X

Looks like you are a new visitor to this site. Hello!

Welcome to Hope For Film! Come participate in the discussion, and I encourage you to enter your email address in the sidebar and subscribe. It's free! And easy! If you have any suggestions on how to improve this website or suggestions for topics please don't hesitate to write in to any of the blogs.

You can also follow me on Twitter or Facebook.

(If you keep getting this message, you probably have cookies turned off.)

September 6 at 8:15am

Staged Financing MUST Become Film Biz’s Immediate Goal

By Ted Hope

Each day I become more and more convinced that staged financing could be a cure to much of the Film Biz’s ills.  Staged financing?  What?  Is the phrase not exactly center of your conversations right now?  Why not?!! Whatsamattawidyou? Don’t you know a good solution when you see one?

Although it already exists in many fields, and even in a few small patches of our own yard, I recognize that a staged financing strategy  is not yet the force behind Indieland’s own gardening. I am however growing convinced  it could yield a far more fruitful harvest than our current methods.  A staged-financing ecosystem can’t be built in a one-off manner though.  Although it also does not need to the rule of the realm, it needs a permanent eco-system to support it.

Staged financing is part of a much bigger solution that we urgently need to bring to our industry: a sustainable investor class.  We need smart money and need to stop seeking, encouraging, and propagating dumb money.  Most film investors get out, win or lose, by their third film (I have been told this and don’t have the stats to back it up now, but if you do, please share — otherwise just trust that is what my experience has shown). The value of most independent money in the film biz is the money itself, and that is not good for anyone.

Staged financing is exactly what it says to be.  I know in this world such literalness is a strange thing, but there is it. Staged financing is a funding process that is there for each distinct stage.  In comparison, it is the opposite of up-front financing — the type that monopolizes the narrative feature world. I am proposing that we institutionalize the staged-financing process and make it easier to finance your film in drips and drabs.  Why am I so bullish on what probably sounds like hell to many? Why do I think it will save indie film?  Let’s count the ways.

