Attracting Finance, Talent, and Distributors: Wisdom From The Stage 32 Film Finance Summit
Attracting Finance, Talent, and Distributors: Wisdom From The Stage 32 Film Finance Summit
Most people making TV and film want to know what types of shows financiers and buyers are investing in right now. Here you go...
I came up with this list based on what financiers and distributors said during the Stage 32 Film Finance Summit. Note that most of them are focused on independent films, but a few people did TV and studio films. I’ve listed the biographies of each person mentioned in this article at the bottom of this article.
- Kids Content
- Romantic Comedies
- Sexy Date Night Movies
Most of these I hear over and over again. The new request buyers make is for sexy date night movies; this is probably sparked by people who need to stay home during the pandemic and still want to date.
Timing is a huge contributor to successful entertainment, and there is a time and place for audiences to want certain pieces of content. It took nearly 30 years for The Queens Gambit to go into production. Let’s dive a little deeper into the specifics of what financiers and distributors are saying they will invest in and what they have stopped investing in for the moment.
Tatiana Kelly, Producer, Serena Films
Everyone on all three panels agrees it’s genre and cast driven to a certain degree. “Cast is working right now; that’s the big thing, sellable cast,” said Tiffany Boyle, President of Packaging & Sales at Ramo Law.
Some people, like myself, are diehard believers in quality. Casey Sunderland, Agent and Media Finance at Creative Artists Agency, noted great stories will attract the cast and filmmaking team you need to drive sales.
Tatiana Kelly, Producer, Serena Films, stated something short and sweet that sums up what everyone knows right now - even audiences themselves, “underlying IP.” Right now, it seems anything with a built-in audience is getting the green light faster than original ideas. The big studios are remixing their intellectual property in every way possible right now. Producers quickly buy up the rights to comic books, podcasts, and newspaper articles, whether to make or prevent competition. So jump in and grab some IP while the water’s hot!
On the topic of audiences, a marketing plan is vital to selling independent films right now. You can read more about the specifics of what financiers and buyers look for when it comes to audience-building in the first article in this series about Stage 32’s Film Finance Summit 2021. In this article, let’s dive into specific anecdotes the panelists gave regarding hot genres right now.
Viviana Zarragoitia, Vice President of Three Point Capital
Viviana Zarragoitia, Vice President of Three Point Capital, stated that they are looking for “action and horror all day long. We used to have period pieces; right now, it's too risky. Distributors want comfort food movies.” In other words, audiences and therefore buyers want to know what they're getting. They want consistency and reliability - the opposite of how life has felt for the whole world the past few years.
Danielle Gasher, Director of International Sales at Voltage Pictures, says, “As long as it's scary, it can be low budget and make lots of money. Cast, thriller, action, horror is what we're getting. We've received more requests for comedies and romantic comedies.” She’s the one who brought up sexy date night movies, and she gave the example of Deadly Illusions. She said these are “a little more of a risk; it’s a curious request.” I think it makes perfect sense.
Though horror movies are always easier to sell, Kristin Harris, VP of Distribution and Acquisitions at Good Deed Entertainment, noted, “Horror streamers that are slow burn are the kiss of death.” A horror streamer needs to catch and hold the audience in the first 10 minutes, or they will move on.
Tiffany brought up another caveat regarding horror movies, “As long as you’re hitting the right territory with the right type of horror,” you should be successful, “Sometimes it can’t be too gory.” Tiffany went on to say that “a lot more people want comedy. Everyone is sick of being depressed, and they want to laugh. The docu-space is struggling - unless it's about something bigger - big people/personalities because they have a built-in audience.” This statement of documentary projects needing to be about famous people harks back to the desire for underlying IP and cast who can bring in built-in audiences. I’ll share more about bringing in cast creatively in later paragraphs.
Danielle Gasher, Director of International Sales at Voltage Pictures
A great conversation weaved in and out of the Finance Panel moderated by Jeannette. Panelists discussed how dramas that leave us feeling inspired seem like they would make a lot of sense right now. However, financiers and buyers are wary about taking on these films because they are still risky compared to popular genres. Below I summarize the conversation.
