An even wider array of equity investors is venturing into indie waters

The fluctuation of independent films may not be a leading economic indicator, but it should be: This year’s Sundance Dramatic Competition crop is testament to the increasing number of wealthy individuals with cash to burn, not to mention the overall growth business of low-budget movies.

The rise of the established “equity investor,” as opposed to dentists, lawyers or family members, has helped contribute to a slew of indie films looking for a home. Sundance experienced a major jump in U.S. submissions for this year’s festival, 379 more than 2005.

“There are more equity investors now than there have been for as long as I’ve been doing this,” says veteran sales agent John Sloss, a partner in InDigEnt, producer of competition pic “Puccini for Beginners.”

Outsiders

For Maria Maggenti’s romantic comedy, the company sought coin outside of InDig-Ent’s usual funder IFC. “It’s become more fluid,” says Sloss. “We’re opening it up to outside investors.”

“I think there’s an unlimited reservoir of those people out there,” agrees Jeff Lipsky, the distribution maven-turned-director. In just four months, Lipsky cobbled together under $1 million for his sophomore effort “Flannel Pajamas” through acquaintances, friends and family.

“These people with high net worth and a predisposition to be involved with the film business are keenly aware of the number of revenue streams for indie filmmakers today,” says Lipsky. “So it’s not as much of a risk to take.”

Richard Glatzer and Wash Westmoreland’s “Quinceanera” — about Los Angeles Latino teens — was financed by real estate moguls and first-time film investors Mihail Koulakis, Nick Boyias and Avi Raccah, while “Come Early Morning,” actress Joey Lauren Adams’ directorial debut, was fully funded by Belgian industrialist Michel Litvak’s Bold Films. “Because we 100% finance,” says Bold Films president Gary Michael Walter, “when we want to make something happen, we can work as fast as humanly possible.”

Bold got the script in January, closed the deal in February, cast Ashley Judd within a week and was shooting by April. “You wouldn’t be able to do that if you had normal banking and bonding and distributor dealings,” Walter says.

Lynette Howell and Doug Dey’s 1-year-old Silverwood Films helped finance two Sundance Lab-turned-Dramatic Competition projects, “Half Nelson” and “Stephanie Daley.”

Risk factoring

“The combination of a talented filmmaking team, (and) the right cast for the right budget, makes it possible for these movies to be out there and for investors to take a risk on them,” Howell says.

When 50% of “Half Nelson’s” financing dropped out just three months before shooting, a hodgepodge of producers — including Silverwood’s Howell and Dey, Journeyman Pictures’ Paul Mezey, and Original Media’s Charlie Corwin and Clara Markowicz (also exec producers on another competition pic, “A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints”) — proved crucial to keeping the project alive.

Instability is worth the artistic freedom, says Tatiana Kelly, who produced Goran Dukic’s competition film “Wristcutters: A Love Story.”

The production decided against partnering with larger production entities and foreign sales investors because “those avenues might limit our creative reflexivity,” she says. “We felt to preserve Goran’s unique and innovative script, we had to partner with independent investors who ultimately shared his vision.” Producers Adam Sherman and Chris Coen each stepped up to complete the film’s budget.

Big Beach Films’ Marc Turtletaub and Thousand Words’ Jonah Smith also decided to finance on their own, respectively, Laurie Collyer’s “Sherrybaby” and Chris Gorak’s “Right at Your Door.”

“If a studio made this movie,” Smith says of “Door,” “they would have had different actors, made it a much bigger movie, and I don’t know if that would have helped the story. When you don’t see the shark in ‘Jaws,’ ” he adds, noting “Right at Your Door’s” low-budget disaster movie thrills, “it’s just as scary.”

While Smith acknowledges that the film still has explosions, he says no one is going to confuse “Right at Your Door” with “The Day After Tomorrow.” “This is a pure, independent movie in every sense of the word,” he says.

Indeed, even with more moneyed individuals and indie production companies looking to support the next “Napoleon Dynamite,” all of Sundance’s competition entries had to figure out ways to make the dollars stretch. “Everyone chips in on these movies,” says Turtletaub, former president of home equity lender the Money Store.

“Keeping the means of production attainable has its advantages,” says “Forgiven” producer Kelly Miller. “With little money to spend, we had little money to lose.”

For Brian Jun’s debut “Steel City,” Your Half Pictures producers Rusty Gray and Ryan Harper relied on the residents of the town of Alton, where the film was shot, to make the movie possible. “From trailers to food to lodging,” says Harper, “everyone donated.” The film even used a working steel mill and a functional city jail at no cost. “They lent a lot of production value,” adds Gray.

“Stay” producer Martin Pasetta, a longtime friend of the film’s actor-turned-director Bobcat Goldthwait, says they shot the movie in 16 days, calling in favors from industry friends, shooting without permits, and stealing wardrobe from the set of “Desperate Housewives.” (Co-producer Sarah de Sa Rego is a costumer for the show.) “We did a lot of B, E and F on this film,” says Pasetta: “Break, enter and film.”

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