How to fund your film the Johnathan McFarlane way

How to fund your film the Johnathan McFarlane way

The Festivus Film Fest organizer offers advice to burgeoning filmmakers

This ain’t Entourage: The movie-making business is a costly one, and indie filmmakers (usually) aren’t opportune enough to get funding through snappy banter and the elite pockets of Hollywood. It takes a lot of labor and personal sacrifice to turn a 90-page script into an hour and a half of celluloid, and local filmmakers Johnathan McFarlane and Tim DeMasters can attest to this. The two worked together on the self-financed doc Project Canada, and with it came all the stresses of independent filmmaking, including the pressures of running through the festival circuit. Which eventually led, ambitiously enough, to their next project: hosting their own indie film festival. “Going to some of these festivals—some of them were nice, some of them were really good—but a lot of them were absolutely horrible,” McFarlane says. “Everything about them was really bad. Like a projector set up in an empty room with some folding chairs, that kind of thing.” And so in 2007, McFarlane and DeMasters launched Festivus Film Festival (“the film fest for the rest of us,” according to the mission statement). Festivus, currently in its third year, starts tonight at the Bug Theatre and continues through the weekend with screenings at both the Bug and the Oriental Theater. To get into the indie swing of things, The A.V. Club asked McFarlane his financial advice for those up-and-comers trying to fund their own low-budget films. His counsel? Sell, sell, sell.

Sell your pog collection
Johnathan McFarlane: Sell everything you can. It sounds cheesy, but it’s true. The cost of making films has come down enormously, but it still takes a lot. Even to do a short, to do a good one, could take 10 to 20 grand or more. My film cost $65,000. I sold my turntables; I gave up all my other hobbies and things like that. I sold my van. I sold a bunch of furniture. I was just selling off whatever I could.

Don’t quit your day job
JM:
I was delivering pizza while I was editing this film. You can’t depend on indie films for money. You must have a job of some sort. The idea of, well, I’ll just eat into my savings while I work on it, and then when I finish, I’ll sell it and make all my money back—it’s just not reality. Not usually anyway.

Charge it
JM: Credit cards. I hate to say it, but that’s the real deal. You can get 10 or 12 of them pretty fast, and I definitely did.

Ask for help, and be serious about it
JM: I’m always coming up with crazy ideas and whatnot, and sometimes I follow through and sometimes I don’t. So when I first started talking about doing that documentary, I think most of my family and friends were like, “Oh, yeah, that’s just another one of his ideas.” But then when I showed them that I was serious—I set up a website, I wrote a business plan and a treatment for the film—they were like, “Oh, okay, he’s really going to do this. So, how do we help?”

Organ donation
JM: You can trade a good kidney for a good director of photography.

Don’t count on investors
JM: It’s possible, but it is not easy to do. If you’re working on your first movie, you have nothing to show for it. It’s almost impossible [to get investors] unless you have some other experience in the movie business or connections of some sort. But if you’ve got a bit of a track record—you’ve done a few indie films and they’ve maybe made a bit of money in DVD sales—then you can. It’s just like finding investors for anything. You have to be able to show them that you can give them something back for their money.

AVC: Have you gone this way yet?

JM: I’ve tried and failed. I’ve never actually gotten any outside investors for anything I’ve done. I don’t want to say it’s a waste of time, because it’s not. You never know what could happen, but for the most part, it’s pretty rare to get somebody to just decide to sink a bunch of money into an indie film. 

Don’t spoil your ego with fancy gifts
JM: When we were shooting, we ended up spending a lot of our money just on going out and drinking and partying and everything like that. We were just kind of pretending that we were big-time filmmakers, and we weren’t. We burnt through a lot of the money on things we didn’t have to.

Think of your film as an investment
JM: A lot of people make indie films for their résumé, which can be a really good investment if you think of it in that way. I worked at Fox as an editor before I left and worked on my own film. When I got back, I had a feature-length documentary and Fox News on my résumé, and that’s just one extra thing I can say when I’m trying to find a job.

Buy local
JM: You can find some local, unsigned musician to write a few tracks for you. It’s not going to be as cool as having AC/DC on your film, but it’s a lot cheaper.

Do as much of the work yourself as you can
JM: Getting other people in involved means spending more money. If you can take the time to learn do it yourself—even if it takes six months to learn how to create a good DVD menu—it will help you in the end. Plus you can put that on your résumé.

Consider everything you spend on your film a gamble
JM: If you can’t afford to gamble it, then don’t do it. No matter where you get the money, you really have to do it because you love doing it. The reality of most indie films is that you’re probably not going to see a return. It’s unfortunate, but that’s the way it goes. You have to be prepared to make some sacrifices. And if you’re not really willing to make those sacrifices, then you’re going to end up with a product that’s not that good or you just won’t ever finish it.

Splurge on what you need, give up what you don’t
JM: You got to figure out the most important thing to your film. For me, it was the look. I really did not want to skimp on the cost of cameras, so I ended buying really expensive cameras. I wanted to do these maps, and they would have looked a lot better had I hired a graphic guy to do the maps and to make them look really flashy, but the money just wasn’t there. We put it in other places, like with the equipment that we used.

Expect to overshoot your budget
JM: Whatever you expect or anticipate spending, it’s going to be more. You never know [where extra expenses come from]. It’s like magic, they just appear.

Put money aside for festival submission fees
JM: That was something we didn’t even think of our first time around. With our first film, I think we spent probably $1,200 on submission fees—and that wasn’t in our original budget. 

AVC: Is there anything free in filmmaking?

JM: Your talent. [Laughs.] Other than that, not really. I can say this: When you do finish it, if you’ve really put your heart into it, you’ll be happy you did it, no matter what happens.