Filmmakers: how I got the money

Right now, getting money for films is monstrously difficult. The feature filmmaking business is shrinking. It may not seem that way when brand new $100 million-$200 million films are released each summer weekend. Fans read about films like “The Dark Knight Rises” opening with a $225 million weekend or “The Avengers” with its record-breaking $270 million weekend. It’s looks like the feature film biz should be healthy, right? Well…

The Dark Knight Rises

One-sheet for “The Dark Knight Rises.” Photo courtesy of Warner Bros.

Movies cost money. Marketing movies cost money. Distributing them is expensive. Often studios spend as much or more marketing and distributing a film as they did on the production. As studios release films throughout the year, they might score a hit with a huge tent-pole like “The Avengers,” or they may release an utter flop, or maybe both in the span of weeks. When films don’t fare as well as their backers hoped, the losses can be staggering.

And, summer only lasts so long. In the fall, movie-goers get wrapped up in football and other distractions. Kids go back to school. Movie theater attendance declines.

That’s not all. Ticket prices have skyrocketed so much the average movie-goer puts a lot more thought into seeing films at the theater now. With video-on-demand (VOD) and a shorter release window between the theater and DVD/Blu-ray, people are waiting to see films until the cost becomes more affordable. With home theaters, the experience can be almost as enjoyable as seeing it at the multiplex.

You might be thinking – yeah, big budget movies are tough, but small indie flicks should be an easy sell. Scraping together $5 million or less should be completely doable, right? Well…

Indie films are feeling the squeeze, too. In many respects, it’s harder to get a $5 million dollar or less film off the ground than a $30 million film. Depending on the project, the $30 million film will probably make its money back with international sales, VOD, and other rentals. That’s because these projects tend to be action, thriller, and horror films with universal appeal.

Indie films, which tend to be drama and comedies, typically aren’t big money makers. Yes, every now and again there’s a surprise – “Slumdog Millionaire,” “Pulp Fiction,” and “Mad Max” come to mind. But no one backs an indie film thinking it’s going to over-perform at the box-office.

Things are so dire in features right now there has been a mass exodus from films to television. Martin Scorsese’s in his third season of “Boardwalk Empire” on HBO. David Fincher’s doing “House of Cards” for Netflix with Kevin Spacey. Jon Favreau just directed the pilot to the NBC series “Revolution.” Oren Peli dabbled in TV with the unsuccessful “The River.” JJ Abrams has always enjoyed success in TV. Bryan Singer also had a hit with Fox’s long-running “House.” Ridley and the late Tony Scott have not only produced CBS’s critically acclaimed “The Good Wife” but also “Numbers,” “Pillars of the Earth,” “Coma,” along with many other television projects.

One-sheet for Scott Free’s remake of “Coma.” Photo courtesy of A&E Network.

Industry pros point to the quality television we’re now experiencing as the reason for feature film folks shifting into TV. And while we do make quality content, the truth of the matter is we have money and features are struggling right now. People need to eat. And they want to see their vision realized. We’re happy to have more talented artisans in TV. But that doesn’t exactly solve the difficulties in making films.

So where’s the glass half-full part of this story?

There is hope. People still want to make films. All kinds of films. And people still want to see films – all kinds of films. In fact, with VOD, the content market is more varied than ever. This fragmentation means niche audiences have popped up. Christian-themed films, low-budget horror flicks, and LGBT-oriented movies show up together as cable on-demand fare. Niche audiences seek out films that speak to them. Also, some films are released on-demand before or with their theatrical release. The thriller “Arbitrage” starring Richard Gere, the Black List script satire “Butter” starring Jennifer Garner, and the comedy “Bachelorette” starring Kirsten Dunst are currently available on demand. Direct to video used to be a slight, but there are a lot of really great movies that use VOD for all or part of their distribution now. With VOD, studios save money on theatrical distribution and marketing. Sure, you can find lame films on VOD, but there are more opportunities for stellar little films to find an audience.

See, glass half-full!

