Tuesday, November 3, 2009

What is this about? The long form

I have written a proposal that I hope will lead to a sustainable system of film finance in North Carolina. It’s a path; it’s not the only path. I am inviting you to comment, to question and to criticize in any way that you might believe to be helpful. If the only thing that comes of this is planting the idea that there can be a solution, and that, in turn, leads to someone coming up with a solution somewhere down the road, then this effort will not have been in vain.

Here is the explanation for why I took this on and how I looked at the problem. If you’re not interested in that, then get to straight to the meat of it. THE PROPOSAL

I'll be the first to tell you that I'm a very unlikely character to be taking on this issue. I'm a real estate agent in Wilmington, North Carolina. I don't have a background in finance, and the one day I worked on a film set was spent inside a catering truck.

My exposure to the film industry came through my social circle. Ten or so years ago I fell in with some people who calling themselves Twinkle Doon. Twinkle Doon was a group of independent filmmakers. Their members covered the various skills needed for production, and they volunteered their time to one another to make their individual and group film projects. The Cucalorus Film Festival, which I've been involved with for 12 years, was spawned out of Twinkle Doon.

What followed from meeting these folks were unquestionably the best years of my life. I had discovered a group of people who were creative, smart, funny and highly social. They worked hard, and they played hard. They were well-educated, literate and well paid by local standards. My little group contributed greatly to my own personal quality of life in Wilmington, and it was no stretch to see how the broader film production community was contributing to the quality of life in Wilmington at large. Over the years, they became my clients as well as my friends, and they have been responsible for a considerable portion of my livelihood. I liked what they were doing for me and Wilmington and I wanted to keep them around.

Over years of countless conversations I learned about the film industry and the nature of how it worked in Wilmington. The biggest issue since Dino DeLaurentiis schlepped out of town was that productions were no longer originated here and that the Wilmington film community had grown to rely exclusively on things they could not control to provide them with a livelihood.

Twenty years we have had this problem now.

A few years ago, a fellow of infinite jest (as controversial as he was fun to have around), Eddie Blakely passed away. Eddie had had more fun in his life than most of us would have been able to survive for as long as he did. We held a memorial for Eddie on a sound stage at Screen Gems Studio, and then, as Eddie would have wanted it, we threw him a raucous wake. Somewhere in that evening, I was having a conversation with Tracy Kilpatrick, a local casting agent. Looking back, as you do on such occasions, Tracy was livid over the fact that we had never solved the problem of originating and funding our own projects locally. So there it was again, the age old issue.

I resolved that, upon sobering up, I would give it some thought. Why me? Why not me? Whomever it was that was supposed to solve this problem had missed the bus, or had been run over by it. Who knows, but they had failed to materialize. And things were not getting any better for a group of people I cared about.

So I began to dissect the issues as I saw them.

In the studio system, thousands of scripts are optioned and are under constant development by competent professionals and lunatics alike. Maybe a hundred scripts a year might rise to the level of actually being produced. Successfully contending scripts are often ushered to production by the commitments of stars whose very presence on the bill will bank a predictable number of warm bodies in seats regardless of the quality of the end product. That's how things work in LA.

In Wilmington, traditionally, a dude, who's been out of college for about two years, has written a script that he's sure is going to catapult him into a life of riches and fame if he can only get it produced. His script is based mostly on clichés he's learned from TV and movies over the course of his all too short life. He's going to find himself a pliable grocery chain heiress who, charmed by the idea of being in the movie business, plops down $300,000 and hero is off and running. I won't go into all of the countless reasons why his movie fails from this point forward but, suffice it to say, our investor, the grocery heiress, is done with the film business forever. And so is any potential future investor close enough to pick up the stench of this mess.

A gross over simplification, obviously, but you get the gist.

Please don't think that I have no regard for our local independent filmmakers. I do. They are a very important part of this community; some of them do excellent work. The most important people in the future of North Carolina filmmaking will most certainly arise from their ranks. But I'm trying to solve a different problem: Jobs and economic stability for the production community. First, we provide you with a job where you can hone your skill and feed yourself and your family, and then you make the next Citizen Kane. So bear with me.

