Without having to sell your kidney, how do you get the funds to make a film? Easy. The same way you’d amass the money for Taylor Swift concert tickets - sell your lung!
IF ONLY IT WERE THAT EASY.
Navigating the word of indie film finance can be daunting. This article by guest author Rachael DeSantis (Met Film School MA in Producing '23) will guide you through some of the ways films are funded, demystifying some jargon and hopefully giving you practical tools to go fund your indie film, along with some nuggets of wisdom from BAFTA-nominated and BIFA-winning Producer Ameenah Ayub Allen.
Part One: Sources of Funding
1. Equity Investments
The easiest method to explain. If the film makes profits, so does the investor. The amount the investor receives is typically more than what they have invested, but it is possible for them to also break even. If the film doesn't generate a profit, the investor loses what they have invested. Pretty simple - you win some and lose some.
Who are these fabled investors? Well, relying on Mum and Dad’s bank account is a route that some young filmmakers take, especially for their first film - in fact it’s how double Academy Award® nominee Rian Johnson financed his debut feature Brick (2005). As someone who became a barista at 15 years old, I was as shocked as you probably are. The advantage is that you will have almost full creative control and an easy time with all the pretty paperwork - but would you really want to be forever in debt to them if things don’t go well? It’s the same vibes as still living at home and having a curfew.
Angel investors are those who are independently wealthy and have some monopoly money lying around to invest into something really cool - like your film! “Generally, film angel investors will provide capital in exchange for partial ownership in the film. Or for shares of the LLC or corporation that is created for the purpose of the production. Film angel investors bring with them a level of expertise and entrepreneurialism that provides unique value to the film producers. Additionally, they often choose stock as part of the investment [deal] which they ultimately gain dividends from” (Pascual). These investors will more often than not receive an Executive Producer credit. And no, they probably don’t have a degree in film. They spent their days working in a profitable industry instead.
Pre-sales are contracted agreements from distributors to buy the rights to sell your film in a specific territory for a given time period and may be used as evidence for future repayment from bank loans, angel and equity investors. To translate, if you have something incredibly promising, studios will want to call dibs on it before competitors. Kind of like the game of Monopoly! Ameenah says “If you have a brilliant A-List cast, sought-after IP [intellectual property], and/or a proven exciting or established director, you’re much more likely to achieve pre-sales.” Pre-Sales can be in the form of Cash Advances or Minimum Guarantees.
Minimum Guarantee is the initial amount a producer will get paid by the distributor. It is a flat fee that the distributor “agrees to pay a producer for the right to distribute the completed film, whether the film turns out to be successful or not” (Rodriques). Having pre-sales will advance a producer’s MG which is why they are more difficult to obtain for lower budgeted films which take creative risks.
Bridge/Interim loans aka Cash Advances provide Producers with cash flow so they can get ahead and advance the film during late-stage development, pre-production and production before their bank loan kicks in during financial closing. These costs include hiring and casting talent, scouting and securing locations and working with crucial creative HoDs. These types of “loans, or advances, are repaid in full as soon as the bank loan closes along with interest and an established financing fee” (Sucharitkul).
To navigate presales, I’d imagine you are selling something very hot that everyone in the industry would want a bite of. For us low budget independent producers, Pre Sales are mostly unrealistic these days, because people want to watch something before they buy it and not take the financial risk.
3. Public Funding
Before you apply for public funding, ask yourselves these questions to guide you to the right one: Is my film based in the funding territory (either in terms of shooting there or where the story is set or characters are from)? What is the cultural value? How much is available if I qualify? Will this be a loan or investment? How much am I risking if I don’t succeed?
National film commissions and film funds such as BFI, BBC Film, Film4 have funded hundreds of films in the UK. Film4 is a broadcaster but is also commercially funded, whereas BBC Film is publicly funded. That being said, the BFI as a cultural charity allows bigger creative risks with low budget films because they are funded by the National Lottery. On average, the BFI Film Fund invests over £10 million a year on feature films. Ameenah says “As a producer, this is the most favourable money to have, we call it ‘soft money’…the BFI is funded by the National Lottery, so as long as the film is culturally relevant with a low budget, funding can be possible.”
Regional film commissions such as Creative Scotland, and other UK based screen agencies also review hundreds of applications a year and can award funding support anywhere from £10k to £800k per film.
Aftersun is an example of a recent film that succeeded with public funding. It received funding from both Screen Scotland’s Film Production and Development Fund (£350k), as well as BFI (£920k) and BBC Film to fuel its £2.2M budget. Charlotte Wells, the director, won the BAFTA Award for Outstanding Debut by a Director with this film, and actor Paul Mescal was nominated for Best Actor at the Oscars: an enormous achievement for a small British film featuring Scottish protagonists.
