Advice from directors who've made it happen

By Jeff Gordinier
Updated October 25, 2000 at 04:00 AM EDT

Ask people how they got the cash to make an independent film, and you’ll hear horror stories.

There’s the wannabe auteur who strategically inched his car into an intersection, thereby orchestrating a fender bender — and a fresh transfusion of lucre from an insurance company. There are furtive voyages to the sperm bank, to the blood bank, to that creepy human-guinea-pig lab down the street. John Pierson, the indie guru who’s lobbied for landmark films like Roger & Me and She’s Gotta Have It, remembers an aspiring cinemaniac who lost a leg in a gruesome accident — and tried to use the settlement payback to get his remaining foot in the door.

Film financing is hard, but it doesn’t have to be that hard.

Here, for your education — and safety — we’ve asked a bunch of indie filmmakers a simple question: How did you pay for your movie? They’ve responded with tales of humor, guts, cunning, and, in one case, a gnawing sense of terror. (Kids, do not try the last one at home.) Before you consult our primer, a word of counsel from the director of 1997’s indie sleeper Dream With the Fishes: ”A lot of people in Hollywood are waiting around, hoping somebody will make their movie for them. It never works that way,” says Finn Taylor, 42. ”You reach a point where you realize, ‘No one in the world is going to help me make this movie. I’m going to have to make it on my own.’ You set a date, and you say, ‘I’m going to make this movie on this date whether it’s for $20,000 or $2 million.’ Once you’ve done that, then people come out of the woodwork to help.”

Yeah, getting that friendly pediatrician to pay for electrical equipment may sound like a nice idea, but what if your script reeks of more filth than a Newark waste dump? ”I just couldn’t fathom going into a doctor’s office and handing them the script for Clerks and being like, ‘It’s 164 pages of d— jokes, set in a convenience store. Do you want in? It’s a wise investment,”’ says Kevin Smith, whose slacker burlesque went on to become a Miramax smash. ”It just never occurred to me that anyone would want to put cash into it.”
So Smith paid for Clerks (1994) himself. Which wasn’t easy, because he was still slaving away in the same Quick Stop penal colony portrayed in the flick. Smith had dropped out of film school, so he got reimbursed for half a year’s tuition: $4,500. He dumped his comic-book collection for roughly $2,000 in store credit. Even an act of God intervened on behalf of the future director of Dogma: When a Noah-worthy flood trashed two Volkswagens that belonged to Smith and his Clerks sidekick Jason Mewes, they landed $3,500 from an emergency relief fund. Max out the credit cards and chip in a few parental mercy payments, and — voila! — Clerks is spawned for $27,575.
UPSIDE It’s your money. Do what you want. ”At the end of the day,” Smith says, ”I had to answer to nobody.”
DOWNSIDE It’s your money. You’ll probably lose it. Says Smith: ”There’s no guarantee that you’re going to be able to pay off that debt.”

Darren Aronofsky was pinned to the wall. The director was shooting [Pi] in a couple of months, but he was still short $30,000. That’s when [Pi]’s producers cooked up a plan that perfectly suited a thriller based on Byzantine math formulas: ”Let’s send letters to every person we know on the planet,” Aronofsky explains, ”and ask them for $100 each.” If [Pi] morphed into a 1998 hit, each micro-patron would get $150, two screening tickets, and a name in the credits. ”We were asking for a hundred dollars. It’s no big deal,” Aronofsky says. ”Ultimately we ended up raising quite a bit of money.” Over 100 people generated about $15,000. (Producers with deeper pockets stepped in to provide the rest.)
UPSIDE The scheme, says Aronofsky, ”probably helped our first-weekend box office numbers. It became a community of people connected with the film. There were a few hundred people out there going, ‘Hey, I invested in this. Go see my movie. I’m a producer!”’
DOWNSIDE Keeping tabs on all those loose checks was ”an accounting nightmare,” says Aronofsky.