  1. Staged financing increases the predictability of success. Investors can base their continued commitment on a proof of prinicipal instead of just a pitch.  The longer one waits the more they know — of course the longer one waits the lower the chance for their to be the opportunity for investment, so there.  The more investors can project or even predict their success, the longer they will stay in the game, and the more that will gather to pay — i.e. more capital at play!
  2. Staged financing allows filmmakers and their supporters to pivot based on real world data. The old way had very little it could do when new information hit. Your film (and investment) could be rendered obsolete over night.  But that does not have to be a done deal is this new world. This is just one of the many reasons for #1 above of course.
  3. Staged financing diversifies the creative class.  Wouldn’t it be great if the film biz was actually a meritocracy?  Well, if people had to make good movies to complete their financing, wouldn’t that be a bit closer to the case? Staged financing gives all people the opportunity to prove they have a good idea, whether that idea is completed or not.  It is not about who you know, but about what you’ve done and can do.  Documentary film — compared to the narrative world — already has a great deal of staged financing institutionalized — and benefits from gender proportional representation among directors.  Need I say more?
  4. Staged financing allows ambitious artistic work to flourish.  Instead of just having “commercial elements”, unique and inspiring work can be recognized for the potential it truly has. Instead of being rewarded for being able to earn trust or arrogantly claim to know what one is doing,  staged financing allows good work to be rewarded for being good work.  Currently, we mistake confidence for capability and those that boast to be able to predict what the end product will be (where there is no way that they will actually know what the 100+ decisions each day will yield), get to play — not the work that delivers something new and wonderful.
  5. Staged financing rewards quality over risk mitigation.  Staged financing is actually a better form of risk mitigation than the present form that is only based on regurgitating what has already proven successful. When we limit risk by mimicking what has worked in the past, all we are doing is guessing and covering our ass — and this leads to a film culture of movie titles overrun with numerals.  We live in an era of abundance, and as comforting as the familiar may be, we have more access to it than ever before. We rarely need the new version of it.  We will however need truly original work more and more as time goes on as we will drowning in the repetitive.  How will we prove what works?  Staged financing, my friend, staged financing.
  6. Staged financing creates a better project as it incentivizes the creators every step of the way. Not that you truly need to incentivize those that are in the passion industries for the right reason, but it never hurts to weed out those that are in it for the wrong reason. When your financing is based on your work and not your connections or investors’ fears, you will do all you can to make each stage of financing shine, justify itself, and be truly competitive.  Staged financing requires you to walk a series of steps, proving you have earned the right with every advance — and you better do your homework if you don’t want to get left behind.
  7. Staged financing requires you choose your initial partners wisely.  It’s not just about the terms of the deal that should determine whom your investors are — but that is how we generally act nowadays.  Everyone should instead seek value-add investors.  You should get more than just money from your investors.  You should benefit from their expertise.  Filmmakers, agents, lawyers, and managers, often are willing to leap into bed with anyone who offers the most cash — there’s a name for that practice and it should not be film investment.
  8. Staged financing means the creators will have “skin in the game”.  When it is an up-front finance model, the creators are not working for a payout in success but working just for the upfornt fees (or some semblance thereof); they may have “profit participation” but basically the only anticipated earnings are what is in the budget.  It becomes increasingly difficult to motivate the creative team to be engaged in the needed work after the film premieres. Investors have long recognized that this is not the most beneficial arrangement, yet what can they do?  The answer my friend, is… yup, you know the song I am singing: everyone loves that staged financing!
  9. Staged financing is a time-tested process that has already been adopted by many industries.  Staged financing is the modus operandi of Silicon Valley and all the VC firms.  Other industries, from mining onwards, have seen real benefits from the process.  Why do we limit our success and not apply proven models to our field?  Could it be that somewhere someone is desperately clutching on to what ever paltry power they perceive themselves to possess?  Hmmm…  If they don’t offer the model you want at the store, build a new model — or maybe even a chain of stores.
  10. Staged financing gives producers of quality work more power.  The main objection to staged financing is that it gives financiers more power.  That is only true if you are making crap.  Or mediocre work.  If you are making something wonderfully astounding you will never struggle to progress to the next round — and in fact you will be able to improve your terms.  And investors won’t complain either, because they now can have to know a good thing when they see one.

So if Staged Financing is this marvelous thing, why have our leaders not yet delivered it to you?  Well, they don’t care about you; didn’t you know that?

And if Staged Financing could really save Indie Film, why has the community not constructed this marvelous ecosystem yet?  Well, we’ve all been too busy chasing shiny objects and marveling at the reflections fed back of us.

But change is here.  We have hope.  We can build it better together.  And I have already started. The San Francisco Film Society is committed to it. We have others who want to be part of.  We are have spots for more to join in.  And we are going to help a few select projects really rock this world.  

Watch this space.  Let’s do it together and truly astonish the world with your awe inspiring work.  Just don’t be slack, okay? 


  • Digg
  • Google Bookmarks
  • email
  • Print
  • pointsource

    Not sure who wrote the above article (good one, BTW) so I have a question, posted as a comment.

    The element of trust seems quite critical here. Since a financier could back out mid-stream for ANY reason, having an audience-worthy project along the way won’t guarantee your backers will stay on board – they may choose to back the design of a personal spacecraft instead.

    Do you suggest staged financing with a contract wherein (1) expectations are outlined and (2) backers pre-agree to keep going if those expectations are met? Or do you see more of a risk/reward scenario where backers are free to pull out for any reason at any time?

    Thanks!

  • cj

    Expect the studios to pick up on this Silicon Valley trend the more they deal with the tech leviathans and the more they rise above the $200 million a project mark.

  • Western Realist

    This is no different than the way that those of us who have been fortunate enough to be involved with independent TV production in Canada, have always worked.

    The Networks do a contract that has phased payouts when certain milestones are reached. The difficulty with that is, the networks don’t pay on time. You still sit there waiting for that elusive cheque to arrive. The bigger the network the longer you wait, the smaller the network, the more they nit pick at the deliverables to find an excuse to delay the cheque – problem is, production can’t stop so you have to find bridge
    finance somewhere – sometimes your bank will step in and help out, but most of
    the time you take out a 2nd mortgage on your house if you have one or hustle
    friends etc.

