Joe Swanberg’s SXSW keynote from back in 2016 is a must watch for any business minded filmmakers out there. If you haven’t already seen it, you can stream it now on YouTube or read on below for some of my biggest highlights and takeaways.
While Joe is known largely for his 2013 feature Drinking Buddies, He’s directed dozens of other features too.
In fact, Drinking Buddies was actually his 15th movie, following a long run of micro-budget features, including a slate of 7 films he produced and directed in just one year.
With a couple notable exceptions, most of his work has been in the low to no budget range. Yet he’s sold his films to IFC, worked with well known/name actors, and has been able to navigate his career on his own terms.
His natural business acumen and instincts are extremely sharp, and those abilities inevitably have played a role in his success. So with that in mind, I’ve extracted some of the biggest lessons from his keynote at SXSW, and expanded on them below.
Here we go –
IT TOOK 15 MOVIES TO GET NOTICED
Joe’s breakout feature Drinking Buddies came on the heels of 14 other feature films. The vast majority of the movie-going population isn’t aware of any of his earlier films, despite them playing big festivals like SXSW and Sundance and landing deals with IFC and others. To most, they assume Drinking Buddies is the only movie he has made.
There are a lot of lessons in this, but perhaps the biggest is to not be so precious with your work. Filmmakers get so wrapped up in wanting their debut feature to be perfect, that they never get out there and actually make one. Or if they do eventually get around to it, they realize that even after all that procrastinating their movie is still not perfect… And they often wish they had started earlier.
It’s okay to try and fail. The first movie you make may be a breakout hit, but it may also take 10 or 20 swings at the plate before you hit one out of the park. If your first attempts don’t take you exactly where you want to go, that doesn’t mean you can’t still build a successful career. Even the legend himself – Alfred Hitchcock – made movies for decades before he really hit his prime in his 50s and 60s.
Joe also talks about the concept of volume. The more movies you create, the more likely that you’ll get noticed as a result.
If you just stick around long enough and keep putting out material, people will start to take your work seriously. But too many filmmakers quit before they’ve really given themselves a fair shake. This business takes an incredible amount of persistence, and half the battle is just pushing on when the going gets tough.
GO ALL IN
This wasn’t a direct point made by Joe, but when I read between the lines of everything he says, there is a clear message: Don’t have a plan B.
Before Joe was making enough money to make ends meet with his movies, he took a huge leap and decided that all of his income should come from making films. That decision forced him to have no other choice but to make it happen.
At the time, he was averaging about $3000 in profit for each movie he made – definitely not enough to live on. But his solution? Make MORE movies, not less. If he could make a movie every month or two, that $3000 would be frequent enough to keep him afloat.
That type of do or die attitude is crucial in filmmaking. It’s a competitive business and thousands of filmmakers are churning out content (with increasing quality) every day. The hungriest filmmakers who have the most time to spend making their movies are the most likely to succeed.
Granted, we all need to pay the bills. And I’m certainly not suggesting everyone reading this quits their day job on a whim.
But I will say this – the more you can narrow your focus onto filmmaking, the faster and further you will go. Look for ways to make more of your income from movies, and be willing to make sacrifices to achieve those goals.
In Joe’s case, he had to create a prolific body of work in order to survive. And not only did those films serve in the moment by bringing in some revenue, but they led to even bigger directorial opportunities down the line.
YOU CAN MAKE A GOOD FEATURE IN 4 DAYS
Obviously not all movies can (or should) be shot in as little as 4 days, but it’s possible to do something great even without much time. It all comes down to your shooting style, concept, and willingness to be flexible throughout the process.
Joe talks about being inspired by Adam Wingard (director of You’re Next), who apparently was shooting his features at up to 25 pages/day. Most logical people would assume that is far too much material to capture without hurting your final product, but that just isn’t universally true.
Movies shot in as few as 1 or 2 days have gone on to have success with top-tier festivals and distributors, while movies shot in 40 days are rejected left, right and center. Amount of shooting days does not necessarily equate to a successful finished product.
So if you’re worried about raising a budget to shoot your feature in 25 days, consider trimming the fat.
How can you tell that story – or something similar – with a few less locations, or set across a smaller time frame? These kinds of simple tactical questions can dramatically reduce shooting time. The same could be said about choosing the gear and shooting style to allow you to work quickly, for instance by using natural light.
Maybe 4 days is too extreme for your liking, but what about 6 or 8? Once you get your shooting days down, everything else becomes more feasible.
NO MONEY IS BETTER THAN SOME MONEY
Joe makes a great point that in some scenarios, you’re better off having no money for your production than having a small budget. His argument is straightforward –
Having even a little bit of money means everyone is going to want a slice of the pie. You’ll be pushed to spend money in many different areas, and no one will ever feel like they’re being fully compensated.
On the other hand, if you produce something for nothing, everyone is in the same boat. This requires cutting deals with cast and crew, and possibly others too, like location owners. You would be paying everyone on the backend, by making them all owners in your movie as opposed to paying out cash up front.
While I’ve never taken this path myself, it’s certainly a viable option. Especially if you’re fortunate to work with friends who really trust what you’re doing, and who you can collaborate with in other ways that are beneficial to them.
