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By Hammad Zaidi | March 18, 2014

Hey filmmakers. Welcome to Going Bionic, #203. Before we get started today, I wanted to offer my warmest condolences to the families of the (now) three people who perished and the twenty-two who were injured during last Thursday’s car crash tragedy at SXSW. Having lived in Austin in the late 1980’s, and having attended SXSW many times, my wishes go out to all families and friends whom were affected, as well as all Austinites. May your healing start soon and be plentiful.

In honor of Austin, the city that cultivated the indie film movement with such classics as Richard Linklater’s Slacker (1991), a $23,000 film that earned $1,227,508 at the domestic box office, and Robert Rodriguez’s El Mariachi (1993), a $7,000 gem that earned $2,040,920 at the US box office, today we’re discussing five things that will help your micro-budget indie feature thrive in today’s marketplace.

Have an Understanding of the Current Marketplace
Sony Pictures just laid-off 70 employees yesterday, after making deep cuts last December, which included reducing the number of 2014 feature films from 23 to 18. While Sony is only one studio, their actions have triggered similar actions from every other studio.  Furthermore, as stated in our Sundance article several weeks ago, the biggest sale at Sundance this year was $3.5 million. Unfortunately, that number is three times less than the biggest sales 15-20 years earlier. Thus, if the “powers-that-be” like Sony and Sundance are subtracting as opposed to multiplying, it behooves you to do the same. Simply put, if the top-tier of the cinematic world is spending less money and earning less money, you should risk less money.

Spend Less On Your Budget Than You Want To
Unless you’re going to spend north of $1-$2 million, it’s smart to keep your budget under $250,000, ($150,000 if you can). The idea here is to keep your budget where you still have a decent shot to make your money back, without a theatrical release. To be honest, it’s nearly impossible for a $250,000 film to earn a theatrical release anyway, so your focus should be to get your film distributed, regardless of what medium its released on. VOD, satellite, Netflix and cable are your best bests, as is selling your film to multiple territories internationally. DVD sales are possible too, but the DVD business is in its last years of life, so I’m not sure how long DVD’s will be a viable income option.

Of course, spending too little money is just as risky as spending too much, because making a film with no value to a buyer won’t advance your career at all. So, if you’re inclined to make a $25,000 film in the hopes of selling it, please try to make it in a salable genre like a classic horror, sci-fi or thriller.

Spend More On Talent Than You Want To
Filmmakers usually cringe when they hear me say they should spend 50%-75% of their budget on actors, but doing so gives your film the best chance to succeed financially. Remember, nothing holds more value in a small budget film, than the “name actors” who are in the film.

Side Note: For those who would never dream of littering your film with name actors for the sake of earning money, please consider the following: If your film doesn’t have name talent, it will most-likely fall into the pit of undistributed indie films. While climbing out of that pit isn’t impossible, it’s certainly not an exercise you want to engage in anytime soon.

Get Distributor Sales Projections, And Then Divide By 10
Most international distributors/sales agents, who give sales projections on films void of stars, will shoot high on the numbers, because in most cases, their income will be made on the fees they charge you, not the sales of your film.  Thus, it’s in the distributor’s best interest to give you “pie in the sky” numbers, so their fees seem reasonable when compared to the projections. So, if you really want to find out how much your film is worth internationally, take a zero off the final tally, i.e. divide their numbers by 10. That way, if the distributor numbers were right, you’ll make 10 times more than you were expecting. In the event they were half right, you’ll still be making five times more than expected. The key here is to not view distributor/sales agent projections as being real numbers. They’re not real until they become real offers.

Research How Much Like Minded Films Sold For
Not only should you do detailed research on how much money similarly budgeted films in your genre sold for, but you should also track their success or lack thereof. If a likeminded film was bought for a healthy amount, only to tank financially, you can fully expect your film’s value to fall short of the compared film that tanked. Naturally, if recent likeminded films were deemed financial successes, then you can expect your film to be on par with, or be above the your comparable films sales numbers.

Side Note: Once your film sells, it’s quite rare for you to get your entire amount paid to you in a single payment. More often than not, payments are split up over time, as certain delivery requirements and the quality control process is completed. Thus, it’s really a smart idea to keep your budgets as low as possible, in order to combat the pain that comes along with getting your investment back.

Okay filmmakers. That’s what I have for you today. As always, I thank you for lending me your eyes, and I look forward to borrowing them again next Tuesday. Until then, have a good week, and please send some good karma out to everyone in Austin. I can be followed on Twitter @Lonelyseal.

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