The Valley’s homegrown film industry relies on the kindness of strangers. Preferably, rich ones.
Where money is concerned, Arizona is no different than Tinseltown – it’s the thing that talks when you-know-what walks. Financing is the most elusive element of any movie project – except maybe a good script – and therefore the greenbacked flickfunder, more commonly known as the executive producer, is one of the rarest birds in Arizona, and one of the shyest.
“Producer” can be an amorphous term in the movie business – sometimes strictly a business manager, and sometimes a major creative force, conceiving the project, hiring the director and writer and cast, shaping the screenplay. But slap the word “executive” up front, and the role is clear: The One With The Money.
In Arizona’s still-developing homegrown film community, this is likely to mean somebody from another field with a few bucks to invest and a weakness for movies. The horror comedy Netherbeast Incorporated (2007) and other projects by Arizona-bred filmmaking team The Ronalds Brothers were executive-produced by Valley cardiologist Kevin Berman. Ryan Page and Chris Pomerenke’s Queens of Country (2011) was reportedly quietly backed by Cold Stone Creamery honcho David Guarino. Queens of Country was also financed by a stable of lesser investors recruited by Chris McDaniel, a Scottsdale chiropractor and prolific moonlighting movie producer.
Under his Semi-Rebellious Films banner, McDaniel bankrolled such documentaries as The Heart Is a Drum Machine, Blood Into Wine and the upcoming Music City USA, using both his own money and that of investors he rounded up, including his chiropractic patients. “At the bottom of the Blood Into Wine poster I think there’s 17 names, and I think 13 of them were my patients,” the Kentucky native says. “You know very quick whether they’re interested, whether to push it. There are people who really crunch the numbers, and say, ‘27 percent return, eh?’ They’re tough.”
These profit-conscious financers run the gamut in terms of investment. “I may have one guy with ten grand who wants to be a 1 percent shareholder, and one guy with a hundred grand who wants to be a 10 percent shareholder,” McDaniel enthuses.
Others, he says, just want a toehold in the business. “You may not make your money back for 10 years, but you’re going to go to all the premieres, meet the cast, have your name on the poster. Sometimes that’s all they want.”
Such resourcefulness is necessary in Arizona, which has a rich filmmaking history ranging from the chapped Western plains of John Ford’s The Searchers to the extraterrestrial dunes of Star Wars: Return of the Jedi, but is not known as a production-friendly state. In 2010, Arizona’s tax-incentive program for TV and movie production expired, immediately knee-capping Arizona as a destination for such projects. According to Phoenix Film Commissioner Philip Bradstock, the Valley saw $20.6 million in TV and film production during the last year of the program; in 2012, revenue plummeted to $8 million.
The program applied only to projects budgeted at $250,000 or more; as such, the nonexistent tax incentives were irrelevent to students and other grassroots indie filmmakers in Arizona. “But for those local, professional mid-budgeted films like Netherbeast Incorporated, it definitely takes away an incentive [for investors],” Bradstock says.
Given the lack of willing investors, many filmmakers serve as their own purse-masters. Randy Murray held that title even before he was out of college. As his senior project at ASU, Murray developed a weekly music series called Wavelength, which was picked up in 1979 by KTVK Channel 3, then an ABC affiliate, before he graduated. The program, which aired for three seasons, wasn’t owned by the station but by Murray and his wife, Theresa.
“We lost a little bit of money on every show,” Murray recalls. “The roughest lesson I ever had was when my wife would get her paycheck from her job, and we’d use some of that money to meet our payroll for the TV show. Even though the show was a hit and I was getting national exposure, we weren’t able to sell our advertising at a high enough rate to make it profitable.”
Sighs Murray: “I think that’s the most common taste left in an executive producer’s mouth: loss.”
Nonetheless, he and Theresa still head Randy Murray Productions, and their credits include Mitchell 20, a documentary about teachers, and The Joe Show, an upcoming feature-length documentary about Sheriff Joe Arpaio.
Darrin Ramage offers a slightly less rueful take on the biz. “I came from the oilfield business, got laid off, and came out here to Phoenix to stay with my father and stepmother,” says the Taft, California native. “I was trying to figure out what to do with my life, and my father asked me what I liked. I said I liked cars, and I liked watching horror movies.”
After a stint at Showcase Honda, Ramage shifted towards his other passion. Starting in the mid-’90s, he would executive produce 18 microbudgeted films with titles like The Witches’ Sabbath and Zombies Anonymous.
“I financed them,” he says, proudly noting that “I can spend $6,000, and make it look like $350,000.” Ramage now runs Brain Damage Films and Midnight Releasing, acquiring and distributing a large catalog of low-budget shockers. “Distribution is 95 percent of my business now,” he says.
With the apparent thawing of the recession – and with a new tax credit incentive bill kicking around the legislature, championed by Arizona State Senator Al Melvin and other lawmakers – Arizona filmmakers may be seeing more of the greenbacked flickfunder.
But if not, resourceful Arizona auteurs like McDaniel will find a way. For the chiropractor, fundraising is like something out of one of Ramage’s horror flicks – he’ll hit up investors while they’re on his table.
“Sure! I got their neck, right there!” he says. “I got their life in my hands.”
Don’t Fall for the Beanie
A real-life producer tells newbies how to avoid being scammed by artsy pretenders.
Sedona author Don Kirchner wanted to get his book, A Matter of Time, made into a movie. So he agreed to pay an out-of-town filmmaker named Christina Thompson a $50,000 development fee to get the project rolling. Supposedly, Hollywood heavy-hitters Ron Howard and Kevin Costner were on board.
The scheme collapsed last fall, when an IRS sting exposed Thompson – whom Kirchner reportedly met at the Sedona Film Festival – as a duplicitous faux filmmaker. So how does an aspiring Bruckheimer avoid Kirchner’s costly fate? Valley movie deal-maker Ruben Arizpe, whose credits include Jerry Maguire and The Horse Whisperer, offers this easy three-step checklist before you start signing checks:
1) Accept no guarantees: “No matter what you do, if you invest, you’re at risk. If they swear it’s a sure thing, and won’t disclose the risks, you should run.”
2) Look ’em up on imdb.com: “The [movie website] isn’t fully accurate, but it still lists credits and background and what [a potential partner] can do for you. ”
3) Don’t pay for the whole damn thing: “Say you have $5 million. A smart producer will use that to cover development costs, which is to option the script, pay for rewrites, and lock in the talent, which is the actor and director. That’s all you need. The rest can get financed through tax credits, foreign distribution and the bank.” Arizpe adds that investment money should be placed in escrow until the talent is locked in and a distributor agrees to release the film. “If they cannot produce those things, you’ve saved yourself a lot of heartache and money.”
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