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To Succeed As An Indie Filmmaker, You Need To Understand The Business – Not Just The Show

Show Business. Two separate words: Show. Business. Each equally important to the success of any filmmaker, yet so many of us choose to only focus on one over the other. And almost always, we only focus on the show… ultimately neglecting half of the equation.

This is a natural tendency for filmmakers, as most of us are creative people who started making films because we love the art of storytelling… Not necessarily because we love the business of movie making (although some of us do!).

The truth of the matter though, is that for any of us to succeed as filmmakers we need to play both sides of the coin. We may be driven by our desire to express ourselves through art, but that dream will only be fully realized when we understand the business well enough to actually make a living off of our work.

The good news is, we don’t need to compromise creativity in order to flourish as filmmakers from a business standpoint. We just need to understand that the best way to succeed is by tapping into the powerful intersection that is art and commerce… Although this is often easier said than done.

To use myself as an example, while I have always been very business minded in many regards (which is largely why I am self-employed and run my own business), I wasn’t always business minded when it came to filmmaking. In my earlier years I saw film as a form of pure creative expression and I had no interest in monetizing or corrupting my work by thinking of it as a commodity.

Over the years though, my mindset changed as I realized I was looking at things the wrong way. I still am very much an “art filmmaker” at heart, and I’m sure I always will be. But I now understand that for any filmmaker to succeed (even those making art films), there needs to be a method to the madness, and business is that method. I also understand that business doesn’t have to be an enemy of creativity. In fact, it can be a close friend.

As a filmmaker, it’s natural to fear that your creative vision will be stifled by focusing too much on the business, but in actuality it’s more likely to be stifled because you neglected the business.

Take distribution for example. If you are a business savvy filmmaker, as you embark on any feature film project you are not only going to consider the strength of your story, script, and characters, but you will also take into account your audience. Before you even write the script, you’ll know who is going to want to see your film. You’ll know what kinds of characters your audience relates to, how and where they like to watch movies, what themes might connect most with them, and so on.

Having this kind of knowledge will serve two purposes –

  1. It will give your film a much better chance of financial success as you’ve now carved out a demographic that you can market your film to
  2. It will give you strong creative guiding principles and parameters to work within – ultimately enhancing your end product

In other words, understanding the business of marketing and distribution will not only benefit your bottom line, but your creative potential as well. It will force you to ask yourself new (and sometimes difficult) questions about the relevance of your story and your theme, and understand how it will be viewed through someone else’s lens. If you only focused on the art and not the business, you would never be forced to ask yourself these tough questions.

This is just one very basic example, but the same principle applies to virtually any facet of your journey as a filmmaker. When you take into account both the creative and business implications of any decision, you put yourself in the best position to thrive.

It isn’t all about the art, but it also isn’t all about the business either. It’s about how they work together as a unit.

You could make the best film in the world, but if you don’t know how to get it in front of an audience then it will effectively not exist. At the same time, you could have the best business strategy in place for your film, but if it isn’t artistically sound or at the very least entertaining, no one will want to see it. You need both. Show & Business.

The marketing example I gave above is just one of countless ways that business plays a part in both your film’s success, and your personal success as a filmmaker. But it doesn’t start and end with marketing… Far from it. A solid business foundation (or lack thereof) can make or break you in so many scenarios:

If you don’t have the right soft skills to pitch your screenplay well, your great idea will come across to others (likely investors or collaborators) as disinteresting.

If you don’t understand the importance of forging long term business relationships with your collaborators, you’re unlikely to find a team that will stay loyal to you as a filmmaker as you attempt to move ahead on your journey.

If you don’t understand the hustle and grind that it takes to run a business (and yes, an indie film is a business), you will never be able to get through the darker moments of the long marathon that is making a feature film.

If you don’t … Well you get the point.

Even if we don’t consciously think about our films or careers from a business perspective, that doesn’t change the fact that we are still playing by the same rules as the big production companies and studios – some of us just don’t realize it. Even if you want to focus solely on the art of making a film, and completely ignore the business side, at a point you will still need to pitch your idea (soft skills), work with a team (leadership), and get your movie in front of an audience (marketing).

You are going to go through all of the business-centric motions whether you like it or not… So the sooner you recognize the game you’re playing, the sooner you’ll develop the skills and knowledge you’ll need to win that game.

As a starting point, the best thing you can do is make learning your number one priority, as your growth as a filmmaker depends on it. This notion applies equally to the show and to the business, but for the sake of this article I am going to stress the importance of learning the business.

