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Advice from Indie Producers – Ted Hope and Christine Vachon

Is film funding driving you crazy?

Is film funding driving you crazy?

Sometimes European filmmakers can be overly focused on government subsidies to finance their films. Their first port of call is the ‘soft money’, particularly the national film body. But in the United States, Indie film producers have to do things quite differently. Yet, even without the luxury of an Irish Film Board, they manage to produce quality films that are successful.

Ted Hope and Christine Vachon are two of the most impressive indie producers of the past twenty years. They have form. They have survived with integrity and held firm on to the type of films they want to make. A rare feat. Between them they have produced over 100 feature films including American Splendor, The Brothers McMullen, 21 Grams, Happiness, Boys Don’t Cry and Far from Heaven. The opportunity to spend a day listening to their advice and (confidential) war stories was unmissable. For those who did miss the Screen Training Ireland Masterclass, one word came up again and again: value.

A core part of the finance model for indie films in the US is private equity. These investors want to make films but are unashamedly in the business for the money. Having a good story is probably not good enough for them. The film has to represent value.

So what is value?

Acting talent is the main form of value. An attached actor who is marketable helps your project, i.e. they have a cultural capital, a value within a specific or worldwide market. Sometimes an actor only works domestically (within the US) and an actor that works internationally can open up doors (distributors) abroad. A project thus represents value when the film can potentially work in numerous international markets. This is key.

Why is value so important?

The investors need to reduce their risk as much as possible so as to maximise the possibility of a return on their investment. Reducing risk is perhaps finding the right mix of cast that can work both nationally and internationally. Sometimes a director’s name is enough value for the film to be financed, sometimes a producer’s name will comfort the risk-takers.

Approaching agents representing actors with cultural capital is a tough business. Your track record can help to encourage investors to pick up the phone. A good executive producer might be able to make that happen.

Having a good script is key in attracting actors with value. Maybe the story provides the actor with the opportunity to truly express themselves in front of the camera, which might increase their chance of awards (thus increasing their value further in the marketplace). Perhaps an actor is at a nadir of his/her career and sees your film as an opportunity for redemption. The more an actor needs it, the easier it is for producers to attach them. Be warned, though. If the actor needs it too much maybe he/she no longer represents value.

One way to assuage fears of private investors is to do a short film that reflects the sensibility of the proposed feature. The only stipulation is that it better be good. Ted and Christine stressed that a bad short film is worse than having no short film.

Another important aspect of approaching financiers that came up is a ‘lookbook’. This is a booklet (20 pages or so) that may comprise of mood boards, overlays, lines of text, character studies, photo shoot of actors in character and so on. With a ‘lookbook’, you’re trying to create a point of entry for an investor, something that starts a discussion and engages. But be warned, there’s a fine line between a ‘lookbook’ being sublime and it being absolute bullshit.

The success of Ted and Christine has been down to their consistency and productivity. It seems that if you are busy producing projects that are both good and profitable, the finance will come. This may sound very simplistic but, in a way, the US Indie model is sort of that simple. Well-written, actor-friendly scripts attract stars with value, which attracts investors with money and hopefully results in a good film being made and profit returned to all those who invested.