How to Finance an Indie Film

Ok, let me start by saying that the film industry is a living organism. Business models that worked ten years ago may not work today, and things that work today may not work tomorrow. I’m going to break down, in simple terms, how to get your movie into production. Making a good movie, well, that’s on you.

Let’s discuss the WAY of financing an indie film.

No Wrong Way

A lot of people get hung up on trying to walk in the footsteps of others.  Let me tell you, THERE IS NO WRONG WAY TO GET YOUR MOVIE MADE!

Ok, hold on, don’t do anything criminal like steal, misrepresent yourself or your business model to investors, make promises you can’t keep, or generally be a doofus…


Movies are a business of innovation, in content and in business strategy.  Don’t try to do what everyone else has done.  Do it your way.  Use your personal resources, since that’s the only edge you have starting out, and make the most of your existing relationships.

Come up with a goal.  Are you going to try to sell the project at a festival?  Are you going to self distribute (not recommended)?  Are you going to try to get a pickup from a major studio?  Answer these questions for yourself before moving forward.

Strategize and uncover the best path.  Do you want to go after a specific actor?  Do you want to go after a specific financier?  What’s the best way forward?

Number 1: Bootstrap It

Who says your movie needs to be expensive? Just look at the Duplass Bros.  Those guys are constantly in production and it’s because they decided a long time ago that they weren’t going to wait for anyone’s permission.  Once you have a good script, break it down.  Build a budget.  Develop a plan.  Build a team.  Shoot it for however much you can afford.  You will most likely lead yourself into personal financial ruin, but maybe, just maybe, you’ll do something great.

Number 2: Foreign Pre-Sales Model

This model is on the way out.  Back in the good ol’ days, people used to sell to foreign territories one by one, usually with the help of a foreign sales agent, off the weight of their star talent.  Then, they’d take those figures, make projections for the remaining territories, and then bank the figures with loans or private equity.  Good luck with this in 2019…

Here is some additional reading on this model.

We’re in a post Amazon, post Netflix world now.  Distribution has been globalized.  The foreign pre-sales model is all but gone BUT still somewhat viable with a sub-$5M movie, if you have a good relationship with a sales agent and a reasonably well known actor/actress attached as your lead.  Slap their face on a one sheet and have your sales agent take it around.

Number 3: Chicken or Egg?

I am so sick of hearing this phrase, “I’d like to make the movie, but you know, it’s a chicken or the egg scenario with talent. So…” 

Basically, what these people are saying is that you need a star to get money, but you need money to get a star. Blah Blah Blah.  This is absolutely 100% the most cop-out, defeatist, laziest, lifelong film student-est, whiniest perspective in the business.  It’s a fog, an illusion, a non-starter…

It takes simultaneously leveraging conversations against one another to get anything done, not just in movies, but in anything that’s ground-floor or entrepreneurial in nature. 

Send the script to an agent —> then talk to a distributor and say so-and-so’s agent has it —> then talk to the agent again and say you’re meeting with such-and-such distributor —> then so-and-so’s agent suddenly thinks you’re legit enough to have their client actually read it —> then you tell such-and-such distributor so-and-so is reading it —> and the distributor decides that if so-and-so is reading it, it might be worth considering at least a little bit… or the other way around, or some other combination of conversations happening at the same time, on and on and on until someone signs on the dotted line and you’ve got money to make the movie.

Number 4: Use Your Relationships

Any good producer starts here.  They read a script and ask themselves, “Who do I know personally?  Who can help move this project forward?  Who owes me a favor?”

Your relationships are your competitive advantage.  They are the primordial elements you have at your disposal when starting a project.  It is a business of friends.  The more friends you have, the more opportunities you can create for yourself.

Meet a good no-name actor at a party, get to know them, hang out with them, get coffee, get drinks, dinner, meet the fam, become friends, then maybe someday they’ll win an award at Sundance as a lead in a movie, get some heat.  When that happens, you’ll have a friend who can attract attention to a project if they get involved.  Find a script worth their while, attach them, and it’ll be a start. 

Plus, you’ll be able to do business with a friend!  Make something meaningful that speaks to your shared experiences in life.  That’s really what it’s all about.

Then, once your movie finally gets made, and wins an award, or sells to a studio, you’ll be the person who can help someone else’s project get attention by getting involved in it.  See how that works?  It’s a cycle.

Number 5: Where Can I Find Money?

There’s really only one thing to know here: BE PROACTIVE!

High net worth individuals. Banks. Equity pools. Film incentives. Grants. Studios. Distributors. The list goes on. 

They exist.  They go to industry events.  They go to screenings.  They go to weddings, parties, holiday events… Go meet these people, talk to them one on one, and then think of what you can offer them. 

Nobody gives money away, unless they’re a charity.  Make sure you have a clear sense of what you can OFFER THEM.  NOTE: Movies are a high-risk investment.  Make sure whoever you’re talking to understands that right out of the gate, then get them excited in spite of the risk.

Be honest, be realistic, be passionate.  Someday, after a lot of persistence and tact, you’ll find yourself closing in on covering your production budget.

Number 6: Building a Package

In today’s marketplace, you need a strong package to get people interested (studios or investors).  By package, I mean a script+director+producer(s)+key cast.  Get those people involved in the project and then sell the whole unit.  It is EXTREMELY difficult to sell a project with just a script these days, since the heavy hitters learned a long time ago that in order to outpace the competition, they need to show up at the buyer’s door with more than just a good idea.  They need the people who are going to execute, their deals already locked up, standing with them ready to play ball.

By package, I DO NOT mean your crew.  I see a lot of pitch decks trying to sell the idea that they have some brilliant Cinematographer on board or some great Production Designer.  Much love to below-the-line crew, but pitching your crew as a package makes you look like an amateur.  The harsh reality is that audiences care about a select few things, namely actors and directors… other elements don’t translate to potential ticket sales.  Celebrate your crew between you and your industry peers, support them, showcase their work to people who care, but don’t make your crew a bullet point in your pitch.  It is not a package.  It does not enhance your odds of a sale.  Studios don’t care.  Equity investors don’t know what these people do.

So, how do you build a package?  See number 4, “Use Your Relationships”.  It’s the same logic.  Make friends, talk to them about your project, get them involved.

In a more formal procedure, you can build a package by targeting a major agency (CAA, UTA, Gersh, Paradigm, WME, ICM, etc).  If you can get an agent on board, there’s a chance they can get their clients on board. (UPDATE: This is changing! The WGA is currently fighting to stop packaging at the agencies. Like I said, the industry is a living organism).  You can also risk a loss by backing a pay-or-play Schedule F cast offer to attach someone of note.  This is risky, since it means you need to pay up whether or not you ever make the movie, but I’ve seen it work before.  Not for the faint of heart.  This is typically a better method for people with money to burn if things don’t pan out.

Number 7: Timing

Just because nobody is picking up your movie right now doesn’t mean they won’t in the future.  TIMING…IS…ESSENTIAL!

There’s no way to tell what the appetites of buyers will be when you’re ready to shop your movie.  They’re led by so many factors, it’s like trying to predict the stock market.  If you hear that something is hot (Remember all the vampire movies a few years ago?) and everyone is talking about it, by the time you get your project together hoping to get on the bandwagon, it’ll be cold as ice and there will be something new.  Follow your own interests and commit, but when nobody buys the project, spend time working on something else until your thing heats up again.  Many irons in the fire.  Many plates spinning.  Don’t dwell on the “no’s”, because you might be able to get a “yes” down the line.


Enjoy the process! It’s a ride!

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