Private investors as a source of funding for sophisticated feature films. A conversation with Franziska Pohlmann.
INTERVIEWER: PAUL RIETH | BERLINALE 2019
In Germany there is a very extensive support system for cinema films. But you financed your debut film DIE KRONE VON ARKUS pretty unconventionally. How did you do it and why?
Exactly, I just founded the film production company “pohlmann creatives” in 2013 and then – as I was advised – tried to generate funding from the funding agencies for the first project. But since I had no reliable reference projects and no film school education, the access was not easy. In retrospect, I understand that – even if you experience how many colleagues submit their applications.
After first meeting closed doors, I thought about where else could I get my money. With my background from the start-up scene, I came across a very great investor in the context of a business angel event – who said “Yes, then let’s try that.” We then provided the majority of the financing with regional entrepreneurs, many from the business angels environment. After all, the film promotion got involved – after we were able to lift over 200,000 euros within six months. All in all, we then had a budget of 300,000 euros. It started with relatively small cutlery, got bigger and bigger – and frankly, it was also a lot of fun. This funding method was described to me again and again as very unusual.
“After first meeting closed doors, I thought about where else could I get my money. With my background from the start-up scene, I came to a very good investor in the context of a Business Angel event.”
In contrast to the german film funding institutions, where you receive the funds in the form of repayable loans, your financing had a completely different approach. How did you manage to convince the investors of your project and how did they assess the risk?
As a matter of fact, since I did not have any noteworthy experience in the film industry, we have developed a business model together with mainly medium-sized entrepreneurs. We focused on German film productions, which were either debut films or – like my project – a children’s or fairy tale film to develop comparative scenarios. Actually very classic: what could be the best and worst case results. Of course, the goal was the best case, otherwise no one would have taken such a risk. Nevertheless, we have built our complete financial structure as income-related revenues. I would not be at the end, if something had not worked, responsible – we took the risk together.
In the case of film funding, committees decide on the basis of certain criteria whether the material somehow fits and whether all this is feasible. But in your case your investors were actually non-experts in the film business, weren’t they?
Exactly, we were completely foreign, including myself. We all got involved in this adventure. Actually, ten years ago I did free theatrical productions and had a big ensemble – almost a hundred people – behind me, who said, “Come what may, we want to do this project with you and stand by your side. That was, of course, an asset I contributed and a huge leap of faith.
In addition, I believe that you can generally turn that into the StartUp scene a bit: I think so that I have convinced with my personality, with the vision that I had. The only thing I could do was to show these people that from beginning to end, I would not stop believing in this project for a moment. And that’s just how it was. I could not have done it otherwise. As I said, I had no references in the cinematic area and could only try to prove that I have a great team and can complement the skills that I do not bring myself, by qualified staff.
“I already think that I have convinced with my personality, with the vision that I had. The only thing I could do was to show these people that from beginning to end, I would not stop believing in this project for a moment.”
And what about the creative influence on the project? Did the investors commented on your ideas or somehow tried to influence you? For example, did they want to have someone else as a cast because they thought this way the investment would come back sooner?
No, that was perfectly clear that they had no say in the script and any creative decisions. It was very clear: the investors are on the financial side and I’m on the creative side. Of course, from the beginning there was a desire – also from my side – to bring one or two well-known faces in order to increase the audience reach. We also had a few names with us, which of course was beneficial and a great experience throughout the work. But that was not the end of it.
If you look back now, how did working with investors feel? Was that a positive experience that you would like to repeat? How did the practical work look like?
I must confess that it was incredibly pleasant and really a great experience. And sometimes I miss in the German film landscape, that we approach the business more economically with more marketing know-how and product-oriented. I think it’s very important to have a creative vision – without them, a film will never take place and will not have viewers. But I think it’s important to think economically too, it does not have to come from the creative staff. But I think having such a partner on the side – and that was in this case just given by the investors – is especially helpful for smaller productions. In the film promotion system, in general, the cost-effectiveness to think along with, I consider crucial in order to establish international. No product is developed without a marketing budget and sales plan – why is there no marketing funding automatically linked to production support? I think that for z.T. irresponsible to the productions.
And how did the market react to your finished product, if we formulate it very economically?
