Filmmakers get help in funding

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ATLANTA - Independent producer Ashley Epting had little trouble finding a script, a location, actors and experienced crew when he filmed The Hill in Athens this summer, but finding investors to pay for it all was another story.

"A lot of independent filmmakers will approach IMAGE (Independent Media Artists of Georgia Etc.) or the (Georgia) Department of Economic Development about fundraising, which is the hardest part at this level," he said from Los Angeles.

Neither IMAGE nor the state agency is geared toward introducing producers to investors.

"That's not really our job as a state office," said Bill Thompson, the director of the department's Film, Video and Music Office.

Seeing the need to fuel the state's growing independent-film industry, a group of Georgia-based movie veterans in January launched CECIL, the Committee on Entertainment Capital, Investment and Legislation.

CECIL held its first seminar June 2 to let successful producers share advice with newcomers such as Mr. Epting on topics such as how to write a business plan, pitch a proposal and take advantage of the tax incentives on state and national levels. CECIL will conduct similar sessions during this fall's film festivals in Savannah and Rome.

"That's been one of the most progressive things to happen so far in this state," Mr. Epting said.

With a projected 30 independent movies being filmed in Georgia this year, the industry has become a growing economic force. And independent producers have been more open to film in locations outside of Atlanta, such as Carrollton and Blakely, where movies completed production this summer.

That's why legislators were eager to sweeten the state's tax incentives in the previous session, a bill that easily passed but was vetoed because an unrelated tax break was tacked on.

One of CECIL's goals is to lobby for its passage next session and to recommend more creative policies, said group spokesman Pete Ballard, the vice president of Atlanta-based Lab 601, an 8-year-old movie editing operation.

"Films will go where the money is," Mr. Ballard said. "That's a way to co-op some of the tax incentives ... if we can present a place where people can get cash. That's more powerful than tax incentives."

Mr. Ballard envisions a day when CECIL or some other group will create a mechanism for investors and producers to find each other. Such a mechanism might resemble venture-capital pitch sessions that have become common in the world of start-up high-tech companies.

It would help investors sort through the intricacies of motion-picture contracts while guiding filmmakers to think more about the business side of their jobs.

Mr. Thompson said Mr. Epting's business plan is a model for how independent producers should deal with investors.

This new model promises that investors will get the return of their original investment before the producers are paid, and then profits are split evenly.

Wall Street professionals who have begun putting money into movies have insisted that deals be more above-board and transparent, halting the so-called "Hollywood accounting" which assured that no movie seemed to turn a profit.

Instead of luring the wealthy to part with a little "fun money" in exchange for the chance to attend cocktail parties with movie people, today's producers structure deals to resemble other investment choices.

"Investors' risks are minimized," Mr. Thompson said. "These small, independent ventures are often tightly written. They are very well conceived. And there is almost, but not quite, a guaranteed market for them."

Mr. Ballard says education is the key to reaching the many Georgians who might invest.

"Relative to the population of high-net-worth investors who could invest in film as an alternative, we have just barely scratched the surface," Mr. Ballard said.

Reach Walter Jones at (404) 589-8424 or walter.jones@morris.com


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