Independent filmmakers are stretched further than ever these days. While there are several Internet-based solutions to issues of fundraising, audience building and distribution, there are few places for indie filmmakers to turn to help them pull it all together. That's why it's always refreshing when I talk to people who are trying to solve these larger problems in the indie space.
"The problem with indie filmmakers is that they're one-man bands," Thunder Studios CEO Rodric David tells me. "You need a studio partner."
David has launched Thunder Funder, an initiative that will invest in up to 12 different independent film projects annually to the tune of $1 million. And while that amount of money is pocket change for a studio film, it can help indie filmmakers launch careers.
"I think we're going to have the opportunity to sort through some high-quality projects," says David.
David, who made his money in private equity, has been using his space at Thunder Studios for commercial work for companies like Progressive auto insurance, music videos for the likes of Rhianna and Daft Punk, reality shows like "Motor City Masters," and for short-run narrative series like "Spoils of Babylon." The studio, however, has gone largely underused by the independent film community, something David is looking to change.
In addition to financing up to 12 films a year, David wants to partner with filmmakers to help them with aspects of filmmaking that are almost as important as what winds up on screen. Thunder Funder filmmakers will receive assistance with everything from legal, social media and P&A spending to submitting projects for the California tax credit lottery.
The announcement was initially greeted with skepticism from the independent film community because of the $300 application fee for the funding. David describes the fee as a barrier to frivolous entries.
"We're not profiting off of the fee. We really just want to make sure that the projects are ready for production. The fee makes filmmakers think twice before applying," says David.
And David makes clear that this is a money-making endeavor. He's looking for projects that will fit with what can be produced at Thunder Studios or take advantage of the Long Beach area.
"We make no apology that we're in it to make money," says David. "The projects need to be opportunistic for us."
David sees profitability in smaller projects if he can help indie filmmakers along the way. A portion of his million dollar investment will be in-kind services, like access to Thunder Studios' Long Beach-based complex, which is 150,000 square feet with 20 soundstages and one of the largest green screens on the West Coast. David is partnering with industry names like Red Camera and Pace Pictures for post-production, and he just announced that he has also acquired Martin Guigui's production company Sunset Pictures. He also added crowdfunding site IndieFilmFunding.com to his acqusitions not only to drive in additional investment, but also to engage audiences early in the life of the film.
"Crowdfunding is the commencement of audience engagement for film projects, and we believe it is a potent foreteller of a film's potential to succeed financially," says David. "By addressing investment risk, Thunder Studios hopes to increase investor certainty in independent films."
But he's not only looking to define financing and production, but distribution as well.
"Exhibitors take 55 percent of the box office. Distributors take 30 percent," says David. "Print and advertising take the rest. It's almost impossible for an independent film to make money on a theatrical release."
And he doesn't see much opportunity for indie filmmakers in the current streaming marketplace either. While David admires Netflix's own commitment to original content, he's critical of Netflix's overall business model which requires deals with Hollywood.
"Six companies control 90 percent of the content," complains David. " And every piece of content is controlled by a complicated series of legal agreements. Legacy agreements are preventing better content distribution deals ...This whole industry is burdened by a legacy structure."
To that end, David wants to add redefining indie distribution to his list of to-dos as well. He sees an ad-based model that will get indie creators a reasonable rate for their content, while audience and marketers remain satisfied with extremely targeted product pitches.
"There is no reason not to know your audience by name, age, sex and geolocation," David says of his aim to create online distribution that allows marketers to reach niche audiences, but still pay rates that pay content creators' salaries.
"The technology exists today to give content away for free," says David. "Creating barriers to viewership is not a great way to increase profits. There will be a global audience for our content."