Introduction to Lessons From the Set
Updated: Aug 16, 2021
Making money in the movie business is something that a lot of filmmakers aspire to. Being in a position where you can make films and release them to theaters or "straight to video" on a consistent basis is the ultimate dream for most, but it is also a cause of frustration and anxiety to many. I believe it to be the main reason why so many good people who venture into this business quit before their time. The cost associated with making films, along with the pressure and artistic skill demanded, and the obligation to adhere to budgets and generate revenue, can prove to be a challenging feat that many people assume is beyond their capabilities.
Now, as far as I know, there are two key ways by which you can derive your income from making and selling feature films: (a) you can make a movie and sell it to a distributor; or (b) make a movie and sell it on your own. That’s it, really. However, when most independent filmmakers think about the prospect of getting their movie made and sold, they’ll opt to go for option A. They’ll send it to major film festivals in hopes that during their circuit, the movie will hit a cord with a capable distributor who would show an interest in buying it. If the distributor is big, they may get a theatrical release, and a good deal of money could follow. They’ll be featured in the press, be courted by agents, and have an easier time getting funding for their next project – and life will be grand! And if the distributor is small, the movie will go straight to video, and they’ll make a little less money and maybe have to work a little harder to get their next movie lined up, and the next one – it will be the big break they’ve been waiting for.
Take any of those filmmakers and offer them the opportunity to distribute their own films and they might snigger, “I’m not interested in doing marketing or handling sales; the business side of moviemaking is not something that I’m really interested in. I want to focus on making movies and let other people worry about selling them.” There is nothing wrong with that approach, it is, as the name states, an approach – it’s just one way of doing things. In fact, it’s the go-to approach for a big chunk of the filmmaking population. However, what do you think will happen if you take that very same filmmaker and give them a failed festival circuit? Meaning their film got accepted into festivals, but no one bothered to buy it; no one licensed it or showed any interest in distributing it... Well, now these very same filmmakers are in “panic mode.” They’ll eventually make their way to signing a deal with an online film distribution company, and their movie will most likely die in obscurity. These online, independent film distributors are the kind that’ll put your movie up on VOD and leave it there for seven years without doing a lick of marketing or promotion. They call themselves “film distribution companies,” but in reality, they’re more like vanity book publishers. They’re “movie brokers” – meaning they take your movie, put it on iTunes, Amazon, Xbox, Google Play, and other VOD channels via an aggregator (to which you, as a filmmaker also have access), and maybe send a press release out via their website and social media channels, and that’s it. The offer you get when you sign the contract is usually $0 in advance but 30% of the net, and you feel confident in the fact that you have a distributor and that your movie will finally see the light of day. A month later, the film comes out to VOD, and this “distributor” didn’t put a dime into P&A (Print and Advertising). They didn’t market the movie, they didn’t sell it, they didn’t build a marketing plan for it, and they don’t intend to push it, promote it or sell it. It gets very few reviews from the indie-fans who might buy it online, and after two years of selling, you still haven’t seen a dime – because the distributor had “marketing expenses” that kept you from actually seeing a profit. Believe it or not, that is the actual situation that many independent filmmakers find themselves in after spending years of their life pouring their hearts and souls into the making of their indie features. They hope and pray that it’ll get picked up during the festival circuit and are willing to give up their rights to do so because the thought of leaving the festival circuit without a deal is terrifying.
This is where the current state of DIY film distribution comes into play. Some filmmakers who failed to sell their movie at a film festival and are not interested in giving away their rights to a vanity distributor would say “the hell with it.” They’ll bypass the broker and submit the movie to the aggregator on their own. If they can’t afford the iTunes fees, then they’ll send it straight to Amazon’s Media on Demand and Video Central (free services that let you sell your movie on Amazon in both VOD and DVD/Blu-Ray formats), and other alternative services like Vimeo on Demand until they can afford the cost of selling on iTunes. That is all fine and dandy, but there is one major flaw in their strategy, which is: they don’t have one. A big percentage of indie filmmakers who opt to self-distribute their films have no distribution or marketing plan in mind. They don’t know what they’re doing, so they’ll either spend themselves to death trying to market the movie or put it up on Amazon with no marketing and get upset when the film fails to sell.
Independent filmmakers who are making a living via their art don’t find themselves on one end of the spectrum or the other – it’s wrong to say that if you want to make a living in movies then you must distribute your own content. It’s also wrong to say that you should only focus on your art and leave the film distribution business to other people – and that is where my book (Lessons From the Set) comes into play. The purpose of this blog is to serve as a DIY filmmaking resource on anything from screenwriting to distribution, marketing and press. The purpose of this blog is to prepare you for both scenarios: the best-case scenario, where you make a movie and sell it at Sundance, and the worst-case scenario – where you wrap your festival tour with no sales and are forced to distribute the film yourself.
I guess the thing to keep in mind when deciding to enter the world of independent film is that you are, in fact, independent. Meaning, you are not tied to anyone or anything. You’re not restricted to a singular strategy, you don’t have a prior commitment to unions or guilds, and you’re not expected to break box office records. You work independently; you are an entrepreneur working in the entertainment industry, and your product runs at 24 frames per second.
Lessons From the Set will give you the tools you need to write, direct, produce, shoot, edit, market and sell your movie – independently.