Monday, April 20, 2009

How can incentives benefit microbudget filmmakers?

Filmmaker J.B. Jones left a comment over the weekend and raised an interesting question about incentives.

He was responding to the news that the city council is considering a local tax rebate for filmmakers: "This is all well and good, but it doesn't benifit [sic] the local filmmakers who work on very minimal to NO budget. Why do all the incentives have to be about money?"

On the state level, incentives currently are only available to projects with a $300,000 budget or more. That excludes microbudget filmmakers like J.B. Jones. (Why not a lower threshold? One word, I've been told: porn. It's commonsense that no state wants to be in the business of incentivizing adult entertainment.)

Shreveport does offer some fee-free filming incentives that can benefit small-budget filmmakers, if they choose to use them. Permit applications (for on-location shoots) are free. Water is free for wetting down streets. And as I understand it, filmmakers can also use public buildings for free (as long as they obtain a permit through Shreveport film liaison, Arlena Acree). Here's a little more info.

That said, if you are a microbudget filmmaker (typically $50,000 or much less), what other kinds of incentives would help you make your projects? And have you ever taken advantage of the incentives as they exist now? Let us know. It's a good time to have conversations like these.


Anonymous said...

How about an extra incentive for using local talent? The present tax incentives allow actors from other states to take work away from those legitimate local actors (not extras) who could easily give Hollywood a run for its money... but the locals never get an opportunity to show what they can do. You will be amazed!

Evan said...

It'd be cool (but maybe not practical) if there was some kind of funding program for micro-budget films. Like if the city or a private group gave out several thousand dollars a year for projects under $50,000 or $100,000. So that aspiring creative types have a way to get their ideas made and build a portfolio for when trying to make bigger films. I'd really like to see the RFC do more than hold summer camps for kids and have a local filmmaker spotlight. Both of those are great, but they're really only helping to spark interest in the youngsters and get the older ones local exposure, but they're not really helping get projects made.

It'd be fairly low risk for investors (i.e. 100 people give 500 bucks and you've got a $50,000 project...or 5 $10,000 projects) and it'd be on par with an arts endowment or a scholarship, except specifically for local micro-budget films. I guess I could see the flip side of why would you even need that infrastructure when it'd probably not be too hard to get 100 people to give you $500 on your own. But I think one of the things that probably kills the interest in filmmaking that places like the RFC are trying to stimulate is that once you're in the real world and you're trying to be practical about your future you realize that trying to make a film is really hard and risky, and when push comes to shove most people don't really want to invest in films. Least of all micro-budget films by "aspiring" filmmakers.

I'm personally looking to raise about $20,000 for a feature project to be shot in January and it'd be great if there was more awareness and a way to build more financial support for these kind of projects because I don't think most people know about them or think of them as legitimate projects. But with the more local crew and interest we build, the more micro-budget filmmakers we're going to see...because these like-minded people will inevitably get together and start to make stuff "off the grid" trying to scramble the money and resources they can. But it would be awesome to know there people willing to support these projects and that there was some money going out to them.

In all honesty, the local film industry does a lot more for the kind of blue-collar side of the business (grips, electricians, extras, etc.) than it does for the creative side. Those of us local filmmakers that have ideas and want to make them happen need more than a pat on the back and someone talking about how great it must be for the film industry to be in Shreveport. For the most part none of it really affects us. I've been making micro-budget films in Shreveport for 8 years and nothing about the local awareness for film affects my process. I've had films in the LAFF, and actually got an abnormal amount of press in high school, but I'm about to graduate college and try my hand at making films for a living and there's certainly nothing locally that's going to help me do that.

Chris Lyon said...

The state or city could open a short film incentive program, say just for films set in (with some cultural references) or about Louisiana. We don't have to incentivize everything. A film community is what needs to be built. The bigger productions could foster a smaller community that, in the end, doesn't need incentives to be here.

Generally, micro-budget films aren't going to come from out of state anyway, so I understand the local/state governments not feeling the need to incentivize them. Short films will be made where they are made with or without incentives. Usually it isn't a tax cut that makes or breaks a short film. Even with the credits it would be too expensive of a proposition for a small budget crew to move into Louisiana for the production. You'd end up spending the little money you saved on food, gas, hotel, etc... which all adds up quickly.