    What is being suggested here is full of the same kind of uncertainties. Yes you will have a contract in hand (well at least you should have) but will that really make your life any easier? More certain I suppose, than the way things are done now where its a constant hustle and you may or may not start your production with a full budget.

    The bottom line is that Studios are greedy and inadvertently trained the banking/finance industry to treat the entertainment business the way they have. Its like any relationship – the other party will treat you the way you allow them to treat you until it becomes standard operating procedure. Once that happens you can’t go back The studios always looked for ways to mitigate their risk and always went after the soft money wherever it could be found. That created an atmosphere for their bankers to create devious ways of financing tax credits which eventually led to the banks expecting some sort of risk mitigation on every deal.

    In the tax credit scenario the Canadian Tax credits (yes we created that monster and loosed it upon the world) were initially created to allow the local producers to have some capital left over to create and develop new projects. The Studios saw it as a source of income to mitigate their risk and forced the service production companies to include the local portion of the tax credits in the finance structure. In the end that has left everyone with nothing ALL because of STUDIO GREED.

    The Hedgefund managers saw a nicely oiled money machine working on public funds via the tax credits and couldn’t wait to get in there. Now they control the studios and see what that has left us – again raped, pillaged and left for dead.

    Can the the industry be rehabilitated? Forget the idea of it just being us independents, the whole mess is in one stinking pile. When Reagen removed the regulations and the psychopaths were allowed to take over Wall Street, every industry has been doomed by the same philosophy. Steal until you get caught then blame the other guy and get the government to bail you out.

    Side note here: I don’t see why Americans are so het-up about socialism because there isn’t one bank, insurance company or industry that has not availed itself of public money via the government at some point. At least under socialism, no one has to pretend. Further, banks could not currently exist without the constant 0% loans from the Fed. Yet massive profits are still being created and sucked out of whats left of middle class America. Whats wrong with America? Is everyone asleep? This is what
    the occupy movement was about.

    So ultimately will staged film finance work? It will for the first few productions then it too will be perverted and exploited. We need to find a way to lock down the whole thing by – yes here it comes – by some sort of regulation. I understand that somewhere around
    the 23rd of this month the Job Creation legislation will allow money to be raised by direct access to small investors… someone better nail down how that works or again Wall Street will manipulate that in such a way that independent production will be out in the cold very fast. Early adopters will get a project or two financed but it too will crash fairly quickly.

    Oy! Why didn’t I become a dentist!

    JT

  • http://outinthestreetfilms.com/ Out in the Street Films

    Way ahead of you. We’re in the development phase on our feature, in production on a short and teaser trailer. We’re pocket funding the short and then looking for support fr the development stage of the feature (which includes the short). We’ve actually learned a lot even before shooting the short. We’ve recast and rewritten based on what we learn about who and what doesn’t work as well as it could.

    A strange thing about making films is that the result changes at each stage. So you have to be able to roll with it.

  • http://outinthestreetfilms.com/ Out in the Street Films

    Doesn’t staged financing imply you only fund a given stage, not the entire project? In the early stages the risk is greater so the return should be greater. I’ve heard that investors in the development stage can expect, at minimum, a 100% return. Traditional full project backers are more likely looking at a 20% return. And yes, if the project eventually fails they get nothing. But that has always been the case, regardless of staged financing.

  • lustgarten

    kinda vague and poorly written. Not sure what the point ultimately is here. Mining? huh?

  • cj

    We need smart money. Investors who understand the risk of early development and take that risk for a greater % of ROI. Usually an indie raises 50%-60% in equity, 30% in debt/gap financing (borrowed against tax credits from states etc.), foreign presales a paltry 5%-8%, product placement 10% if you’re lucky. Experienced investors are already insisting on staged financing: They may guarantee the entire equity portion of the budget, but provide the money in stages as the producer meets prearranged milestones in the project, such as the hiring of a director and the casting of the lead actors. It is reasonable for the producer to negotiate a lower percentage for the investor’s profit participation in the later stages of the investment. This mitigates investor risk and makes them more of a general partner instead of a limited partner as they usually are/were. This investor participation should follow through all the way to the distribution phase. Producers should, however, keep staged financing goals and benchmarks out of any completion bond language.

