Ela Thier is a NYC-based independent filmmaker who has been writing screenplays for 20 years (to the detriment of her school grades when she first started out because she insisted in submitting screenplays instead of essays). But in 2009 Ela was still struggling to get any of her 20+ screenplays sold or made. She decided to take action by sending an open letter to all her friends and acquaintances explaining her frustration.
“One enthusiastic response after another would lead me to hope and end with a bout of weeping on my husband’s shoulder. No matter how familiar and by now, routine, the disappointments would be, the tears would come each time. And after a good cry, or two, or several, I would get up, wipe my knees, and keep going. I often tell other filmmakers who lose heart: when it comes to pass letters, you’re in great company, from Van Gogh to the Beatles to Stephen King to J.K. Rowling.
So the million dollar question is, as one of my writing students once asked after reading two of my scripts: “Why are these scripts not made? What better scripts could people possibly be reading?” After years of learning, practicing, and teaching, after years of query letters, phone calls, meetings, film markets, panels, classes, LA trips, networking, more networking, even more networking, my scripts – those ones that this market reader liked better than the 150 scripts she read that summer – those scripts sit on a shelf. After years of trying and falling and getting up and trying, something finally dawned on me: maybe I’m not the most unlucky bastard that ever lived. Maybe I’m female.”
Ela began to explore whether she was being discriminated against because she’s a woman; but then took it a step further and wondered if she inadvertently discriminated against women too.
“Overall, society’s message to me as a woman born in 1971 is that sexism is a thing of the past. But if I’m ever so liberated, why is it that no matter which direction I turn, I walk into a glass pane and land on my ass? The answer, I’m convinced, is not out there; it’s inside myself. I teach screenwriting and consistently notice the different regard that I feel for my male and female students. No matter how “enlightened” I think I am, I find myself having higher expectations of the guys in the class. I just assume they have more experience, more confidence, more intelligence…? I’ve recently noticed that when I receive quality work from a woman, I feel surprise. When I see amateur work from a man, I think “hmm… for some reason I had him pegged as an experienced writer.” For some reason.”
She decided that if she was going to get her film made she had to take control and raise the money herself. At the end of her letter she asked people to donate $100 to help fund the production of A Summer Rain, a story about two adolescent immigrant girls coming to terms with culture-shock, homesickness and growing up. In return, investors got a $150 film-making/scriptwriting workshop / credit on the finished film / a chance to work on the production. The letter generated a great deal of publicity:
* People were so inspired by Ela’s letter, that it ended up at NPR and they contacted Ela to do a story about it.
* A journalist contacted Ela from Israel to run a story about this letter in Israeli newspapers
* A woman she has never met wrote to tell her that she was so moved by the letter that she had forwarded it to a contact at the White House
And eventually, after all those years, and all that soul searching, after having the courage to just do it, Ela made her short film and it went on to screen at more than 150 venues and festivals and won numerous awards.
Ela faced the same frustrations that many indie documentary filmmakers face – years of backbreaking development work and little to show for it but rejection. Her acts as a reminder, that if you really believe in a project, and you can’t get anyone else to take an interest, you could start looking for other, more creative, ways to get it off the ground. Franny Armstrong did just that to raise the £450,000 budget of eco-doc Age of Stupid.
Here’s the trailer for A Summer Rain:
Ela went on to turn her short film into a full-length feature film, Foreign Letters.
In 2010, she turned to crowd funding again, this time on Kickstarter. She raised more than $19,000 towards her post production budget of $24,000. Cleverly, as Kickstarter has an all-or-nothing funding model that means you don’t get any money if you don’t meet your goal, she set herself a low goal of $12,000, which ensured that she kept all the money she managed to raise.
ForeignLetters has is now available as movie-on-demand on most cable providers in the USA and will be released on DVD in August 2012.
Check out Ela’s crowdfunding tips here.
Read Chapter 9 in Give Me the Money and I’ll Shoot!: Finance Your Factual TV/Film Project to find out more about how to run a successful crowd-funding campaign.