By Rebecca Green
This week I’m putting the spotlight on Jessie Creel, co-founder and Managing Partner of Old Mill Ventures, and an executive producer on both of my films released this year, AND THEN I GO and the documentary 44 PAGES. Jessie and I discussed how she went from hustling as a producer to sitting in the financier seat and what she’s learned from the dual perspective.
Rebecca: Tell me about Old Mill Ventures and your role at the company?
Jessie: I started Old Mill Ventures because I had grown frustrated by my own experiences with independent film financing as a producer. I thought, ‘What’s the best way for film financiers to ameliorate risk and to be a patron of the arts?’ My partner Anderson Hinsch and I raised about a million dollars and decided to spread that money over eight or nine projects rather than putting all of it into just one. We are also invested in a friend’s new film fund that is active in three more projects. By cross-collateralizing the returns, we lower our risk. Our goal is to create a self-sustaining model, to be a patron of the arts, and to hopefully have enough financial upside to continue to grow the company conservatively and continue to invest in projects we love.
Rebecca: When you and I met, you hadn’t yet started the company and you were trying to raise money on a project you were producing. At what point did you decide to pivot and start a financing company?
Jessie: I have some very ambitious projects in development, but at the time you and I met, I didn’t know enough about financing and thought that the best way for me to learn about it, and eventually get my own projects financed, would be to take on the role of a film financier. I studied various industries and venture capital companies and looked at how I could apply their strategies to independent film. My experience as an independent producer really helped with developing the vision for Old Mill Ventures because I know what is possible and what is impossible. I am able to set reasonable expectations for our investors.
Rebecca: What criteria do you have when investing in a project?
Jessie: When Anderson and I started the company, we set up parameters that would help us lower the risk. We are never going to be first money in because I want to know that there are others who believe in the project and the filmmakers. Also, we aren’t going to work with a director without a stellar directing sample. A director doesn’t have to have a feature yet, but I need to see a short or web series or something that demonstrates their point of view. Knowing that the team on a project has worked with repeat financiers is also a really good sign that we should invest.
Rebecca: Now sitting in the investor seat, what have you learned that you may not have thought about sitting in the producer’s seat?
Jessie: I think what I’ve learned is that it’s very important to be transparent and to not be afraid to say to a financier, ‘Hey, our box office numbers weren’t as good as we were hoping, we’re having trouble with this, we’re having trouble with that, can you help me troubleshoot?’ Instead of, ‘Yes, everything’s fine, everything’s great,’ when it’s not. I really like to have an active dialogue with the teams we’re working with and take on the role as executive producer from the finance perspective but also overall strategy for the film and offer what advice and hope and encouragement I can. I like to see projects succeed for the purpose of telling the story in the widest possible way.
It’s also important to realize that financiers aren’t investing money into your indie film to get rich. Financiers are usually people who are high net worth individuals who could leave their money alone in a bank and have a better chance of making profit that way than investing in your film. So you need to know why they are choosing to invest in you and your story.
Rebecca: If it’s not financial return, though that is always the goal, what should we be selling you on then?
Jessie: First, there’s the story and the script. There’s also the story of the technical side of the film, the overall vision for the film. Then there’s the story of what’s going to happen to the film once it’s made. I also want to know who the core audience is for the film in the current market and/or if the film has a long shelf life.
I need to be confident that the filmmaking team knows what they’re doing, that they keep expectations reasonable, but that they are willing to leave no stone unturned. And knowing the background of the relationship between the director, the writer, and the producer, and if that is nurtured and supported.
It’s also important to me to see in the budget that producers are getting properly paid. That is a huge thing for me. I may be saying that because I’m also a producer, but no one is on the project longer than the producer and I need to know that there is compensation to expect a producer to stay with the project for the lifespan of the film. It also shows to me that the other people on board understand that producers are really a big piece of the project and that the role of the producer is not one that just anyone can fill.
And filmmakers need to be interviewing the investors as much as the investors are interviewing the filmmakers because that chemistry is so important at every stage in the process. I don’t think that enough questions are asked to financiers and I don’t think you should accept an investment out of desperation. I mean, granted you will feel it at certain times, but you’ve waited this long to make this project, you’ve got to have faith that the right financier is going to come around.
Rebecca: I feel that one of the biggest mistakes filmmakers make is that we often make decisions out of desperation. That you’ll agree to anything so long as it gets your movie made, but in the end, that usually makes for a painful process. I’ve done it, everyone’s done it, but at some point you need to get to the place where you can be smart enough to be patient
Jessie: I also want to add that we’re usually investing in people in the beginnings of their careers and so you’re hopeful that by investing in essentially the friends and family round of a startup, there is going to eventually be a payoff. Maybe there’s not financial gain on the first or second film, but the ideal situation is that the filmmaker is still coming to you on the fourth film that has bigger cast and a higher upside for profit, which then makes the loss on the filmmaker’s first film more palatable. It is very important for filmmakers to not forget the people who helped them launch their careers, whether that be the producer, investor, or an actor. The people who take a chance on you first are the people to keep close.