  • lustgarten

    Keeping such info out of bonding data seems somewhat fraudulent. Managing an investors cash flow by tranche financing is one thing but allowing a committed investor to back out would be pertinent to bonding, sales and financing entities.

  • cj

    A completion bond is an insurance instrument. Financial obligations should be addressed contractually.

  • lustgarten

    Well that’s just mixing words. An instrument is a contract. I would like to hear from an insurance company on their take on this matter.

  • cj

    Since the completion bond insures that the project will be completed even if the producer runs out of money (which he will do if the investor wavers or disputes that a benchmark has not been achieved for pari passu delivery tranche funding) the investor can cause the production to wreck and be sold to another producing entity.

  • Brooks Elms

    So what sort of specific stages are you suggesting? And what sort of returns on those different stages? A hypothetical case study or two would be very helpful.

    Thanks!

    –Brooks
    Concept Trailer for my new film MONTAUK HIGHWAY
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_xXKHvMGpUM

  • RandyV13

    I don’t think I understand this whole concept very well, because it seems doomed from the start. Maybe I don’t understand what the “stages” would be. Are we talking about script development, casting/crewing, pre-production, production, sales and marketing? Because what agent would let their actor/director/dp commit to a movie that wasn’t fully financed? And what pro would commit to an entire shoot when there was a decent chance that the money would get pulled before post, maybe before payday?

    Do you shoot for a week and hope the money guys like the dailies, because if they don’t, you’re not shooting next week? If there are benchmarks that could be missed while still not compromising the project, how would anyone have the confidence to participate? And if the benchmarks are too easy to hit, then how does this guarantee the excellent work promised by the article?

    I’m sorry, but while I’m not a fan of the current system of film financing, this one is insane. It would be like GM starting to build cars and hoping the bank will like the transmissions enough to come through with the money for the engines before they get to the end of the assembly line. Even I, as a stupid, little writer wouldn’t buy into this plan.

  • http://hopeforfilm.com/ Ted Hope

    I would not encourage infinite stages for anyone. However there are clear cut stages already in place where milestones can be hit. There are levels of risk associated with each. When you invest in development, you never know if it will get shot. When you invest in a film that has completed production, you never know if it will be sold. When you invest in the marketing of a film, you never know if audiences will flock to it. Institutionalize specific stages. Provide milestones.

  • Douglas Horn

    I’ve been interested in this financing mode for a while now and am pleased to finally see someone with some clout discussing it. Thanks Ted.

    So, one of the models I’ve been developing has investors at each level fully buying out the previous investors with a profit. i.e. – Investors in the production stage pay the development stage investors their full investment + n%, just as those investors did for the script-stage investors. Is this your intention? Sadly it loses some of the investment sexiness of maintaining a profit corridor to future stages, but it is nice and clean.

    Why couldn’t this work on a one-off basis? It seems that, if anything, a few single-film successes with this model would be more likely to give the approach more appeal.

  • http://hopeforfilm.com/ Ted Hope

    Interesting idea Douglas. Thanks for sharing. I am going to ponder.

  • RandyV13

    Sorry it took me a while to get back here, but I have to continue my skeptical questioning.

    I was being facetious with the thing about the dailies and not getting to shoot the next day. I realize there would be established, finite stages. I assume the stages would be something like what I outlined; 1) script development, 2) casting/crewing, 3) pre-production, 4) production, 5) post-production and 6) sales/marketing.

    And regardless of the specific stages, I’m pretty sure that if the whole project can get its plug pulled at any stage, it would be impossible to get a completion bond, the risks are just too great.