For the next couple of months, I’ll post interviews with filmmakers who got their films made despite many difficulties, including the financial climate. These entries will share various filmmakers’ personal insights. (This series isn’t intended to be a recipe for how to get your movie financed. There are plenty of books and people who cover film financing in great detail.)

While we might cover some movie business strategy, I’m more interested in what filmmakers say to get producers and financiers to commit. I want to get into the filmmaker’s mind. Every filmmaker is different. Every project is unique. One filmmaker might offer words of wisdom that contradict someone else’s, take so please don’t view this series as a blueprint for financing. Look at it as a source of insight and inspiration.

These interviews will be sporadic because some of the filmmakers I want to talk with are in production on their next films. Good for them! Obviously, these filmmakers are doing something right. Let’s find out what it is.

Here’s the first installment of the series –

Gary Lennon and ‘.45’: how I got the money

Writer-producer-director Gary Lennon. Photo courtesy of Gary Lennon.

Gary Lennon (“The Shield,” “Justified”) is one of the industry’s best, most prolific writer-producers. Currently, he’s on the writing staff for Jenji Kohan’s new Netflix TV series, “Orange is the New Black.” Gary’s feature screenplay, “The McKennas,” was just announced at the Toronto Film Festival as one of the upcoming projects on Union Entertainment Group’s film slate. Plus, Tom Sizemore just signed on to play a leading role in Gary’s play, “A Family Thing,” which will be mounted in 2013 at the Echo Theater here in Los Angeles. Gary’s fascinating, and I encourage you to read my earlier post about him and his work here.

One-sheet for Gary Lennon’s film “.45” starring
Milla Jovovich.
Photo courtesy of Think Film and Capitol Films.

We met recently and Gary talked about his feature film “.45.” He not only spoke about the genesis of the script, but he also described in detail what it was like to be a first-time director talking to a film financier. It was the story of how he got the money to make his film. I’d like to share with you Gary’s journey to bring his feature film “.45” to the screen.

“I remember writing the play ‘.45,’” he said. “I was at this little French bakery writing the opening scene of the play. And it’s a very dirty scene. I was sort of shocked writing it.” As he describes it, Gary has a bit of mischievousness in his voice. “At the time, I was a member of the Circle Rep Lab. When I came back to New York with the finished play, we did a reading of it at Lanford Wilson’s house. Half of the room hated it. HATED it. They were offended. But Lanford stuck up for me and said, ‘I love it! I can’t wait to see Steppenwolf get a hold of this.’ And I thought, ‘Yeah!’

“The really important thing for writers – young writers, mid-level writers, older writers – the most important thing really is to defend your work,” Gary said. “Don’t roll over so easily. I learned that with ‘.45’. There were some people who hated it. Literally. And rightfully so, by the way. I think the material is very charged. People had strong reactions to it. And I like that.”

That’s a vital first step. Don’t cave at the first sign of distaste! Look, the last thing you want is for people to read your material and say “Meh” or the industry-standard diss – “Liked it. Didn’t love it.” You want to elicit strong feelings in your readers and audience. You want readers to be blown away by your vision.

I write a lot of dark and gritty stuff. This might be why I respond so positively to Gary’s work. He and I have had similar reactions from readers. Sometimes people read our work and they want to meet with us. From reading our work, they form a mental picture of what they think we’ll be like. (And trust me, my characters and Gary’s do and say some reprehensible things. Like Gary, sometimes my characters shock even me.) When these producers, executives, or other writers meet us, they often look perplexed and say, “But you’re so nice.”

Writers and directors, you want your voice to be so strong people get (or think they get) a feel for who you are by experiencing your work. Nothing is worse than underwhelming your audience. You can be a technically proficient writer or director, but if your vision isn’t grabbing people by the throat, you’re going to have a tough time breaking through the signal-to-noise ratio in this town. This doesn’t mean you have to be shocking for shocking’s sake, or write dark and gritty if that’s not your style and tone. You have to be unique. You have to stand out. When you do that, some people will like your work. Some people won’t. Think Joss Whedon vs. David Fincher. Fincher fans may not dig on Whedon. And Joss’s fans may not get Fincher. But both filmmakers have devoted fans among the public and at studios and networks.

