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IFFCON Diary: One Filmmaker’s 10 Lessons of Film Financing

IFFCON Diary: One Filmmaker's 10 Lessons of Film Financing

By Ryan Deussing

IFFCON, the annual International Film Financing Conference, is in
essence a “pre-market,” at which 60 invited producers have the
opportunity to meet, pitch, and schmooze with at least as many industry
representatives (distributors, acquiring editors, and sales agents). The
projects in the official “dossier” represent the gamut of independent
filmmaking: features and docs at various stages of production, all in
need of money. I was invited along with my doc-in-progress, “Confederacy
” in search of post production funds. The following is an
overview of the three-day event.

DAY ONE: Friday, January 15, 1999

Yerba Buena Center for the Arts

Day one of IFFCON was fast-paced, a bit confusing, and slightly
overcrowded. It’s also Open Day, the one day at IFFCON when armies of
anxious filmmakers pack the house and give the otherwise low-key
conference a manic, IFFM vibe. After a brief orientation, the first
panel, “Who are Producer Reps?”, got started and several reps discussed
the types of projects they handle and what they look out for. One
resounding note seemed to be the popular art of under-budgeting, which
they all discouraged. Marketing costs, in particular, tend to surprise
producers (who try at every stage to keep the budget lean). First Lesson
learned: Under-budgeting makes you look unprofessional.

During and after the first panel, invitations to private meetings
(requested by industry reps) were handed out. The people sitting behind
and next to me each got more than one, while I collected only my
thoughts. Second Lesson: I’m a small fish. In fact, I was pleasantly
surprised by the level of filmmakers in attendance — Sundance winners,
Peabody winners, Academy Award nominees — but that pleasure soon gave
way to ennui when those same filmmakers seemed to be doing all of the
schmoozing. This feeling must have been written all over my face,
because IFFCON Executive Director Wendy Braitman came over and told me
not to worry. Don’t I even LOOK like I know what I’m doing?

Another morning panel focused on the complicated process of finding
domestic, front-end financing for your project. This seems to be easiest
if you’re making a biographical doc about a famous living person or if
your fiction feature proposal comes with celebrity strings attached.
This left my project out in the cold, though it did occur to me that I
could seek out a high profile narrator — Vic Chestnutt? Dhaljit

During the last morning panel (a case study of the financing of Tony
Bui’s Sundance Winner, “Three Seasons”), I decided I’d try my luck in
the lobby. Lesson 3: People are doing business in the lobby, the
hallway, and anywhere they can stop an industry-type in their tracks. By
being a little pushy, I was able to pass out proposals and hellos to Jan
Rofekamp (Films Transit) and Nancy Abraham (HBO), but Jacquie Lawrence
(Channel 4) sort of shooed me away (more on her later). I also got a
chance to exchange words with a few other producers, some of whom seemed
to be right in their element, while others seemed oddly
down-in-the-mouth. Were people getting bad news in their private

The “big moment” of day one was the afternoon pitch panel, when a group
of buyers tried to explain what works and invited pitches from the
audience (mainly from Open Day producers, as the rest of us had the next
two days to pitch). Jacquie Lawrence, who had just snubbed me, quickly
became my favorite panelist: rolling her eyes at ridiculous pitches,
sounding her “Gong Show”-like bicycle horn, and more or less making it
clear that she wasn’t going to feign interest in uninteresting fare.
Other panelists, especially Regine Schmid (TiMe) and Jan Rofekamp,
tended toward politesse, which I’m sure I’d appreciate most if I were
actually pitching. Lesson 4: In the real world, it’s all about the
pitch. No matter what you have on paper, if you can’t say something
brief and compelling at the right moment, you’re lost. It may feel like
sacrilege to turn the project you’ve been working on for so long into a
selection of sound-bites, but nobody wants to hear how fascinating and
complex your ideas are; they want the skinny. This was quickly followed
by Lesson 5: During your pitch, never suggest that your project is “not
a commercial story” (one producer did just that, causing several
panelists to balk at once).

DAY TWO: Saturday, January 16

KQED Studios

For some reason I was feeling much better at the outset of day two. At
breakfast (catered, like almost every meal of my weekend) I could tell
that the chaos of Open Day was over and that the rest of the conference
would be more productive. The first panel of the day was on the TV
market, and I was sitting right across from the very people I thought
were my primary targets: HBO, Channel 4, ITVS, and POV. Each buyer spoke
about what they commission, what they produce in-house, and what they
buy from producers like myself, and I suddenly realized the subtle
beauty of IFFCON: contact.

