FRANK LANGELLA IN STARTING OUT IN THE EVENING.
PHOTO: STARTING OUT IN THE EVENING PRODUCTIONS
With digital-video cameras, credit cards and Final Cut Pro, any aspiring director can make a movie for $100,000. But few producers can earn a living helping directors make these no-budget productions.
This month, for example, InDigEnt, the eight-year-old low-budget production arm famous for its digital output and profit-sharing model, officially closed shop. While the company brings its final production, Andrew Wagner’s Starting Out in the Evening, to Sundance’s 2007 competition and had a good run with digital-video pictures such as Tadpole, Pieces of April and Personal Velocity, InDigEnt partner and producer Jake Abraham says the changing marketplace has made the endeavor obsolete.
“Whether it’s due to competition or saturation or whatever, those films are not selling like they used to,” he says, citing recent InDigEnt movies such as Wim Wenders’ Land of Plenty and Jeff Stanzler’s Sorry, Haters. “They never got the distribution that was required, so the economics don’t continue to work: In order for the crew to get paid, there has to be money coming in.”
Aside from the frequent complaint that the specialized film sector has gone the way of bigger budgets and bigger returns (“The studios want the Capotes and the Sideways’, the $8 million film to make $100 million instead of the $1 million [film] to make $10 million,” InDigEnt co-founder Gary Winick told Reuters), Abraham recites a litany of other factors that are making no-budget films impossible to make. Especially in New York, he cites the rising costs of health care and insurance post-9/11, and the recent post-tax incentive production boom, which tightens the screws on no-budget productions because they can’t find available crews.
The backers of InDigEnt have gone the way of many indie producers: out of the ultra-low-budget space entirely. InDigEnt’s Winick broke the news of the company’s shuttering, ironically, at a press day for his Paramount movie Charlotte’s Web. While Winick is just one example, other producers find it hard to survive in the no-budget arena.
“What I try to do is not fall in love with one of those projects more than once every couple of years,” says Ted Kroeber, who produced Sterlin Harjo’s Sundance-bound low-budget debut Four Sheets to the Wind.
Kroeber was drawn to Four Sheets because of its strong script and a belief in the director. But he admits he has to take side jobs producing live events (such as mounting the Central Park premiere of Shark Tale) to make ends meet. And by moonlighting to make extra money and “keeping the overhead as low as possible” to sustain his company, he says he misses out on optioning other good scripts.
“It’s really rough,” echoes Susan Leber, a no-budget maven who produced Down to the Bone and co-produced Alfredo de Villa’s 2007 Sundance entry Adrift in Manhattan. Leber says most writer-directors defer any fees and she doesn’t take anything, or at most a small fee, on these films. “It is faith in the project and ownership of the film that has to give the hope,” she says. “I take a lot of line producing and even TV work so I can afford to do the projects that I love.”
Lillian LaSalle, a producer on the Spirit-nominated Sweet Land and such low-budget films as Mentor and Loggerheads, has since renounced the no-budget model. “At the end of the day, after two years of working on the film and getting it to post, you look at your paycheck and you say, ‘Am I crazy?’” she remarks. “A lot of producers stay there, and it’s kind of an addiction. They get stuck in that world.”
LaSalle may be referring to her former business partner Gill Holland, who has consistently stayed true to intrepid no-budget producing. Holland may take a producing fee of $5,000, but “when you’re doing it from scratch, you are more incentivized to just get [the film] made and take your chances on the back end,” he says. “My whole theory is every three years to have one financial hit that helps tide you over the other years when you’re making $40,000.”
But back-end deals with distributors have never been surefire bets. “The ugly truth,” says Leber, who has yet to see a penny from producing Alexandra Brodsky’s Tribeca fest premiere Bittersweet Place, “is even when you make a no-budget film you can still not make any money. Without the stars or a genre like horror to push sales, even a $100,000 budget can be hard to recoup.”
Leber says producers are forced to go so low that they’re working at the level of “a student film” or holding off on production “until you get enough financing to get big stars.”
Many indie producers say alternative distribution avenues will become the only way to recoup in today’s marketplace. While Abraham says the InDigEnt model may be dead, he is confident that it will return. Today, Abraham describes the marketplace as a “post-studio/pre-Internet distribution black hole.” “The other model hasn’t come to fruition yet,” he says, “but we’re working hard now to start projects that involve the Internet.”
Until that day comes, Holland says self-distribution and recouping costs through various sales is the no-budget project’s best option. “Sometimes we are just tired and want someone else to do it,” Holland notes of the struggle to leverage a film into the marketplace. But ultimately he believes the producer “has to be ready to find some added cash at the end for this scenario.”
On Lawrence Blume’s comedy Martin & Orloff, Holland says they lost money four-walling the movie in theaters, but then sold HDTV rights for $50,000, TV rights to Comedy Central and the DVD rights to Anchor Bay Entertainment for $75,000 plus $1 royalty per disk. “If we had taken the $50,000 advance offers from the companies that wanted us theatrically, we wouldn’t have seen any of that,” he says.
While many low- and no-budget producers want to stay in the game for the love of film, there remains a greater question of financial sustainability. As Holland says, “It’s a great hobby...if you can afford to be broke.”