How likely is it for an indie film to become profitable? Statistically speaking, the picture is quite bleak – 97% of independent feature films fail to turn a profit.
Most filmmakers assume they will be in the lucky 3%, not realizing that turning a real profit with a low/micro-budget film is practically unheard of.
After all, the most common ingredients to a profitable film are star talent, agency representation, and top tier festival placement, none of which are staples in the micro-budget world.
Not to say those variables are a guarantee of anything, because many films that meet all of the criteria above fail to yield a profit too… But at the very least they give you a fighting chance.
Some indie filmmakers recognize this, and do just about everything they can to beat the odds.
They think: “I might not be able to land an A-list actor to boost my sales potential, but maybe if my concept is commercial enough it will break through.”
Then, every creative decision they make (from story to casting to sales strategy) comes from this place.
Their primary goal is no longer to make the best possible movie, but to make a movie that is optimized to turn a profit.
Of course they probably genuinely do want to make a great movie too… But someone has convinced them that making money with their movie is the ultimate end goal, so that’s what takes precedence.
I very much disagree with this line of thinking.
Ultimately, I believe there are two ways you can look at the purpose of making a micro-budget feature:
- As a product that can become profitable, and incentivize future investors to work with you
- As a creative expression and means to improve your craft, expand your network and develop a body of work
Many films can achieve both of the above of course, but most filmmakers are predominantly driven by one of these goals.
For me, it’s always #2. And the reason is simple –
In the micro-budget realm, the more obviously commercial you try to make your movie, the less creative merit and originality it tends to have. And less creative merit not only equates to a lesser body of work, but also less financial upside over the long term.
Only by not hyper focusing on money early on can you create a body of work that is truly valuable.
This is the paradox of working toward profitability on a small scale.
Successful micro-budget films work because they break the rules. They try new ideas. They do things that can not be done on higher budgets. I talk about this in my article “Missing The Mark With Micro-Budget Films.”
These more experimental films are not always the most immediately profitable, but tend to be further reaching and far more meaningful to overall career building.
On the other hand, micro-budget features that aim to replicate Hollywood level success almost always fall flat. Using a studio-style profit model becomes their achilles heel, making the end products feel like watered down versions of movies we’ve already seen.
The irony of course, is that the harder they try to make their film profitable, the less likely they are to make money.
In the short term, artistically driven feature films are not any better off in terms of profitability, but they do offer far more potential in the long term.
Making movies as a career is all about building your body of work. And over the long haul, if you make honest films that motivated by creativity (and not money), you will almost certainly do better work.
Your films will be more unique, personal, and valuable, regardless of whether they turn a profit right away.
This will lead you to create more films of the same caliber, and over time you will have built a beautiful body of work that is far more valuable than any single film on its own.
And it is this body of work that can lead to real profit in the film industry in the future. Your unique voice and vision is what makes someone want to invest in you down the line, or pay you the big bucks to direct something for hire.
This is why on micro-budget features, I choose to divorce any profit incentive from my creative process.
Of course I need to make a living like anyone else, but I understand the odds are already stacked against me when making a feature film. I know that profitability on a micro-budget film is practically impossible, and that if I try to be the exception to that rule I will almost certainly end up making worse creative decisions.
So instead, I look for indirect ways to leverage my films to generate revenue. These could be anything from ancillary products that are related to the film, to commercial jobs I land as a result of meeting new collaborators.
There are infinite ways you can create revenue streams from your film projects, outside of simply selling or licensing your film. And as I discuss in my course Filmmaker Autonomy, they can be far more lucrative too.
But whether you care about making money with your micro-budget feature or not, my advice is the same: Never let any motivation overshadow your artistry.
Every great career is built from a place of pure creative expression, not financial incentive.
Sean Baker (Director of Tangerine, Florida Project, and Red Rocket) is a great case in point.
He made micro-budget features for decades before winning Sundance with his iPhone feature Tangerine. His films were not commercial by any stretch, and I would doubt any of them (before Tangerine) turned any huge profits.
It’s precisely because they were personal and unique (and not commercial) that they got noticed, and that he got known for his specific directorial approach.
Now he can make movies with higher budgets and stars, specifically because that’s NOT what he set out to do.
If there’s any path to follow, this is it.