Saturday, June 17, 2000

Independent filmmakers need investors first

Not every picture turns a profit

By Cliff Peale
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        From a scattering of desks, chairs and computers in a loft overlooking Monmouth Street in Newport, Duffy Hudson, Alan Forbes and Will Benson are building a small business from the ground up.

        Instead of a patent, this business has a movie screenplay. Instead of heavy equipment, it has a schedule for filming. And instead of cash in the bank, it has Lynda Carter, known to a generation as star of the 1970s hit Wonder Woman.

(Glenn Hartong photo)
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        The company has one big product: the feature film that Cincinnatus Motion Picture hopes to complete next year, Tattered Angel.

        But thousands of miles from the glory that is Hollywood, the founders must do the grunt work of raising seed money, using that to find bigger investors and then — they hope — reaching a profit.

        “It's very speculative,” said Mr. Benson, who works in Cincinnati directing television commercials and short films. “There's the possibility of a very big return. There's also the possibility of an equally big loss. ... It's done all over the country, and we need to do it with private money here in town.”

        For Mr. Benson, Mr. Hudson and Mr. Forbes, any financial riches still are years away. But like small businesses from shoe stores to pony kegs, they are laying the groundwork now.

        The difference is that in the movie industry, each film starts the whole process over again. While stars like Michael Douglas film major studio movies like Traffic in Cincinnati streets, there are at least half a dozen other independent films in various stages of planning or financing.

        “It's a long, tedious process,” said Lori Holladay, executive director of the Greater Cincinnati and Northern Kentucky Film Commission. “There are so many pieces to put in place. You have to get people and talent, and the people doing the funding have to like the script.

        “You have to really believe in the project.”

        With these business owners, that's not a problem. Mr. Hudson, a Mount Lookout native, wrote the script of Tattered Angel. He met Ms. Carter while on acting assignments in New York, and she has agreed to star in the movie.

        Mr. Forbes and Mr. Benson are local film veterans. Together with Mr. Hudson, they started to raise money last summer.

        Helped by a party at the home of local arts patrons John and Ruth Sawyer, they raised about $10,000 last year from private investors. That supported operations until now, including an attorney and an advertising agency.

        This year, they have raised another $10,000 from half a dozen other sources. They will use that to go after other big money, with sources ranging from local “angel” investors to big companies like Anheuser-Busch, which often pays to see movie heroes drinking Budweiser instead of another brand.

        The goal? Raising at least $700,000 to support half a million dollars in production costs and more than $200,000 in post-production work.

        Already, the group has conquered one barrier. Many films get hung up in post-production, the process of finishing the film with sound and music after shooting, Mr. Hudson said.

        But thanks to a longtime friendship with Mr. Benson, the operators of Lightborne Communications Inc., an Over-the-Rhine post-production shop, have agreed to handle those duties in exchange for a share of the profits.

        Lightborne gets similar requests to read dozens of scripts a year and has helped out other local, low-budget movies, Lightborne president Fred Hecht said.

        “Honestly, we have yet to see one of these things come to screen,” he said. “The romance of filmmaking clouds the minds of many to the reality of getting the product into distribution.”

        Tattered Angel is a suspense drama about a man who encounters a mysterious past when he goes home for his mother's funeral.

        Mr. Benson insists that the movie is not an artistic whim, but a real commercial enterprise. To convince investors, he and his partners tout the built-in advantages of having Ms. Carter and Lightborne Communications on board. Then they start talking profit.

        “We know there are a lot easier ways to make money,” he said. “At the same time, we know it's a business, and we're doing this to sell it.

        “If nobody buys it, it's like opening a restaurant and nobody comes. The difference we have is Lynda Carter. With her, it would be almost impossible that we would not sell the film.”

        Investors in the film will get one of 5,000 “units” of revenue for each $100 they invest. While the value of each unit has yet to be determined, investors will get their initial investment back immediately after the film is sold, according to a document distributed by Cincinnatus.

        After that, the company will pay any crew members or other vendors who agreed to defer payment, and then pay any outstanding debt. Only then will Cincinnatus Motion Picture and the investors split any profits equally.

        “Our money is at the end,” Mr. Hudson said.

        Once the film is shot and post-production work done, Cincinnatus will take it to a “producer's rep.” In exchange for a percentage of the sales cost, that person will market Tattered Angel at film festivals and other places to find a distributor to buy it.

        Mr. Benson acknowledges that finding a buyer has slowed many producers of independent films, but he said comparable films have sold for between $2 million and $10 million.

        Even without going into theaters, the film potentially still could make a profit through foreign outlets, video stores and cable viewings, they said.

        “We really know it's a numbers game,” Mr. Hudson said. “We just have to get in front of enough people.” The Cincinnati Enquirer/GLENN HARTONG Director/producer Will Benson (left) and actor Duffy Hudson are developing their movie, Tattered Angel, from their Newport office. A third partner in Cincinnatus Motion Pictures is Alan Forbes.


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