Most of us make micro-budget films for reasons other than profit. We want our films to find an audience, get noticed, and open up the door for representation or financing on future projects.
These are all great goals to have, and I certainly understand as well as anyone that a self-produced feature film can serve as an incredible calling card…
But in order for any of the gatekeepers (investors, agents, managers, etc.) to ever take notice of our work, our films need to make money.
This should come as no surprise, as we’re talking about show business. And it is a business.
Your film is the product and if that film finds an audience, sells, and turns a profit, the right people will take notice. You will be seen as a profitable filmmaker, and that in itself matters more than any other accolade or festival laurel out there. Money talks…
So with that in mind, how can we as micro-budget filmmakers ensure our films make money?
First off, let’s all agree that while we should aim to make as much profit as possible with our work, our bare minimum should be the break-even point. If we approach a private investor to fund our next feature, and our last feature wasn’t sold or didn’t at least break even, they are going to run for the hills. And I don’t blame them.
This means our bare minimum goal is to make our money back.
If we can’t at least break even (and don’t have a plan for doing so), we will not be profitable filmmakers, and all the work that went in into writing, shooting, editing, and marketing our work will have been in vain… At least from a financial perspective.
But how do we make money with a micro-budget film? It’s hard enough for studio movies to make their money back today, so how can our films shot on shoestring budgets ever stand a chance?
Many ways, actually.
In fact, I would argue that when done right, a micro-budget film can be far more profitable than a blockbuster…
At least if we’re comparing percentages and not dollars.
Take the film “For Lovers Only” for instance. This was a movie shot with virtually no crew and no budget on a Canon 5D MK II, and later turned a profit of $500K. Even if the filmmakers behind it (The Polish Brothers) spent a total of $5K on the film – and they may have spent less – they were able to make 100x their money back. What Hollywood blockbuster can claim that?
And that’s what it’s all about – the percentages. You don’t need to make millions of dollars, you just need to make enough that your ROI is impressive. If you spent $30K and made $60K, that’s a 100% return, pretty great if you ask me!
All that said, making your money back (and then some) on any film, let alone a micro-budget, can be extremely difficult… Which is why most of us should be following some of these golden rules, which can help any film get into the black:
Keep the budget as low as possible
The lower your budget, the less you need to make back. Simple as that. If you made a film for $10K, you only need to make $10,001 to be profitable. If you make a film for $50K or $100K, then you have a steeper mountain to climb.
That’s not to say films with healthier budgets don’t also have advantages (namely production value) that can make them more marketable… But it is a point worth noting, because if your film can be made just as well for $10K as it could for $50K, why spend the extra money?
Just because you can raise it, doesn’t mean you should. If the money is simply going to make your life easier while shooting (extra time, bigger crew), but won’t necessarily show up on the screen, you might want to re-think how much is being spent.
Star power matters
This may sound counter-intuitive, especially given my last point, but if you can land a name in your film – any name – it will likely go a very long way in getting your film seen and sold. Film festivals, distributors, and investors all seem to take films more seriously when they have a name in the credits.
This is one of the few areas where I would advise you to up your budget. In the example above for instance, it would be worth upping your budget from $10K to $50K if it meant you could book a name actor in a lead role. Or even a couple of names in two smaller roles that could be shot in a few days or less.
And believe it or not, you can book name actors in your film… Especially if you live in NY or LA and the talent is local.
For $5K – $10K per day, there are a lot of known actors that would be willing to come out and act in your micro-budget project. And that could be money well spent… It of course depends on the talent and the market (some names are more bankable than others), but either way, money towards talent is almost always the best investment you can make.
Work in a SELLABLE genre
Certain genres sell far more than others. For instance, a horror or sci-fi film will likely sell faster and for a higher price than a drama, even if the films are identical in terms of budget and scope…
Now, I’m not saying you should pick your genre based on profitability alone (I certainly ignored this rule when I made my own feature), but it is something that needs to be considered as it’s one of the #1 factors effecting the value of your film.
To look at an extreme, consider a found footage horror film. This is arguably the cheapest genre to work in, but also the most profitable – in part because it costs so little to produce, but also because it’s in the right genre. Blair Witch as a humanistic drama isn’t exactly going to have the same bite.
While developing any new feature film, we all need to be thinking about genre and how it pertains to the salability of our work. If we are dead-set on working in a genre that isn’t as traditionally easy to sell, then we will want to compensate for that in other ways – for instance by booking name actors or working with a hot subject matter.
Don’t put too much weight on festivals
Getting into Sundance or Cannes will unquestionability skyrocket the financial potential of any film, but we can’t bank on that. Too many times, filmmakers ignore many of the “rules” about booking stars, working in the right genre, or even keeping their budgets in check, and ultimately just cross their fingers that they get into a great festival.
But this is a terrible strategy… Not only because getting into Sundance these days is the equivalent of winning the lottery, but also because even if you do get in, there are no guarantees that you will sell your film. It may help a lot, but getting into a major festival is not a strategy on it’s own. Just look at how many (or really how few) features from Sundance sold this year.
(Note: Over 7,000 submissions vie for less than 200 slots. Many of those have Million $ Budgets with Name Actors.)
Are festivals still important? Yes, absolutely. But don’t rely on them, no matter what genre you are working in. They should always be seen as a BONUS, as the icing on the cake.
Create ancillary products
Studios have been doing this for decades, and we can do it as micro-budget filmmakers too. Ancillary products of course are any products derived from a film that can be sold separately from the movie itself, and usually for a higher profit margin.
We’ve all been exposed to them for years – action figures, t-shirts, games – the list goes on and on.
You don’t need to be Marvel to tap into the power of ancillary products. Every film can be monetized in more ways than one, it simply comes down to identifying the needs of the audience.
For example, if your film has an educational component to it, you might make a screening kit for universities that includes the film, an educational DVD, and a discussion packet for the professor to implement with their students. These types of kits can sell anywhere from $200 – $500 or more, which is a lot more than the $10 you might sell the film for on iTunes!
There are an infinite amount of ancillary products, and by no means is the educational market the only option. There are countless products and services that can be spun off of any film project, so we should all be thinking about who our target market is, and what they need above and beyond just our film. It should start with the film, but not end there.
It’s okay to break the rules
Although I’ve outlined a lot of “rules” above, it’s also okay to break them. If we all followed all the rules all the time, we wouldn’t be able to break the mould and really get noticed with our work by doing things differently.
In a sense, that’s the biggest lesson in itself… Do things differently.
While the constructs I’ve laid out above are all certainly useful, above and beyond everything we’ve explored so far, we all need to be looking for ways to do something new.
An original idea, a provocative topic, a character that hasn’t been seen on screen before – those are just a few ways to truly break new ground. And when we can tap into something novel, everything else we’ve discussed so far becomes easier… From booking name talent, to getting into the right festival, to selling your work and ancillary products.
So as you take into account everything we’ve discussed here today, always remember – There is no substitute for pure originality.