Aaron Johnston

The greatest obstacle for any filmmaker is not a lack of ideas, or ambition, or friends willing to help. It’s a lack of funds. It takes money to make a film. Mountains of it. And since most of us don’t have a rich uncle who cares so little about his vast wealth that he’s willing to give it away to us to squander on our dreams, we either have to (A) figure out how to raise mountains of money or (B) figure out how to make a film with as little money as possible—preferably without it looking like we made a film with as little money as possible.

Both of those endeavors are incredibly difficult.

Especially A.

Raising money is really, really hard. There’s no sugar-coating that fact. It’s the part of the process I hate the most. It’s dreadful and awful and usually ends in crushing disappointment. If there’s a silver bullet to raising money, I don’t know it. Let’s make that clear right away. If you’re looking for a secret recipe to win over every investor you meet, I’m not your guy. I don’t think anyone is your guy.

But I can share with you what I’ve learned along the way and offer up a few meager tips to improve your chances.

First, some hard truths.

Hard truth #1: Filmmaking is a highly risky investment.

Most people with expendable income value a dollar as much as you do, maybe even more so. That’s why they’re wealthy. They invest cautiously and wisely and avoid risk. If they’re going to spend money, it’s only going to be in the near-guaranteed pursuit of making more money. And films generally don’t make money. Some do. But most don’t. Particularly indies. Investors know this. These are savvy people. When you invest in a film, there is a high likelihood that you’ll never see your money again.

So even if your idea is amazing, even if you’ve got lots of talent attached, the likely response from investors will be no. There are far too many other, less-risky ways for them to invest their money.

Hard truth #2: The initial investment is the hardest to raise.

It’s even harder to raise money if you’re starting from zero. Investors will often ask, “How much money have you raised thus far?” If the answer is none, investors will be skeptical and even less likely to chip in. Zero tells them that no one else has thought this a worthy investment. No one else has skin in the game. No one else is going to be looking over your shoulder and hounding you to get it right and turn a profit.

So starting from zero is a bad place to be.

Once you have some money, you have a leg to stand on. Your sales pitch is a little sweeter. You now have evidence that someone else thought your project worthy of their beloved dollars.

But don’t get me wrong. The response is likely still going to be no. Having seed money is hardly a guarantee of getting more money.

And by now you’re thinking: This is a paradox. I can’t raise money without some seed money, but it’s near impossible to get that initial seed money. This is a lost cause!

Yes, that’s what I’m telling you. Raising money is really hard.

Even for my friends whose films have been enormously successful and who have paid their investors handsomely as a result still have a hard time raising money.

Hard truth #3: If you’re just starting out, it’s even harder.

Investors do their homework. Before they give you a dime, they’re going to do some digging and find out what you’ve already done and how successful those films were. They’ll go to IMBD (Internet Movie Database) and peruse your filmography. If you don’t have a laundry list of awards or films that have generated money, they’re not going to give you serious consideration. Even if your filmography is lengthy, if there’s nothing there that the investor recognizes and respects, they’re likely going to pass. A lengthy filmography of unknown titles means little. You could have made the whole list up, for all the investor knows. “Sorry, kid. I’m going to pass. I’m just not sure you can do this.”

“But I can!” you say. “I know what I’m doing! I can totally do this!”

Which brings us to . . .

Hard truth #4: The investor doesn’t care what you think of yourself.

The investor doesn’t give any value to your own self-confidence. He doesn’t care how much your mother believes in you, or how impressed your college professor was with your student film. The investor only cares about his money. And again, if you’re new to filmmaking, he’s going to see your project as a risk too high to take. You have no pedigree. You’re unproven. There are far too many people in this business who think they can but can’t. He may have even financed a film from one of them that flopped. And even if he hasn’t, he knows that even highly successful directors fail sometimes and lose people money. It’s a risk. Every. Single. Time.

For new filmmakers, the risk is exponentially higher because there are so many snags and obstacles that you can’t foresee unless you’ve experienced them and have learned firsthand how to navigate them.

And by now you’re thinking: Well, thanks for nothing. This article helps me nary a bit.

To which I say: Take heart. It’s not as hopeless as it seems. The answer is almost always no, but you can take steps to build your case and make your sales pitch more enticing and harder to turn down.

1. Build Your Filmography by Working on Other Films

Before you barge into that investors office and demand a check, you need to know every aspect of the filmmaking process. You need to see people on set doing their job. You need to witness how long it takes to set up a shot. Or edit a scene. You need to see directors who direct well and directors who don’t. You need to understand sound. And light. And what a production assistant does. What weather can do to a film. The importance of craft services, not just to the overall morale of the crew but to the efficiency of the shoot.

Basically, you need to know what you don’t know. And until you’ve worked on a set, you won’t know what you don’t know. So be willing to move lights and fetch coffee and drive people around. And while you’re doing it, be respectful to everyone. Your current job is your application to your next job. The people you meet on set might very well be the people who hire you tomorrow. Or they might turn out to be exactly the people you want on your team when you pursue your own project.

