May 21, 2009

Jet's film financing story

Reader Jet tells about trying to make a Native-themed film:Why there aren’t more Native Americans on the silver screen: One film producer’s story.

Recently, much has been written in blogs and in the Native American press about the overwhelming lack of a “Native American” presence on the big screen.

With the world-wide success of the top-grossing, Oscar-winning film, “Slumdog Millionaire,” a movie shot in India, with a cast mostly unknown in the Western hemisphere, people are asking:

”Why not American Indians?”

I can tell you why through my own personal real-life experience trying to produce a “Native American” themed feature film for the big screen.

I am “non-aboriginal” independent filmmaker with twenty years experience teaching, writing, producing, and directing film. I’ve seen my films in theaters and festivals and I’ve won awards.

Five years ago, long before I had ever even heard of “Slumdog Millionaire,” I decided to put my energy into producing a feature film that revolved around a fictional Native American family.


Because we have all seen Indians get shot from horses. We’ve all seen the historical reenactments. We’ve all seen the “savages” and “sidekicks.”

What about the Native Americans who served in the armed forces and fought for what they knew was right, even though they were treated as less-than-equal by the country they fought for, yet they continue to wear their uniforms with pride to this very day?

What about the Native Americans who “walk both paths”? Who hold their culture close to their hearts while finding success in a very “white” world?

How about an entertaining story that could “cross-over” and appeal to a wider audience, yet honor the culture portrayed in the movie…and perhaps tear down a few stereotypes along the way?

That’s the story I wanted to tell: A coming-of-age story about the power to overcome.

Going to work

I researched stories and read articles. I worked with a Native American writer who is also a Harvard graduate in Native American history. I brought in Native consultants, and added Native American associate producers.

I put a casting policy in place where only Natives Americans would be cast in Native American roles. What a concept!

But that decision meant I couldn’t attach any “A” list actors--Johnny Depp, Tom Cruise, Tom Hanks, or any one of the many faces you usually see on movie posters or DVD covers--because there were no lead parts for any “A-list” actors in our “American Indian” film.

The standard film financing model that banks upon “star power” may not apply to our film, but many, many, films have been made outside the Hollywood “star” system.

The script soon attracted the attention of a well established executive producer, a man who has delivered more than $50,000,000 in profits for independent film investors while working with some of the biggest “names” in the business.

He has access to foreign and domestic film distributors, which means the potential for theatrical, cable and DVD sales. With him came the relationships that he had built for over twenty years at the largest film and television markets in the world: Cannes, London, Berlin, and L.A.! He brought a well-proven knowledge of the independent film business.

We attached a leading production designer who had worked on high-profile “blockbuster” films like “Star Wars” and “Harry Potter.” We were able to bring on an Emmy-award-winning group of visual effects artists who had also worked on some of the highest grossing films and television shows ever produced.

We now had an experienced team with the ability to put something beautiful on the screen along with a plan to finding the film distribution.

The pieces were falling into place, but we needed funding.

Even though record-breaking revenues were being seen at the box office, the flow of money needed to finance films slowed to a trickle when the recession started and the business of trying to fund any independent film soon got even more difficult…but that also creates opportunities.

Finding opportunity in the face of adversity! That is what our film is about!

It all comes down to supply and demand: The fewer films being produced means less competition for sales in the marketplace…but you have to have your film completed or at least “in the can.”

Looking for money

We tried to attract private investors with the financial incentives guaranteed by the government for film production.

In the United States, any film project that falls within our budget range gets a full 100% tax “write-off” on all production and marketing costs. Any profits that are realized after the film is released are taxed at a reduced rate as well.

Many states and provinces offer guaranteed cash rebates, some up to 55%, when a production is completed within their borders. This translates into more “movie” on the screen for a lot less investment, and money back in the investor’s pocket when the film is completed.

That has not proved to be enough.

There are literally thousands of unproduced scripts that follow the Hollywood formula. That’s why there are so many sequels, or remakes, and adaptations of comic books, bestselling novels, or “rehashes” of other films…most with no parts for Native American performers in a leading role.

