Special Report on Investment & Finance: Financing: the biggest creative challenge

Filmmaking has always taken a lot of creativity. However, it's not just the scriptwriting, art direction, set decorating and costumes that require great amounts of imagination....

Filmmaking has always taken a lot of creativity. However, it’s not just the scriptwriting, art direction, set decorating and costumes that require great amounts of imagination.

Finding ways to finance films can be the biggest mind-stretching challenge of all. With provincial and federal government agency funding shrinking before our eyes, and an uncertain economic future looming on the horizon, words like coproduction, sponsorship, multipurposing and private investors are being bandied about by players of all sizes in the world of film finance.

‘We’re all having to be a lot more innovative in terms of having to be much more sales oriented in our approach to financing,’ sums up Ted Riley, president of Atlantis Releasing.

In fact, Riley says that 75% to 80% of the company’s production funds are now coming from offshore sources. ‘That’s a change,’ he says. ‘We have to get our money out of the marketplace rather than getting it from subsidies and other forms of financing out of Canada.’

Another source of funding for Atlantis has been sponsorship. Traders, produced by Atlantis, was given a boost through the CanWest Global deal that has insurance company Zurich Assist ‘presenting’ the show each week.

Atlantis’ mow Derby also had the sponsorship of Wendy’s Hamburgers, which ran ads during the show. ‘Wendy’s basically bought the airtime from abc,’ says Riley.

‘The most important thing all of us can do is secure a major broadcaster outside of Canada. We (pre)sold Derby around the world as a distributor and that is how we got the money together to make the project.’

Several independent filmmakers have also found new ways of financing films.

In b.c., Steven Benoit received $90,000 in private funding to get his film, For a Few Lousy Dollars, into preproduction and then managed to get what he calls ‘a gift from heaven,’ in the form of a single private investor for the film, budgeted at just under $1 million.

‘There is a lot more private money for film investment in b.c. than the rest of Canada,’ he says.

However, for most filmmakers, securing private investment is more of a dream than even a potential reality.

Robert Morrice of the Royal Bank says there are only a handful of private film investors in Canada. ‘Telefilm tracks private investment, and according to its recent annual report, it continues to be nominal,’ he says.

Bernie Abrams, president of Media Ventures, agrees. ‘You have to sell the production up front to the group that is going to take the risk – the distributor, or in the case of television, the broadcaster.’

With no private investor, broadcaster or distributor in sight, Guerrilla Films’ James Motluk is finding a way to finance his project. Motluk is writing and directing the low-budget documentary Life Under Mike, a Roger and Me type look at the legacy of Ontario Premier Mike Harris’ policies.

Not surprisingly, there is no government money here. Instead, Motluk approached the labor movement. ‘I figured they would be a sympathetic audience.’

So far, Motluk has raised ‘about a quarter’ of the film’s $100,000 budget from labor groups. For his earlier film, Nasty Burgers, Motluk used loans from friends and credit cards to pay for the project.

Another young filmmaker, Kitchener-Waterloo’s Ron Repke, approached government funding agencies about five years ago for his film, Dianne, and was turned down.

‘I decided I wasn’t going to sit around and wait for the phone to ring,’ he says. ‘I figured that things like Telefilm won’t be around for that long anyway. I have a philosophy that if we don’t develop an industry that can stand on its own merit, it will die.’

Repke had already gained credibility in Kitchener-Waterloo through his ad agency Eyelight Inc. For his film, Repke approached k-w television station ckco-tv and received startup money for the project (with the promise to buy the one-hour film upon completion).

Later, cfcf-tv in Montreal contributed ‘another $5,000 or $6,000,’ with the same promise.

From there, Dianne, a film about childhood sweethearts meeting up 10 years later, was financed through profits from the advertising agency. Repke says the budget for the film was $800,000, but many of the cast and crew offered their services for free (‘for the experience’), and Repke received a number of other freebies along the way. ‘The funding from ckco and cfcf was worth gold in giving the project credibility,’ he says.

Across the country, film producers are finding new ways to fund their projects, often without reaching into government pockets. Here are some sketches of other producers who found a way through innovation and determination to get their projects from concept to celluloid.