4. Tax Relief
The UK has a Film Tax Relief (FTR) programme that acts as automatic funding and states that:
“For all British qualifying films of any budget level, the film production company can now claim a payable cash rebate of up to 25% of UK qualifying expenditure. The Tax Relief is capped at 80% of the core expenditure i.e. even if you have 100% UK-qualifying expenditure, tax relief is only payable on up to 80%. There is no limit on the budget of the film or the amount of relief payable within the 80% cap” (British Film Commission).
Films must be intended for theatrical release and qualify as a British co-production. There is a cultural test on the BFI website that can guide you to see if you would qualify. You need to score 18 of 35 points to qualify. This tax incentive is “similar to a rebate, but requires a production to file a tax return after the award certificate is issued. To the extent the production company does not owe any taxes in that jurisdiction, it will receive a refund check in the amount of the tax credit” (Hadity).
Filmmaking is not a Science. Business is risk and knowledge is reassuring. Film is both ART and BUSINESS.
Weeranda Sucharitkul, Founder & CEO of FilmDoo
Personally, I find it hard to scroll past any sort of GoFundMe page on Facebook and not donate to someone’s hamster in need of eye surgery. The main point of Crowdfunding is to bring people together to support a cause. If your film is going to make a difference in the world, small or large, people will contribute.
How much money you need is crucial. Be specific and explain why you need this amount. Obviously, it isn’t their ‘first rodeo’ for pre-sales and equity peeps, but for your elderly aunt scrolling on the Facebook, it is important to simplify it down for people to understand what you are looking for and WHY. More on that below.
You can also add a little video to your Crowdfunding page. This video should include your squad (screenwriter, director, producer) and the vibes of what your film entails. Give a small synopsis without giving away the ending, and show off some merch donors can receive as awards for their contributions. For example, if someone donates £20, they will get a sticker. £100 can get them a t-shirt. £1,000 can get someone access to an associate producer credit, while £5,000 can get someone an executive producer credit and so forth.
This can be a fun way to collaborate with the rest of your team, especially on a short film for a film school because YES people DO go to film school and IT IS OKAY. You can set your goal on a website like Kickstarter or GoFundMe to promote your film.
This method will provide viewers with more trust in your project and give a clear sense of what you want to deliver. You will benefit by learning who is interested in the project and figuring out exactly who your audience is. Also, when the film is ready to premiere, you already have a fan base! The best part? You don’t have to pay them back because it’s a donation and they get a sticker or something!!!!
6. Gap Financing
Gap financing is a one-time single loan you can take out to fund the “gap” in your financing most importantly any pre-sale funding. I put this last because it should be your last resort. Gap financing can be a life saver, but an expensive one at that and you will need to have the large majority of financing in place. It is a way to protect any unsold territories and give premiums to investors. Although they may seem cheap, they will often have high interest rates but you may need this financing to close your film. You’ll probably use a combination of all of the methods I am discussing before you turn to film gap financing and some will work in conjunction. Like many financing methods, this one is risky.
Sidebar: Budgeting and Discounts
Budgeting is so important; for some it is an art which involves a lot of research and up-to-date costs. In my own experience, I would advise you to always ask for a bit more than what you think you need because it is very common to have unexpected expenses. You should always build in a contingency too. Things to acknowledge for a budget besides cast and crew include:
- Catering/ Craft Services
- Equipment inc. camera and sound
- Hard Drives
- Hair and make-up materials and prosthetics
- VAT (Value Added Taxes)
- Set Design and Continuity
- Supporting Artists
- Location Fees
- Post Production inc. Visual Effects
Time for my personal budget hacks:
Stick with the least amount of locations possible. Unit moves are expensive and can lead to overtime, which can be the largest expense of all. When a director comes to you, the producer, and insists on shooting on a plane with animals, children and pyrotechnics, steer them away immediately or work out a clever way to cheat this!
A very expensive mistake is rushing decisions during production in order to save time but then ending up having to do re-shoots. There was a continuity issue on a film I worked on as a PA, so two shoot days had to be arranged five months AFTER the initial wrap day – at a great cost and inconvenience. I’ve found it helpful to schedule within shoot days inserts and any B-Roll. Better to be safe than sorry!
Look for in-kind discounts - where a vendor discounts their services in exchange for a cut of profits, ownership, or just exposure for their brand. I am a rewards member at just about every single retail and grocery shop that exists because I <3 saving money. It’s simple: If I buy a dress from H&M to wear and showcase, they give me points and coupons. So when someone asks me “Oh my god, I love your dress, where did you get it?” I tell them H&M! This is how movies work too! An up and coming brand may provide you with clothing for cast to wear to gain sales for their company.
Take the time to get your clearances! They can be easier to get than you think. Music is very expensive. To have rights to a particular song in a film can be a complicated process. I have discovered so many up-and-coming artists from hearing a song in a film. Typically, an artist will allow their song to play in a film with the intent they will gain listeners afterwards (and for a fee). If you are smart, you will work with a. music supervisor who will have relationships with the record labels and management. The next Mariah Carey may very well be undiscovered and willing to give you music to use for a very low price to play in your film. Whereas ask yourself if you really need a track by the real Mariah for your film to stick its emotional landing. It could take months and cost much more than anticipated and the artist could say no!