After the panel I made quick work of introducing myself to Jacquie
Lawrence, again; she pointed at my badge and said “You’re in the pack!”
and then gave me the name of an editor to contact. Then I hustled over
to Nancy Abraham, who said she’d liked my proposal and that we should
meet in the afternoon. I caught Jan Rofekamp at the door and he told me
he thought my concept could make for a great film, but that European
pre-sales for my first film would be hard to come by. I argued that in
Sicily, barbers put flags in their windows to advertise that they can
make you look like an extra in “Grease,” but that didn’t change his

The highlight of day two was pitch roundtables, in which 5 producers
each pitch to 3 industry reps. I was lucky enough to get to observe a
round of pitches before my own, including Jonathan Stack’s pitch for his
next project (like his last film “The Farm,” set in a Louisiana prison).
I may be wrong, but after a little conversation it sounded like Channel
4 was ready to make a deal. A Canadian producer, pitching a multi-part
doc about the history of world’s fairs, pulled a trick I tried to
recreate in my own pitch: Lesson 6: Explain the basics, and then answer
each question with one of the fascinating little stories hiding in your

When my own pitch panel began, I felt much more confident than I thought
I would. I listened to a few other pitches and before I knew it, I was
beginning my own. And then I went on, and on, and on. Which leads to
Lesson 7: When pitching, don’t let the fact that a roomful of people is
listening compel you to run at the mouth. I guess I was full of nervous
energy, but I should have shut up when I got to the end of my regular
spiel. But after the roundtable, several producers offered me info about
funding I should pursue and Julie Goldman (Non Fiction Films) said she’d
like to talk when I have a broadcast deal.

Later on I had my meeting with Nancy Abraham and she seemed really
interested. We walked through my illustrated proposal and then discussed
the most compelling parts. I explained where we were in the production
process and intimated that I’d be delighted if HBO gave me a large
amount of money to finish what I’d started.

DAY THREE: Sunday, January 17


Almost the whole first half of Sunday was spent in a swanky restaurant
where impromptu meetings were interrupted only by trips to the brunch
buffet. I spoke with several producers who had worked with PBS, met with
David Davis from Oregon Public Broadcasting, and arranged a meeting with
Peter Broderick (Next Wave Films). Back at KQED, Udy Epstein (Seventh
Art Releasing) found me and told me he wanted to meet in New York. When
I met with Broderick, he seemed sort of cool to the project and even
gave me back my proposal. Lesson 8: You can’t please everybody.

Before I knew it, the final panel was underway: “Buyers Best Picks!”
Several industry reps named the projects they found most interesting
(and a few were gently badgered by Marc Smolowitz into confessing). The
projects and producers that got the most attention included: “Two Towns
of Jasper” (Marco Williams/Whitney Dow), a doc set in a Texas town where
a black man was recently dragged to his death behind a truck; “Blue
Vinyl” (Judith Helfand), a doc about the danger of vinyl siding;
“Serious Toys” (Josh Rosen), a doc comparing the world’s largest toy
fair with the world’s largest arms bazaar; “The Furnace” (Martin G.
Paul-Hus) a Sergei Eisenstein biopic; and “Conjuring Women” (Buzz Hays),
a doc about female magicians.

I was pretty let down that nobody mentioned my project, but I stared
into my notebook to avoid conveying that reaction. Then Marc carried the
mic into the audience and sought out the buyers who had collected in the
back of the room, unsuspecting, and asked them to name their picks.
Caroline Kaplan (IFC) mentioned a few that had already been named, as
well as “Rock and Roll Heroine” (Elizabeth Bentley), a doc about Velvet
Underground drummer Moe Tucker. Then Nancy Abraham mentioned a few new
ones, including my project! Lesson 9: HBO has discriminating taste in
nonfiction programming.

When the hustle and bustle of IFFCON was over, we all gathered at the
SFMOMA for drinks. Again, I realized that the true value of IFFCON is
the contact it enables between producers and buyers. Like every IFFCON
producer, I had three days to meet a select group of industry
representatives interested in precisely what I’m producing. And I spoke
with most of them one-to-one. Okay, I would have preferred an envelope
stuffed with cash, but the very next best thing is to meet buyers, talk
to them about your project, and really consider their feedback,
especially since I’ll be approaching many of the same people down the
road, as my project nears completion. Also, Lesson 10: It’s a small
world — even the buyers who’d rather give money to charity than to your
project have friends, and every conversation you have gets the word out.
In my experience, when it works right, funding a film is like pyramid
marketing — you talk to people, they talk to people, and somewhere way
down the line you see the money.

[Ryan Deussing is on his way to Atlanta to skip winter, sift through
archival footage, and prepare for post on his documentary, “Confederacy

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