What we need is a system that allows investors some hope of an actual return on their investment. Which means we have to develop viable projects. So, we have to have budgets big enough to attract competent producers with quality scripts. And that means some pretty serious money. Beyond that, we have to have the resources to develop multiple projects simultaneously so that they may be produced in succession. Hopefully, those which are successful will cover the losses of those which are not, thus improving our chances of getting an acceptable return on investment. And thus, if we are successful, the amount of available investment capital will grow.

So now we're looking at a very large enterprise that will require competent and connected management with the clout to attract a huge amount of investment capital.

So, the question is, if this is what is needed to get the job done, where could such a thing arise from?

My answer: The State. And by extension, the best available tool suited to the task, the public university system.

Here specifically, from my proposal, is what I want The University of North Carolina System to do for us:

1) Conduct a study of the varying types of film funding institutions existing today with a special emphasis on identifying those that have proven successful both financially and artistically.
2) Report to a committee selected for guiding the process so that this committee may make a determination as to the type of institution we wish to develop.
3) Oversee the process of creating the legal structure of the proposed institution based on preexisting institutions as models.
4) Assist in the selection of a board of directors who will in turn begin the selection of key management positions.
5) Develop a marketing strategy by which this institution will begin the process of seeking investors.

The North Carolina University System brings with it, not only the awesome resources of its faculties in the departments of business and law but, its reputation of excellence. Whatever institution arises from this process will be taken seriously by the investment community.

This will be no quick fix. Academia moves at glacial speeds. I would be surprised (oh, please, please surprise me) to see anything tangible coming out of this in less the five years. However, if we begin arriving at a solution to this twenty year old problem in five years it will be far better than arriving at the thirty year mark with still no solution in sight. So let’s get started.

What I would like for you to do is, read this proposal, give me your thoughts, ask any questions you might have, and share this with anyone you know in the North Carolina production community, regardless of where they are now. Let’s see if we can muster some political pressure that will get the attention of our elected representatives. So please send this link around to your friends in the production, as well as supporters of the community, on facebook, myspace and whatever other contacts you may so we can act together for our mutual benefit.

We are the future of this state. It’s our state, it’s our government, and it’s our university system. Now let’s put them to work for us.

Thanks for your time,
Steve Fox

When commenting please include your name and your usual position in production if you don't mind. But if you're not comfortable with that please feel free to comment anyway.


  1. Hi Steve,
    Very interesting proposal. Hopefully, at the least, you'll spawn a much needed, and overdue, dialogue which will address and clarify the "pavement" of filmmaking, financing and distribution. Wouldn't it be a wonderful thing if we (those who have been in the trenches for 1, 10, 20 or 30 years) could actually put together a team that could compete with Hollywood! Rising above the ultra low budget indies where everyone works for essentially nothing in the name of indie filmmaking art (which is mostly hack bullshit at best). Presently, I'm just here to say "I'm in!" Let's come together, uniting our extraordinary knowledge and experience, and play with the idea.. why not?... Thank you, Steve, for putting it so succinctly on the table.
    Charles "Chaz" Laughon
    Video Playback Tech and Singer/Songwriter

  2. Follow the money.
    You need big dollars for this.
    I agree with you it should originate from NC.
    The first part of the puzzle has ben put in place.
    Economic Impact study done by UNC Charlotte shows a 4.5 Billion dollar impact in the Charlotte region alone in 2008, a slow year in the business.
    Although the study included all film, video and distribution companies and the ancillary businesses impacted by those businesses,i.e. hotel restaurants ect., these numbers will turn big businesses heads.
    A new model for distribution has been in the works with hard drive and
    satellite delivery, but distributors are closing their doors in record numbers.
    The kind of change your talking about is very big.
    Hundreds of millions of dollars, maybe more.
    I like the idea of involving the universities for research.
    Here are a few things to look at
    1.Why are successful film successful?
    2.A new model for P & A.
    3.A new model for distribution.
    4.Last but not least a new model for financing films.

    Question number one is a biggie and it's answers are there but several mathematicians / economist and film geeks need to morph together.
    2 is more attainable with the internet, phones,and computers. In a word Technology.
    3. It's not just about getting the money, it's about number one and risk analyses . As well as many more things to be thought up by people smarter than me.
    Many other pieces to the puzzle but a start is a start.

    Who else is on your side?

    I'm here...

    John Merrick