Chasing the Money

Funny story about $250,000

Dollar-bills-pile

Many years ago, back in New York City, my comic play I’m in Love with Your Wife premiered at the Midtown International Theatre Festival. It was a fast-paced, 80 minute modern sex farce and was a hit at the festival, in part aided by the casting of a very popular 1970s sitcom star.

The very affable and big soul Ron Palillo (R.I.P.)

R.I.P. Ron Palillo, a generous man with a huge heart.

We sold out every performance (which sounds more impressive if I don’t mention it was a 44-seat house) and then sold out the additional shows added. When the festival closed, we were nominated for six best of the fest awards, winning Best Supporting Actress and Outstanding Playwriting of a New Play. The good buzz and great reviews led to meetings with a few off-Broadway producers, who felt that this play could be a hit off Broadway.

One producer went further. He had his own 165-seat theater space, which more than qualifies it for off-Broadway, and agreed to budget the play. One afternoon we sat down and figured out what it would take to make it happen. After figuring in actors salaries (on the bare minimum union scale), salaries and fees for director and designers, plus set contraction, insurance, and a healthy chunk for marketing, he had a number that would keep the show open for two months. Presumably, good press, word of mouth and a 70% attendance rate would keep the show running indefinitely. And this producer told me that number: $250,000.

I was shocked. The budget to do the show off-off-Broadway, in the festival, was just under $10,000. And we hustled to get that money, holding a live fundraiser (this was before online crowdsourcing existed) and we cut corners where we could. Even after all that, a little money came out of my pocket, not counting the hundreds of hours I worked for free.

As we looked through the quarter mil budget, that number made sense and was clearly not arbitrary. But that’s a lot of money to raise for something not permanent. One of the joys of the art of theater is that it exists only in that moment in time that you witness it. Once the line is spoken, once the lights go down, the moment is over forever… until the next night. But eventually, the show will close. This becomes daunting when I realized I needed to spearhead a campaign to raise a quarter of a million dollars for something that might be all gone in a few months.

And as I walked out of that meeting, I had a thought:

“For $250,000, I should make a movie.”

This story does not go down the road of me abandoning theater to pursue film and TV. Hardly. I will always love theater. Since that experience I have had three more plays fully produced, a few more written, and numerous productions of full length and short plays across the country. But never for a budget remotely close to $250,000. And this thought always stayed in the back of my mind: should I spend a lot of time hustling and fundraising for something that could conceivably be gone in four months? Or should I put that energy towards something more permanent?

So imagine my surprise when the same number was not-so-casually presented as a budget for Closure. My ten-year younger self would be smiling at me (and possibly wondering what happened to my hair). It seems appropriate that the same number estimated to launch my off-Broadway career be the same to launch my first feature film endeavor as both writer and director. Makes me want to play the lottery.

That’s it! I’m going to take my savings and buy lottery tickets, and use the winnings to fund this movie.

Or maybe I’ll listen to what the producer suggests first. One step at a time.

COMING UP NEXT: Hearing the script again… but this time, in front of an audience.

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The Next Chapter: Money

So how does one go about making a movie?

When I was younger, it was as easy as grabbing a camera, some friends, an idea, and a free afternoon. Back in high school my friends and I would check out the VHS (?) camera from the computer lab and create any number of projects. If there was a class assignment where it was possible to make a video instead of writing a report, we would always choose to become junior Spielbergs and DeMilles and Welles. By the time I graduated I had shot period pieces on Vietnam, cooking show parodies in Spanish, and many more.

College brought more opportunities to put stuff on video, be it sketch comedy ideas to artsy supplements for live theater pieces. While most people zoned out on the quad or “planned” for their “future”, I spent a good portion of my second semester senior year sitting in a VHS (?) edit bay, cutting together a live version of a musical I co-directed culled from three stationary cameras.

After college, the stakes got higher. I wrote and directed two short films (shot on FILM) on limited budgets I scraped together myself. I directed a feature film written by and starring some talented friends on an extremely limited budget (I believe the final cost was just north of $20,000). All of these projects were labors of love, where people participated without any guarantee of financial compensation. In all cases, the script comes first. Chronologically, the idea comes first, then the script. In fact, as I mentioned in a previous post, I have two scripts that I am considering. While very different, I feel both scripts are compelling and can be shot on a low budget. Do I have to decide today? No, but the time is coming soon. There is one element that must be considering before progressing too far in the process: Money.

I have experience in coming up with a budget, but for smaller projects it’s a lot easier. Film (or videotape). Equipment. Insurance. And, of course, craft service. The last cannot be underestimated. If you are not paying people what they deserve, then you better feed them. And feed them well. But this is a big undertaking. Shooting a feature film, even on the smallest scale, involves months of pre-production and at least a month of shooting. There’s payroll. And contracts. And rental facilities. And insurance. And locations. Even though these two scripts involve either limited or confined locations, they still have to be found. And it all starts with money. I will have to become an expert on the financial side, or at least find people who are experts on the financial side. Before I even think about raising money, I need to know how I’m going to wisely spend the money, and emerge on the other side with a finished product AND money left over to market the movie.

My manager has set me up to meet with an experienced indie film producer with dozens of films to his credit. He has years of experience as a producer, a post-production supervisor, and a line producer (who handles the money once production is under way). His movies have gone to Sundance. His TV shows have found homes on HBO and other networks. He will be a great resource in helping me determine exactly what it will take to make one of these scripts.

As it tends to be in the indie world, our first meeting was at a Starbucks in the San Fernando Valley. He is an energetic, passionate man who loves film; of course, that energy may be directly related to us being in a Starbucks. We sat for 90 minutes and discussed everything BUT my scripts: politics, books, current events, other movies. After 90 minutes he had to leave for an edit session, and while we did not actually get down to business, I felt it was a successful meeting. Part of networking is to connect. If we are going to consider working together (and I still have no idea at this time whether or not he is interested or just going to offer advice) we need to see if our personalities match, and we understand each other’s drive and passions. I have been on many sets where the energy was toxic due to vastly differing personalities.

We got along well enough to have a second meeting, and at that meeting we got down to the nitty gritty. Yes, he might be interested in getting involved. He had some questions about the script, which I was fortunately able to answer to his satisfaction. He says he wants to hear a reading of the script, but based on my desire to get it made on the cheap, and knowing that I wrote it deliberately with budget in mind, he feels it can be made for $250,000.

So there it is. Simple, right? All I need is a quarter of a million dollars. Easy! Tune in next time when I hopefully learn how to get $250,000. Maybe I left it in my other pants.