Getting an indie film distributed is as tough as producing it
Have you ever fantasised about making a movie? Perhaps you have a script rolling around in your head that you think would delight and dazzle audiences, along with a casting plan culled from Hollywood's A-list of talent.
But beware. Filmmaking ranks somewhere alongside opening a restaurant in terms of ventures that can seem fun and compelling, but which ultimately are likely to drain your wallet and break your heart. Even if you succeed in making an independent film, it's usually difficult to get it distributed.
This brings us to our cautionary tale about Jason Sankey, 32, and Uri Schwarz, 33. The pair recently completed shooting their first independent feature film, Stories Forlorn. It took them 10 years to finish the project. Funding was a nightmare, and the film has yet to get a public screening.
Sankey and Schwarz studied drama and theatre together at Island School in the 1980s. Their film is based on a poem Sankey wrote as a teenager, which he turned into a novel when he was 23.
It's a coming-of-age tale about expats and local kids in Hong Kong private schools, set against the backdrop of the 1997 handover. The handover acts as a metaphor for a teenager's search for identity.
The setting of the story presented the first big problem. Few were interested in making a Hong Kong film told from an expat perspective. Film financiers wanted to change the script "to include a China theme to improve its marketability", Sankey says. "I outright rejected that because it was so alien to my vision."
Sankey got his first big boost when local actress Maggie Q read the novel and encouraged him to adapt it into a script. Unfortunately, no movie deal or monetary advance came with the encouragement. Sankey made a living as a copywriter while working on his script at night.
At the same time, Schwarz was studying film at Emerson College in the US and honing his craft through internships at Star TV and directing short films. The two reconnected in December 2001 and decided to turn Sankey's book into a movie.
Schwarz relocated to Las Vegas in the early 2000s, and discovered it was teeming with entertainment entrepreneurs. He managed to raise US$100,000, and worked to establish his track record as a director, cinematographer and producer.
In 2009, Sankey and Schwarz made a trailer of their movie for HK$30,000, which they planned to use as part of their business plan to raise the funds needed to complete principal shooting. But things were put on hold for the rest of 2009, as the stress of the project strained their relationship.
After another substantial rewrite, they kicked off their fundraising with a trailer release party in early 2010. Sankey and Schwarz committed much of their savings to the project. Friends and family came in as investors. Sankey says the pitch to friends and family was essentially that breaking even was a real possibility, and that they hoped to return everyone's money.
Sankey and Schwarz managed to raise HK$1.2 million, most of which was spent on the crew and the equipment. They are still seeking another HK$500,000 to complete post-production, and use for the marketing of the film. "Now we have a completed film, it is much easier to talk to investors," Schwarz says.
Like any business venture, the execution of the business plan resulted in unexpected occurrences, good and bad. Sankey's extensive network in Hong Kong proved useful for finding locations and recruiting extras. The actual production proved to be an exercise in "guerilla filmmaking", or shooting without official permission.
After 10 years, their film is done, but the biggest hurdle remains. Sankey and Schwarz must market the film and find themselves an international distributor.
They hope to screen the film at film festivals in Tribeca, Berlin and Hong Kong, which are important venues for attracting attention from distributors. Check out their movie trailer at storiesforlorn.com.