One-sheet for “The Avengers” film directed by Joss Whedon. Artwork courtesy of Marvel Studios, Paramount Pictures, and Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures.

One-sheet for “Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” directed by David Fincher. Artwork courtesy of Columbia Pictures, MGM, and Sony Pictures Entertainment.

When you’re creating, remember the oft-stated Hollywood adage – “You can do anything, just don’t bore me.”

There’s a difference between bad work and provocative work. With bad or inferior work, the majority of audience will not be entertained. Their minds will not be stimulated. The work will be lackluster, unoriginal, unmoving, and not relatable. The story won’t hold together. The characters will be cardboard. Their motivations will be fickle. And the plot will have holes you can drive a Star Waggon through. The audience will be taken out of the moment instead of being immersed in the world of the characters. In other words, the audience will be bored.

In my opinion, Gary’s “.45” falls squarely in the provocative category. Some people love it. Some people hate it. The piece evokes strong feelings, but not many people walk away bored by the experience. Shocked, yes. Bored, no.

“You have to defend your work,” Gary said. “When I wrote that play, a lot of people said, ‘You have to cut that opening scene. It’s horrible.’ I didn’t cut it. And that play wound up getting me a lot of work.”

Let’s apply that note. If you create provocative work, the people who respond to it will be drawn to you. They’ll be your fans. They’ll see your talent and want to harness it. Gary makes a very good living by attracting the right folks to him, from Shawn Ryan to Jenji Kohan.

“So I wrote ‘.45’ as a play and no one would produce it,” Gary said. “No one. Good luck. No. Uh-uh. And then my agent at the time encouraged me to write it as a screenplay. When I finished it, it went out as a spec. And it didn’t sell. But a lot of people liked it. Again, that piece of material got me a lot of work. But no one wanted to make the film. It just sat there for seven or eight years.”

Selling any script, even a great one, takes time. Sometimes a long time. But it can be working for you as a writing sample in the moment. Great work never expires. Matt Weiner’s spec pilot for “Mad Men” collected dust for seven years. Michael Crichton’s spec pilot for “ER” sat in a desk drawer for ten years. If you write great work, it remains evergreen. And sometimes the market will catch up with you like it did for Weiner, Crichton, and Gary.

“Then lo and behold someone showed the script for ‘.45’ to Barbara De Fina and she wanted to do it,” Gary said. Barbara De Fina is a longtime collaborator with Martin Scorsese. She produced “Casino,” “The Age of Innocence,” “Bring out the Dead,” and “Cape Fear.” Recently, she executive produced Mr. Scorsese’s “Hugo.” And while that deal for Gary’s “.45” fell apart, Ms. De Fina played an important role in attaching him as the director.

“At first, I didn’t want to direct ‘.45,’” Gary said. “I had never directed. I had never even shot a Polaroid, literally. But Barbara De Fina said to me, ‘You need to direct this movie. You shouldn’t let anyone else touch this material. It should be you.’ When she convinced me, I was convinced. Again, talk about defending your work. When people would say ‘We need to get a director.’ I would say, ‘I’m going to direct this film.’ I had made a complete shift in thinking.

Robert De Niro starring as Sam “Ace” Rothstein in the film “Casino.” Photo courtesy of Universal Pictures.

When Martin Scorsese’s producer says, “You should direct this film,” you should listen to her. She saw something in Gary that was undeniable. And while Gary had never directed, he had been in theater, the feature film world, and television his entire adult life. He wasn’t coming at the art form as a complete novice.

“I’m still grateful for the gifts Barbara gave me,” Gary said. “First, she favorably responded to my material and wanted to produce it. Secondly, she encouraged me to direct. And lastly, she told me to follow my instincts, which is what all filmmakers need in our lives.”

After Ms. De Fina exited the project, Brad Wyman, who produced “Monster,” signed on. Unfortunately, the financing fell through on that deal as well.

Remember, deals fall apart all the time in this town. People and production companies may fall in and out over the life of a project. That’s okay. These early champions can help you gain the momentum you need to get the film made in the end.

