The Making of an Indie

Producing an independent film requires more than talent. Get a close-up look at the development of these movies from idea to screen.

After completing his first movie, The Ski Trip, in 2005, Maurice Jamal was eager to get back in the director’s chair. “I wanted to tell a story that hadn’t been told before,” says Jamal. He was confident that his debut film, made for just $10,000, would be a calling card for his sophomore effort: Dirty Laundry. Jamal went on to write, direct, and produce the film, a semi-autobiographical account of how the black community deals with homosexuality in its families and churches.

Jamal knew his movie would have a fighting chance to gain distribution if he could get some well-known actors on board. Jamal approached Loretta Devine, known for her roles in the films Crash and Waiting to Exhale, and she loved the script. “It’s an unusual story, and I knew a lot of people would want to see it,” Devine says. She has a starring role in the film, due to hit theaters this fall.

Jamal and his executive producer, Nathan Hale Williams, were then able to persuade Prison Break’s Rockmond Dunbar to join the cast, making the film even more marketable. After meeting the casting challenge, however, they had to leap over a higher hurdle–that of raising roughly $1 million to complete the project.

Welcome to the world of independent filmmaking, so-called because these movies are financed apart from major Hollywood studios. Visionaries produce these films on micro-budgets–typically $3 million or less.

What qualifies as an independent film has blurred a bit over the past decade. Hollywood studios have released films traditionally deemed “art house” fare through specialty divisions. Though tagged with the indie label, films developed by these divisions have budgets well north of $5 million, feature A-list stars, and receive huge marketing and publicity push. For example, the Fox Searchlight Pictures unit of 20th Century Fox released the 2006 hit Little Miss Sunshine, which cost an estimated $8 million to produce. With Fox’s marketing muscle behind it, the film has grossed more than $96 million worldwide and won two Academy Awards. (Several indies have been awarded the Oscar, including Crash, the 2005 winner for Best Picture.)

Most “pure” independent films, however, are produced by renegade auteurs fueled by the prospect of bringing their story to the big screen. Instead of using film, some make movies using less expensive digital camera technology, which is applicable to a variety of platforms, and the demand for original entertainment across platforms–movie theaters, television, the Internet, and mobile devices–continues to increase.

Risky Business
Jamal and Williams pulled everything together to get Dirty Laundry made, determining the budget and forming the production company. An entertainment attorney, Williams was charged with drafting the private placement memorandum, the document that outlines the financial projections and risk analysis for potential investors. The team also tapped a line producer experienced with working on small-budget movies to manage the film set.

Williams’ deal-making began to gel in September 2005 when he gave a copy of the script to Crystal McCrary Anthony, a best-selling author with a roster of well-heeled contacts. She liked the project

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