Film Finances becomes more of a problem-solver

LONDON — Your director is insisting that it’s artistically essential to shoot in Iran. Who are you going to call?

In the ever more international and complex world of indie filmmaking, the completion guarantor sits not only at the heart of the financing process, but can serve as an ersatz problem solver. Film Finances, the company that invented completion bonds in 1950, remains the first port of call for many producers looking to make such impossible dreams become reality.

“We did a film in Iran recently,” says Film Finances co-president Kurt Woolner. “The filmmaker thought it was important to shoot there, guerrilla style. It might seem crazy, but the producer came up with a well-thought out plan with a lot of contingencies, so we are able to provide the bond.”

Filmmakers sometimes chafe at the creative restriction of a completion guarantor telling them where, how and with whom they can shoot. But as bonders point out, it’s the completion funding, that gives filmmakers the freedom to pursue their vision by securing the considerable amounts of money from multiple sources that they need to do so.

“We’re kind of a trust factory,” says Film Finances co-president Steve Ransohoff. “Producers have a lot more choice these days about how they put together movies (with incentives and a growing number of finance instruments), so our product has become much more of a tool for (them) to help raise (money), rather than a mechanism to keep them under control.”

The increased complexity of the business is reflected in the expansion of Film Finances from a company with 13 staff when Woolner and Ransohoff came onboard in the mid-80s, to 75 staff today, and offices in nine countries. And the company has learned it has to be ready to take a view on proposals for filming in all sorts of unusual locations.

“You’d be surprised at how many places we have worked in,” Woolner says. “There’s only a very small list of countries you couldn’t make a Western movie in.”

Film Finances taps into a worldwide network of informers to give a sensible appraisal of risk. “We’re backed by Lloyds of London, and we have guys there we can call who insure political risk,” Ransohoff says. “They insure airplanes taking cargo into difficult countries, and based on their spreads, we have the ability to take a very sophisticated view on all kinds of places.”

Of course, it’s not just about judging the threat of terrorism or war. If a producer says a distant government is offering lavish inducements, Film Finances has to verify the promises are genuine before the crew hits the ground.

“We’re seen as a clearing house for information,” Woolner says. “If a producer wants to go to Colombia, say, and the distributors asks us if this company in Colombia is real, we have to be able to answer that question.”

Guarantors increasingly also have been vetting the CGI houses that offer filmmakers invest money upfront to secure post work on a project. “We (determine) if the vendor is legitimate, if they can do the work to the right standard and on time, and if the amount of money they are saying they need to achieve the work is correct,” Woolner says.

Film Finances tries to flexible and sympathetic to the seat-of-pants nature of indie filmmaking, where producers are constantly juggling the shifting demands of financiers, talent and the market, and sometimes need to bend rules and take shortcuts to keep the show on the road. At the same time, the company needs to use all its experience to tell when a filmmaker’s dream has become a delusion.

“We are guaranteeing to all the different parties — the banks, the talent, the buyers, and their powerful lawyers — that the producer will fulfil obligations,” Woolner says. “And that changes every year, with every deal. People’s demands are always increasing (and) the difficulty of raising the money is increasing.”

But despite the greater complication of dealmaking and the ever more arcane risks, the proportion of pics that break their bond hasn’t increased.

“As the business has become more complex, the producers who have survived are the ones who have learned to travel those fast-moving currents, because they have the best knowledge and ability to execute,” Woolner says. “As a producer,” he adds, “you have to know how to cut your cloth to fit your coat.”

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