    I also think that any “milestones” would have to be completely objective and fairly minimal. For instance, your post-production financier couldn’t be allowed to make subjective judgments based on the footage shot as to whether he would provide his funds. If you show up with enough footage to cut a film, that would have to be the only milestone. Otherwise, any financier at any stage could trump up some excuse to say you failed to achieve your stated goals, and pull the money. This isn’t manufacturing where you can meet agreed upon, objective production or sales quotas to unlock funding to expand your plant; until you finish the film, you have nothing. So how does this favor quality producers and directors? This just favors someone who can do the minimum required and get film in the can. The very worst producers in this business, who churn out the worst product are those who excel at exactly that.

    And again, who would commit to funding an early stage knowing that someone else, probably someone she doesn’t even know, could pull the plug at a later stage even though the filmmakers have satisfied the requirements up to her stage?

    What if you go over budget on the shoot, who would pick that up? What if you need re-shoots? What if you can’t get a given shot during production, so FX need to be added to post? You’ve saved a day of shooting in the production phase, but now you need more money in post. Those are two different financiers, so it’s not just shifting funds between departments in the budget. And these are not uncommon occurrences in filmmaking.

    This process asks investors to not only trust that the production team, writer, director, actors, et al will make a superior product that will appeal to audiences – a leap of faith that is already nearly impossible to get them to make – then compounds their risk by also asking them to trust other investors to step up when called upon.

    Seriously, this sounds like a fun, nifty financing model, but I would not want to try to make it sound sensible to a savvy investor.

  • straydogfilm

    I’ve gone through a number of the posts here. I wonder if anyone can lay out a hypothetical scenario of percentages: You want say 10,000 to get a casting director who can get you two leads with LOI. Is it that 10,000 is the first 10,000 paid at 100% of the first dollar into the producer till it is paid off and then what would the percentage share be from that point on (if that is an approach – if not let me know what another is, please). So then after you get your names with LOI and now you want to go into pre production, getting the rest of the cast, key crew, locations, locking on a time and tuning a budget, shooting a trailer/promo if necessary etc. That has a number and that number, say another 25,000 or so for a small budget film has position 2 after that first 10,000 was paid off 100% and till it is paid off 100% gets the next full dollar coming in till it is paid off and then what percentage of the allowable 49% or whatever is allotted for equity does this stage get? And so on. Any light you can shed on this would be much appreciated. Thanks
    Thomas @ Stray Dog Film

  • http://outinthestreetfilms.com/ Jon Raymond

    This is advantageous for films that are not marketable in the traditional market, which means they don’t necessairly have known names, a known male lead, “marketable” genres and so on. In that regard, investors who recognize someting unique and exciting based upon merit, quality, and originality would find it easier to risk in stages instead of an all out, high risk, gamble on the entire project.

    I don’t think we’re talking about banks or bonds. We’re talking about equity. With greater risk, comes greater reward.

    Since it’s unlikely you’ll find traditional distribution for such films, we’re also talking about funding self distribution, which means a successful project would return to investors that 20% to 30% that distributors take off the top.

    If you want to stick with bank funded and MBA scholar approved, so called, safe risks, then stick with ‘genre’ thrillers and horrors that have known A or B list male leads. And these are ironically films that have a 50/50 chance of making a profit anyway.

    Mostly all your fears exist in traditional funded projects, so they are irrelevant.

    But I don’t think the staged model necessarily would exclude bank funding. For example, a known lead or director, with a vetted production company would probably win a bank approval.

  • http://outinthestreetfilms.com/ Jon Raymond

    Staged funding also makes sense in terms of the filmmaker working in stages to guarantee the best results at each stage. For example, in pre-production and even production, you might find that certain cast don’t work, or maybe the script needs some work. Maybe the crew isn’t working. Filmmakers need to be willing to stop and regroup when they see things going south, instead of staying committed regardless and trying to make the best of it.

    The incentive is that if the dailies and rough cut don’t look that good, they risk funding for post and distribution. So they are bound to make sure the work is of the best quality at each stage. No more “we’ll fix it in post.”

