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Book Review: Filmmakers and Financing, 6th Edition

Before a movie is sold to the masses, it must be sold to investors. Getting someone to invest big chunks of cash in a movie project is something I one day hope to do. Judging by this book, the key ingredient is this thing called a “business plan”. For 268 pages, Louise Levison, movie entrepreneurship consultant, professor and, most importantly, “creator of the business plan for The Blair Witch Project” talks around and, eventually, about writing a business plan that will help raise money from investors to make movies.

The book opens with a terrible metaphor of the film fundraiser as a modern day Christopher Columbus. Either Columbus deceived his investors as to the true destination of his voyage, or he greatly miscalculated the diameter of the earth; both ways he’s a terrible model for a filmmaker trying to raise capital. Thankfully, the book quickly stops drawing metaphors and starts talking about the actual process of film finance.

What should a business plan include and what should it leave out? How should it be structured? Where do you find the market research data? Where do you find the investors?

In answering these questions, Levison gives a sort of crash course in the movie business, with some real numbers. She makes a good point: when presenting your business plan to potential investors, you will actually need to be knowledgeable about your business. While the numbers and examples given in a book like this get dated quickly, unlike many books of this type, the author openly acknowledges this and provides some advice about where to find up-to-date information.

Continue reading about Filmmakers and FinancingChapter by Chapter

No should be buying this book for the pre-amble chapters, which I think are the weakest. The key chapters are the informational ones.

In a chapter called “The Markets,” the target audiences of different types of films are discussed. Makers of inspirational/faith-based films, “Latino/Hispanic,” and documentaries will be pleased to see that the particulars of these types of film are addressed specifically. The chapter includes a mini-interview with Joe Majestic, founder of Majestic World Entertainment, where he gives tips on how to get the most out of the American Film Market. This is inside baseball in the best sense, and I feel I now have a better sense of how this major film market works. (And how film markets work in general.)

“The Markets” has a sequel chapter, “The Markets, Part II: New Media and Other Markets.” The discussion of internet, cell phone and large format distribution is level-headed and useful.

The “Distribution” chapter is as good a summary of traditional distribution strategies as I’ve read anywhere. There are, of course, whole books on this subject.

The “Financing” chapter is long but, as Levison warns, is not meant to be comprehensive. Financing is probably the most elusive aspect of filmmaking — how do you get the funds? — but this chapter serves as a good introduction to all of the common methods: individual investors (rich people), presales, co-productions, film incentives, negative pickups, and bank loans. The chapter includes another mini-interview with a group of filmmakers on how they dealt with investors which gives a good sense of the pretty broad range of investors out there. An entire portion of the chapter on European Film Financing has been written by additional authors Thierry Baujard and Frauke Feuer. I get the sense from this chapter that co-productions across multiple countries can get quite complex and it’s worth hiring a producer who knows the ropes if you decide to go this route.

“The Financial Plan” chapter is more of a key to understanding the tables and examples in the supporting files from the book’s website (more on them below). Once again, the peculiarities of documentaries are addressed.

Likewise, Chapter 11 (coincidence?) is a sample business plan. Levison stresses that you will not be able to simply copy this business plan. It is merely an example to use as reference with the guidance provided in the rest of the book.

Believe it or not, the book includes “Short Film Distribution” chapter at the very end. I appreciate the information, but with how fast that sector is changing, it seems like it might be better suited as a ‘bonus chapter’ to be found on the book’s companion website.

The Companion Website and Additional Files

While I saw a reference in the text to a data disc, I believe that was an error, leftover from previous editions. This edition has chosen instead to make supporting files and information accessible on the Focal Press website with a code that can be found in the front matter of the book (which a freeloader can easily view at the local bookstore, although as a matter of ethics you should really just buy the book).

Documents included on the website as of December 2009:

  • Goals Worksheet (.doc)
  • Sample Synopses (.doc)
  • Options (.doc) – right now just a promise to include an interview with a client who negotiated the option on the story of a Kentucky Derby-winning horse
  • MPAA Ratings Definitions (.doc)
  • Distribution Deal Points (.doc)
  • Sample Risk Statement (.doc)
  • Federal Film Incentive
  • Several worksheets and tables as well as an explanation of how use them to go along with the Sample Business Plan chapter (.doc and .xls)
  • A List of Film Festivals that Qualify Short Films for Oscars

Finally, our complaints have been heard. These files are available in small Word or Excel documents that the text can be cut and pasted from — rather than unwieldy, locked-down PDFs. Huzzah! Death to PDFs!

This isn’t the cornucopia of documents that come with some other books, but it’s nice to have. It would be great if the entire sample business plan chapter was also downloadable, although I understand that Levison is pretty adamant about people not copying from it directly.

The website navigation is poor, and there’s no way to download all documents in one handy .zip file, but I appreciate the idea of having a website that will keep the documents up to date. At least in theory, that is. The framework is there, but it didn’t look, as of December 2009, like anything had been updated since the book went to press.

Who is Filmmakers and Financing for?

While it will be extremely useful to angel investors who want to know how to evaluate a filmmaker’s business plan, I’m guessing that the book is mostly for filmmakers who need to raise big money and who aren’t related to someone who has that money. These folks will probably be trying to decide between this book and the more expensive The Independent Filmmaker’s Guide to Writing a Business Plan for Investors by Gabriel Campisi and Fred Olen Ray. I haven’t read the Campisi and Ray book yet, but I’d say that, if you can afford it, read both. I think two opinions will give you more perspective in writing a business plan, just as I recommend reading several screenwriting books rather than slavishly following one guru’s story formula. Advice from books is much cheaper than hiring a consultant or attending a workshop; and ultimately a great bargain if the business plan you write ends up netting you millions.

While Filmmakers and Financing does begin with a self-helpy “what are your life goals” section, the book as a whole could use a bit more of an encouraging, even perhaps inspiring tone. There are too many stories about stupid filmmakers who ‘don’t get it’ and not enough about smart filmmakers who did. Filmmakers aren’t generally motivated to write financial documents as much as they are motivated to write screenplays or shoot film; they could use a nudge here and there.

Not every filmmaker needs to spend time on detailed business plans. If you are content making low-budget projects for fun rather than funds, going on a wild investor chase won’t be worth your time; but if you’re a filmmaker whose vision requires a multi-million dollar shoot or multiple movies, time spent getting your financing in order is essential. While I have issues with the style of presentation in several sections, the bottom line is that Filmmakers and Financing, provides a great deal of hard-to-come-by information that will make it worthwhile to many a filmmaker.

1 Comment

  1. Columbus may inspire unscrupulous film fund raisers to become film-flammers, scamming investors out of enough to net a free trip to the Bahamas.

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