Helmer cobbles money together for $200,000 legit adaptation

HOLLYWOOD — Seattle filmmaker Paul Willis isn’t sitting around whining about how hard it is to get financing for independent films. He’s doing something about it — finding coin for his contempo take on “Hedda Gabler” by creating an unusual financing structure.

Seattle’s Wiggly World film collective, part of the Northwest Film Forum resource center, is providing one third of the financing through its access to grants, while Willis’ production and theater companies, Best 10 Dollar Suit and Printer’s Devil, are putting up the other two-thirds via shares in the production through a limited liability corporation. Cast and crew receive membership shares in the LLC, instead of the customary deferred salaries.

The legit adaptation is modestly budgeted at $200,000, but even that amount can be tough to raise by young filmmakers, particularly in Seattle, where access to distributors is limited. But Willis, a Seattle theater director who has already mounted the updated “Hedda Gabler” onstage, working with a former Los Angeles Mark Taper Forum development director, came up with this fresh way to pay actors and crew — and end up with a finished feature film.

Through Wiggly World’s relationships in the non-profit community, sources as diverse as the Scandinavian Foundation of New York are kicking in a portion of the budget. The location shoot is planned for the eastern Washington desert town of Wenatchee, which has an “oppressive, provincial” atmosphere Willis thinks is ideal for his admittedly offbeat Ibsen adaptation.

“It’s quite a bit of a stretch from the original Ibsen,” Willis explains. “Instead of the usual approach to filming plays, which says to open them up, we’re going to zoom in on it.” Spying a location promotion opportunity, the town also has agreed to provide in-kind donations.

Under the leadership of Northwest Film Center exec director, Michael Siewerwath, who acts as exec producer, Wiggly World produces a feature each year through its Start-to-Finish Grant, with four features under its belt already. “It bumps you up a step on the funding ladder,” Willis says of Wiggly World’s participation.

Not that it’s a common occurrence for a small independent film, but what if a film financed through a non-profit goes into profits? Wiggly World gets five points, Willis explains, while he retains the copyrights and ownership through Best 10 Dollar Suit, where turning a profit then becomes a possibility after membership shares are repaid.

While the non-profit structure has been used sporadically before on films such as Cheryl Dunye’s “Watermelon World,” the Gabler production reps a unique approach to melding access to grants with a structure conducive to profit-making.

Willis is also in production on a feature-length documentary about Seattle’s popular Hank Williams tribute band, the Honky Tonk Revue, which will soon hit the festival circuit.

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