‘No-Budget’ Filmmakers Tell Secrets Of Their Quiet Success

Various strategies for financing independent feature films were laid out Jan. 20 at a Sundance Film Festival seminar that attracted an SRO crowd despite moderator/producer’s rep John Pierson’s admonition that “only about 10% of independent films break even and only about 1% achieve some kind of breakout success.”

Among panelists was Morgan Mason, producer of “Sex, Lies And Videotape” and of the Don Boyd-helmed indie production “Twenty-one,” which had its world premiere at this festival. The fest ran through Jan. 27.

“Two words got my film financed: ‘Larry Estes,’ at RCA/Columbia,” said Mason, citing a relationship that goes back to the financing of “Sex, Lies.”

Mason said “Twenty-one,” at a budget of $1.39 million, was funded entirely through an RCA/Columbia Pictures Home Video presale. “It’s a true partnership. After recoupment, everything is split 50/50,” he said.

Robert Dornhelm, whose “Requiem For Dominic” was financed with U.S., Austrian and West German money, said most of his funding comes from private investors.

“I have a talent for finding bizarre rich people,” he said. Based on unfavorable experiences with an established Hollywood indie, he said, “I prefer putting up with these strange characters and having a certain freedom.”

Bruce Weiss, producer of Hal Hartley’s independent pics “The Unbelievable Truth” and “Trust,” said he worked the film festival circuit, handing out scripts at Cannes, for example, and financed “Trust” through connections made at the festivals.

He said “Trust” (screened here in the drama competition) was financed entirely by England’s Zenith Prods. at just over $1 million, while Republic Pictures bought an option on North American rights based on a script received at Cannes. New Line’s Fine Line Features has since acquired North American rights.

The situation of documentary-makers was described by Barbara Kopple, producer-director of “American Dream,” about the Hormel meat-cutters strike in Austin, Minn., which screened in competition here.

“I have to be incredibly creative in my fundraising. The films I do are not the kind that have investors rushing out to buy the video rights,” she said. Money comes from “foundations, churches, rich and poor people” and must be continually sought during the course of production of projects that, like “American Dream,” can take up to five years.

Solace from Springsteen

On “American Dream,” while filming an outdoor strike in Austin in subzero weather, Kopple found herself down to $250. Then word came that Bruce Springsteen had donated $25,000.

“I was so relieved I broke into tears,” Kopple said. That contribution, though, was the result of six months of letters and proposals.

“Dream” was filmed over five years on a “high” budget of more than $1 million. Kopple said: “Everyone was paid the union rate except me. I wasn’t paid anything.” Primary funding came from the National Endowment for the Humanities, the National Endowment for the Arts, and the Rockefeller, Ford and Joyce foundations.

Continually, Kopple said, she had to make 10-minute minidocus from her latest footage to show to potential investors.

Describing “no-budget” financing was 27-year-old Richard Linklater, producer-writer-director of Austin, Tex.-lensed “Slacker,” which screened in dramatic competition here. Linklater said he borrowed about $10,000 from family members and persuaded cast and crew to work for free. “You use credit cards, you steal things, you do a lot of things you’re not really proud of,” he said.

Based on some initial footage, he was able to interest a German distributor, who offered a contract that enabled the filmmaker to get more loans.

Linklater said the 16m-lensed, 97-minute feature was initially completed on an outlay of $23,000. He then managed to get it booked in an Austin theater, where it became a local phenomenon, playing for 11 weeks, breaking boxoffice records and selling out the first 20 screenings.

The filmmaker then sent a tape to producer’s rep Pierson in New York, who told him within a week that Orion Classics was interested. The distrib has since made a deal for North American rights and plans to release the picture this spring, Linklater said.

“By the time it’s a releasable 35m film and everyone has been paid back, the cost will probably be around $150,000,” Linklater said. And he expects he’ll never be able to work so cheaply again. “A filmmaker is lucky to get one free film in his lifetime. You have to know a lot of people and somehow charm them into donating time and money to you.”

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