Joe Swanberg has been cranking out movies for over decade, and his micro-budget character studies quickly became the paradigm for the current state of American independent film. While Swanberg’s profile has grown — he recently launched the Netflix series “Easy” — he remains tethered to his roots, and now he’s expanding them: With the Chicago-based production company Forager Films, Swanberg has quietly launched an effort to support the work of other filmmakers operating on the same scale he embraced early on.
The company, which Swanberg co-founded with Eddie Linker and Peter Gilbert, has churned out a series of diverse projects over the past year and a half: “Unexpected,” the sleeper Sundance hit directed by Swanberg’s wife Kris, follows an inner-city high school teacher who bonds with one of her students when they both get pregnant; Alex Ross Perry’s “Queen of Earth” stars a frenetic Elisabeth Moss at the center of a tense psychological thriller; Harrison Atkin’s debut “Lace Crater” follows the bizarre circumstances of a woman who sleeps with a ghost.
Now comes “Little Sister,” currently in limited release, which marks Forager’s fourth project.
The follow-up to Clark’s twisted holiday season drama “White Reindeer” finds an estranged young nun (Addison Timlin) reconnecting with her Iraq war veteran brother (Keith Poulson under mounds of makeup) over mutual gothic interests. Both a sweet family drama and a cynical portrait of alienation, the movie has generated strong reviews as it makes its way across the country.
More than that, it’s further proof that Swanberg’s company has cracked a formula for producing and releasing unorthodox narratives in a risk-averse marketplace. In recent conversations with Swanberg and some of the filmmakers he has recently supported, they elaborated on the unique model that Forager has developed — and how it fits the needs of the film community.
ALEX ROSS PERRY: The experience of making “Queen of Earth” with Joe and Forager was the moment where I realized I would make eight films in the next 10 years rather than two or three. Joe made it clear that the golden rule of filmmaking career trajectory — “always move onwards and upwards” — was outdated and of no use to those of us who had come up together through films with budgets that barely reached five figures. I was ready to make another film, and the multi-million dollar period piece with which I dreamt of following “Listen Up Philip” was simply not becoming a reality.
I had made two films for a combined budget of under $50,000, so the appeal of combining the lessons from my first two films with the casting and production infrastructure from “Listen Up Philip” felt like as much of a logical progression as anything.
HARRISON ATKINS: Joe’s movie “Drinking Buddies” was my first job out of college, so I’d been friends with him for a few years, and would see him sporadically at film festivals and stuff. When I was in the really early stages of getting “Lace Crater” together, I called him for some advice. At the time, I was sort of “in talks” with another company about the possibility of them getting involved, but had very little experience making funding deals and building the infrastructure of a feature.
Our conversation started out really general, but Joe honed in and got me talking about what the movie was about. Eventually he asked me how much money I thought I would need and how soon we could shoot if we had the money. I guess I said the right things because then he was like, “Let me make a few phone calls.” A few days later he called me back to say he had the budget together. Forager provided the entire budget of the movie.
ZACH CLARK: I started talking to Joe about “Little Sister” shortly after the Maryland Film Festival last year. I sent him the script not long after that. This was a more traditional way of financing something. With “White Reindeer,” we did a Kickstarter. I’m a firm believer that you can only call in so many of those favors. Also, “Little Sister” was just bigger in scale and I think it’s broader in its appeal than “White Reindeer.” It’s still pretty weird. Just because it’s the most accessible thing that I’ve every done doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s accessible.
JS: I signed on to two studio movies and then backed off. I got close enough to look at budgets. I have two strikes in the studio system simply by not making those movies.
We’re limited by the industry, because its so weird in the way it chooses to pay out. You’ll take your film to a festival and sell it for a certain amount of money though that money is being parsed out over years often times. So, our hands are often tied behind our back in terms of what projects we can take on. We’re a lot more ambitious on the financing side than we actually have money to make stuff. So it’s a weird balancing act where there’s films that we like, and the question becomes, “Could you wait six months to make it? If you want to move faster than that, we actually don’t have the money right now, though we’ve sold these projects and we know that we will have the money.”
AP: This is the most essential and radical part of what Joe is doing, and by far my favorite piece of the puzzle: He sells these films himself, instead of having an agency or a sales company to take the film to market. This is next level stuff, and it has people in the industry nervous. It cuts out middle men and creates more direct links between films and distributors, between investors and money, and most crucially, between himself and the films he choses to produce.