“Everyone always notes how action and horror movies are less risky and generally see a nice profit. This is because worldwide audiences can enjoy them without worrying about nuances like language and culture too much,” Jeannette. She then went on to note how people want a “good heart feeling” (a type of story I love dearly). Then Jeannette said a great example that sparked the juicy part of the convo. “Coda is a good example. If you are out of the horror and action, I think it's this good feeling... At least give us something that we can leave feeling inspired”.
Casey noted how risky it is with dramas stating they have the “biggest uphill battles and biggest rewards. Streaming platforms are looking for dramas, but they have to be the right thing. Coda - when they executed that film, the underlying story was really powerful; the movie hit the hearts of everyone. Movies come up every year and shock and reinvigorate everyone to make the films they've always wanted to make.
It's harder. You need investors with personal connections to the story and the right cast”.
Casey’s proclamation got Viviana fired up. About Coda, she said, “I agree, but what if it wasn't picked up by Apple?” This hit home with Jeannette as she ultimately said, slightly defeated, “Long story short, I can't do something like Coda. I can love it, but with responsibly for my investors, I'm not able to do something like that”. However, she did note that “Netflix and Amazon put out more original content outside of the [typical genre] boxes.”
Jeanette Milio, Author, EP and Producer, Alliance Films
Another big area that affects invest-ability and buy-ability is budget. Of course, there will always be outliers, but right now, it seems there’s a sweet spot budget for financiers and buyers.
Casey noted his company works across all budgets from $250K to $150M, and right now, “We've seen a lot of sub-$5M movies that we were able to push into production.” Danielle also noted her company had found “a sweet spot at about $5M, but it depends on the project. You can do an amazing horror movie for a lot less than that.”
Viviana noted, “Most of the budgets we're doing are below $7M, and these are almost fully collateralized between domestic, foreign, and tax credits”. That’s exciting for lenders, buyers, and producers alike, as all of these groups want their budgets reasonably risk-free. Viviana went on to point out that, “If it goes up past $25M, it's cast, filmmaker, and genre-driven - the whole package has to be there. $8-20M is the no man’s land right now.
Casey crossed that t saying that “low-budget films - $5M and below - don't use foreign pre-sales to drive. Lower budget films can go into production because they are not dependent on big names. Once you get above $25M, foreign pre-sales drive a substantial portion of success. Big budgets can incur COVID costs. The middle budgets can’t go into production because they are not on either side. It’s this weird in-between-land.”
Casey went on to say that filmmakers are thinking like they are just out of filmmaking school again. He said it’s very “boots on the ground, let's make a movie for $3M and see how it turns out”. He said that filmmakers are seeing their money back three-fold and “The content being created is excellent because high-end creators are doing it.”
This environment is great for veteran actors and filmmakers doing great work because Casey also noted, “The prices are going up for known quantities.” For people just entering the industry, this means now more than ever, you need a few industry experts on your team.
Danielle added to the point about needing to be scrappy, “There is some over-spending on the cast and crew sometimes. Those dollars need to be on-screen”. Kristin backed this up, saying, “Pay people fairly and be above-board. But, as much as possible, call in favors and be scrappy so that every dollar ends up on-screen”. You don’t want to pay extra fees for actors and filmmakers, so you need to get creative making deals. We’ll talk more about this in the section below Working Creative Talent Deals.
You want to plan your budget based on the talent you are casting. Danielle put it like this, “Back into budget based on what your sales agent is telling you is sellable cast-wise.” Then she went on to point out something unintuitive to watch out for when casting talent. She knows of a film with two academy award-winning actors on their drama, and the sales agents were telling them they were only going to sell for $10M, so talk to the sales agent when you are planning your budget and ask them to be candid.
If you have one of the top genres for easier sales listed above, an incredible cast, and a story that appeals to a massive amount of people, you may have a studio film or TV show. The reason you need this perfect storm of requirements is that “Studios are in the business of making $50-$100M films, said Danielle. Studios are financiers, distributors, and will most likely do 99% of the marketing.