Everyone was totally satisfied with the final result, the investors as well as the contributors. We had a theatrical release in Germany about Studio Hamburg, which took over the distribution. We also had an international sales agent who sold various territories through the Canadian market. Especially exciting for me was the airline sales. And we had a terrific festival evaluation in Germany, Armenia, India, etc. Even today the movie is available on Amazon and other platforms. And just at Christmas time, because it’s just a children’s and fairy tale film, I always get many feedback. I think it’s a classic format with a longevity. I am very happy with how the film evolves from the idea to the present evaluation. As it is my debut film, it will of course always have a very special meaning for me.
From your experience, what do you think: Would you a) choose this form of financing again and b) do you have the feeling that this form of financing is only suitable for certain subjects and that your investors generally tend to get involved with certain topics and others not?
I think there are two aspects or two perspectives to look at: On the one hand, there can be a personal relationship that an investor has with a subject, a sport, a specific instrument, an experience or a country. Then of course it is easier to find a common connection; to convince of a project. I would describe this as a classic patronage, maybe with a bigger budget. I think with niche products or a genre film that would be a strategy – to look for investors with thematic interests. In addition, there are for classic, for the “safe bank” and venture capital (so my assessment).
However, I believe that we can generally only work with investors if we change these incredibly long development phases – or rather, financing phases. I just do not believe that an investor is now getting in, who sees the movie in the cinema in five years. How should we react in time? This is possible with classic materials, with timeless topics whose relevance exists. But anything that moves in the pulse of the time should be just as a way to implement – it would be great if we (again) more risk capital for fresh, even critical, unusual materials, formats, ideas would have. This also enlivens the industry and protects against losing human capital to the “big”, international productions.
“… it would be great if we (again) had more risk capital for fresh, even critical, unusual materials, formats, ideas. This also enlivens the industry and protects against losing human capital to the “big”, international productions.”
What about documentary material, which would actually benefit greatly from the fact that it could be produced much more up-to-date? Because in the financing phase, topics can change, protagonists can jump off, or someone can simply no longer be up for it. In your opinion, does private investment also have potential here?
Yes. In fact, I believe that our consumption habits will not last forever this longevity of film productions. And for documentary projects, it might be necessary to make smaller budgets available, but much more quickly. That’s the only thing that can help us. In fact, I have little experience with documentary formats, but I would wish for that form of production. It can not be that we look at a documentary three years later, if he may have lost its topicality again.
You know your investors well and you have a feeling for how you approached them with your project. If you now come with documentary formats or actually with a genre where the economy is much less given than the feature film. What would the reactions be? Do you think you could bring together a budget through private investors and investors?
So, just as I assess the investors I met so far, I would say immediately: There is a lot of interest in documentary formats as a genre. However, hardly anyone is interested in investing in documentary formats, because there is a feeling that it would be difficult to recoup the investment. I have met many assessments, documentaries are not “products” and may not be durable enough. Many wish to invest in a safe product, preferably a classic. I think we have to work to change the picture. It happens so much in the field of evaluation forms. Especially in streaming documentaries have a very high priority.
After the experiences with your last feature film maybe you can give a little preview of what you are working on and maybe make a little curious about what it is about and how you will finance it.
In fact, the experience gained with this large production, especially for distribution, has meant that I now always produce in English for the initial evaluation. I’m totally in favor of producing a German dubbed version right in post production. Because: Of course, it is valuable to have a German-language version – solely for the preservation and cultivation of this beautiful language. I just do not see any way to create enough incentives for investors in the market and I also find it wrong not to see this as an opportunity and say: Clearly I produce in English and thus reach a larger audience in the short to medium term.
I think that international financing with private equity or with investors is quite possible. As a composer, I can live out the versatility of music (currently, for example, for the documentary MISS HOLOCAUST SURVIVOR). As a filmmaker I know my way around the music film as my language and would like to move on here.
Thanks for the nice interview!
Franziska Pohlmann works full-time as a director and composer. She started as a film producer in 2013 with the founding of her own film production company and gained important experience in the scholarship programme of Studio Hamburg’s Haus der jungen Produzenten.
She produced and directed her first feature film DIE KRONE VON ARKUS herself. At the same time, she has initiated many music projects over the past 20 years and developed further as a film composer. At the Berlinale 2019 she was on the road for the first time as a film composer, among others with her collective track15.
Social Media: instagram.com/franziskapohlmann