Not only will all of this build your experience, but it will also build your appeal to investors as well. The more experience you have, the more they will believe that you know what you’re doing.

What you don’t want to do is learn what you don’t know when making your own project. I’ve heard far too many stories of young filmmakers who run into some snag on set and persevere, thinking that they can “fix it in post.” This is not a good idea. These filmmakers inevitably discover that fixing things in post actually requires more time and money and resources than they have. It sometimes even results in your footage being unusable. I speak from experience.

Don’t make these mistakes. Watch OTHER people make these mistakes. Or better yet, watch how they avoid these mistakes in the first place and learn from them.

2. Make a Sizzle Reel

Before speaking to investors, prepare a brief trailer-like reel of your work. Put your best stuff to music. Show them how talented you are. Chip away at their skepticism with a kick-butt sampling of your past projects. Give them what a director friend of mine calls the “money shots,” or the shots that look cinematic, the shots that look like they took a boatload of cash to pull off. The special effects shots, if you’ve done them and they’re amazing. The sweeping vistas. The moody lighting. The shots that would make any cinematographer salivate.

Also, diversify what you show. Don’t use multiple clips of the same actor. Or clips from the same location. Mix it up. Show that you’ve done a variety of projects. If you have something that looks like a western, cut it next to something that looks like film noir. Or science fiction. Or a family drama. Speaking of which, show drama. Show people acting. You can include dialogue if you’d like, but consider showing a mix of emotions. Remember, the idea is to show what you can do, to show range. If you want to direct, prove that you can direct actors by showing good acting.

But keep the clips brief. Keep the pace up. Make it exciting. When I’m done watching, I should think, “Holy crap! This kid is the next [insert your favorite respected film director’s name here.]”

3. Shoot a Sample Scene

Another way to wow potential investors is to shoot a scene from your project. Take a page or two from your script, cast a few of your actor friends, and shoot the scene. We did this when we sold our TV show Extinct. We shot a scene from the pilot—a scene which ironically was never used in the actual series—and we showed the studio what the show would look and feel like. We gave them a flavor. A taste. We put their skepticism to rest by showing them how awesome this potential show could be.

It was a simple scene. No one was shouting. Or fighting. Or being overly dramatic. It was a simple, soft-spoken two-person scene in a single location. Intimate. Contained. Real. No one was “Acting” with a capital A. It was just two people talking about something meaningful.

Why did we pick that kind of scene, you ask? Wouldn’t it be more impressive to show a big stunt? Or a fight? Or some action?

Well, if your project is nothing but one action sequence after another, I suppose you could, but no one who watches it is going to care.

When I was looking for writers for our show and reading sample scripts and submissions, I learned that aspiring writers LOVE to write action. Fights. Jumps. Karate kicks. Punches to the face. Beer bottles broken over heads.

But action isn’t storytelling. It’s not how you build character or make an audience care. And your objective of the sample scene is to make an investor care. You’re not auditioning to be a stunt coordinator. You’re auditioning to be a storyteller. So make me care.

When the scene ends, you want the investor asking questions. “What’s the mysterious object they’re looking for? Do they ever get back together? Why would she lie to him? She’s lying, right?”

You want the investor to care immensely about the people in your scene.

But here’s the thing. That scene better be written well, and you better have real, legitimate, talented actors. Bad acting is visible a mile away, and it will make you look amateurish. Yes, their performance isn’t YOUR performance, but in a way it is, because by showing it to someone, you’re saying that you think it’s good. And if it isn’t good, then the investor will know you can’t tell good from bad, and he’ll give you a hard and definite no.

Bottom line, invest in a talented cinematographer and talented actors. Seriously. Don’t think you can just grab your buddies on this one. You can’t. Not unless your buddies also happen to be talented actors and a talented cinematographer, in which case, consider yourself fortunate.

4. Write Something that Costs Next to Nothing.

By now this last suggestion should be obvious. If raising money proves as difficult for you as it has proven to every single other person who has ever attempted it, try scaling back your project and making it as inexpensive to produce as possible. That means minimal cast. Few locations. No stunts. No special effects — unless that’s your specialty and you have the equipment, software, and talent to pull it off. It means making a short, not a feature. It means you’re going to be doing all of post-production. Alone. It means you’re going to be shooting as inexpensively as possible—as in with natural light, instead of needing to rent expensive lighting equipment. It means you’re going to shoot at a cool location that you can use for free and which is cinematic and beautiful. Your bedroom isn’t beautiful. Your friend’s basement apartment isn’t beautiful. A mountain stream is beautiful. A desert is beautiful. And more importantly, both are free.

So you’ll need to take stock of the resources you have at your disposal and then write a short that uses those resources. That’s how we made our TV show. We asked ourselves, “What do we have that we can use? How can we make this show look bigger and more expensive than it is?” Then we crafted a universe and story around those resources.

You’ll do the same. And it will be wonderful.

“But I don’t have a lot of resources,” you say. In which case I strongly advise you to call up that rich uncle.

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