The lesson here is to look at your lack of money as an opportunity, not as a hurdle. Yes, it will create some challenges, but it can also open up the door for a really amazing collaborative process if you’re set up with the right team.
INVEST IN YOUR OWN MOVIES
If you do need to work with some budget (because your concept relies on it), you should really consider putting up the money yourself.
The age old advice has always been to “never invest in your own work”, but Joe makes a case that doing so is the only real way to make money as a DIY filmmaker. He talks about the importance of ownership, and retaining a big slice of the pie.
On large scale productions with investors, whoever puts up the money gets 50% of the movie’s profits and the other 50% is generally shared amongst the creative team. This means as the director, you may only have a 5% stake once all is said and done.
If you invest in your own movies, ideally by rolling profits from your last movie into your new one, you can own a much bigger piece. You may own up to 100%, depending on whether you provide equity to anyone else involved. That means you’ll get a 20x bigger payout on the same sale of your movie.
Over the long term, this strategy can pay off in leaps and bounds. Even a film you’ve made years ago that’s not making a lot of money for you now may be valuable again in the future.
Movies have a very long shelf life, and can be re-sold or re-packaged many times over. New streaming platforms and other services will continue to emerge and open up more ability to profit with your work. Not to mention, if you make a movie 5 years from now that strikes it big, your entire catalogue will be worth more.
IT TOOK 7 MOVIES TO MAKE MONEY
Although Joe’s first batch of movies were getting seen at festivals and by audiences at home, he didn’t make any real money from his movies until after feature #7.
The vast majority of filmmakers who go to film school never even make one feature. Of those who do, so few will ever make a second one. It’s can be a grueling process…
So you have to imagine the tenacity it takes to do 7 in a row, with no real money at all being made. But that stick-with-it-ness paid off.
Eventually, Joe was able to sell his $15,000 feature film for $75,000, and that launched him into profitability.
As important as it is to always aim to make a profit with your work, it’s equally important to know that it will take time. The market is really challenging to navigate, even under the best of circumstances. But if you love making movies enough, you’ll keep doing it until you’ve made the right movie at the right moment and everything clicks.
SHOOT FOR AS LITTLE AS POSSIBLE
I’ve never thought of having a big budget as a universally positive thing. Sure, we all want to have more money for better locations, gear and other toys. But the more money you spend, the more pressure is on you to make it back.
From a business perspective, it always made sense to me to go the low-budget route –
If you can sell your finished product for $100K, isn’t it better if it cost $10K to make than if it cost $50K? More money definitely doesn’t equate to a higher value product, so why not make more money so you can use it to finance another movie?
Not everyone shares this point of view, but Joe certainly does. He’s not interested in burning money for no good reason, as he is directly impacted by the financial viability of his movies.
All the money in the world can’t guarantee you success. The best chance you have is to write and shoot a great movie and do it on the cheap. If you can attract name actors or producers along the way, all the better! Those things will throw fuel on the fire and don’t always need to cost you anything up front.
BE ADAPTABLE TO THE CHANGING MARKET
In the early days of VOD, many of Joe’s peers were hesitant to even consider it as a viable distribution option. At the time, VOD was still so new, and most filmmakers felt like their movies had failed if they didn’t secure some form of theatrical distribution.
But there was an opportunity brewing – VOD & streaming platforms were coming into their own and they needed the right films to legitimize them. While most filmmakers were scared to be the first ones in, Joe was willing to take that risk. He was amongst the first known indie filmmakers to really leverage the new distribution landscape, and got a ton of attention on his work as a result.
And he continued to iterate his process and take more risks as the market evolved further. Several years into it, he was finding that his newly released movies would get a ton of buzz during their big festival premieres, but the audiences forget about them 6 or 7 months later when they would actually come out on VOD.
So he broke with tradition and decided to create a day-and-date release for one of his features, scheduled around his festival premiere. This meant it would be instantly available for streaming the very day it would have the most buzz from the festival.
It was a risky move, but paid off substantially, landing him press in the New York Times and even more attention on his work.
The market is changing every day. Doors are opening for new revenue generating opportunities while others are closing. If you’re too dead-set on a specific business model, you may miss an even greater opportunity that’s right in front of you.
These were just some of my big takeaways from the keynote, but there’s a whole lot more packed into the full YouTube video.
It’s important to remember every filmmaker has their own path and needs to blaze their own trail. There’s no way to replicate the success of any filmmaker, or to look at their process as an exact blueprint.
Some people just aren’t going to want to make a movie in 4 days for $1000. And there’s nothing wrong with that by any means! There are as many ways to break into this business as there are filmmakers, but we can certainly always learn something from each other.
Personally speaking, I can’t help but relate to the way Joe has approached his career. I’ve always been about finding ways to spend more of your time making movies and getting better at the craft, while owning the material you’re making and continuing to level up on your own terms.
The way those principles manifest may be different for each filmmaker, but they’re certainly an integral piece of the puzzle for all of us.
Did you watch the full SXSW keynote? If so, let me know your favorite takeaways in the comments below!
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Noam Kroll is an award-winning Los Angeles based filmmaker, and the founder of the boutique production house, Creative Rebellion. His work can be seen at international film festivals, on network television, and in various publications across the globe. Follow Noam on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook for more content like this!