At Ted Hope’s Hope For Film site, producer Smriti Mundhra recently posted a great article
about the debate over viability that emerged at The Conversation , one of two distribution and media-creation conferences that took place within a week’s span in NYC last week (Full disclosure,: I was a moderator and ‘advisor’ at The Conversation and have some loose business relationships with folks at DIY Days ).
Ms. Mundhra describes the ongoing discussion around challenges for filmmakers in relation to finding revenue from their work (or in the sortof hateful parlance of the day, “monetizing”). The current conventional wisdom seems to be that the new culture of “free” presents a challenge to filmmakers that they can choose to confront with various strategies in the name of rescuing the profits that are suddenly in jeopardy.
Right now independent filmmakers have amazing, previously unknown opportunities. The availability of increasingly cheaper technology has allowed filmmaking to become both more accessible and much more reasonable for those who were already using higher-end, more expensive equipment. In almost every area of the production process, filmmaking is becoming available without millions or even hundreds of thousands of dollars for a high-quality result. And filmmakers have ways to reach audiences that depend more on effort than giant P&A spends. For all these reasons, filmmakers have much more control than they ever did about how to share their films with audiences.
But there is a reality, it seems to me, that is missing from the discussion. Selling independent films is not and never was a “business model” (or- if you wish- not a 'good' business model), in the context that making these films should be the basis for a lucrative career using the principles of an MBA program. A good business model takes into account what the consumer wants and tries to give them that. It does not find something that one personally likes and then tries to make other people care about it, which is something more like patronage.
Because of the economics around film, and the way independent film distribution evolved out of foreign film distribution, there was some perception that independent films had some kind of commercial viability in aggregate and that if you just came up with the right formula, you could find a pleasing margin.
There was a veneer of prosperity when films were picked up at Sundance or Toronto and garnered big advances. But that was still only a small fraction of films, and those films were highly leveraged, expensive projects. How many of those films actually made back their budget in the revenue they received from distributors? How many distributors made significant money on selling independent film with our the capital from some other source to subsidize the effort? Essentially, if you compare what people spent making indie films at that time with what the returns were, would the numbers be a lot different from today?
Some films that happened to be independent were great successes.
However, I wonder how much of the revenue generated by those films ended up in the hands of creative people who made the film. In my experience, a system that splits the revenue several times before it reaches a royalty payment tends to yield small returns for creators.
Is independent filmmaking, as was suggested at The Conversation, a hobby? Most filmmakers will be lucky to make more money than is invested in the film, and possibly even lucky to make more money than they personally invested. For that reason, it’s essential that people wanting to make films are doing it because it’s exciting, fun, collaborative, creative and they are driven to do it despite the financial investment.
A large industry of film schools and workshops has emerged to service people who think they want to “be” a filmmaker but this is kind of like people wanting to “be” a shoe repair person. There’s not a mysterious, gatekept process anymore- just find a story and cast, then shoot and edit (it's not easy but it's fairly intuitive). You don’t have to lose money, and you likely won’t make much. You might make something that is exciting, beautiful, or new. Before you do anything else, try to understand and find your audience, so someone will see your work when it’s done.
Laure Parsons is a filmmaker and distribution consultant and can be found at xplusxfilms.com and infinicine.com.