HA: Joe helped handle some casting logistics and was generally available to give advice. Otherwise, they were really hands-off and just let us make our film. It definitely felt like a utopian first-feature experience, since we had support but also the freedom to figure the movie out and take creative risks.
ZC: The more I make these things, the more I realize that making low-budget movies isn’t about spending less money on everything. It’s about picking the things that you do spend the exact same amount of money that you would spend on any other movie then see what you can get away with. On “Little Sister,” the makeup cost a fair amount of money compared to the budget of the rest of the film. Music rights also cost a fair amount of money, and so did food.
JS: All of Forager’s films have been made for under a million dollars, though we’re reaching a point as a financing company where that may change. The filmmakers that we’re supporting so far can’t work at that level forever, so our ability to retain relationships with people whose work we like may require us to create a new financing entity. I think there will always be a place for Forager in the under-a-million-dollars space. In fact, I’ve never made a move for over a million dollars, but people are getting older and their audiences are getting bigger and the budgets are getting bigger.
I am weirdly in love with a different model where we take a financial risk and then we either profit from, or lose money, on that risk.
AP: I faced no budgetary limitations, and this is why Joe felt I would be a responsible recipient of Forager’s money and support. His initial pitch to me was something like, “Having made the movies we started making, no budget I can tell you will seem like too little to make a film.” And he was right.
JS: I’m hoping that the $900,000 that we raised for Forager will never all be in one bank account the way it was at the beginning, but that we’ll hit the million-dollar mark in terms of work we can keep putting out. Almost everything we’ve done has brought back its budget plus a little bit. With traditional distribution deals, often you get a certain amount upon signing, another amount upon delivering the film, another amount on the initial release and another amount 18 months after its initial release. So eventually you’re like, “Are we ever going to see this money again?”
ZC: I’m booking the theaters for “Little Sister” myself. I started with a list of theaters that are run by people I know, who I met during the film festival circuit. I started by looking at all the theaters where “White Reindeer” played and then looked at other movies that friends had released and where they played. Now, theaters are coming to us to ask about booking the film and beyond the theatrical, we’ve gotten interest from other potential revenue streams based on the fact that we’re doing theatrical.
JS: This movie is a financial success already, which is saying a lot. Between our theatrical release, iTunes, and licensing deals, we’ve put ourselves in a position where “Little Sister” is profitable. We took a risk. No deals were in place before Zach finished the movie. But the movie spoke for itself and has performed.
Not only does this model make sense for “Little Sister,” but for my movies as well. I’m rethinking my model. “Digging for Fire” and “Drinking Buddies” have definitely justified weeklong runs in major cities, but that’s still not necessarily the best route for those movies. So the next time I meet with a distributor, I may question why we’re doing a week in St. Louis.
With “Hannah Takes the Stairs” in 2007, we could’ve make more money not doing the weeklong run. We only made $600 in one whole week. I went to other cities and it was empty. We didn’t have any money to advertise. No one had heard of us or the actors and nobody came. Had we done a one off special event screening in a big theater, we could have made more money in one night than we made that entire week. To me, it’s like indie music. You need to be realistic about who your band is and who your audience is.
ZC: I feel like I’ve been developing my tone over the course of time. It’s sad, but there are jokes — and the jokes are also sad, so it is sort of a mélange of stylistic influences. There are loud parts and there are quiet parts. But to me it feels like I have been doing the same thing across every movie I’ve ever made. Certain movies are pitched in one direction of another.
JS: I’m getting approached by filmmakers all the time. I don’t feel we have a particular mission to be diverse. I will say that every movie that we’ve financed has a female lead, which is a conscious decision in terms of diversity of storytelling. Beyond that, we’re basically just looking for good projects, and those can come from anywhere.
In the indie film community, when people hear you have money, there’s no shortage of cold calls. But the answer I’m giving everyone is that we’re broke. We’ve got no money in the bank account, and the money we’re going to get in six months is already spoken for because there are a lot of projects we want to support. But I don’t want to cut off the blind submission stream, because just like with film festivals, the slush pile of submissions is not accounting for a lot of what’s playing at the festival, but is accounting for a few discoveries. I find myself asking them when they want to make their movie, and if it’s sometime in the next six months, I have to tell them we can’t do it. If they don’t know when they want to make it, I tell them to stay in touch.