Many independent filmmakers get an immense sense of nostalgia when they think back to the 1990’s. Back then, the market for original content wasn’t saturated the way it is today, and independent films were a hot commodity.
Movies shot on shoestring budgets were getting into Sundance left, right, and center, and many were acquired for seven figures or more. The floodgates opened up for private equity investment, and we saw a huge surge of original content being produced and released. Those were the good old days.
But everything good must come to an end. By the early 2000’s digital cameras became viable options for filmmaking, which led to a massive uptick in production across the board. Anyone and everyone with a Mini DV camera started making movies, and the marketplace became absolutely flooded with new content.
This trend of course grew exponentially as better cameras (like 24p capable DSLRs) hit the market, giving ultra-low budget films the ability to compete visually with much higher end productions.
From a strictly practical standpoint, this was a great thing. Filmmakers could now go out and make movies for virtually no money, and still walk away with a finished product that had great production value…
But ultimately this over saturation led to the death of the independent film market as we knew it.
It was just basic supply and demand. There was too much supply (most of which was not of a high calibre) and not enough demand to keep up with it. It became far more difficult to sell any film – even a great one – and for those filmmakers lucky enough to actually find buyers, the offers they were receiving were almost always less than favorable.
Industry pros began to fear that this was the end of independent film as we knew it. Sure, the multi-million dollar “indie-films” (that were technically independent because they were produced outside the studio system) were still surviving…. But the days of an El Mariachi or Clerks popping out of nowhere and getting a massive distribution deal were long gone.
Things were looking bleak for a while, and many independent filmmakers felt it was the end of an era. I for one, couldn’t disagree.
But after several years of turmoil, there is finally a silver lining. A bright, shiny silver lining that (as the optimist that I am), makes me believe we are at the very beginning of a new era. One in which independent film may thrive in a way it never has before.
We now all have an opportunity to not only make amazing films, but to also profit from them, and sustain ourselves financially with our own creative content, as long as we are willing to put in the work.
There are more tools available to us than ever before. Platforms like Tugg exist that allow you to theatrically release your movie without having to work with a distributor. iTunes and Amazon have become the art-house cinemas of the 21st century, so now anyone that makes a movie can sell their film alongside every other movie ever made. And of course social media advertising (Facebook in particular) has made it extremely easy and cost effective to market your movie to the masses.
With the right strategy, a film made for $10,000 can theoretically compete with a $100,000,000 studio movie. It’s no easy feat, but it’s possible. The tools exist. The opportunity is there. And this simply wasn’t possible ten years ago when the world of independent filmmaking was having it’s dark night of the soul.
But achieving that success isn’t just about having access to the right tools. It’s about putting in the work. It’s no longer enough to just write a good script (or even to make a good movie) and then cross your fingers that you’ll find a buyer. If you are working on a truly low-budget level, you need to have in-house capabilities and resources to get your film in front of an audience. Without that, you are just one of a million other filmmakers with a digital copy of their movie collecting dust on a hard drive.
The future of independent filmmaking belongs to creative entrepreneurs. Those that are willing to think of themselves as mini studios, and create a pipeline for developing great content, producing it effectively, and marketing it to a specific, targeted audience.
While it may not be the type of work many of us want to do, it is becoming more crucial that we do with each passing year. Personally speaking, I have never wanted to market or sell independent films. It’s not what excites me – making the movie is what I’m after. But if that’s what it takes to succeed, I am more than willing to take matters into my own hands and sell my own content. And that’s exactly what I’m doing right now with my feature film Shadows On The Road.
I’ll also say that it becomes much less daunting to take on the sales aspect of your movies once you start breaking down the necessary steps and crunching the numbers.
As an example, let’s assume you’re making a micro-budget feature for $25,000, and you plan to self-distribute. Let’s also assume that you want to release via TVOD (iTunes), and will set a sale price of $12.99 for your film. Since iTunes takes 30% of every sale, you will be left with about $9 from every sale.
Simple math will then tell you exactly how many copies you need to sell. $25,000 / $9 = 2778. In other words, if you sell 2778 copies of your movie on iTunes, you’ve made your budget back.