Because most independent financiers don’t do many series, most series will be studio series. Viviana put it like this, “I don't do many series because it's hard to finance series. We do some TV movies, but they have pre-sales.”
If you don’t have any of the three requirements listed above, you probably have an independent film. Maybe you have an easier-to-sell genre and an incredible cast. However, if your movie doesn’t have the potential to connect with an audience that supports $100M - $350M in revenue, studios are generally not interested.
I know of a show that Snap Chat bought recently, and Tatiana is doing a show for Reddit. All media businesses need content. Think about companies or non-profits with similar values or themes to the ones in your projects and call them up.
With independent films, you obtain financing through private investors, film financier companies including banks, crowdfunding, and creative actions. Right now, it’s a difficult moment to sell the upside to private investors because, as Chris put it, “I don’t know how investors get their money back.” A perfect fire of circumstances - which I’ll have to cover in another post - have nearly eliminated the backend profits on films. Recently, COVID precautions and the focus on reducing risk have added even more kindling to that fire.
Even with the ROI changing dramatically, Tatiana made the most positive statement from the Summit, “Money is around, I think we can all agree with that.” No one argued :)
In multiple panels, the topic of actors and filmmakers with productions companies came up. They are doing lots of independent financing these days. Tatiana went so far as to say, “Actors or directors are the ultimate gatekeepers.” She rolled off a few creative tips for “What gets money into the bank account… The rich son or daughter of so and so who wants to go to festivals… Making a movie that matters about a social issue.” For all of these, you still need the talent who will get the financiers excited.
Talk to the boutique lender you plan on working with while in development. They'll give you an approach for raising the funds that makes sense with your film in the current market. “We may tell them to use a combination of US sales, tax credits, foreign sales,” said Viviana, then she tells her clients to come back and talk after you get the funds. Then after you have sales and equity to touch, speak to a bank.
Once you get involved with your financiers, do what you can to make the relationship a win-win. These companies tend to build lasting relationships. “Most of our clients are repeat because once we figure out what works, we rinse and repeat,” said Viviana.
If you possibly have a studio project on your hands, you’ve also got to have the package started. E. Brian Dobbins, Talent Manager and Producer at Artists First**,** put it like this, “Studios are not interested in looking at a great script and going and finding talent. There is no conversation to be had if you don't have compelling talent”.
For studio financing, your options include finding an actor, lawyer, manager, or agent who can bring your project to their network or going directly to the studios. It’s a reasonably democratic process because almost anyone with passion and grit can get scripts into the hands of these professionals. The reality is there are not that many scripts in the world that are incredibly high quality, meet all the requirements noted above, and where timing is perfect for them culturally, or within the studio, or whatever.
As mentioned above, you want great talent involved, but you don’t want to kill your budget with them. So it’s time to get creative. Tiffany put it like this, “We are representing so many actor-owned companies right now... Actors are aware of having to be savvy about not taking fees, so they are negotiating different benefits.” Talent joining your project has a plethora of reasons for getting involved. Find out what matters to your talent and give that to them. Kristin said, “Offset risks by offering them bonuses and backend compensation.”
Right now, there’s a bottleneck with known talent and might be scheduled a year in advance. But you don’t necessarily need a-list talent to star in your film, “If you only need one day, and they have one day off, that could work,” said Tiffany.
Todd R. Steiner, Senior Vice President, Entertainment, Comerica Bank
Once you have a great idea, a high-quality script, and some known talent, patience and grit come into play. I heard recently that each story has its own timing. This idea is critical to keep in mind as you prepare your pitch and seek the resources required to start shooting. With your package and mindset ready to rock, here are some additional tips to follow when prepping your pitch and materials.
I agree with Todd R. Steiner, Senior Vice President, Entertainment, Comerica Bank who said, “It starts with script and story.”
Then, you want to make sure you’ve thought about the audience, thought through the risks and how to minimize them, and your budget makes sense. If you’ve got all these pieces aligned, your passion and enthusiasm should be unstoppable once you get in the room. Casey noted that enthusiasm is essential once you get in the room. Below are some principles for each of the critical elements in your pitch.
