Art meets crafty in the indie market

Abramowitz is a Times staff writer.

Wanted: 1,700 brave investors each willing to shell out $30 for a credit as a co-executive producer on an independent movie about New York’s illegal graffiti street-art scene. The reward: striking a “blow for artistic freedom.”

That’s the pitch espoused by tyro filmmaker Alice.ia Carin in a full-page ad that ran recently in the Nation magazine, a fundraising attempt for her film “Don’t See This.” Carin also promised to send profits from the currently unproduced soundtrack, book and film to “help fund [New York City] public school programs in music and fine arts.”

With a median income of $83,000, the Nation’s readers wouldn’t seem a practical film financing alternative to hedge fund managers or trustafarian movie producers. Yet as Wall Street swoons, banks such as Societe Generale opt out of the movie financing business and Hollywood studios retrench, the plight of indie filmmakers, never a secure career, appears increasingly precarious.


The specialty film arena is teeming with gloom, given the summer shuttering of art-house distributors such as Picturehouse and Warner Independent Pictures, and the recent raft of films by major directors such as Steven Soderbergh that have sold to distributors for relatively paltry sums, if at all. Indie films -- particularly those with challenging subject matter or helmed by unknown directors -- have always had difficulty finding backers, but many are wondering if unconventional cinema is going the way of Starbucks triple mocha lattes, European vacations and other luxuries that are dispensable in these rough times.

“There will be huge challenges for getting films with budgets from $5 [million] to $10 million. All those deals that were made during the height of Wall Street. The funny money. Those deals will be impossible to come by,” says Dawn Hudson, executive director of Film Independent, a Los Angeles-based nonprofit that mentors independent filmmakers and sponsors the Independent Spirit Awards.

Commercial fare with stars can still scrape by, but for out-of-the-box films “it’s the worst time it’s ever been,” says indie studio head-turned producer Mark Gill, noting that it’s hard to raise money for “movies without stars, which are too American, very small dramas, or which are too familiar. I worked on ‘In the Bedroom,’ ” he says, referring to director Todd Field’s feature debut, which garnered five Oscar nominations in 2001. “That would be so much harder to pull off now. The odds against that movie were considerable then, and would be triply hard today.”

Gill points to films in the $1-million to $9-million budget range that are particularly hard-pressed to find financing because it’s difficult for investors to recoup their money unless the film gets a significant theatrical release.

Low budget

Rena Ronson, co-head of the independent film department at talent agency William Morris, notes that in headier times, a producer might have been able to raise money with only one or two of the major elements of strong script, director and cast. “Now all the stars have to be aligned. In the $1-, $3-, $5-million budget range, it’s difficult,” she says, adding, however, that there is still money flowing into the market for established players from Asia and the Middle East.

“It’s been tough for at least the last year in terms of how films are getting financed. The budgets are getting lower and lower,” adds Michelle Satter, director of the Sundance Institute, perhaps the premier incubator of indie talent (alumni include Paul Thomas Anderson, Kimberly Peirce and Quentin Tarantino).


This doesn’t mean scripts aren’t being written or films aren’t being shot. Technology -- from cheap digital cameras to sophisticated editing systems for the home computer -- has made it possible for anyone to dub himself a director, with varying degrees of success. Indeed, the business -- or rather, the avocation -- of making films costing less than $1 million is still thriving. Submissions to the Sundance Film Festival are running ahead of last year’s tally of 8,000 films, says a festival rep.

Hits made for less than $1 million dollars include “The Blair Witch Project” and “Napoleon Dynamite,” not to mention cult and art-house favorites. But the financial failures are too numerous to count, particularly because many of these films never get distribution.

Hollywood has plenty of filmmakers who’ve sold their blood to raise money (Robert Rodriguez), maxed out their credit cards (Spike Lee) or went to other lengths to launch their film careers.

“I often will ask [filmmakers] the question, ‘Who cares if your film gets made?’ From that place you can plan a strategy. What it is often coming down to is friends, family, business associates. It’s equity, but it’s not industry equity,” says Satter, who says recently she has seen a rise in the number of directors applying for nonprofit grants such as Guggenheims, as well as filmmakers approaching business leaders to sponsor films about their ethnic communities. One recent Sundance lab project is “Haiti Cherie,” set in the Haitian community, and filmmaker Patricia Benoit has been approaching Haitian business leaders for support.

Hudson’s group advised one filmmaker who was discovered later to be financing his film with the profits from his hydroponic pot farm and another who was trying to raise money from the Russian mob, though she declines to name them for obvious reasons.

“We had a filmmaker who mortgaged his grandmother’s house. That’s a sad story,” Hudson says, but not uncommon.


“We do a whole forum around these cautionary tales.”

“One of the first things we’ve done is revise the budget downward to make the film more commensurate with the marketplace,” says indie producer Joshua Zeman, who’s trying to raise less than $2 million for “Forest Grove.” “Grove” is the first narrative feature from Jonathan Caouette, who made a splash in 2004 with his super-low-budget “Tarnation,” an autobiographical documentary about growing up with a schizophrenic mother. The new film, about a boy who swims in the pools of a gated community, features no stars. “You can’t make the film on the backs of actors,” Zeman says. “A lot of the onus is on a great, great script. We’re really looking for an angel.”

Personal contact

Actress-writer-producer Sybil Temtchine has raised about half of the $600,000 budget for her film “Audrey” from female business leaders. About a year ago, she sat in a Borders and collected the name of every famous female author who’d written a book that somehow touched on female empowerment, from Suze Orman to Marianne Williamson. She wrote to 200 of them, and sent a link to her short film “Piece A’ Cake,” which was the launching point for her proposed feature, a comedy about female insecurity.

About 75% of the women wrote back. Some sent checks and others introduced her to women’s organizations like 85 Broads, which support women entrepreneurs. 85 Broads’ founder Janet Hanson “blogged about us. It was the greatest blog, like only a mother would write,” Temtchine says. An actress who has appeared in TV shows and films, Temtchine intends to play the lead and opted not to fill out the ensemble cast with name actors because that’s a process that can take years. “I felt that this was a hard route, but no harder than waiting around for 10 years,” she says.

Carin’s Nation ad was not her idea, but the brainchild (and gift) of marketing consultant Stephen Brown, a board member of the Latin American Workshop, a nonprofit arts and education organization in New York City, which also is sponsoring Carin’s movie.

“She did not have a ready audience in the traditional film industry,” says Brown, who earned his fortune as one of the 1980s kingpins of direct mail (his then-company spawned years of legal travails). Recently Brown has been helping progressive groups such as the indie New York radio station WBAI, and FAIR, the national media watch group, raise money and get their message out, often through ads in publications such as the Nation and the New York Review of Books.

“The Nation has the right demographics and reasonable ad costs. I had to figure out what might appeal to these people,” Brown says. “The subject itself did not have general appeal. It wasn’t war or sex or celebrity, so it had to be an appeal based on a general ethos of the Nation reader to support underdog causes that had social merit.”


Carin, a 32-year-old Bard College graduate who now likes to go by the moniker La Prez, has been working on the script for “Don’t See This” for eight years. She says she has an investor willing to put up 20% of the film’s budget, which will probably be between $3 million and $5 million, and is trying to cast a few name actors to boost the film’s commercial viability.

So far, however, the ad (just days out) hasn’t sent a deluge of Nation readers Carin’s way. “I’ve gotten three donations,” she says, though she still sounded optimistic.