The new culture of film entrepreneurship, regional film investment & artistic sustainability
By Anne Lundgren Guest Columnist
The science-fiction thriller Black Road was filmed this summer over 21 days on a shoe-string budget in the hills of Ashland, Oregon.
The film is the third that we’ve made in Southern Oregon, after the baseball comedy Calvin Marshall (2010) and the road drama Redwood Highway (2014). It’s set in the year 2049 and stars Sam Daly as a cyborg drifter hired to protect a mysterious woman from her evil ex.
Black Road was crafted from the early stages of script development to make a profit. Unlike our first two films, it is a genre movie and was made as cheaply as possible with the intention of being profitable.
Many will cry: Heresy. Sell-out. True art cannot be limited by profitability.
Filmmaking by nature is limited, no matter the budget. It is a collaborative, chaotic art form produced in a finite number of labor-intensive, mind-numbing, 12-hour-plus days. The creative team makes hundreds of decisions and calculated compromises each day.
It is the talent of this team and the force of the vision that create great art, not the budget. Therefore, a film can be made for almost any amount.
When we set out to make Black Road, we knew we would have to be creative in our financing strategy. Even after having two features released theatrically and widely available on DVD, VOD, and Digital (Netflix, Amazon, iTunes), independent film financing still proves difficult.
Our first film, Calvin Marshall, was released between 2008-2010 when independent distributors were going out of business and consumers were transitioning from buying DVDs to digital formats. At one point, our distribution consultant said, “I can’t recommend a distributor, because I don’t know who will be in business next month.” The film was released and is still available on DVD and digital, but its pre-2008 budget did not match the reality of post-crash revenues.
Redwood Highway was made for a conservative budget, was released theatrically in 2014, and is now available on digital and DVD outlets. It is by most counts very successful, but it will be a few years before we know if it is profitable.
Independent producers are faced with a new world of changing distribution models, shrinking budgets and skeptical investors. And who can blame the investors? To them, the film industry is a black box, confusing and risky, with non-traditional business models often unexplainable even by industry experts.
What’s an independent filmmaker to do? Building a long-term career and earning a living wage can seem all but impossible, and filmmakers often despair and give up. We were faced with this proposition in 2013 when it seemed that no one was willing to take a risk on an independent film, especially without the guarantee of blockbuster revenues.
Instead we began to live by a new mantra—if we want to keep making movies, we must show profits. Really, this is just good business sense. We based the budget on what we knew the film could make within the first couple of years, including a good profit margin, and the script was written with budget in mind, having limited locations and speaking roles.
Black Road is a genre film, but ultimately the characters and story still convey heartfelt humanity and meaning, as in writer/director Gary Lundgren’s other films. As artists, we can’t help but be true to the art form. That will always take precedence. But now we also have the opportunity to focus on business elements and embrace a new culture of film entrepreneurship.
In the end, the financing for Black Road reflects a tapestry of generosity by the friends and communities of all of the cast and crew. The budget is made up of sponsor donations, in-kind services, Kickstarter funding, and investor equity. Most of the food for the shoot was donated by local restaurants. Brammo let us use their Empulse electric motorcycle for the filming, the Ashland Springs Hotel sponsored hotel rooms for our out-of-town actors, and all of our equipment was donated.
In addition, Black Road is a cast-and-crew-owned movie. We put together a tiny team, many of whom we’ve worked with for over 10 years. They sacrificed higher paying summer jobs to work for minimum wage and own a piece of the film.
We raised half of the funds through Kickstarter from friends and family of the cast and crew and an incredibly supportive community. The other half of the funding came from a group of regional investors who helped us build a business model that made sense to traditional, savvy, risk-adverse investors. They guided us, trusted us, took steps to learn about a new industry, and invested in our team and the hope of building a new regional film economy.
Everyone on the crew wore multiple hats and worked their hearts out to make the best film possible. It was hard, but worth it. When we wrapped, a good friend (and one of our investors) asked, “So next time you’ll have a bigger crew, wear less hats and pay everyone real wages, right? You can’t ask everyone to do this again, can you?”
I hope for higher budgets, but for now, the answer is that we have to earn them. The budget can only increase once our films, our audience, the market, and new distribution streams prove that profitability can be achieved at a higher budget. Otherwise we risk all that we’ve worked for—a prosperous, sustainable, artistically creative life—and the only thing we’ve really ever wanted all along: The opportunity to make the next film.
Anne Lundgren is an independent film producer living in Ashland, Oregon. In addition to working on national commercials and music videos, she produces for her husband, writer/director, Gary Lundgren. Together they have made the features Calvin Marshall, Redwood Highway, and Black Road.