Disproving the pernicious old saw that those who cannot do, teach, Rick Pamplin has spent decades dividing his time between writing and directing films (including Provoked, 1989 and Hoover, 2000, whose screenplay is included in the permanent collection of the Motion Picture Academy library in Los Angeles), founding and running his own production company (Pamplin Film Company), and teaching various screenwriting classes and seminars (from which about 65 scripts have been sold, many to major studios). His latest film, Movie Money CONFIDENTIAL, merges this twin interest in filmmaking and film education. For, inspired by Louise Levison’s best-selling book Filmmakers & Financing: Business Plans for Independents (1998), in whose many editions Pamplin has been profiled, this feature-length documentary is both a guide for aspiring indie filmmakers (making it a perfect companion piece to Justin McConnell’s Clapboard Jungle: Surviving the Independent Film Business, 2020), and a vivid instantiation of its own lessons.
If, as might be expected from a film both born of and devoted to the independent sector, there is a certain antipathy towards the centralised Hollywood studio model, then it is only natural that Movie Money CONFIDENTIAL should itself, like Pamplin, be based in Florida instead, and show how productions can benefit from making use of regional film commissions and funding bodies. The documentary uses the tried-and-tested model of talking heads to keep the (often contradictory) conversation going on the secrets of film financing – and much as contributor Janet Bloom says that having a big name actor on board can help attract investors, Pamplin demonstrates this by securing interviews with both Salma Hayek (on her involvement in the production of the 2014 animated feature The Prophet) and the local Floridian actor/filmmaker/producer Burt Reynolds. Although the involvement of these two superstars in the doc is relatively minimal, they inevitably come listed at the very top of the IMDb cast list, while the closing credits make the most of off-cuts from the Reynolds interview to commemorate his death a few months after the shoot (this was to be his last film). Their presence is, of course, among other things an exemplification of Janet Bloom’s advice – it may even be what drew her to the project. After all, she, her husband Tom, and a number of other realtors, dentists, vendors and novelists who appear as random-seeming interviewees will turn out to be the very people who invested in Pamplin’s film, making it possible. Contributors K.C Tennison and Bob and Barbara Bell openly use their time on camera to plug their own brands, while Pamplin discusses the ethics of such product placement with his producer Scott duPont. Here, everything is a lesson.
In some cases, that didactic element is literalised. For among the interviews, Pamplin also includes two panel sessions where he, Levison and duPont answer questions from, respectively, teenage pupils at St Andrew’s School in Boca Raton Florida, and adults aspiring to become filmmakers – whom Pamplin ends by thanking for appearing in his movie, in another meta moment. While Movie Money CONFIDENTIAL remains frank and realistic about the extremely high risks involved in helping finance a film (as fundraiser Kim Hickman puts it, “If you can’t afford to lose $10,000 on a card game in Las Vegas in a night’s time, don’t invest in a movie”), it opens with the great indie dream, Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sánchez‘s The Blair Witch Project (1999). For as film finance consultant Levinson, who wrote Blair Witch‘s business plan, explains, it began with a budget not of peanuts as has often been reported, but of $300,000 (“a traditional budget,” she says, “it just pretended not or be”), and went on to make $350 million worldwide – an extraordinarily enviable return on investment by any reckoning.
Part and parcel of Blair Witch‘s success was a great hook: a carefully contrived verisimilitude that, to this day, viewers mistake for real, raw footage. Sure enough, the takeaway messages of Pamplin’s film are that the key to a pitch for investment will always be story, but that creatives must also have a head for business, salesmanship and the law; that, given the improbability of the big studios funding or even noticing an unknown novice, you have to be proactive in hitting up relatives, friends, acquaintances and complete strangers for money; and that contacting people face-to-face or by phone is worth more than online crowdfunding or requests via social media. In another lesson by example, we see Pamplin in a car casually pitching his next project to the people who have just invested in this current one. The instructions are clear: form and use networked relationships, understand and exploit the resources available outside Los Angeles, and – most importantly – don’t just dream, do. You might even end up with a finished film like this one, whose very making we are here invited to observe.
strap: Veteran filmmaker Rick Pamplin’s documentary offers lessons in the financing of independent films, with itself as self-referential example
© Anton Bitel