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Rethinking Indie Film

by Joshua Caldwell Friday, Oct 31, 2014

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Over the past year or so, since making and releasing my feature film Layover, I’ve been thinking a lot about independent filmmaking, specifically from the filmmaker’s point-of-view. We exist in a very interesting, very difficult, and very opportune time, but if we’re going to rise out of the rut that independent filmmaking currently finds itself in, I believe we need to rethink what it means to be an independent filmmaker.

“But, Josh, what do you mean by rut? More indie films are being financed and made every year! More opportunities for distribution are opening up every day! There’s never been a better time for indie films!”

It is true that spending on indie films is on par with the spending of major studios, to the tune of $3 billion annually. That kind of spending means more opportunities for filmmakers and more films being made (which could be good or bad, depending on how you look at it). However, if you look more closely at that same report, you’ll see that less than 2% (!) of those films provide a return on their investment. 98% percent of indie films don’t make back their budget—that’s absurd! How is that a business? And, unlike the studio system, those films that do make their money back don’t offset the cost of those that fail.

Also from the report: the average cost of an indie film is $750,000; 4000 films are submitted to Sundance every year; and more than half of the films that get into Sundance receive a distribution deal (though with that 2% ROI, it means these lose money, too).

This isn’t sustainable. We are hemorrhaging money, we are burning out investors, and we are, in many ways, killing what could be a profitable and sustainable level of the filmmaking industry. So how do we change that? Well, I believe there’s a couple places we, as filmmakers, can rethink what we do and how we do it.

Making Films for a Responsible Budget

Here’s the question: Do you know what your film is worth? Did you ever stop to think about the actual value of the film or were you 1) basing your budget on what a Line Producer told you and/or 2) simply trying to get as much money as you can to make your film?

My film Layover, a small French-language indie drama, was made for $6000. I was free to shoot what some might call a “pretentious” foreign language film because I spent hardly anything to do so. Making the same movie for $750,000 would have been irresponsible of me because I don't think there’s a large enough audience to make that money back. Now, that doesn’t mean every film should be made for $6000, but I don’t think the average cost of an indie film should be $750,000 either, especially when we are, again, coming in at a pitiful 2% ROI.

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Writer/Director Joshua Caldwell shoots a scene from Layover with stars Nathalie Fay and Karl E. Landler.

So, as filmmakers, how can we come to know and understand what a film might be worth?

Building and Knowing Your Audience

Emily Best, CEO of Seed&Spark, says that independent filmmakers need to think of themselves more as entrepreneurs than as artists. That doesn’t mean the art can’t be there and play a role when it comes to making a film; but like it or not, when you have people giving you money to produce a product and do so expecting a return on that investment, you have become a business. 

Is there an example we can turn to for guidance on this? Yes. In fact, you probably look at it every day: YouTube. From Bernie Su and Pemberly Digital (The Lizzie Bennet Diaries, Emma Approved, Frankenstein M.D.) to Tony Valenzuela (BlackBoxTV) to Freddy Wong (RocketJump, Video Game High School), YouTubers have done an amazing job carving out creative independence for themselves by creating narrative content for and catering to their audience. 

They have a direct connection to their audience. They receive feedback on what their audience likes, doesn’t like, and wants to see on the daily. They have access to incredible data about what, where, when, how, and why their audiences watches their content. And yet, they are making the kind of content that they want to make. They’re not setting up paint by numbers shorts and doing so without soul. They’re telling real stories. And their audiences LOVE them for it.

This doesn’t mean that every filmmaker needs to have a YouTube channel (though it really wouldn’t hurt you). So beyond being a YouTuber, how can a filmmaker connect with their audience? Several ways but it means:

The Days of the Reclusive Indie Filmmaker Are Over

Building an audience isn’t about promotion, it’s about engagement, and that engagement can happen two ways: 1) by consistently putting out content and 2) by directly engaging with fans of that content via social media. Both of which mean that the days of an indie filmmaker disappearing for three years to finance, produce, and then sell a film are over. Now, I’m not saying that you need to start releasing Vlog videos and how-to tutorials and make a web series to stay relevant. However, I feel it is important to be producing and releasing films more frequently without sacrificing quality.