As you’re navigating Hollywood, appreciate the people who are part of your career and realize there’s an ebb and flow to these relationships. I see young writers and directors become embittered by the process. When you hear “no,” just think “next” and keep pushing forward. Often your persistence will pay off as it did with “.45.”

“Finally, someone showed the script to Geyer Kosinski, who managed Milla Jovovich,” Gary said. “He got it made for me.” Attaching a star like Milla Jovovich (“Fifth Element,” “Resident Evil”), who can open a movie, propelled the project forward. This got more financiers interested and here’s where Gary faced the real test.

Milla Jovovich starring as Leeloo in “The Fifth Element.” Photo courtesy of Gaumont and Sony Pictures Entertainment.

First-time directors have to prove themselves. Most of the time, they do this with short films, music videos, and/or commercial work. Gary didn’t have a directing reel, but he possessed assets no other director had – a unique passion and understanding of the work because the film was inspired by his own family. He also did something that may seem quite surprising: He told the truth. “The financier David Bergstein asked me, ‘What’re your strengths as a director and what’re your weaknesses? And why should I finance your movie for five million dollars?’

“I told him ‘My strength is I’m really good with actors. I’m really good with people. I’m going to get great, great performances out of them. But my weakness as a director is I’ve never shot a film before. If you gave me the whole package right now, the lenses, the camera, and you told me to shoot this scene between us and create a sense of paranoia, I would not know where the camera logic would be in the room or how to create it. But I intend to hire a really good DP, who is going to help me work it out.’

“And he let me direct the movie,” Gary said.

Gary told the truth. He gave the financier something thoughtful and concrete as his strength and weakness. Plus, he told the financier how he was going to address his weakness. He was honest. Most young filmmakers aren’t encouraged to be honest. But it worked for Gary.

“I didn’t try to masquerade,” Gary said. “I wasn’t trying to be anything other than who I was in the moment. I think every time you try not to be you, you’re going to fail or you’re going to be found out. If you’re being real, you have no fear of being found out. That fear goes away so you have the freedom to completely explore and jump.”

Being artistically free and open works well for Gary. Gary owns every piece of his past – dark and light. In fact, his past infuses his work. He embraces who he is and has no fear of where that will take him. He also knows some people will like him. Some people might not. But his sincerity is so disarming most folks want to embrace him. That is exactly what happened with financier David Bergstein as well as the film crew Gary assembled.

“I went to the crew and said, ‘I just want to thank all of you for being here. I want to let you all know I’m aware all of you have more experience making films than I do,” Gary said. “But I want to also let you know that none of you possess the same amount of enthusiasm I have about making this particular film.’ I think my honesty with them really helped bridge the gap between me and my crew. And I think because I was new to it all, the crew developed a sense of wanting me to succeed, to sort of push me up the hill.”

Assistant director Jim Deck, writer-director Gary Lennon, and Cinematographer Teo Maniaci at Niagara Falls.
Photo courtesy of Gary Lennon.

Filmmakers, when you get the money, hire the best damn crew you can. Acknowledge their expertise. Rely on their input. Ask them questions. And they will not only respect your for it, they’ll want you to succeed. One of the great things about making films or TV, great artists – actors, cinematographers, production designers, costumers, and many others – come together to create something wonderful. Harness these two abundant Hollywood resources – the desire to create and immense talent – and the scarcity in other areas won’t seem so insurmountable.

Gary’s journey to get his film ‘.45’ to the screen illustrates some great ways to help you get the money you need. First, defend your work. This doesn’t mean be defensive about your work. Gary means stand by the choices you make in your project. Many people told him to cut the first scene of his play and script for ‘.45’ but he didn’t. He knew the scene served a purpose and had a visceral effect, so he was willing to stand by his choice.

Gary also advocates being honest, and I’d add humble. Gary has accomplished much in his career but he remains genuinely humble. He can still say, “I’m not the expert here. You are. Please explain what I need to know.”

This honesty and humility have served him well in a town of bullshitters and bluffers. If you’re humble, honest, and confident in your creative decisions, you’ll break from the masses and someone will give you the money.

Stay tuned for more “Filmmakers: how I got the money” installments.