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Making films is hard. There are a lot of moving pieces to making a great film. You can also make the production process even more difficult if you chose to get fancy with your equipment, shot list, locations, art direction, etc. One of the most disheartening things about the film industry is that most filmmakers never make break even, let alone make a profit on their films (especially their first films). Which led me to believe that it might be an appropriate time to talk about the process of making money with independent film and why you’re probably going about it all wrong.

Most filmmakers make and pray

Most filmmakers are trying to break into the studio system with their films. They think if they make a gut-wrenching drama with amazing performances they have a great shot at getting into Sundance and launching their second film with a “real” budget and “real” cast.

The sad truth is that I’ve been talking to distributors myself lately in regards to my film “I’d Like to be Alone Now” and they all say that the film festival market is actually more volatile than the sales market right now. There are more filmmakers trying to make festival films than there are making films that are aimed straight for the VOD market – which means it’s actually harder to make a film with a big festival splash than it is to actually make a film that is targeted at making a profit.

The other thing to keep in mind when making a “festival” film is that a lot of films that get into the biggest and best festivals still don’t necessarily launch careers. There are over a hundred feature films that screen at Sundance and only a very very select few of them get any kind of theatrical release. A handful of them manage to make a profit on their MG (minimum guarantee) that a distributor offers at the festival, but there are a lot of films that screen at Sundance, get offers and are still in the red. I’ve heard of films that screen at Sundance that actually end up with revenue share only deals – meaning there’s no guarantee they’ll even make a dollar.

But if you are looking at a sustainable business model for independent film and not caught up on a dream of being the next Scorsese, then you might want to have a different approach to your filmmaking pursuits. Instead of making a film and then trying to figure out how to sell it, why not work backward? Why not figure out the market first and then figure out how you can make something that’s exciting to you as an artist that still fits the model of a profitable film? If that sounds interesting to you – read on – if not, then this post is not for you.

Where can you sell a film?

There are only a handful of places where you can actually sell a film. It’s not like there’s an endless marketplace for people looking to actually pay for your content. People are paying for movies less and less by the month so let’s start with where the markets actually still exist before we start figuring out which ones are the most profitable and where you can make money.

Theatrical

There is still very good money to be made in theatrical releases but in order to have a successful theatrical release, you need to keep a couple things in mind. If you’re going to self-release your own film theatrically I would suggest focusing on a very specific audience who you can market to affordably. For example, if you wanted to make a faith-based film – that’s an audience that has proven to be willing to spend money to see movies in the theater and they are specific enough that you could run successful campaigns online targeting people.

Speaking of marketing – you want to have a TON of money left over from your production budget for marketing. If you plan to have a theatrical release, I would actually advise you that you should have double your production budget put aside for marketing. Creating DCPs and marketing to the cities where your movie is actually playing is expensive. You’re better off getting great trailers made and running successful Youtube/IMDB/Facebook campaigns than you are spending extra cash on lighting, cranes and set decoration.

VOD

Video on demand is probably the most profitable market for most smaller budget films. iTunes is still the holy grail of video on demand, but keep in mind that the market is absolutely flooded out there so you need to figure out how to build your audience BEFORE you hit the iTunes store. Statistically speaking, the first four months your film is available on VOD are the most crucial, so don’t expect your film to suddenly hit a spike a year after it’s released. You have to figure out who is willing to buy your movie – which goes back to focusing on a core audience.

Do you want to make a film that will appeal to the religious community? How about a film that only features an Asian cast? There are ways to come up with a marketing plan that will attract certain audiences and that’s going to be key for you in the VOD space if you don’t have a big theatrical release film that got great reviews and is already building an audience on the merits of it being a great movie.

Broadcast rights & Streaming Services

If your film is of a specific genre or you’re going to cast notable actors you could sell your film’s broadcast rights to a TV network – but be warned that each network is looking for something that really fits their brand. For example, if you’re planning on selling your film to Lifetime you better make sure that your lead is a female in peril and she overcomes that danger by the end of the movie – that’s their formula. It’s always possible to sell films to networks that don’t fit into their mold if the film is great but it’s hard and the whole point of this exercise is to figure out the path of least resistance when selling a film.