As a short filmmaker, I ask myself why I'm arguing against the idea of a micro budget incentive. I wouldn't agree with as a taxpayer to paying out tax credits to small films that don't see the return for the community as a whole. The porn industry side is certainly something to be concerned with though. Certainly the state, if they decide to do some sort of micro-budget tax break, can exclude the filming of pornography from the eligible parties to receive tax credits or set up an approval process where every short film isn't accepted into the program. See link below:

I think Shreveport is doing a wonderful job being open and available to short film or micro-budget filmmakers by allowing the use of water, public areas, etc. Those are BIG deals to a small budget picture. I've been a part of a small feature film over the last 4 months that has used all sorts of public buildings that worked just fine for what was needed and we saved a lot of money that way.

As my last note, times are different now when it comes to filmmaking. Anyone can do it, and many people think they can. The state incentive should likely stay where it is at $300,000 minimum and perhaps look into short film program where scripts must be approved or perhaps require some sort of Louisiana culture to be accepted. And even then, a minimum of perhaps $10,000 budget should be required. You can't just have every YouTuber applying for tax credits. That said, only one of my projects has been over $10,000 so I'm not trying to be selfish or anything. It's just that even in the short film realm, there has to be a limit to the state and local generosity or the quality of the support they provide will diminish.

Keep doing what you're doing Shreveport. Let's get the state to consider a short film program with a minimum budget of $10,000, a submitted script for approval, and perhaps a required set of content to include Louisiana culture- or use that as a bonus for an additional 5% credit.

Alexandyr Kent said...

Good comments, all.

Anon, regarding talent: it actually behooves productions to hire local talent, because they get an extra 10 percent tax incentive for hiring La. labor.

Evan, have you thought about looking for funding opportunities through SRAC artist grants? Connect with Gregory Kallenberg on that one. And more than simply SRAC, there are lots of grant-making agencies out there that like to help emerging filmmakers like yourself.

Chris, when I worked in Minneapolis I briefly worked with a nonprofit that offered cameras, lights, editing stations at cut-rate rental prices. That's back in the days when filmmakers like you and Evan were shooting on 16 mm (Super 8 and occasionally 35).

The technology has gotten oodles cheaper since then, so a rental nonprofit wouldn't make much sense. But what was probably more valuable about the nonprofit was that it brought artists together and created creative partnerships that wouldn't have otherwise existed. Wish I would see more of that here (than I already do). It can really help an emergent indie scene flourish.

Evan said...

I agree with Chris that whatever kind of micro-budget program that came about would need a screening process, but I doubt something like that would ever get through the state government. There's simply no incentive for the state to do something like that. Especially since realistically there's no real market for micro-budget films (specifically short films).

I know there are lots of grant programs, but in terms of strictly helping micro-budget filmmakers, I'd like to see something local geared specifically to the film world. SRAC has to cover all of the arts. And I think an organization like the RFC would be the perfect one to try to pull something like this off.

I'd also like to see a Louisiana Film Festival that caters to the post high school crowd, which is essentially the more serious filmmaking crowd, that's less about simply showing local films and geared a little more towards supporting the filmmaking process and creating a local network and continues with workshops and contests throughout the year to help build that network. Actually, ideally I'd like to see a "fest" that starts out with several "grants" of a couple thousand dollars a piece that it distributes to a select group of maybe 15 local filmmakers (picked through script or pitch reviews) to use to make films which it will in return show and use ticket and merchandise sales and probably donations to fund the next round. It'd be like it's own local micro-budget studio system. It'd be even better if there was some kind of rental house involved for providing equipment to the selected filmmakers...but this is starting to sound like a utopia...and like you said, Alex, the equipment is so cheap that if we just gave money to the filmmakers they could buy their own equipment and therefore would really be investing in each filmmaker's future, assuming they make more than one film with that equipment. And if we build a network between these filmmakers, a large network of equipment then becomes available to the people involved eliminating the need for a rental house and ultimately saving money. So it's not just the people, but their gear that provide incentives to joining this network.

Maybe if/when MSFF comes back, it could try to be like that.

I don't think the films should have to be about Louisiana either. That's incredibly restricting, and in the end I'm not really sure why that would benefit anyone.

As far as local policy goes, free or discounted locations and equipment is good, but any kind of tax incentive is completely out of the question for micro-budget projects because I don't know any micro budget filmmakers that work within the system and pay taxes on their projects in the first place because they aren't running their productions as registered businesses...unless they're porn. Tax incentives wouldn't help me at all.

These are essentially glorified home movies or large scale art projects which require a lot of resources to make.

