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Financing Your Business

Financing an Indie Film, 2016

Today's tech can make moviemaking cheaper—to a degree.

Chase Sapphire Preferred® is a presenting sponsor of the 2017 Sundance Film Festival, an independent film exhibition in the United States. Launched in 1981, the Festival showcases new movies, music events, panel discussions and more each January in Park City, Utah.

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In 1992, director Robert Rodriguez came to the Sundance Film Festival with "El Mariachi", a film purportedly made for only $7,000, but that has made over $2 million domestically, and launched a remake, a career and a craze for no-budget filmmaking. In 1999, "The Blair Witch Project," whose directors shot on low resolution video and what they had said was a $20,000 budget, came, saw, conquered and went on to gross $140 million domestically. Last year "Tangerine," a movie shot on iPhones, came out of the festival to become a critical darling, already earning seven times its reported $100,000 budget. (All budget and box office numbers according to Box Office Mojo.)

Indie film directors can be the lab rats of visual technology. These moviemakers, who might otherwise be closed out of the process, can prevail by making films cheaper, with smaller, less expensive cameras and software that lets them edit at home. And so, via technological innovation, every few years, one of them makes a film that defies the common, economic rules of independent filmmaking. The breakthroughs can be beneficial to the art form as a whole.

The Tech Advantage

The digital revolution in filmmaking has meant films can be shot with a minimum amount of bulky equipment, and without the time limitations inherent in using traditional celluloid (one film magazine holding only 10 minutes worth of footage).

"Anytime there's an evolution in equipment, the response is, 'Movies are so much cheaper to make,'" says New York-based independent producer Mary Jane Skalski. "And they are. But while the making of a film may be a little cheaper, finishing it and getting it out in the world is not that much cheaper. By the time it walks and talks like a movie, there's a level of professional production necessary not available from a desktop computer—although it's getting pretty close."

Indeed, smaller, cheaper equipment isn't the be-all/end-all of independent filmmaking. All the movies mentioned above all actually cost far more than advertised by the time they got in theaters, because costs for post-production, sound, production design, professional cinematography, travel, accommodations and union labor have stayed the same or spiraled up.

"We often see situations where someone breaks new ground with an innovative approach to movie making," says David Shaheen, managing director of the JPMorgan Chase entertainment banking group. "But it doesn't mean you can easily replicate it across the industry."

The Cost of Talent

"As a filmmaker, I don't necessary want to shoot my own films," says Yung Chang, a Montreal-based documentarian. "I like to know I have the expertise of a cinematographer. So that's a cost. The crew, the team you want to collaborate with, that is a big line item. For me the most important are cinematographer, a sound recordist, the editor, of course—and they don't come cheaply: Their rates don't go down when technology gets cheaper."

Cheaper technology on one end, though, does mean you can work with more talented people, Chang says, "and be able to pay what the crew deserves, without compromise. That's cool. That works."

In a sense, the digital filmmaking revolution has entered phase two, according to Kathleen McInnis, who teaches producing at the University of California Los Angeles and programs for such festivals as Hot Docs and the Toronto International Film Festival.

"The people who were making movies just because they could, those people went away," says McInnis. "It's hard to make a movie. And when they figured that out—that they weren't getting anywhere and no one was going to give them money for a second movie—they stopped."

Meeting Expectations

What the "real visual storytellers" have found, she says, is that they still have to satisfy an audience and a marketplace that have certain expectations. And those are costly to meet.

"In fact, it doesn't cost a lot to make a film," McInnis says. "If you want to make a movie and put it online, that doesn't cost a lot of money. It costs a lot to make a film that can compete in the marketplace."

And "marketing muscle" is the single most important resource if you want your movie seen, says Shaheen. For all the advantages of inexpensive technology, "You still need access to talent and distribution," he says. "Just because you can film less expensively with better camera and editing technology, you still need a strong network and access to good writing, scripts and talent. Ultimately distribution can be a game changer, if you don't have access to distribution, it doesn't matter whether you've spent $1, or $2, or a million dollars."

If it's not going to get shown, it's like you never made it.

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