You may have an objective set to make that money back within year 1. If that’s the case, you can divide that number by 12, and come up with the amount of monthly sales you will need in order to stay on track. This case, 231.
To make it even less daunting, let’s further divide that by 4 (weeks in a month), which brings us to the magic number of 58. That’s it.
If you can get 58 people to watch your movie every week for a year, you have made your money back. If you can sustain that (or increase it) over the next year, you are making profit. If you do this once a year for 4 years, you will soon be generating $100,000/year in revenue, even if you keep working at the same level.
The question then becomes, how can you scale this up? None of us want to make $25,000 movies forever… So what happens when you shoot something for $100K, $250K, or more?
The difference is how you advertise and market the film.
In theory, even with no paid advertising at all, it’s possible to get those 58 sales per week to make back a $25,000 budget. It might take a lot of sweat equity, DIY press, personal reach outs, and so forth, but with enough effort it can be done.
For a $250K film though? Not quite so simple. At that level you would need to sell 578 copies of your film per week. I don’t care how many followers you have on social media, or how big your personal network may be, you can’t achieve that without advertising.
The good news is, it’s never been easier or cheaper to advertise your movie to the masses. A great trailer marketed effectively using Facebook ads (just as an example) can hit that 578/week mark. It will take some trial and error to find the right formula, and will require that you have enough capital to pay for those ads, but if you get the formula right, it will be money well spent.
Imagine knowing that for every $1 you spend on social media ads, you get one sale of your movie. If you’re able to crack that code, that will effectively make your net profit about $8 per sale ($12.99 – 30% = $9.09 – $1 = $8.09).
If we want to factor in our advertising spend into our formula above, you would then need to sell 651 copies of your movie per week in order to make your money back. Yes, that is a big jump from 578, but it’s a far more reachable target once you start advertising effectively. At $1 per sale (for your advertising costs), you could spend on average $651 per week in advertising to turn a profit of $5208.
Now keep in mind, there are loads of other variables to consider, and it could cost you far more to advertise to your audience than the $1/sale example I have been using in this article. Your subject matter, production value, trailer content, and a thousand other factors can and will influence your ability to market your film effectively, even with paid advertisements. But if you have this strategy in mind from the get-go, and build it into your process before you even make your movie, you can set yourself up for success.
All that said, please don’t take any of the numbers I am using for advertising costs as concrete by any stretch. Every social media ad (whether Facebook or otherwise) will have a different success rate and return on investment. It will usually take a lot of trial and error to get where you need to be, but if you can hit the magic formula, the sky is the limit.
When you do get there, you will have tapped into the best formula for making a living as an independent filmmaker today. It’s all about taking control over the sales and marketing of your film, and turning a profit with your work without having to rely on the gatekeepers.
For some filmmakers, this will be their “Plan A”. For others, it will be a fallback option in the event they can’t find the right buyer…
While it is certainly becoming more and more difficult to take a traditional distribution path, that doesn’t mean it can’t be done. Your film may get into Sundance. It may get a six or seven figure offer from Netflix. It may get picked up by a theatrical distributor. Anything is possible, and by no means is DIY internet distribution the only reality for any of our films.
But it is the path that we have the most control over. You can’t control whether or not a festival programmer will like your movie, or if an SVOD platform is looking to spend money on indie-films in your genre when you’re ready to sell. Some of it is just plain old luck. But we don’t have the luxury of relying on luck, so if we want to be in control of our own destinies, we need to use methods like the ones I’m outlining here, to ensure our films can get pushed out into the world and find the right audiences.
As some of you know, I recently launched pre-orders for my $12,000 micro-budget feature film Shadows On The Road. Within just a couple days of launching on the store, we were already on the best seller list on iTunes Pre-Orders, ranking in the top 50 – 60 on the entire store, competing against films with multi-million dollar budgets and star power.
All that was done with no paid ads at all. On October 18th, just a few days from now, the film goes live on iTunes and we will start rolling out paid Facebook ads. It will be a wild ride, but given the momentum we’ve had so far I am very optimistic. At some point in the future, I’ll be sure to share some results from our advertising/marketing strategy as we begin to track concrete numbers. But for now, if you want to check out the film and pre-order your copy to follow along with the journey, you can do so here.