Independent financiers and additional stakeholders who will bring in money want you to come in with a marketing plan (which includes public relations). You want to put your pitch “together in a way a studio knows how they will get the audience,” said Brian. He went on to say, “Studios and the buying community want to know it's not just some everyday commodity. How is this going to connect with people?” You probably want a slide or statement about your messaging and how you will get your audience excited
Kristin gave some good examples, including having a large social media audience supporting a film and invested actors who want to do PR, be creative, and work. She said she looks for filmmakers willing to go above and beyond as partners because “Our P&A is not just in dollars, it's in partnerships. You can tell if the filmmakers are going to be invested in a few meetings”.
In addition to an engaging script and story, Todd wants to see a “Smart analysis of the challenges or risks you are going to encounter and a considered approach to how you will mitigate those risks. How are you going to overcome risks considering a variety of different circumstances?”
I love this principle and want to shout it from the rooftops. Going through this risk mitigation process will help everything run smoother and increase confidence and enjoyment.
Your budget is so important because it shows you know what you are doing and you’re realistic. With your budget, “Investors want to see that there is extra money in the budget for COVID planning and problems and also that the actors and talent attached are committed to the project even if it has to shut down for a bit,” said Todd.
By now, you know that a-list talent is king when it comes to getting financing and distribution for your project. So, I’m going to throw in an exception. “As long as you're backing into the right budget, B or C-list talent in a million-dollar budget film can work,” said Tiffany. The key here is backing into your budget based on what your sales rep tells you. Then, you may be able to fund the whole project with pre-sales and tax credits before you begin.
Viviana stated, “Tax credits are essential to get funded these days as an indie producer,” and others agreed. There are substantial film incentives today throughout the world. “Uruguay has a 50% tax credit,” said Amanda Toney, Managing Director for Stage 32 and Producer. For more on this topic, Viviana has a webinar which I listed below this article.
Ultimately in your pitch, you want to give “ammunition to say yes because our initial inclination is to say no. We are risk-averse. We have to explain to our bosses why they want to spend money on this film,” said Kristin.
After each of the Film Finance Summit panels, a moderator would ask a final question about recommended resources. Many, maybe even the majority of panelists, recommended Stage 32. Many of them had worked with other Stage 32 members and had initiated projects on Stage 32. In addition to this fantastic resource, below are some others that pertain directly to financing.
Tiffany recommended getting virtual badges to film festivals and markets. She specifically named Toronto Independent Film Festival (TIFF), American Film Market (AFM), and Sundance. You can generally see everything you want for around $200-$300. And what she loves about it is that you get to “see what's happening in real-time and stay updated on the market.” She said sometimes you get a list of people who are going because you have a badge. So you can use the list to reach out ahead of time and ask if people want to meet. She does this even with people she doesn't know.
It sounded so obvious, but I haven’t been doing that. I think partially because we recently became this world where all the festivals and markets are online. I started looking up the festivals and markets coming up, and I’m stoked about doing this from now on!
Casey told participants about the book Investing In Movies by Joseph Cohen. He said, “It outlines everything and boils it down to an understandable basis. And it’s easy to read”. I read the table of contents and the first page of chapter one, and I’m already smarter :)
Finally, Viviana recommended IMDB Pro. Though you probably already know about IMDB Pro, Viviana had a specific point to make about it, “I play degrees of separation all day long. Who's done what with who. That's how I vet whether people are legit or not.” This is good to keep in mind and hints at how to dig in and find connections on IMDB that may give you a warm introduction.
For those who haven’t been following the past two articles on Stage 32, this is my second article of three articles on Stage 32’s Film Finance Summit 2021.
The final piece, What Finance and Distribution Deals Look Like Today, will be released next Friday. Tune in to find out about bidding wars and what the industry might look like in five years.
About the Author
As a social entrepreneur and multimedia producer, Ami helps leaders and artists grow their impact, wellbeing, and prosperity. She has helped business owners double their profit, politicians & non-profit leaders expand their impact, and entertainment entrepreneurs improve their wellbeing and prosperi...