The Indie Filmmaker Navigating to a Career
What do you do when you want to make a profitable film – emphasis on the “Profitable” part? I realize that not all filmmakers care about this. Well, to be more accurate, not all filmmakers care about profit AFTER they have been funded. Before they get funded, most filmmakers write Business Cases and Film Prospectus’ that suggest they care about ROI a great deal. But, yeah, some people (many people) couldn’t care less about their Investors the minute the money changes hands. Many filmmakers use the theory that they ought to get an Investor’s money, make whatever film will get them follow-on gigs (with studios) and not worry about it if the film loses money. But I’m not talking to those filmmakers. I want to address the filmmakers that feel obliged to get their Investor’s money back. Maybe they are using their family’s money, their own money or maybe they just don’t want to lose someone’s cash. To those filmmakers, we Listen Up – there’s a new UCLA Research Project that you should be paying close attention to. To those more responsible folks, we speak. Let’s call our fiscally responsible filmmaker ‘Ingrid’ – or ‘Indie Ingrid,’ perhaps.
Indie Ingrid wants to make a career as a filmmaker! And the first step is showing she can make a (good) film that makes more money than it cost. She does not want to rely on luck. She doesn’t want to rely on her film or her trailer ‘going viral.’ How can Indie Ingrid hedge her bets that her film will make money in the wild frontier of the Film Domestic and Foreign markets? How much can her film make? Domestically, Foreign Sales, on VOD, etc? Can Ingrid promote her film online through her Social Media and get enough revenues to justify a modest budget? We have started a Project at UCLA to analyze the performance of small films in the last 5 years. Where are the revenues coming from and do they break even on a regular basis? Project Lodestar is looking to penetrate the industry’s traditional veil of secrecy around film budgets and revenues – hoping to educate the next generation of filmmakers on a more responsible way to make film.
Disclaimer: What Project Lodestar is NOT:
This is not: “How to Market your Indie Film.” That topic, if I may say, is beaten to death already. Instead, we tackle the bigger issue of how Indies, plural, (any indie) can market themselves profitably. i.e. How a generic film, made by a first or second time filmmaker get itself produced and sold, profitably. A different problem. As you might imagine, this is a more difficult task because it’s generalized but one far more valuable if it can be reliably solved.
To emphasize my point, let us assume Indie Ingrid does not simply have one film she is trying to make. If I were advising Ingrid on her one project then I would retread the same advice that’s peddled all over the internet of “Be Unique.” Do something no one has ever done before. Revolutionize your Genre. Reinvent the Cinematic Experience. Be creative. The trouble with this advice is that “Being special” is not something that can be done reliably, repeatedly and cheaply. Also, I doubt that, once reminded, Ingrid will thank me for telling her to be ‘Creative’ and tell me that (had I not told her to) she was going to make something dull and stupid. In fact, the high end of what she was hoping for was: Derivative and Common. No, we take it for granted that Ingrid was already doing her best to Reinvent the Genre. It is not that Ingrid has trouble being creative, she just wants some Insurance. Not literal Insurance because, face it – she doesn’t have budget for that anyway. She’s talking metaphorically. She wants to take steps that will insure a base level of marketability and profitability. Steps Ingrid can take in addition to an awesome script and strong Directorial execution. She wants to know that, god forbid, her movie ends up to be only ‘above average,’ she will be able to market it and gain better than average returns on her time and investment.
Studios, for example… They don’t rely exclusively on every one of their movies “being unique.” They don’t leave their business to chance. They buy figurative Insurance. But their figurative Insurance comes in the form of A-List actors and 7-figure marketing budgets. Insuring the audience will come to see the film, even if it’s only average. Indie Ingrid wants to know if (figurative) Insurance is available to her even though she does not have the resources of a major Studio.
Let’s look at Indie Film numbers right now. We argue that a historic number of Indie Films will get made due to the costs of making film going down. Every stat available to the industry tells us that is true. The number of films being made is exploding. These Indie films will go online almost exclusively because there won’t be the Theaters nor the marketing dollars to support a Theatrical release for them. That’s been clear from our research. And despite the threats of piracy, many of these films will make money. The Long Tail is at work in film as much as anywhere else. There will be many films that make a little money each. But a “little” by Indie standards can be a lot. When a film can be produced for $25,000 and made in just 6 weeks, this film can gain revenues of $200,000 and it will be deemed a success. A $250,000 budgeted film that makes just $1,000,000 in the first two years will be a big success.
What makes small films successful and profitable in the new Digital age is what Project Lodestar is about. Can you “Moneyball” your cast? That is, can you find cast that is feasible for a small budget but will guarantee returns on your budget dollars spent? What genres are most reliable and is that changing from 5 years ago? We are not looking at outliers but rather averages and, in fact, we are trying to remove the outliers since they tend to throw off the curve. If you or someone you know has developed a small film, send us your case study and contribute to the overall body of information. Once we have crunched the numbers, we will have the Good, the Bad and the Ugly news that Ingrid (and you too) can use to inform your next films!
Participate here: www.projectlodestar.org
About the Author
Daniel Harlow started his career at UCLA – in the Computer Science Department. Daniel ran an I.T. Consulting firm for 20+ years, with offices in San Francisco, San Jose, Oregon, North Carolina, Arizona, New York, and Minneapolis before making his exit and starting his career as a Professional Golfer. However, his golf career was short-lived realizing that the inability to get out of a bunker at the age of 45 would likely be a big obstacle to his goal of winning the US Open. Never one to be daunted by the odds, he now approaches the fast-changing world of Film and Entertainment.