It's tricky though because it's easy to go from wanting a $10,000
budget to a $50,000 budget to a $100,000 budget, and the risk and overall model changes substantially even though those are all microbudget projects technically. With a $100,000 budget you kind of need to recoup some of that money. With a $10,000 budget you can pretty freely just make it and not have to worry about making money back. I'd like to see Shreveport cultivate a $10,000 budget program for simply allowing local filmmakers to make their movies and not worry about distribution. This would make the prospect of at least trying to make a decent film a lot more practical to people.

I think it's easy for kids to make home movies, but it's the next step that's a lot harder. And I feel like right now Shreveport is more interested in sparking interest in the kids and training local crew than helping the local crop of emerging filmmakers get projects made.

In the end I think we need more help making movies than showing them. And I don't mean through education either because that in and of itself is a major time and money commitment that can easily get watered down by the rest of education, and doesn't guarantee results any more than doing it on your own. Also, you can go anywhere to learn about filmmaking (including the internet), and it will be really hard for Shreveport to have competitive film education...and in the end a lot of filmmakers don't even like the idea of film education. The Kubrick model says the best way to learn is by doing, so Shreveport should help us do.

Alexandyr Kent said...

Good points.

But ahhh! Don't say "if and when MSFF comes back." Just say it's coming back. Don't ruin my Tuesday! Bring it back, I command you! And the stuffed bear! And the T-shirt, which I wear too often.

A movie world without sauce is a movie world not at all.

Evan said...

Haha. We're just on a little bit of a hiatus while "Moviesauce Films" tries to make a feature film.

Chris Lyon said...

Evan, concerning there being no reason for the state to incentivize low budget films (including shorts):

There is a reason. In a word, it's retention. If filmmakers are supported, they are less likely to leave to places like Austin, L.A., etc. Investment in a continued growth of creative talent should always be fostered. Talented workers have a history of leaving Louisiana more than staying and so simply fostering a film community could encourage not only retention, but perhaps growth from other communities coming in.

Can't wait to hear about your feature. Found a RED in Shreveport, by the way :)

Evan said...

I totally support that train of thought, but I just don't imagine a state government thinking that way or seeing the worth in fostering a creative community especially in such a specialized area (i.e. short films), when it probably thinks it's already doing that with it's larger tax incentives. And that would be the only benefit, and also you have to figure in the likelihood probably based on population of that community growing into something substantial enough to justify the state putting money into it. We have a long way to go before we can match Austin or L.A. in terms of creative opportunities...and that goes beyond just the film world.

I imagine it having to be more of a grassroots movement than a top down movement. We'd have to prove ourselves before the state would get on board. And also considering how arts are being affected in this economy, I think a short film program would be the last place the state would put money.

For the best results I think it'd have to be done privately and locally. Maybe the city government could do something, but still a private organization would be the best bet, I think.

WRT RED, awesome. I'm holding out for a Scarlett. I'm counting on having one by January for the shoot. They're supposedly still on for a "late summer" release.

Chris Lyon said...

I agree- a short film community would be difficult to foster. I really meant for that to mean micro-budget films of all lengths- not just shorts. And you are right again in saying it has to be a grassroots movement. This next year should be fairly big for the low budget filmmakers here in town between your project and several others coming down the pipeline.

Can't wait to have more people back in town. I hope you are staying in Shreveport for the time being.

As far as the RED... I wish I could hold out for a new EPIC or something, but the likelihood is that if the job comes through that I hope it does, purchasing later won't be an option. However, there is a trade-in program where you can apply the full value of a RED ONE to a new EPIC or SCARLET system so that's good news.

JB Jones said...

Oh... You "[sic]ed" me, because I didn't spell benefit properly. Boo.

But I thought of another incentive to local microbudget filmmakers. What if the local media actually reviewed these microbudget movies. I've seen Mr. Kent's reviews of local plays - certainly local movies are not very different. There are dozens of national reviews of the latest Will Ferrel (or Smith) movie or the latest Summer Blockbuster or Faux-English American Melodrama. Why add yet another review of those movies when there are plenty of local movies (or plays or events) to review? It would give the local filmamkers and incentive to get better. Right? And it would give them the much needed press.

Chris Lyon said...

There have been reviews or even previews of local films in the paper before. I'm sure if you made enough noise, Alex could give you a lift. :)

JB Jones said...

Actually, The Times did a very nice write-up on my most recent masterpiece, but I felt like critiques would keep us better on our toes as filmmakers.