Friday, February 15, 2008

Lakeland Filmmakers 'Endure' to Get Funding for Film

NFocus staff members Joe O'Brien, left, Rob Tritton and Jim Carleton talk with investor Randy Larson about the movie project Endure at the NFocus office in Lakeland, Florida, Wednesday, February 6, 2008.

By Gary White, The Ledger

The film "Endure" already exists in the mind of Lakeland screenwriter Joe O'Brien. The detective thriller has tangible form as a 101-page script on paper.

As with any movie, though, the chasm between conception and reality consists of dollars - in this case, a projected budget of $1.2 million. Since deciding last year to make the film, which would be O'Brien's first feature-length effort as both writer and director, he and the other two members of a Lakeland-based production team have been racing against the calendar to secure the funding they need to shoot the movie in Polk County in June. The Ledger has been following the filmmakers on their endeavor to produce this feature-length film.

Several factors conspire against changing the planned 19-day shooting schedule, and with the start date just 3 1/2 months away, the trio of filmmakers is pushing for the financial commitments it needs to make the project a reality. As of Thursday, they had raised a little less than a half-million dollars, according to Rob Tritton, co-producer and financial leader for the project.

Tritton and co-producers O'Brien and Jim Carleton have only about a month left before they must decide if the money is in place to proceed with pre-production work, including casting and hiring technical crews. Tritton said it has been a challenge to win over potential investors in Polk County, where most are unfamiliar with the movie business.

"Investors have had little opportunity to get in on film projects, especially ones generated locally," said Tritton, 43. "Exposing them to a market that deals with creative property, as opposed to real estate or securities, becomes our main focus. But it's been both encouraging and exciting to see the faith investors have shown in us."

The filmmakers, determined to produce a commercially successful movie, began by studying the budgets of existing low-budget films. They contracted with an Oregon company to produce a business plan based on O'Brien's script, the story of small-town detectives racing to find a young woman they know is bound to a tree somewhere in the Green Swamp.

The filmmakers divided the $1.2 million budget into 120 investment units and created five levels of involvement, ranging up to the executive producer slot, requiring a $300,000 investment. The contract specifies benefits for different investment levels. For example, $10,000 yields a "special thanks" in the closing credits and limited access to the set. The executive producer gets a title in the opening credits, a walk-on appearance in the film and complete access to the shooting set with a designated chair, among other perks.

The "Endure" team enlisted Lakeland resident Marsha Vass to set up meetings with potential investors. Vass, whose husband, Bill Vass, collaborated with O'Brien on the idea for the award-winning short film "Blackwater Elegy," has led fund-raising campaigns for schools and nonprofit groups.

Vass, the film's associate producer for investor relations, set up meetings at which the filmmakers gave an informal summary of the project and offered to let potential investors read the screenplay. She said some investors read every word, while others are uninterested in the project's details.

Vass said people have invested for one of three reasons: They know the filmmakers and want them to succeed, they see the project as good for Lakeland or they're arts enthusiasts.

Investment also yields tax benefits. Federal tax codes allow a dollar-for-dollar deduction on investment in small-budget films, the same benefit given for charitable contributions.

Still, a movie is a riskier investment than, say, Wal-Mart stock. If "Endure" is made and fares poorly, its backers might lose all of their investments. If the movie is made and earns money, the first returns will go toward repaying the principal investors. If the film isn't made, money will be returned from an escrow account.

Randy and Chris Larson of Plant City are enthusiastic investors in "Endure." Randy Larson, an executive with an engineering company, got to know O'Brien when he was teaching an after-school film class at Lakeland Christian School, where Larson's son Jesse was a student.

Larson, 53, invested in a previous project, "Miller Grey," and when the project stalled he received his money back with interest.

"It was at that point I became really impressed with these guys, their business acumen, their business ethics," Larson, former mayor of Plant City.

Larson was already inclined to get onboard the next project, and the deal was clinched when he received a copy of O'Brien's screenplay.

"I got the script for the new project, 'Endure,' and I don't know that I've ever picked up a book or a script in my life and read it cover-to-cover without putting it down," Larson said. "I was just mesmerized by that script. ... It was a no-brainer at that point. I'd had a good business experience with them in the past; there was no reason to believe it would be any different."

Larson would say only that he and his wife invested more than $10,000. "I think of my investments, this is probably the riskiest one I've ever invested in," he said. "But ... this is an investment where I knew all the players and knew what we were trying to accomplish. I like to learn new things; it's just very fascinating to me to watch all this come together."

The filmmakers, working with a veteran casting director, are seeking an established actor to commit to the lead role of Emory Lloyd, a detective in his late 40s or 50s. Roughly one-sixth of the budget is allocated for the star.

The "Endure" team knows securing an actor would help with fundraising, but actors often seek "pay or play" contracts requiring a nonrefundable deposit of at least part of their payment. The "Endure" team's agreements with investors forbid breaking into the escrow account until they reach full funding.

William L. Whitacre, the trio's legal advisor and the man who brokered a distribution deal for "The Blair Witch Project," one of the most lucrative independent films ever made, seems confident "Endure" will materialize.

"I think they'll put it over," Whitacre said. He described O'Brien's script as "a perfect low-budget premise because you can use generic, low-budget locations, you don't need a cast of thousands and the story is compelling."

Whitacre predicted the film would make money on DVD even if it doesn't land a deal for theatrical release.

Larson is equally optimistic about the film's prospects. Assuming all goes as scheduled, he plans to be on location for the shooting in June.

"As an engineer, it will be fun to watch all the stuff that goes on," he said. "I'd certainly like to be able to get my money back out of it and it will have been a fun experience. But the script is so riveting and has such an incredible story, I can't imagine in my wildest dreams it's not going to have some success."

WHAT'S NEXT FOR "ENDURE": Trying to land a recognized actor for the lead role.

[ Gary White can be reached at or at 802-7518. ]