And if you successfully create content with a responsible budget, there’s less pressure to spend a year going to every festivals trying to make a sale just to pay back your investors. It allows you to explore alternative distribution methods to reach as wide an audience as possible (sometimes, that ISN’T theatrical, as much as you want it to be). In the past, companies have built huge libraries and bank accounts by making direct-to-DVD films and forgoing the theatrical release. Between VOD, Amazon, Netflix, iTunes, and all the other possible platforms, it’s now possible to do very well WITHOUT a theatrical release. Making them for less money means you’re more likely to turn a profit, pay back your investors, and prove that your film was a worthwhile investment.

To the second point: social media. When I’m at festivals and meet filmmakers, I’ll often check to see if they’re on Twitter or Facebook. I am often surprised to see they only have 200 followers. Then I look at their feed and it’s all self-promotion. I’m sure a lot of filmmakers don’t want to bother with it or don’t see the value in it. This is about engagement, and Twitter and Facebook provide you with the chance to have a direct conversation with your fans and give them access. That doesn’t mean you need to spend all day on it, that doesn’t mean you have to talk to everyone that mentions you, but it’s a massively missed opportunity to not take advantage of social media tools that allow you to connect and engage with an audience who will in turn support anything you make. 

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Layover Live Promotional Image

By building and mobilizing this audience, it allows you to:

Demand To Be Paid

For me, this isn’t demanding to be paid by the production that is already operating on a limited budget. It's about demanding to be paid either by a distributor or via your own direct distribution channels. Essentially, demand that the backend is real and hold your distributor accountable.

How is this possible when one hears horror story after horror story of never seeing backend on a film?

Put yourself in a position where you don’t actually need them. By having this power, even if you choose to go with traditional distribution, it allows you to say no to bad deals and find a partner that will pay you fairly for the work you’ve done. They need your content more than you need their distribution channels.

Alternatively, you can opt out of this scenario altogether. “Wait, I don’t need a distributor? How does that work?” Well, when you make films for smaller budgets, build and cultivate an audience, and have direct access to your audience, you have the power to sell direct to your willing and waiting audience.

And finally:

Demand Data

One of the greatest benefits of dealing directly with your audience is that you have control of the data. You know who your audience is, what they want to watch, how they want to watch it, what they’re willing to pay, how many times they watch it, and more. And the release of your film will bring in even MORE data that will help inform the next film you make. Why wouldn’t you want that? A distributor will certainly do their best to keep it to themselves, because they know that’s where much of the value is (it’s always about what’s next). Your ability to turn down a bad deal or one not favorable to you gives you greater leverage to demand the data you need to smartly make your next film.

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By the way, none of this means we have to stop making challenging, unconventional films. We just need to think differently about how we go about it so that we can make these films.

This kind of change isn’t going to happen overnight. There are going to be filmmakers who just want as much money as they can get to make their films. However, odds are those films will fail, and they’ll have a hard time making another one. And I don’t believe that the independent film industry should be seen as a stepping-stone to bigger, studio-driven films. Too often, that path leaves in its wake little known movies, non-existent profits, and burned investors.

I’d like to see different kinds of stories being told. I’d like to see more filmmakers honoring the investment that’s been made in them. And I’d like to see the independent film industry become a viable business for all involved. The health of our industry depends on it.

Joshua’s latest feature film Assassin is currently running a crowdfunding campaign on Seed&Spark and they would love your support! Check out their project and join them in making Assassin a reality.

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About the author

Joshua Caldwell is an MTV Movie Award winning director, writer, and producer. He has worked with a number of high-profile producers, including CSI: creator Anthony E. Zuiker. His award-winning short film DIG, starring Mark Margolis of BREAKING BAD, was featured in numerous film festivals, and his Superman fan fiction short film Resignation screened at Comic-Con 2014. LAYOVER had its World Premiere at the 2014 Seattle International Film Festival, where it was nominated for the prestigious FIPRESCI New American Cinema Award and is now available at LayoverFilm.com. Follow Joshua on Twitter @Joshua_Caldwell.

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