors in at least five years. If I was closer to these actors, I would contact them immediately, but there was still an unsettling feeling about this approach. I also wanted to go through proper channels, their agents or managers. I knew in order to do that and be taken seriously, I needed funds in place.
“Well, that’s what a casting director is for. You need to hire a casting director to make negotiations begin to get name talent in the movie,” I was told by Producer #1.
“There’s no money to hire a casting director,” I said. “All the money was spent on the proof of concept trailer, and hiring you. Contact your investors, see if they’ll help us out.”
“I can’t do that until we have name talent attached,” Producer #1 said.
Why was I not surprised? I thought, and began to wonder if this person actually had investors at all.
“We also need to change the title,” Producer #1 said. “Something more modern and more edgy.”
I always expected to have to change the title of The Dancer & The Composer to something else, so that wasn’t too big of a deal to me. Apparently it was to Producer #1. They seemed scared to make such a suggestion.
It did take a while to come up with a title I liked, along with Producer #1 and the Distributor. Since the movie was all about dance, music, a ballerina, a composer, physical injury, passion, talent, and singing, there were a lot of options. I researched classic dance movies, studied their titles and the feeling they represented, and ultimately was asked by my mother, of all people, “What’s it called when you start a dance routine over in rehearsal?”
“From the top,” I replied.
“No. no. You guys speak in numbers in rehearsal right?”
“Yeah. We say…Back to 1.”
The Journey To 1 Million continues with THE FIRST CROWDFUNDING CAMPAIGN
For more about Back To 1 be sure to check out backto1film.com