Now I’m not suggesting you need to go out and get an MBA (far from it), but I am saying with certainty that taking a genuine interest in the business side of what you do will go a very, very long way.

Read as many books as you can on marketing and sales. Watch in depth interviews with successful CEOs. Listen to podcasts about networking. Stream the Hollywood Reporter roundtables. Do whatever you can to consume as much information as possible, and you will inevitably apply those lessons to your work…

And don’t feel like everything you consume needs to be directly related to film. In fact, it might be better if it isn’t. I’ve probably applied more insight from someone like Mark Cuban than I have from fellow filmmakers or producers… But that’s just me. Find what works best for you and keep consuming, learning, and growing.

I’ll leave you with one last thought –

The greatest benefit you’ll find in focusing on the business, is your newfound ability to take control of your own destiny. No one wants to be the filmmaker that works for countless months (or years) to make a film that never gets seen because they weren’t miraculously discovered by a producer that instantly proclaimed they were a genius. But everyone wants to be the filmmaker that succeeds despite all odds, simply because they outworked the competition and never stopped learning both about their craft, and about the business of their craft.

If you can truly master both, I believe you will be unstoppable. I have yet to master either, but I spend countless hours every day in the pursuit of achieving my goals, and that alone gives me a great deal of satisfaction.

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About Author

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!

4 Comments

  • Nickolay
    March 20, 2018 at 2:37 pm

    Hi Noam,

    First of all I want to say I am a big fan of your podcast show, and everything you do is really worth it and it changed my perspective. My question is as beginner in filmmaking who makes films for fun what should i focus on (in business aspect). I mean since i don`t need to finiance my films (by now) how can i develope my business skills so to be prepared when it`s needed? Will readings books, watchings interviews, etc. be enough?

    Reply
    • Noam Kroll
      April 2, 2018 at 4:08 am

      Great question, Nickolay. The fact that you’re even thinking about the business end is great. For too many filmmakers, it’s just an afterthought…

      I would start by figuring out what specific type of business skills you need to learn. For instance, if your long term goal is to run a production company, you might want to study up on entrepreneurship. On the other hand, if you simply want to understand the business aspect of raising money, selling films, etc. then you’d likely want to take some more specialty-oriented courses. Let me know a little bit more about what you’re looking to do, and I will help advise you where I can.

      Reply
  • Rallo
    September 14, 2017 at 7:51 pm

    Hi Noam,

    I don’t see why anyone has not commented on this as of yet. (Maybe it’s because people are too worried about 4k resolution and color grading for the “FILM LOOK” LOL) I appreciate your concern in bringing this information to the forefront because everyone needs this sort of information. My question is: Is their anything I can do during or before the production of my feature film that will make it a quicker process to have it seen or gain exposure after post production in order to sell it. The reason for asking this question is because I don’t really know how long a indie feature film could take to be picked up after it is finished. (I know the time could vary i just wanted to know how to maybe speed up the process safely.) Another question is: How are you planning to shop around your new indie feature film(if you can share this information or don’t mind sharing it!)

    Reply
    • Noam Kroll
      September 22, 2017 at 1:51 am

      Thanks for the feedback, Rallo! Glad you’re enjoying the blog… To answer you –

      I am currently going through the process of selling a film for the first time, so in a few months from now I will probably have a much better answer for you. But for now, I can say that any films I’ve worked on that have been sold have all had very unique paths. Some films (usually those in a specific niche) sold quickly by going straight to distribution companies that were targeted for their sub-genre.

      In other cases, films have gone to festivals and been sold there, or at the very least have found sales agents that would then help to sell the foreign rights to the movie at various film markets. Some films have been rejected from festivals but have succeeded using a DIY approach to VOD sales.

      Whatever the case may be, distribution can come together very quickly, or it can take a year or two (or more), it really all depends on the niche the film is in, the budget, whether name actors are involved, festival performance, and many other variables.

      In my case for Shadows On The Road, I am aiming to do an initial festival run in 2018 before approaching any distributors directly. This may or may not be the best way to do it, but to me it makes sense… I want to see how people react to the film, and think I will be in a better position to negotiate if distributors are knocking on my door. That said, I am fully prepared NOT to have distributors calling, and will certainly considering shopping it directly to various buyers and/or pulling the trigger on a self-distribution plan depending on which options are available to me.

      I’ll be sure to do a blog post or podcast on this topic in the future once I have some more clarity!

      Reply

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