Part Two: Pitching and Packaging, or How to Win Investors Over
Before going all Jerry Maguire on people, let’s dive into some basics. Film packaging is everything you should have prepared for your pitch to investors. Think of it in comparison to the perfect package of someone you’re about to start dating: you want a synopsis of their life, their finance plans, budget (to spend on you), a statement of their intention (with you), a mood board for their vibes and perhaps a look book for… other stuff! You get the idea. Come prepared!
A key part of packaging a film is attaching talent. Rajita Shah spent a year casting Love Sarah (a project with which she attended Film London’s Production Finance Market) and won over the actors she really wanted by writing personalised letters to each of them along with the script. Whether you’re pitching to an investor or trying to win a valuable cast member over, the key is to convey your passion and belief in the project.
The easiest way to present your package to prospective investors is to create a pitch deck. This can be as simple as a powerpoint/slideshow. A pitch deck should include a logline, synopsis, potential cast, comparable films, finance plan, budget, mood board, marketing strategies, targeted audiences, director and producer’s statements of intent, and anything else you feel is crucial. As Ameenah says, this is how you evidence your film’s potential to financiers.
Who to Pitch to
If you can’t tell already, I talk a lot. (I’m from America.) I overshare and am always itching to make new friends in the industry. Since moving to the U.K, I noticed that everyone knows everyone. One producer can help you find co-producers and those guys probably know someone who knows someone who knows someone. Here are some questions to ask yourself in order to know who to pitch to:
Who is my audience? Do I want this film to make it to a festival? If so, which Festival? (Cannes Venice Berlinale? Etc.) When you should begin sales depends on which festival you want – which Ameenah calls your festival strategy. It is best to find a sales agent who has an interest in the genre of the film. Who has this sales agent worked with in the past? How are your tastes aligned?
When you want to figure out who is going to buy the film, use your comp films to see what countries and distributors were interested in them. What box office did they achieve?
What are the themes of the film or messages you want advocated and who are some larger companies that focus on these messages? Do I need financing? How much? Will pre-sales be sufficient? Can I do a direct deal with a streamer?
You’re basically asking yourself as many questions as your mother would ask you before you are headed out to a friend’s house when you are 18 years old.
Making money is art and working is art and good business is the best art. If there's ever a problem, I film it and it's no longer a problem. It's a film.
The last thing I asked Ameenah was any words of advice for younger producers. She explained “Anything you do is going to help you be a better professional. It’s about mindset, taking something away from everything - the mistakes as well as the success. The longer you are in the film business you realise how much more there is to learn and that you must always continue to learn.”
I asked her to elaborate on this and we ended up talking about miscellaneous jobs we both have had over the years, specifically those unrelated to producing. For example, she had a customer service job selling windows to people over the phone for 2 weeks to pay her rent when doing a lot of work experience to get into the business. Even though it was unrelated to her career goals, she learned a lot - from selling someone something they don’t want to having proper phone manners and building a rapport with strangers. Any sort of hospitality job you have – especially as a young person - will help you in the long run.
“If you’re an independent film producer, you can do anything in the industry. If you can work in media, you can do anything in any industry.”
Becoming a producer for me, was about putting one foot in front of the other and building my professional experience, collaborative skills, good taste and valued network through the work - always being tenacious and persevering and thinking outside of the box.
Ameenah Ayub Allen
The point I am trying to make is stop waiting and start doing. A film can take years to get made, but the sooner you weigh out your funding options and come up with strategic plans, it happens in the blink of an eye. As a 25 year old producer just starting out, I am as nervous as you are, but I am confident in my current projects because I know I have these options. Don’t rush. Get it right. Think it all through and remember, producers get the final say in productions.
DeSantis, Rachael. “Interview with Ameenah Ayub Allen .” 13 May 2023.
Hadity, John. “The Beginner’s Guide to Soft Money Financing.” Entertainment Partners. Accessed 10 May 2023.
Pascual, Ashley. “What Are Film Angel Investors?” Beverly Boy Productions, 19 July 2021, Accessed 10 May 2023.
Mansi, Anna. “Film Tax Relief – British Film Commission.” British Film Commission –, 2 Feb. 2022, Accessed 10 May 2023.
Rodriques, Donovan. “Film Distribution Strategies to Use When Financing Your Movie.” New York City Entertainment and Business Lawyer, 12 Oct. 2022, Accessed 10 May 2023.
Sucharitkul, Weerada, and Ioanna Karavela. “MetFilm School.” Masters Producing Course . Various Lectures on: Budgeting, Film Packaging, Film Distribution and Sales, Fall 2023 Winter 2023, Spring 2023, Ealing, London. Accessed 9 May 2023.