Rebecca: What tips do you have for producers when it comes to maintaining good relationships with their financiers?
Jessie: I think each financier is going to be different. There’s going to be some people who are out of sight, out of mind. High net-worth individuals who want to be involved in something fun and different from their normal day to day. If the film hits big then they’re excited to talk about it, if it doesn’t, they either invest in another film or they decide that’s enough for them.
There are some investors who want to be kept aware of what’s going on because they’re seriously passionate about film and they think of their dollars as a proxy for their success. Higher box office numbers mean more people have seen the film, which is important to them.
There are going to be some people, and I probably fall in this category, who want to say, ‘Hey, we’re here for not just the dollars, but we’re here for support.’ If we come at you with a lot of questions it’s because we believed in the project before we believed in the money coming back.
Though I want to say that we don’t invest in projects we don’t think are going to make money, we’re not throwing away dollars, we’re not burning cash. We have quite a varied portfolio in Old Mill Ventures, we have docs, we have narratives, we have two things that we invested in that were New York Times critic picks. We have two films in a row that have premiered at Cannes, one on PBS independent lens, we have an Emmy Award winner, we’ve got all. And if you look at it in terms of the kind of the rubric by which we pick projects, they all line up – does it have the core audience, does it have savvy people behind it, is the story something I want to see, is it critically important and socially viable, is it commercially viable? Those are the kinds of questions I think are important and should be constantly asked throughout the process.
Rebecca: In terms of setting expectations, a lot of filmmakers go into the process telling themselves, and their financiers, that the film is going to premiere at Sundance and picked up by A24, I hear it all the time. But that only happens to one or two films a year. Yet at the same time, we’re in a market where if you don’t premiere at Sundance, getting distribution is extremely difficult on any level. It’s a huge problem in our industry right now, so how do you confidently invest in films while also knowing the odds?
Jessie: Not playing Sundance doesn’t mean that the film is not going to go places, but it means there’s going to be a lot more work that needs to be done. When I get the news that one of our films wasn’t selected for Sundance, I put on my strategy hat and get on the phone with the filmmaking team to help them figure out alternative paths to their audiences, partly because it’s my investment, but also because I believe in the project.
Rebecca: If there’s such a slim chance in premiering at Sundance, why is everyone making that their plan? In waiting for the golden ticket, aren’t we just shooting our project in the foot? Why aren’t we assuming we won’t have a Sundance premiere from the very beginning?
Jessie: Well, it’s human nature.
Rebecca: For example, for a digital release, distributors only spend a small amount of marketing dollars to get the film out into the world and the majority of films end up with a digital only release. As filmmakers, shouldn’t we be budgeting for additional marketing dollars to supplement what distributors spend and do this from the very beginning of the process rather than frantically trying to raise money after the film premieres?
Jessie: Yes, I think that’s a good plan and that there needs to be contingencies not just for production but for the release of the movie as well. I don’t think Sundance ever wanted to be the silver bullet, but distributors have made it that way. Is Sundance still a launch pad for independent cinema or is this a launch pad for Sundance branded content? Those are two totally different things. Because the festival has cornered the market in terms of independent branding when it comes to being able to sell your film, it would be exciting to see the festival do more to support some of the films that don’t get accepted yet show promise to find an audience.
Rebecca: Runner-up and honorable mentions?
Rebecca: It’s a really interesting concept.
Jessie: I think the best thing about arts and storytelling, and the collaborative medium that is film and television, is the mentor and mentee dynamics. I do believe a high tide raises all boats, and that’s why it would be good for the prestigious festivals to have another outlet where the best 100 films that don’t make it into the program are curated and are made available to the public via a digital platform.
I don’t know if that idea has entered a room anywhere yet, but Sundance, if you’re reading this, feel free to run with it.
Jessie Creel is co-founder and Managing Partner of Old Mill Ventures, a fund supporting independent film and television projects that are commercially viable and socially important. Her executive producing credits include OH LUCY!, AND THEN I GO, 1982, SOUFRA, and 44 PAGES. Among her various film and television projects in development, as an independent producer Jessie is producing the feature film AFTER MELE written and directed by her longtime film partner Ty Sanga with support from the Sundance Institute Labs program and Creative Producing Summit Fellowship. Jessie lives with her husband and two daughters in San Clemente, California.