It all comes down to this:

Those who finance films get to choose what…and who…the movie-going audience sees on the big screen.

What about the tribes? What about all that “casino money” we hear so much about?

The tribes I have met with have done some outstanding things with the profits from their casinos, but for the most part, “casino money” can only be used for government and other nonprofit projects. Feature film production doesn’t fall into either of those categories.

It’s a Catch-22:

Even though many tribes are diversifying and embracing new enterprises, the business of filmmaking is one that very few tribes have experience in, but the only way to create a greater, more positive, “Native American” presence in films is for the tribal community to help finance film productions and get involved in the independent film community.

Only then will Native Americans be better represented in films. Period.

Until then, we’ll get to see a few “Hollywood” Indians on the big screen and independent filmmakers will be forced to produce films that are easier to find funding for.

I hear Johnny Depp has been cast as Tonto in the remake of the Lone Ranger.

Keep the faith, and I hope someday I’ll see you in the movies.

Comment:  Thanks for sharing your experiences, Jet.

A few points:

  • "Much has been written in blogs and in the Native American press about the overwhelming lack of a 'Native American' presence on the big screen"...most of by me! <g>

  • Native representations in movies improved from 1950 to 2000 within the Hollywood studio system. There's no reason they can't continue improving within the Hollywood studio system.

  • I think gaming tribes can reinvest their casino income in other businesses as long as the profits ultimately benefit the tribe. If they can invest in hotels, golf course, and sports teams, I think they can invest in movies.

  • As you may recall, Jet and I have debated some of these issues before. For more on the subject, see Tribes Should Make Movies and No Bottom Line for Native Movies?


    Unknown said...

    Nice try, Jet. Can't say I'm surprised with your results. Your suggestion sounds good on paper but I've been down that road before. BTW, I am an enrolled member of the Rosebud Sioux Tribe (SoDakota) and a microbudget filmmaker temporarily residing in LA. I can draw on several cases for reference but the details are too long for a blog. I have knocked on those doors before. Suffice it to say I came away empty handed. The Native American Film Commission was created on the promise there would be funds from local casino tribes. After it was created the same deep-pocket tribes turned their back on it. For the most part tribes are interested in seeing more Native American movies but they are unwilling to set aside monies for production(s) or development. I am seriously thinking about writing a book on Native American films and film-makers. Also, what the heck is a Native American themed movie? I only know how to make Native American movies... period. I guess my genre trumps your theme because my narrative stories and protagonists come from a Native American point of view. You bet we are tired of being side kicks or the supporting cast to Anglo leading actors. Why would you hire a Harvard man anyway? If I wanted a technical advisor I would go to Sinte Gleska University. I'm not trying to discourage you. I'm just saying there is a right way to do it then there is the pounding your head into a brick wall way of doing things. I have two recommendations that start with building a strong business plan then targets foreign equity and foreign pre-sales. There's always hope. The other avenue is webisodes where you get to retain all creative control, ownership, and you pick your own cast & crew. Here's a true & sad fact of life: The further Native Americans move, geographically, away from their reservations the more they are appreciated. East Europeans, Pacific Rim peoples, Latin Americans, and other indigenous people love Native Americans. You should add that to your sales pitch. Maybe I should mention 2 of my 6 college degrees are in foreign area studies and I'm multi-lingual. Can your Harvard man say the same? Have your people call my people and we'll do lunch, Jet. Bonus! There is another approach to attacking the problem, and I am currently testing my theory on the benefits of pop surrealism.

    Rob said...

    Lisa Savy James, writer/producer of Defying Gravity, e-mailed the following note:

    The tribes should absolutely finance movies about Native Americans. For one thing, they can retain complete creative control, and employ as many Native Americans as they want both in front of and behind the camera.

    This would definitely benefit their culture in the long run. I would suggest something like an adaptation of 'The Bean Trees' by Barbara Kingsolver, about the decision of the Navajos (or some other tribe I can't quite remember) to "recall" the Native children adopted out to white families.