How to succeed as an independent filmmaker

All you gotta do is…

  • Go to AFM or Cannes and ask distributors what’s selling. Then go make that kind of movie.
  • Put at least three “names” in your film. (must have a 300 or lower Starmeter on IMDb. This week, that excludes Mel Gibson, Renée Zellweger, Bruce Willis, Kate Winslet, Cate Blanchett, Meryl Streep, George Clooney, and Nicole Kidman.)

    Production still from SHOOTING THE PRODIGAL. Paul Bickford, photographer.
    Production still from BY THE GRACE OF BOB. Paul Bickford, photographer.
  • Budget as much on marketing as you do on production.
  • Engage top-notch social media professionals to start and build the buzz around your film from the early stages of development all the way through the final distribution window.
  • Turn out an excellent film, of course!
  • Rinse and repeat.

That’s what I’ve heard in conversations and workshops at film festivals and filmmaker forums over the last few years.

But those steps don’t assure success. Disney, Columbia, Castle Rock, and Touchstone have all released films that lost millions of dollars despite A-list talent, top-tier writers and directors, and nearly bottomless wells of money for development, production and marketing.

The advantage these major studios have over indies is that when one of their films bombs, it doesn’t necessarily mean the demise of the studio. (With notable exceptions: Believe it or not, the Christmas classic “It’s a Wonderful Life” bankrupted Liberty Films.)

The big studios can usually average the bombs with the smash hits and still come out with a profit. But for independent filmmakers, a financial disaster can be deadly. Film investors rarely want to hear about movie reviews, film festival awards or touching comments from audience members who were deeply moved by the film. They want to know how much money it made. Can you blame them? After all, it is show business.

All this probably sounds defeatist. But the truth is that filmmaking is a high-risk business. Stephen Fellows recently released the results of his research into the profitability of the film industry.  Among his findings: half the movies in theatrical release lose money.

Looks pretty dismal, doesn’t it?

But as a struggling, deep-in-debt independent filmmaker with one feature film under my belt, I choose not to despair. The reason I got into this endeavor was to tell a story and make an impact on people’s lives. I hoped to at least break even on the money. That may yet happen… sometime down the road. Or it may not. For now, however, I’m taking notes and trying to master this intricate art-and-business pas de deux. Here are some of the things I’ve learned so far:

  1. If you’re not passionately in love with your story, stop. Go no further.
  2. Ruthlessly hone the story. Get the script right. Nothing else matters if the story sucks.
  3. Keep the audience in mind from beginning to end. For whom are you telling this? And why? Let the answers guide your writing, shooting, marketing, and distribution. Marshall Thornton wrote in a recent article, “A lot of writers hate the idea of being commercial. Here’s the way you need to think about it: you’re looking for the intersection of what’s in your heart and what the market will buy. You can find it. It’s there.”
  4. Art is the soul of the endeavor… the shared experience among filmmaker and audience. Let that reality drive the process of shooting and editing.
  5. Quality matters. So…
  6. Cast great actors… folks who know their craft, have actual talent, and care about the story.
  7. Get the technical stuff right. You know: sound, lighting, etc. The best way to accomplish this is to hire really good people in each department.
  8. Don’t risk a $100,000 investment over a $100 expense. Include a contingency in the production budget. When faced with the decision to use it, ask, “Will this expense show up on the screen?” If the answer is yes, go for it.
  9. Get the best distribution deal you can… but remember that no distributor cares as much about your film as you do.
  10. Don’t depend on the distributor to drive the marketing. (See previous point) Even if you have to shave expenses off production, save enough money to do adequate marketing.

Sometimes a story needs to be told for the sake of the hearers, not for the sake of the financial return. Sometimes art is created for the sake of art, not for monetary gain.

Tell your story… and tell it well.

And the next time somebody says, “all you gotta do is…” just smile politely.

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