Friends and family are key financiers behind Sundance's dramatic pics

“Beg, borrow, steal.”

That’s how producer Roni Deitz describes the financing — along with some private equity — for Christopher Munch’s dramatic competition pic “Harry and Max.”

While foreign sales companies, wealthy entrepreneurs and cable TV have a stake in a handful of this year’s Park City slate, the majority of the 16 features in Sundance’s dramatic competition were funded the old-fashioned way: “friends and relatives with disposable income,” as “Napoleon Dynamite” producer Jeremy Coon says.

“Our film and a number of other films were made on microscopic budgets,” admits Salty Films’ Eva Kolodner, one of the producers of “Evergreen.” “I think this year’s lineup is on a much smaller scale, with budgets coming out of a depressed economy and people really not being able to find bigger money for their films.”

The economic drag is also reflected in the number of features submitted to this year’s festival, 744 — a six-year low. Sundance topper Geoffrey Gilmore acknowledges the dip is a result of a cooling-off period for indie financing. “It’s a very specific one-to-one correlation,” he says. “I think there’s less financing around for independent films.”

Indicative of the upwardly mobile shift of established indie film, this year’s competition entries also lack any theatrical distribution going into the fest (in effect, replaced by cablers HBO and Showtime). “Major theatrical distributor pre-buys have been on and off over the years,” says Gilmore, “but this year is probably one of the lowest it’s ever been.”

Part of the reason, Gilmore offers, “is most of the independent film companies are producing work that is more mainstream and that is not necessarily what you would put into the competition.” For example, “Miramax doesn’t think of producing ‘The Station Agent.’ “

Kolodner also says that for the first time in years there is no film produced by indie stalwarts Ted Hope and Christine Vachon. “Killer Films is getting bigger, Open City is making these big deals, so we thought there might be a spot for making these smaller films that can actually make a name for themselves,” she says. “But the scary thing is what these small films are like: Small now is unprecedented small. This is early ’90s small.”

“There was definitely nobody beating down our doors,” says Anne Rossellini, “Down to the Bone” producer, despite the project’s award-winning script. “We cobbled a budget together from personal investments and family. It really was an act of sheer will.”

“You need your own steam,” echoes fellow “Down to the Bone” producer Susan Leber. “There’s less of a feeling where you can walk into a company and make things happen.”

“Those days are long gone,” agrees Kyle Gates, a producer on competition pic “One Point 0.” “Five years ago, everybody was throwing money around, but now the rules are different: It’s all about proving yourself and proving the project has heat before the money comes.”

On “One Point 0,” for example, Gates — along with partners R.D. Robb and Thomas Mai — tested the material at international markets, pre-sold to seven territories (including Germany and Japan), generated further private equity based on these sales, and only then did they knock on the door of Armada Pictures, former Kinowelt USA chief Chris Sievernich’s German-backed shingle, to come up with the rest of the financing.

“It was just a relentless process,” adds Gates. “Between pre-selling it to finding Armada, we traveled so many different roads that went from ‘completely full of shit’ to ‘meant well, but didn’t have the resources.’ “

Many producers see possible coin in the latest wave of entrepreneurs entering the industry, from Bob Yari (who backed Premiere pic “Employee of the Month”) to Camelot Pictures’ Gary Gilbert, a former brokerage guru who financed and produced competition entry “Garden State,” starring Natalie Portman and Peter Saarsgard.

“Everyone is chasing that same tiny sliver of financing,” says Kolodner. “But I don’t think it’s going to rescue the indie business.”

Indeed, reliant on recognizable casts and safer packaging, the new millionaires of the specialized film world aren’t going to finance the no-budget mavericks behind the sci-fi pic “Primer” or “Brother to Brother,” Rodney Evans’ gay-themed debut that counts among its funding sources a Rockefeller Foundation Grant.

Rich friends

“Financing for most first features is coming from the same source it’s always come from: the friends and family network,” says Micah Green, of Cinetic Media, which is repping competition pics “Napoleon Dynamite,” IFC’s InDigEnt entry “November” and the equity-financed “Chrystal.”

“Investing in a first feature with no stars is always a bad investment. It’s generally done for the collateral benefit of supporting a loved one, contributing to the arts or participating in the filmmaking process,” continues Green. “I think the economy has had a chilling effect on this type of investment simply because fewer people have the disposable income to make this sort of play.”

“Everyone just wants to invest in real estate right now,” laments Robert Ahrens, producer of competition pic “Book of Love.” However, if you have tenacity (not to mention a wealthy individual like the one who financed 94% of his film’s budget), he adds, it will get made.

COMPETISH BACKERS
“The Best Thief in the World”: Showtime
“Book of Love”: Private equity from an entrepreneur; development money came from investors from pharmaceutical industry
“Brother to Brother”: Friends and family investments, ITVS and grants including Rockefeller Foundation, NYSCA, Jerome Foundation, Frameline and National Black Programming Consortium
“Chrystal”: All private equity from a single investor
“Easy”: Mostly self-financed via mortgage, loans from friends and family
“Down to the Bone”: Friends and family investments, in-kind donations from Upstate-N.Y. area businesses
“Evergreen”: Private equity, friends, in-kind donations from Seattle area businesses (including Panavision, Delux Labs and Kodak)
“Garden State”: Camelot Pictures
“Harry and Max”: Private equity
“Maria Full of Grace”: HBO Films, Colombian tax incentives
“Napoleon Dynamite”: Friends and family with disposable income
“November”: InDigEnt/IFC
“One Point O”: Armada Pictures (intl. sales and German fund money via VIP)
“Primer”: Writer-director’s personal savings
“We Don’t Live Here Anymore”: Renaissance (intl. sales)
“The Woodsman”: Lee Daniels Entertainment, Damon Dash, and private equity from Philadelphia entrepreneurs

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