James Toback was at a party in Manhattan in the late 1980s when he spotted a dapper older gentleman wandering around. It was Joseph Kanter, the Florida banking millionaire. On a whim, the maverick director decided to dazzle Kanter with his concept for The Big Bang, a documentary in which people would simply gab about the mysteries of God, sex, and death. Toback’s pitch boiled down to one seductive utterance: ”Two hundred years after you’re dead, the only reason anyone will know you were on this planet is that your name is going to be on the screen as the producer of The Big Bang.”
It was close to midnight, but that didn’t deter the Miami baron from tramping over to Toback’s apartment. ”We lay down on my bed together,” the director says, ”and I showed him four of my movies on tape.” Kanter eventually tossed in about $400,000 to ignite The Big Bang.
Whether the sugar daddy is a pope, an emperor, or a 25-year-old Silicon Valley titan, patronage is nothing new. Back in Renaissance Italy, artists like Michelangelo and Botticelli might’ve become street peddlers without those tony development deals from Florentine fat cats like Lorenzo de’ Medici. ”People want to be remembered,” Toback says. ”When you have a massive amount of money, the only thing you’re really worried about is losing not just it but yourself — which is to say death. You start to say, ‘I have all this money, but what am I actually leaving behind?’ That panics them.”
Panic creates opportunity: The indie kingdom is overflowing with stories about tycoons who’ve come to the rescue of struggling auteurs. While putting together Dream With the Fishes, Taylor discovered the equivalent of untapped oil wells: A Bay Area tax and securities lawyer hooked him up with several investors who’d been quietly daydreaming of a plunge into cinema. Similarly, San Francisco producer Danielle Renfrew and director Greg Harrison cobbled together the budget for Groove, a sensation at Sundance 2000, by drawing up an immaculate business plan and passing it around to some of the Bay Area’s freshly minted Internet millionaires. Says Harrison: ”We had some of the coolest-dressed executive producers you could imagine.”
UPSIDE Hey, it ain’t your money.
DOWNSIDE The dude may be a Wall Street wizard, but he probably knows zilch about the high-stakes sorcery of moviemaking. ”You’ve got to tell them: ‘Films are super-risky. You’re probably not going to make your money back. And although we say we’re great, we don’t know what we’re doing,”’ Taylor explains. ”You legally have to put in a statement like that.” Tricks won’t work. Says Toback: ”These guys are too shrewd, too suspicious, and too paranoid to be fooled.”

Believe it or not, there are institutions that want to give you money. For free! Schools. Weird government agencies. TV stations in England and Germany. For decades, indie documentarians have dipped into these wellsprings of cash.
Which doesn’t mean the money is easy to get. If you’re planning something quirkier than the latest sepia-toned Ken Burns marathon, steel yourself for rejection. Ross McElwee, 53, still feels the sting of hunting down cash for 1986’s Sherman’s March, a study of Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman’s savage Civil War raid through the South — well, sort of.
Sherman’s March was extremely difficult to raise money for. Its subtitle sort of says it all: I called it A Meditation on the Possibilities of Romantic Love in the South During an Era of Nuclear Weapons Proliferation,” McElwee says. He sent out a proposal. ”Predictably, the weeks went by. I heard nothing. Then the rejection letters started to trickle in.”
Luckily, McElwee contacted Peter McGhee, an executive at Boston’s legendary smart-TV oasis WGBH. McGhee asked to see footage; a screening was set up. As it turns out, a vast portion of the ”documentary” dealt with McElwee’s hapless crushes on sexy women. ”About seven minutes into it,” McElwee recalls, ”I noticed that I hadn’t heard a word. I was just rigid with fear. I was quite concerned because the film was supposed to be humorous, and I had not heard even a peep. About eight minutes into it, I heard a chuckle from behind me, and I thought: There’s hope.” Indeed, WGBH wound up picking up the final tab for Sherman’s March.
UPSIDE Europeans, in particular, gobble up American stuff. ”I guess one thing that works in our favor is American cultural imperialism,” jokes Jeffrey Friedman, who has codirected docs like The Celluloid Closet and Paragraph 175 with partner Rob Epstein.
DOWNSIDE Thanks to the digital-video revolution, America is clogged with shaky-cam Scorseses — and they’re all duking it out for the same grants. ”When I took up the profession in my 20s, it was a very obscure thing to do,” McElwee says wistfully. ”Everybody wanted to be a rock musician back then.”

When all else fails, there are those brave indie souls, like Val Lik, who resort to extreme measures. Lik, 22, is a Russian émigré who grew up in Brooklyn and the Bronx. When he concluded that no Hollywood studio was ever going to pony up $10,000 in seed money for Boricua’s Bond, his raw portrait of Nuyorican thug life, Lik went to some local folks — folks who were in the ”habit of helping out their own people,” as the director puts it.
Let Lik explain: ”I got it basically through regular people — regular people that, you know, do things in an illegal fashion,” he says. ”Somebody gave it to me because they couldn’t hold it.” This unconventional funding source handed over $10,000 — and expected Lik to give it back promptly. But instead of stashing it under a mattress, Lik used the money to start shooting Boricua’s Bond. ”And then when he called me,” Lik remembers, ”I had to tell him that I didn’t really have it.”
By that time, Lik had lined up some ”straight” investors who were able to pay back the debt. Even so, Lik stresses that his do-or-die approach is not an advisable way to achieve your silver-screen dreams. ”The truth is, I don’t want to set an example for other people to do that, because it’s not a good thing to do,” he says.
UPSIDE A killer story to tell the press in Cannes.
DOWNSIDE Um, do the math. ”I was lucky, man,” Lik says. ”I’m afraid the next person might not be that lucky.”