Film Independent’s Filmmaker Forum launched today with a bevvy of advice, insight and case studies to be had and digested by attendees at the Directors Guild of America in Los Angeles. Discussions on tax incentives, the marketplace, budgeting, pitching for both narrative and non-fiction and more were just some of the topics showcased for Forum-goers during the event that began this morning with a keynote address by Lionsgate’s Joe Drake.
Evaluating Your Project in Today’s Marketplace
The morning’s panels began with a conversation on “How to Evaluate your Project in Today’s Marketplace.” Perhaps not so surprising, the panelists touted passion as key going into any project and said that it is necessary to be ready for rejection over and over again.
The panelists in the morning session included “Crazy Heart” writer/director Scott Cooper, Scott Free president Michael Costigan, “Blue Valentine” and “Half Nelson” producer Jamie Patricoff and Mandalay Vision president Celine Rattray, who produced “The Kids Are All Right” (whose Oscar buzzing film was rejected hundreds of times). Moderator Dan Cogan, executive director and co-founder of Impact Partners, led the group through a discussion of finding funding, be it a low budget or micro-budget film. Michael Costigan, whose producing credits range from this year’s big budget “Robin Hood” to the Duplass brothers’ “Cyrus,” affirmed that the principals of getting a film produced are the same regardless of the budget.
You have to know why audiences should see your film, you need to understand the reality of how much your film can make in order to make the best possible movie for the lowest possible amount. These and other obvious basics were reaffirmed by the panelists as essential parts of the “homework” needed before going forward with a project. The consensus was that successful projects all starts with a very strong script, though that alone can be useless until a named talent is attached. The good news is that with fewer and fewer movies being made, actors just want to work, and technology is making it easier and cheaper they said.
They noted you can often attract incredible talent for less than you’d would think if you have good material – and from there it snowballs, making your package more attractive, as first time writer-director Scott Cooper can attest. His model is certainly a unique one; getting long-time friend Robert Duvall to read his “Crazy Heart” script (and love it) was the first of many lucky (well-connected) phone-calls that made an impossible project possible.
Taking Advantage of Domestic and Foreign Tax Incentives
Later in the morning, domestic and foreign tax incentives took center stage in the DGA’s main theater. Moderated by Larry Brownell, CEO of the Association of Film Commissioners International (AFCI), others joining the discussion included Silvia Echeverri Botero, Comision Filmica Colombian; Larry Brownell, Executive Director, AFCI; Hans Fraikin, Quebec Film & Television Council; Sten Iversen, Montana Film Commission; Ted Kroeber, Kish Productions and Aaron Syrett, North Carolina Film Commission.
Brownell opened the discussion doing a play on words. “Today, it should be called, ‘Film Inter-Dependence,’ because you simply can’t make a film on your own,” he noted, altering the name of the Filmmaker Forum’s organizer, Film Independent (FIND).
Each of the participating commissions detailed what tax incentives or rebates were available in their respective territories. The totals can range wildly from any given territory, but those numbers can potentially mask the cost of doing business (or the cash back) when choosing to film in an area that offers incentives.
“I prefer hearing rebate rather than credit,” noted Brownell.
It may seem like ‘Film Shoot 101’ to many, but the panel stressed that is it important to directly contact film commissions. One panelist recalled a production that ended up spending a lot more money than necessary in a state, in addition to running afoul with police, ratcheting up fines along the way – all unfortunate disasters that could have been easily avoided with the help of that state’s film commission.
“Film commissions started in the ’60s to provide incentives and to act as a local liaison,” said Sten Iversen from the Montana Film Commission who also noted that researching the numbers on tax incentives etc. are only part of the overall financial mix any project should take into consideration.
“One thing you should keep in mind is not just tax credits, but also the services that the commissions can provide that are free to you,” he said. “Some states offer state [property] for free. Cops can be free. Highways can be free. Unused city buildings can be used for free. There is a 14% incentive in Montana, but it’s not a simple as just your percentage. The cost of living index makes a difference. Montana hotels are 18% lower than the national average, so it’s important to keep that in mind along with tax incentives. Gas is much cheaper there.”
Of course, as Ted Kroeber noted, it is necessary to spend money in order to cash in on the incentives. It is also important to be aware of hidden caveats that may exist in a given territory. Quebec representative Hans Fraikin used the “Ugly Betty” example to point out a snafu in New York’s otherwise generous 30% incentive. In that situation, the state had a fixed total that could be allocated in a given budget period, and once that total had been spent, the incentives spigot ran dry. In that case, ABC’s now cancelled sitcom “Ugly Betty” was lured to the Empire State with incentives, but New York’s yearly allocation had been used. The commission then had to scramble to make ammends. Quebec, Fraikin pointed out, had a “fiscal” system in which – in theory – there is no cap. But as one other panelist noted, “Unless the legislature decides to change its mind.”
Outside North America, Silvia Echeverri’s native Colombia works from a different angle with filmmakers from abroad. The Latin American country frequently takes part in co-productions with other Latin and European countries, each offering their own mix of incentives. Colombia offers a transferable tax credit for investors who bring private capital (minimum 20% of equity on a particular project). Colombia also offers a film fund that gives grants. In order to take part, a Colombian co-producer must be attached to the project – something the commission can help in finding.
Colombia’s incentive offers 41.23% back to the investors (capped at $600k per film), and while some cast and crew do need to be Colombian in order to take advantage of the financing, the writer and director do not have to be. And perhaps surprisingly, the film does not need to be shot in Colombia, nor in Spanish. Though below the line costs, she pointed out, can be 50% less than what they would typically be in the U.S.
[Disclosure: indieWIRE is the Presenting Sponsor at this year’s Filmmaker Forum.]
[Correction: a misquoting was adjusted from the Marketplace panel summation.]