Foreign territories are huge when it comes to broadcast rights. If you make a film that fits the right mold, you could actually make a decent amount of money selling your foreign broadcast rights one territory at a time. France, Germany, the UK, China etc are all independent territories that pay their own individual fee for the rights to broadcast your movie. Keep in mind though – that it’s best to figure out what exactly sells to these territories (you can find out more about this in the section below about teaming up with a sales agent).

What aspects sell a film?

So what really sells a film other than the quality of its story, which – let’s face it – everyone thinks they’re going to have going for them? There really aren’t many aspects that are marketable when it comes to filmmaking other than the story – so the checklist stays pretty small and manageable.

Cast

I think the thing that will set most films apart from the pack is who is actually in the movie. If you have a film shot on an iPhone but it’s starring Keanu Reeves, Nicholas Cage, Jennifer Lawrence, and Leonardo DiCaprio – even I would be interested in watching it and I’m not one to typically line up for an iPhone film.

Even on a smaller scale though, actors from TV shows that have recognizable faces are more valuable to the film than a no-name cast. Does it guarantee a sale? Not by any means, but if you plan on making a sale to foreign territories and getting the attention of sales agents and distributors, a list of well-known actors who appear in your movie is by far the easiest way to get attention.

You might be thinking to yourself that this isn’t the greatest advice because if you could actually cast big names in your movie you wouldn’t be reading a post like this – but the truth is that it’s much more affordable than you might think. If you have a great script actors work for less, and even if your script is only so-so or in a genre that’s not terribly exciting for actors, you can still book talent on day rates when they have holes in their schedule.

The question really becomes how much footage can you shoot with them in a day? If you have a $15,000 budget for name actors, for example, you could probably get someone with a very recognizable face for $5,000/day without much of a problem. Can you shoot 10 minutes a day with that person for 3 days? If so you have them in the movie for 30 minutes – that could be a HUGE role!

You don’t want people in your film for just one scene as that gets complicated with negotiations. They usually don’t want to be featured on the poster or have their name on any marketing materials if it’s just one scene, but if you have them in the film for 15-20 minutes it’s usually understood that they’re a major part of the movie and are expected to be okay with their name being used to help sell the film.

Even if you only have $3,000 – it’s worth making some offers to some names for 1 or 2 days of shooting. You might get lucky…and every name in your film can definitely help you with getting people’s attention.

Genre

Second to cast is genre. There are some genres that do better in the sales market than others. Dramadies, for example, are notoriously hard to sell. Dramas are a little easier but not by much. Genres that sell very well, or at least have a chance to be sold very well, are ones that have a wider audience. PG or G rated films have a much easier time selling across the world than R rated films because there are some countries that simply won’t accept certain violence or other R-rated elements on their broadcast networks.

Generally speaking, Family films and Romantic Comedies are the safest bets currently – but it does change periodically which is why you should try to…

Teaming up with a sales agent/distributor BEFORE you make your film

If you have IMDBpro you can look up sales agents pretty easily. It’s not the most expensive service (especially if you’re just doing it monthly), and gathering a list of fifty sales agents will take you all of 20 minutes. If you do a little legwork and email/call these sales agents and tell them your plans to make a film a lot of the smaller ones will be more than happy to give you some advice in hopes that the film you make is going to be marketable enough to sell it once it’s done.

Instead of going through all the trouble of trying to figure out what’s selling in China or Germany – you can partner with a Sales Agent and they can tell you what kind of genre they’ve been waiting for, and what kind of stars you need to make that genre work. They can even give you rough projection numbers on how much they might be able to sell a film based on the genre, story, and cast.

After talking to a sales agent myself, for example, I learned that for me what would probably be the most profitable movie would be a family film with a talking animal that takes place during the holidays and that such a film really only needs a small-level name in it to gain validity. So instead of blowing my budget on trying to get a busy TV actor to give me two weeks of their time, I can book someone I know I can get for $5,000/day for a couple days and spend the rest of my time, money and focus on making the film good.

The only thing I’ll mention is that a lot of foreign sales agents are a bit shady so make sure you do your due diligence in finding out if they have a good reputation by contacting filmmakers they’ve worked with in the past and confirming that they deliver on their projections and have honest accounting practices.


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