  • http://outinthestreetfilms.com/ Jon Raymond

    Couldn’t staged financing work outside the banks and government? Can’t filmmakers simply use this model with equity investors? The idea is that risk is mitigated by the stages making the investments less risky. The earlier stages are most risky. But they are also lesser risk in terms of amounts. And they could be rewarded with higher returns.

  • http://outinthestreetfilms.com/ Jon Raymond

    Of course this varies, but I think $30K – $50K is a good figure to assume for development. This includes a pro budget and schedule done by an experienced UPM ($2K – $3K), a casting director who would secure cast interest (LOIs if necessary), an attorney ($2K – $3K+), and also the tentative crew and locations worked out by the UPM. I don’t think you need $30K for a CD at this stage. Maybe $5K to $20K. And they can be deferred to the pre-production stage for the rest of the cast or remainder of what you get them for. If you do need a $30K CD, they better bring on Brad Pitt to guarantee a huge back end, in which case they can be deferred anyway. Then you also need to create art, a website, social media, perhaps a PMD, an email campaign, go to film markets or sales agents and distributors, find potential co-producers, director, and crew.

    I also think you can defer casting to the next stage after you secure a UPM and crew. But this all very dynamic.

    With that tentatively worked out, you look for soft money (e.g. state tax incentives, or international co-producers with foreign government film funding, and so on). The soft money gives you 20% – 30% of the budget, but you don’t see it until well after completion.

    At this point with state incentives approved we are still within that first $50K development, and with soft money we now have 1/3rd of the full budget. We could even have some screen tests, a trailer, and test footage. So we are now in a very good position to gain distributors and equity investors for the next stage – production. Of course distributors, being very conventional, will want to see certain things like a known male lead and a ‘marketable’ genre (thriller, horror, action).

    Also with 1/3rd of the budget and a vetted project, we can find potential investors to show interest based on potential cast. So we go to the CD to look for the lead name cast (if necessary). The CD can now say we have a funded film, since the cast in combination with soft money (plus maybe pre-sales) and potential investors will fund the film. And name cast will want to know the project is funded (chicken and egg).

    But regardless, we may be able to now attract pre-sales from as much as 10% to 30% of the budget. If we do, and if the budget is over $2M, we can likely get equity investors and bank funding to fund the entire budget.

    Alternatively, we may need to look for equity investors instead of (or in addition to) a bank.

    So generally the filmmaker traditionally funds the first $50K for development. But with staged funding maybe investors could do that. I don’t see this stage as a percentage. It’s more a flat rate.

    With staged funding we may be able to add funds for pre-production. This could be for screen tests, maybe a proof of concept short, or scenes, maybe location tests. This could vary quite a bit. If named actors are involve it would certainly vary widely. But were talking about day or two of shooting. Maybe $200K at most. Still this helps the filmmaker to working out some kinks and better ensure they have the right cast, crew, and locations, as well as script issues. This is not part of traditional funding. But it adds security and risk mitigation.

    Next we need the bulk of funding for production. This is dependent on many elements. But I would guess it’s the entire budget less post, which also varies based on effects. This is the point at which traditionally a bank would begin doling out payments. I don’t think you can break up production into numerous stages. Maybe B-roll stuff, stunts, or effects could be separated. This is all very variable.

    Next stage is post, starting from around $30K and going up based on post effects. With some hi-effects films, the bulk of expense is in post and that would need to be funded at the production stage.

    Then comes distribution, which traditionally is around $60M for a studio P&A model. But indies can vary from a few thousand and up. Probably $50K would be a good minimum.

    And all this is just my opinion, subject to correction.

  • iluminada86

    Recently I was extremely low on cash and debts were eating me from all sides! That was UNTIL I decided to make money on the internet. I went to surveymoneymaker dot net, and started filling in surveys for cash, and surely I’ve been far more able to pay my bills! I’m so glad, I did this! – csm3

  • http://hopeforfilm.com/ Ted Hope

    REMOVE

This site could not have been built without the help and insight of Michael Morgenstern. My thanks go out to him.

Help save indie film and give this guy a job in web design or film!