There was once a time – a couple decades back – when simply completing a feature film was practically a guarantee of financial success.
There was far less competition in the market, festivals were easier to get into, buyers were starving for new content, and films were being sold for loads of money. Life was good for indie filmmakers.
But over the years, things changed.
Filmmaking became accessible to the masses thanks to cheap cameras, gear, and software. And while this made it easier than ever to make a film, it made it harder than ever to sell one. The market became flooded with ultra low budget features, and the value of original content began to drop very quickly. At least on the indie level.
Unfortunately, some filmmakers today are still working off of a pre-internet, 1990’s-esque business model that doesn’t take into account the realities of today’s market.
They want to make a film for $100K – $1MM, get into Sundance, sell the film to a major studio, and cash in.
That’s not to say this doesn’t happen anymore, of course it does. But it’s a model from a different era that is more competitive than ever, less lucrative, and far less attainable for filmmakers working on true independent films – without the resources or bandwidth to compete with higher budget independent films.
So ultimately, filmmakers today are faced with the challenge of figuring out how to profit from their own work, on their own terms. They can no longer rely on a studio or sales agent to swoop in and save the day. They need to get out there and do it themselves, and their effectiveness in doing so will ultimately be what determines their overall success over the long haul.
With that in mind, I want to share my thoughts on making a living off of micro-budget films in today’s rapidly evolving landscape.
It starts with thinking of ourselves as micro-budget studios, not just micro-budget filmmakers.
That distinction matters, as a studio is not just responsible for making a film, but also marketing, selling, and distributing the work to an audience. We all need to be doing the same.
In recent years, filmmakers with virtually no budget or marketing dollars, have taken their tiny features to the top of the iTunes Charts… All thanks to innovative marketing techniques, and the ability to hustle.
These filmmakers understand the key to making a living off of their work is to have control over their income streams. Their business plan does not involve getting into Sundance. They refuse to hand off their films to a distributor that will (probably) never help them make their money back. They don’t assume that their work stops after the picture is locked.
Instead, they think of themselves as studios. The marketability of their films is top of mind from day one – before the film is even written. They understand (at least the basics of) self-distribution and marketing, and put as much time into selling their film as they do into making it.
A lot of filmmakers don’t want to go down this path. Many simply want to make their art and leave the business to someone else… But in 2018 that luxury just doesn’t exist.
Those that are waiting for a golden ticket are eventually going to fail as hungrier, more business-savvy filmmakers run laps around them.
Much of this relates to passive income, as having a steady cash flow affords filmmakers the ability to free up time to both create and market their work.
This is where the studio mentality comes in….
A large portion of any given film studio’s income is derived from their catalogue. Films that were made 5, 10, even 50 years ago are still generating revenue for the major studios, and there’s something we can all learn from that.
Imagine having 10 films under your belt, each of them generating $50K a year in passive income. That’s $500K every year. Half a million dollars to cover your overhead, invest into other projects, and grow your micro-budget filmmaking studio.
It may sound like a pipe dream, but that type of success is absolutely achievable if you create excellent content and understand the fundamentals of selling it.
It can start very small, and grow from there, but it needs to start somewhere.
Say for instance, you make a feature film for $10,000. It’s up on iTunes and Amazon, and on average it generates $10,000 a year in sales. That doesn’t sound like much, as the film cost $10K, so after a year you’ve really just broken even… But if you can maintain that $10K over the long haul, and repeat the process again with multiple films, you are well on your way to fully sustaining yourself off of passive income.
You’re no longer a filmmaker creating a one-off product that you hope will make you rich overnight.
You are a studio, hedging your bets, creating content every single year, diversifying that content among different genres, and building an arsenal of work that can be licensed for years to come.
If you can turn around one film a year, every year, you’re eventually going to figure out how to turn that $10K a year profit into $50K or $100K (or more). And with numerous films under your belt, that is a lot of passive income… Not to mention, generating that much content actually makes it more likely that you will strike gold with one of your films, and get that old-school million dollar sale one day.
But even if you don’t, who cares?
You’re still making an incredible living off of your work, and don’t need to hold down a day job. It may take 5 or 10 years to get there, but good things come to those who wait… And those who work for it.