In the last 13 years independent filmmaking has exploded across the United States. Fueled by the increasing affordability of digital video, the proliferation of high-profile festivals, and the success of movies like The Blair Witch Project, thousands of people from all over the country have begun to picture themselves in the director's chair. But what does it actually take to make a movie without the backing of a major Hollywood studio? Reporter Curtis Gilbert brings us the story of Dâv Kaufman, an aspiring independent filmmaker who has spent the last three years, not writing or filming or editing his movie, but raising money for it.
Dâv Kaufman is 34 years old. He lives in the basement of a suburban Minnesota townhome that he shares with his mother. With his long hair, beard and moustache, he looks as though he would be quite at home camping in the wilderness and he is, but that isn't the first thing he'll tell you about himself. "I'm Dâv Kaufman. I'm an independent filmmaker and a novelist," he says.
For the last two-and-a-half years, Mr. Kaufman has been trying to raise the $1.5 million he needs to produce a movie he wrote called Lake Desire. It's the story of a fictional Minnesota town called Desire, whose most beloved resident dies in a boating accident in the first few minutes of the movie. "That sparks off the story and the story then revolves around the magic that's happening after her death in this town as the community bands itself together and copes with this death," he says.
Although Mr. Kaufman may call himself an independent filmmaker, he is anything but alone on this project. Lake Desire has a nine-person film crew and a cast that includes a few TV celebrities, like LA Law's Corbin Bernsen and Darren Burrows, who played Ed Chigliak on the 90's hit show, Northern Exposure.
The two actors signed onto the project in 2001, when they met Mr. Kaufman at an independent film festival. At that point, however, the movie was little more than a script and a business plan. In other words, it was missing one key element: money. So Mr. Kaufman's days are not consumed with writing or casting or filming, but with trying to convince people to invest in his movie. "It's just a lot of busy work right now. It's a lot of getting on the phone and talking to as many people as you can fit in during the day of all different things: investors, sponsors, people that are interested to come on as service providers, things like this. And this has been going on every day for three years," he says.
A single share of Lake Desire costs $15,000, and when investors sign on, they are warned that filming won't begin until the entire budget is secured, so it will be years before they see any kind of return on their money.
So much time has passed, in fact, since the Gander Mountain sporting goods chain came onboard that its new Vice President of Marketing doesn't know how the company ever got involved.
But Jeff Bergman says he doesn't worry much about how long it's taking Mr. Kaufman to begin filming Lake Desire. He sees the movie more as a marketing opportunity for Gander Mountain than as an investment that will produce huge profits. "It's really kind of a gamble, from our perspective," he says. "It was an opportunity for us just to say 'what the heck, let's give them a shotput a little bit into it to support them and just to see where it goes.' Are we expecting anything great out of it? I don't think our expectations are high. Our hopes are. It's kind of like betting on the long shot and just saying, 'Let's see what happens.'"
Producer Dav Kaufman says he knew from the start that development, as this first crucial stage of filmmaking is called, could drag on for years. He also knew that it would cost moneymoney for lawyers, money for phone calls, money for printing and independent filmmakers have to eat, too. It is typical for production houses to take out loans to cover these costs, but this is one area where Lake Desire truly differs from other films. Instead taking on debt, the movie's producers came up with something called a VIP kit. "It's a limited edition autographed script with a VIP badge that people can use to get into the sets. They get first call for walk-on roles. They get automatic entry into the Lake Desire sweepstakes. They've been selling like hotcakes," he says.
The VIP kits cost $500 for an individual and $1,000 for a business. Only 1,000 were produced, so, like a limited edition art print, they will be more valuable. The people and companies who purchase them aren't investing in the film, they're simply buying the chance to be an extra or have their products placed prominently on the set.
Craig Rice is impressed with the concept of a VIP Kit. As Executive Director of the Minnesota Film and TV Board, his job is to foster the entertainment industry in the state. He says Mr. Kaufman's business savvy sets him apart from most other independent filmmakers. "I think what David is doing is he's approaching the making of a film as a business. Normally some of that stuff you don't do until the back end. He's sort of created an ancillary market up front to finance the product. I mean the only thing he's missing is like a record, which he could actually do, too, and start using that to finance the film," he says.
But even a shrewd businessman like Dav Kaufman can't escape the flagging U.S. economy. When I first met him, he had tentatively set August 11, 2003 as the date to begin shooting the film, but as that day neared, it became clear to him that the budget wasn't going to be in place.
Now filming is scheduled for the summer of 2004, once again, tentatively. This is actually the third year in a row that Mr. Kaufman has had to delay shooting his movie. But he remains optimistic. This is normal for a production, he says, in as much as there is a "normal" in the movie industry. And to keep the story of Lake Desire in the public eye, he has turned it into a novel. "I said I'm not going join the route of all the other filmmakers that are like "ok, let's go get a job at Starbucks until the movie industry starts to pick up again." I said "let's do this: Let's form a publishing company, and we'll do it as a sister company to the production company." That's what we did, and it's been phenomenal," he says.
The day I catch up with Mr. Kaufman at a book signing, though, things are not so phenomenal. He stands at a little table in front of a bookstore in the small, touristy, lakefront suburb of Excelsior, Minnesota. The streets are lined with vendors, and teeming with people, all here for the annual "Apple Days" celebration. With all of this foot traffic it would seem to be the ideal place to sell some books, but over the course of two hours, Mr. Kaufman only manages to unload four.
Part of this may have to do with his location. The Lake Desire book-signing table is actually wedged behind another booth, and people walking down the main thoroughfare can't see it at all. "I'm tucked behind the only booth that has like blankets hung and it's blocking my view from the rest of the people, so I think that has a lot to do with it," he says.
Mr. Kaufman says in other townsperhaps given a more prominent locationhe's been able to sell as many as fifty books at a signing. And, as usual, he remains upbeat. "You know, if ten more people find out about Lake Desire, it's always worth the time. If a hundred people find out, if two people find out, it's always worth the time," he says.
For the next year, Mr. Kaufman will tour the state and the country promoting his book. And while Crotalus Productions, his film studio, continues to sell VIP kits and try to recruit enough investors to cover the $1.5 million budget of its first movie, Crotalus Publishing has several more books scheduled for release in the coming months.