Learn How Famous Directors Funded for their Debut Movies: Funding Your Film

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The secret art of finding funding for your first project as a filmmaker can be incredibly frustrating and daunting. You’ll be glad to know that even some of the gods of Hollywood have gone through these first agonizing initial steps. Perhaps we can learn from their experiences on how they got their first projects going.

The Coen Brothers


Frances McDormand in her very first role for the Coen’s Blood Simple

Blood Simple [1984]

For their debut film Blood Simple, the Coen’s made a short trailer that emphasized action, blood and guts.  It was short and therefore inexpensive and included an effective original soundtrack (no expensing licensing fees). They took this trailer around for about a year to people’s homes and raised the funds.

Their target was to raise $750,000 for the movie. They started shooting once they got up to $550,000. They raised money in New York, Minneapolis and Texas. It ended up being about sixty-five investors in the movie, most of them in five-or ten-thousand-dollar increments.

“If you call up people and you say “Can you give me 10 minutes so I can present an opportunity to invest in a movie? ” they are going to say “No I don’t need this” and hang up the phone. But it’s slightly different if you call up and say “Can I come over and take ten minutes and show you a piece of film?” That gets your foot in the door.” Joel Coen

The investors were small business people, dentists, and entrepreneurs who had started small business themselves.

“The interesting thing that we learned in retrospect is that with this kind of high-risk speculative investment, it’s fine if you never make a dime because everybody who goes into it is quite savvy from a risk-reward point of view.” Joel Coen

Rian Johnson

Brick [2005]

Rian Johnson’s story of making his first film Brick is a great example of the determination and stamina you need to make it in this business.  Written at 23 when he was fresh out of film school, filming would begin the day before his 30th birthday.

He struggled to raise the finance for the film and kept the roof over his head by editing promos:

 “… it’s the hardest thing in the world to get someone to write a cheque to make a movie. “ Rian Johnson

“You never know who will be able to help you, or who will know someone who can help you…”


After six long years of people dropping in and out of the project the writer/director decided to rethink his approach. Eventually, Johnson decided that funding Brick would be an exercise in making the most of not very much. “We tightened our belts and figured out the very lowest amount of money that we could get this shot for on 35mm film, and then passed the hat to friends and family” Those inner circles provided most of the final budget in return for executive producer credits for their contributions. Eventually it would be his own family who would stump up the initial $200k investment in Brick, which cost a total $450k to make. His cousin Nathan composed the music for the film.

After years of slogging in the film industry, Johnson has several tips to offer new filmmakers. When it comes to getting your script distributed, don’t have discerning tastes. Johnson suggests that “rather than take a sniper approach to getting your script out there, be a shotgun” . Show your script to anyone and everyone; you never know who you’ll meet.

Christopher Nolan

A scene from Christopher Nolan’s debut Following (1998)

Following [1998]

Nolan’s Following was designed to be extremely low budget. Since the cast and crew had fulltime employment on weekdays, the film took over a year to complete. Shot on weekends. Nolan shot about 15 minutes of footage each day. The film was self-funded from Nolan’s own salary earned directing corporate videos. The budget was approximately $6,000 the 16mm film stock being the productions greatest expense.

Terence Malick

Martin Sheen and Sissy Spacek in Terence Malick’s Badlands (1973)

Badlands [1973]

Regarding funding his debut film straight out of film school, Malick said “It was financed like a Broadway play – that is on a limited partnership arrangement with a lot of investors who didn’t know one another each coming in for a small piece, anywhere from $1,000 to $50,000.” (the budget on Badlands was supposedly under  $500k though Malick reveals he had been advised to say that.)

The writer-director-producer took no salary and contributed roughly $25,000 from his screenwriting earnings on the way to rustling up half the $300,000 budget. A matching sum arrived courtesy of Ed Pressman, who was soon to launch a series of uniquely ambitious American independent films by channeling funds from his family toy business.

Benh Zeitlin

Scene from Benh Zeitlin’s Beasts of The Southern Wild

Beasts of the Southern Wild [2012]

The story behind Beasts of the Southern Wild’s funding begins with Benh Zeitlin shooting his short film, 2008’s Glory at Sea, he moved to New Orleans nine months after Katrina and maxed out his credit cards to about $37,000. He was able to get out of debt thanks to an insurance payout that came after a drunk driver hit his car on the way to Glory’s South by Southwest premiere. (Incidentally, he won an award; his friends brought it to him in the hospital.)

Most of Beasts’s small $1.3 million budget came from New York nonprofit Cinereach. They’d seen Glory at Sea and decided to fund Zeitlin’s next movie, giving him full control over casting, two years of editing time, and final cut. Still, money was tight, hence the amateur cast and an 80-plus person crew made of seasoned professionals and friends working for next to nothing. Zeitlin estimates that if Beasts had been shot conventionally, it would have cost between $10 million and $14 million.

Stanley Kubrick

The infamous brutal fight scene from Kubrick’s Killers Kiss (1955)

Killer’s Kiss [1955]

Kubrick made his entrance into the industry with film funded by private investors. Inspired by the pulp crime novels of Mickey Spillane and Jim Thompson Kubrick wrote the script for Killers Kiss.

The film cost about $40,000, with much of the funding provided by Kubrick’s uncle, a New York drugstore owner.

Most of the locations in the film were within a few minutes’ walk of Kubrick’s apartment.

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