Desperately Seeking Funding in Hollywood

Francis James has a vision, and he's got it on film.

Twenty percent of it, that is.

Like many young, independent filmmakers just starting out, he's got a small group of believers, private investors who've gotten him out of the starting gate with initial seed money.

But film, cameras, crews, and talent are expensive, and so Mr. James has come from his home in Louisiana to Hollywood to find his fortune - specifically the approximately $1.8 million he needs to finish his film, "Scenes From a Forgotten Cinema."

His first stop: the American Film Market (AFM), the industry's largest annual trade show. Minus the splashy film festival, it's a sort of green-eye-shade version of the high-profile, celebrity-studded Cannes Film Festival in southern France.

Nonstop networking

He arrives in the lobby, head full of story pitches, pockets brimming with scraps of paper, noting potential contacts. He struggles with the small and large realities of doing business in Hollywood ("I don't need a big car to impress people ... do I?" "I've been trying to reach this producer for a week. She never returns my calls...."). He reviews the personal feelings that must now flow forth with the glib ease of a Fuller Brush salesman, forestalling a door being shut in his face.

"I want to tell stories that haven't been told before," he grimaces as he practices these words, feeling their overfamiliarity as he says them. "I mean, I know there's no such thing, but what I want to do is make the world fresh, tell about it with the heart and quality that will make people see the vision that I see."

His movie, a Walter Mitty-esque black-and-white/color comedy, is about a middle-aged man who "has to wake up to what he has. I call it a story of redemption."

The market lasts only 10 short days. James has no illusions that he will fund his movie during that time, but he does hope to make the contacts that will lead the way.

Next to the last day of the market, he catches a break. The independent producer he's been tracking, a friend of a friend, stands up at a seminar to ask a question and identifies herself. When the session is over, James waits patiently as she conducts her own business, and then they talk. Her name is Pat Russell.

James leads with his strongest card. His first film, a micro-budget ($40,000) educational movie that was funded with four grants and three television distribution deals, is being screened at the Los Angeles office of the Directors Guild of America (DGA) March 29.

Ms. Russell jumps right in. "You need a visual from the film. Send out the postcards to all the agents in town. Follow up with a phone call and get them to see your movie. Then you can talk about this next one."

A discussion of the particulars ensues. "How do I get all those names?" queries James. "Go to the DGA," instructs Russell. "You can get a list there."

New talent welcome

In the few short hours that remain of the AFM, James continues phoning contacts who were too busy to see him during the busiest opening days.

Although new to Hollywood, James has more business savvy than most young filmmakers, being a triple threat writer/director/director of photography with his own camera. He also negotiated all three distribution deals for his first film. Now, he knows just what he wants - a co-producer.

Lars Bjorck, president of Tradewinds Entertainment Corp. in Calabasas, Calif., which both markets and develops films, muses that James looks promising after perusing the sales material that James has personally created on his home computer. "We look for high-quality independent films that we would like to watch ourselves," he explains. "We're always looking for new talent."

Although he is too busy readying his current crop of films for the coming festival in Cannes, Mr. Bjorck says that if he were to work with a newcomer like James, the financial structure needed to finish the film would be fairly simple, given the small size of the budget: roughly 30 percent in equity (private investment), 40 percent in presales (to either or both of the domestic and international film or television markets), and gap financing for the rest through a bank (money provided by a bank against predicted future earnings).

The soft-spoken Southerner is heartened by this response and vows to follow through when Bjorck has more time.

Is James discouraged by the current wisdom coming out of AFM that the market for independents is contracting due to the glut of movies being churned out both in the US and abroad?

"I make movies because that's all I can see my life is for," he nods with a radiant confidence, as he studies a city map. "Los Angeles is very big and confusing. But don't worry, I'll find my place."

He leaves the hotel, his map folded away, but his direction clear.

Francis James has a vision.

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