3 First Steps to Finance Your Indie Film

Confidence, Credibility, Community.


“Every film is different.”

You have read the first chapter of our independent film financing Art of War (if you haven’t, you should do so before proceeding).

Consequently, you understand the rules of engagement. You’ve identified the territory you need to take, which has revealed a triad of neighboring towns in which you might find sympathizers. In your command tent, you court these prospective allies with your strategic vision for victory, aiming to win their support for tomorrow’s battle.

Said differently, you understand the basics of independent film financing. You’ve identified your film’s style – ie., narrative or documentary – and budget, which has led you to investigate three prospective funding sources:

  1. The Noncommercial Arena of Donations and Grants
  2. The Commercial Arena of Investments
  3. The Crowdfunding Arena

Moreover, you have a sense of your answers to questions “of need, audience, distribution, marketing, [and] crew and staff”, as Morrie Warshawski summarizes in Shaking the Money Tree.

You are prepared.

But how do you present your preparedness? How do you talk about your film’s style, budget, and practical details in a clear and convincing manner? Essentially, how do you turn a prospective funding source into a committed funding source, and in what order should you do so?

The reality is that every film is different. Just as every film requires a unique distribution strategy, so every film requires a unique financing strategy that’s determined by its individual configuration of variables.

We cannot account for every conceivable configuration of variables in one or even one hundred and one blog posts, so what we’ll do in a series of three posts is build three frameworks – one for each of the aforementioned arenas – which will point you in the direction of victory.

Think of it as a trilogy of coloring books. We trace the shapes, and it’s up to you to shade in the specifics.

First, there are a handful of cross-arena maxims you must bear in mind.

#1 – Believe in Yourself

Most importantly, before you can convince others of your film’s worthiness, you must convince yourself.

Do you believe your film deserves the funding you seek? Are you willing to invest your money? Would you be comfortable asking your loved ones to invest their money?

You must believe in the value of what you’re offering. You must believe that your backers are not dumping their capital into a black hole. Do not embark on your quest for financing until you feel in every fiber of your being that your film is a bonafide opportunity for all who support it – nonprofits will reach people with their message, investors will realize return, and crowdfunding contributors will relish their rewards.

So it must seem. Once it does, you may proceed.

#2 – Build Your Credibility

The reality is that first time filmmakers are fighting an uphill battle. They do not have the credibility that experienced filmmakers – who have secured funding in the past, and who have projects and accolades to their names – have earned.

To offset this disadvantage, beginners should consider attaching industry veterans to their projects in key roles.

It’s a good idea to enlist a project advisor, as well, who can provide guidance and lend his/her reputation. Check out Lights’ interview with director Nicole Teeny of Bible Quiz, in which she discusses how landing a few grants connected her with her editor and established supervising editor, growing her documentary’s credibility. When you’re just starting out, the more experienced your crew, the higher your chances of fundraising success.

Remember, too, that Rome wasn’t built in a day.

“You start making movies, and it’s way easier to get more movies going,” Tom Malloy observes in Bankroll: A New Approach to Financing Feature Films. “How do you make a $200 million film?… Make a $20 million film that is successful. How do you make a $20 million film? Make a $2 million film that is successful. How do you make a $2 million film? Make a $200,000 film that is successful, and so on.”

Start that snowball rolling, however modest (or mind-blowing) the budget.

#3 – Engage Your Community

Regardless of scale, you are only as strong as your network. It is impossible to overstate the importance of getting connected.

Attend events and social gatherings, industry-related and otherwise, to find friends, collaborators, investors, in-kind supporters, and contacts at every point in the production pipeline. Networking is not necessarily a superficial ritual, as we discuss in our introduction to film festivals. Instead, it means finding people with whom you resonate and making an effort to build relationships. Of course, sometimes it’s strategic to smile when you don’t mean it, but generally the saying holds true: “Birds of a feather flock together”.

By the same token, it’s important for an indie filmmaker to build a community around content.

Identify the niche(s) to which your film appeals; this will be the core audience you engage. Invite people into your film by maintaining two-way communication on your website, through social networks, and in-person.

Make people feel like a part of the team and they will act like a part of the team, spreading the word about your film and expanding its reach beyond its niche(s). “Any good film should be interesting to people who are not just the… target,” Marc Schiller, founder & CEO of distributor BOND360, shares in his Lights’ interview. Your community’s interest can help others realize their own; passion is contagious! Not surprisingly, if your project boasts this sort of built-in community, you’re more likely to win the support of a funder.

Since we’re in The Bronze Age of Independent Film Financing, your community can help raise money as well as awareness. The crowdfunding arena lends itself well to both, as we will discover… But first, let’s build our frameworks for the established arenas of independent film financing.

Read on:

Part I – Beginner’s Guide to Independent Film Financing
Part II – 3 First Steps to Finance Your Indie Film
Part III – How to Get Donations and Grants for Your Indie Film

Part IV – How to Find Investors for Your Indie Film
Part V – How to Use Crowdfunding to Finance Your Indie Film 

 Michael Koehler, with

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