By Alex Barrett
Getting an independent film funded and made has always been, and probably always will be, extremely difficult. There’s been much talk of the ‘democratisation’ of filmmaking and of how the digital ‘revolution’ has levelled the playing field, enabling films to be made quickly and cheaply. This is true to an extent, but it’s also relative. For instance, £150,000 is considered, in filmmaking terms, a ‘microbudget’ – but while that might be next-to-nothing for a film budget, for most of us that’s still a heck of a lot of money. So while digital technology has brought the price down, the truth is that even microbudget filmmaking remains out of reach for most struggling filmmakers – leaving them with two options: become a self-funded ‘no-budget’ filmmaker, or find finance from some kind of outside source.
Many great films have been made by filmmakers working on ‘no-budgets’, and some have even broken through to achieve wider recognition (see, for instance, Marc Price’s Colin, said to have been made for just £45), and it’s certainly a viable route for those with the time, patience and creativity to see it through. Of course, it isn’t easy (Colin took 18 months to film) but then, by all accounts, filmmaking is never easy, no matter how much money one has at one’s disposal. It’s possible to interpret filmmaking as a being a case of ‘serial problem solving’, and those problems – or, as I like to see them, opportunities – are seemingly inherent in the very medium itself. So, in this sense, making a film for £45 is no different from making a film for £45,000,000.
But where things become trickier for the no-budget filmmaker is what happens next: a completed film means nothing unless you can get it seen. Entering festivals is expensive and then, if you’re lucky enough to be selected from the thousands of competing entries, you need to get a screening copy of the film made. Then, if you’re lucky enough to be picked up by a sales agent, more often-than-not you’re going to have to fulfil their ‘deliverables’ list out of your own pocket. And the cost of all of the above often runs into the thousands – so even if you make your film for £100, the chances are you’re going to have spent over £10,000 before the film can be released into the wider world. To make things worse for the no-budget filmmaker, it’s rare for films of this kind to go successfully into profit. The problem is two-fold: it’s partly a by-product of the way industry revenue streams flow, and partly because audiences don’t support this type of film in the way they need to. When was the last time you paid to see a no-budget film?
Of course, things are different for every film, and if our hypothetical no-budget film is, like Colin, a horror, things start to look a little more cheery. Things also improve, slightly, when we move from a no-budget to a microbudget – at least when a filmmaker enters that arena, things like festival submissions and deliverables can be catered for out of a well-planned budget, even if they end up being a significant proportion of that budget. But how to enter that arena?
Distributors offering cash pre-sales to microbudget filmmakers is rare (though not impossible, especially if the project is genre-based), so most filmmakers will turn either to private investors or public film funds (such as Film London’s Microwave, which offers filmmakers the chance to compete for £150,000 worth of funding – but only if you’re a first time director). Private investment, if you can get it, can be a very good way to fund your film, though it does depend on the investor(s). Some investors are known to be demanding, insisting upon creative changes, while some are happier to take a backseat approach. Of course, one further downside is that investors will often want to recoup their money before anyone on the crew receives their backend revenue, meaning that it can take years for the filmmakers to see any payment. In a sense, this is fair enough, as the investors have laid out (sometimes quite large sums of) money, but on the flipside, the filmmakers have invested their time (often for free), and this shouldn’t be undervalued.
It also goes without saying that finding private investors is hard. As already mentioned, the sad truth is that, statistically speaking, most microbudget independent films don’t make money, and this leads to one of the greater ironies of the film industry: young filmmakers attempt to make cheap films in order to be able to realistically raise the money, but cheap films don’t make money, meaning that it can often be easier to secure investment for more expensive films.
This is why crowdfunding offered such a revolution in film finance. Not only does it (in theory) allow filmmakers to quickly and efficiently raise their finance without necessarily needing to worry about the commercial demands of private equity investment, it also allows them to connect directly with their audience. For my new project, LONDON SYMPHONY, we’ve turned to crowdfunding for precisely this reason: the film is, in essence, a film about a community, so we want to foster that community behind the scenes as well as on the screen. As I said above, part of the problem for independent filmmakers is that audiences don’t really support independent film in the way that they need to – crowdfunding, however, seems to be a viable way to attract strong support from the outset, partly because it enables audiences to play a genuine role in the film’s creation, leading to an increased emotional engagement with the project itself.
For a certain type of cinema, crowdfunding offers a vital lifeline. Independent filmmakers really do need this kind of support to get their films made. So next time you come across a campaign for a film that interests you, don’t wait to donate. Even if the film has made its target, it still needs your support – crowdfunding isn’t only about money. It’s about solidarity, and showing that independent film still matters.
Alex Barrett is an independent filmmaker. His latest project, LONDON SYMPHONY, is a silent film – a modern day ‘city symphony’ – about the culture and diversity of London. The film is currently being crowdfunded. For more information about the film and the campaign, please visit: http://www.londonsymphfilm.com.