Over the past ten years most producers and financiers have been deriding the escalating cost of film production. Indie producers have been on a relentless quest to find the elusive "final 20%" of their budgets. They've raised the equity, made the presales, maxed the gap, and still they come up 20% short. This shortfall is often due to the bank's discounting of presale contracts, which wouldn't be a problem if producers stopped trying to finance with gross numbers (see my rant on this.)
Meanwhile, over the same past ten years, producers and financiers have heralded film tax credits for saving the independent film industry in its darkest hour (where escalating budgets have collided with diminished access to capital.)
South Africa and Puerto Rico were among the first to offer 10% to 15% tax credits for shooting in their respective countries. Producers flew in from all over the world to cash on this windfall. Since then, incentives have shot up from 15% to over 40% of local production spending. It stands to reason that the proverbial 20% shortfall matched up against a whopping 40% cash rebate should be a slam dunk for financing -- these films should be financing themselves. So why then are producers still stumbling around trying to fill that final 20% of their budgets? In short, its because producers can't get out of their own way. Rather than using the tax credits to plug a financing shortfall, they instead use the tax credits to subsidize bigger budgets.
The 2008 credit crunch, the demise of over two-thirds of the entertainment lenders, the scarcity of equity, the exodus of hedge funds, and the increasingly conservative lending practices of the remaining banks have lead to a healthy contraction in film production. Not only are fewer films being made, but they're being made for less. Many talent agents had a hard time coming to terms with this and as a result their clients didn't work. After two years of this, they've finally gotten the message. Studio stars are now having to forage for work in the indie meadow and for once they're being cooperative.
With studios and indies making fewer films: gone are the days of fat upfront star salaries and gone are the mandatory rewriting fees for that script you just optioned. Writers and actors are finally playing ball. Post production houses and other vendors are so desperate for clients that they're becoming investors just to get the business. Producers haven't had this much leverage since the 1930's. But yet, they still can't find that final 20%.
Producers are sabotaging themselves by using the tax credits (and vendor investments) as layers in a film's capital structure. In other words, they make their movies by adding up all the money they have:
$3m in equity + $3m presales + $1m gap/mezz + $2m tax credits + $500k vendor investment =========== $9.5m budget.
However, after the bank discounts the presales and deducts their fees and interest, there's going to be a 20%-25% shortfall (or more depending on who your sales agent is) that has to be plugged with additional equity or deferments, which is why most indie producers invariably end up working for free.
Equity investors are already skeptical about the film business. It's hard to try to convince one that your film will be the one that makes enough money to pay off all the debt and fees that they're sitting beneath, as well as their own investment + premium + profit. This is why it's so hard to find equity.
Wouldn't the smarter play be to carve out the tax credit from the capital structure (finance plan) and pledge it to the equity? In that scenario, the example above would now be: $7.5m budget that generates a $1.2m tax credit, or more. In addition, if you don't have somebody lend against the estimated value of the credit, but instead wait for the credit to be certified, then you won't have to pay the 15%-20% that the lender will charge on the value of credit. Within a few months, up to 30% of your equity's investment will be covered. If needed, you can also pledge the vendor investment to the equity to cover any remaining shortfalls (or use that to pay your producer fee.)
Bottom line: actors, directors, and writers all need to work and make money. As such, producers have the opportunity right now to make movies for less, with marketable talent. And using your tax credits to attract investors, who stand to recoup a third or more of their investment within the first year, will be a much easier sell.