Written By: Jason Sirotin
Edited By: Jason Marraccini
Think about selling your film from day one.
- Do not wait until the last moment to think about how you will sell your film. Setting your film up for success requires that the minute you decide you're going to make it, you start taking steps to ensure someone will distribute it. When I first started selling films I brought a distributor a little Indie we made for $30,000. The distributor liked the film but he said this: “Jason, there is no sex or violence in this film and you have no recognizable talent. There’s nothing I can do with this film.” I can’t even tell you what an incredible letdown that was to hear. My team and I had worked on the movie for three years, and now some guy that I've never met t was essentially telling me that my film was worthless. It was probably the worst day of my filmmaking career, but also the most important. Here's why: the distributor did not give a shit about my film. He didn't care how great the cinematography was, or how brilliantly acted it was. He cared if it had sex violence, and a name. In short, he cared if he could make quick money with it. That’s it. Sure, he was just one guy, but that one guy held the key to getting my film distributed. After being rejected I sulked for a day or two and then I started thinking about what he’d said. He basically said that I didn't have a movie that anybody cared about. I hadn't thought about my audience enough. When I made the movie I was sure that my indie film audience would get it. They’d watch it and love it. What the hell did this guy know. Turns out he knew EXACTLY what he was talking about.
- In 2009 when we made the film, DSLR cameras like the Canon 7D and the Canon 5D Mark II made it easier for filmmakers to make great looking movies for a relatively low cost. This technology advancement made the barriers to entry much smaller. We weren’t the only ones creating films on shoestring budgets. In 2011 when we finally released the film and started submitting it to festivals we received rejection after rejection. It wasn't because our film was horrible it was because the market was flooded with good, cheap indie films. In fact that year the Sundance Film Festival had 10,279 films submissions. Over 10,000 films! If I wanted to continue to make films I would need to come up with a plan of action that allowed me to be successful, and know that my investors’ money was not going to waste. On every film after that, I aimed to solve the distribution problem right at the start. I researched which indies were selling, what they had in common, and how I could emulate their marketability.
- Here are the questions I now ask myself before taking on a film as a producer:
- Is the film tied to a social movement? Even if the film sucks, if it’s got timely content people feel strongly about you can likely find distribution and make money. I produced a pretty mediocre film called “The Fat Boy Chronicles” that was released in 2012. You can see it on Netflix, iTunes, Amazon and many other places. The film’s story, which is about childhood bullying, is all over the place, to the point of being nonsensical at times. To this day I am baffled that it was in Wal-Marts all across America and was the #1 family film on Redbox for a month when it first came out. It had no stars other than Ron Lester, the fat guy from Varsity Blues. However, the film is considered a success. It made some money and some people actually like it. Hey, taste is subjective. I really like the writers, the director, and the EPs. The experience was incredible and I really am thankful that I got to be a part of it. Regardless, this is a prime example of a not-great film that got distribution because it tackled a social issue that was in the public consciousness at the time (bullying).
- Does the film have a bankable name attached. I know with lower budgets it’s hard to get even a low-level star, but if you want your best shot, a recognizable name will all but guarantee a distribution deal (assuming the movie is technically sound).
- Is there a niche audience? Our biggest monetary film successes have all been documentaries. Our film “The Perfect Human Diet” was the #1 independent film, #1 documentary, and #8 top selling film overall on iTunes for an entire month in five different countries. The reason for the huge sales numbers was the film’s built in audience. Health/diet related documentaries with high production values like Food Inc. and Forks Over Knives have performed incredibly well. That’s a large enough audience to make a distributor’s mouth water.
Make a great film.
- Get the right talent, the right gear, the right crew. Don’t take shortcuts!
- Make sure you have a good post-production budget so the film gets the proper attention during the editing process. Productions that do not have enough money to fully fund a film through post-production take years to complete because no one is being paid enough to make it a priority.
- Sound is important! Don’t forget that in production and post!
The film is done! Now what?
- Create a sales one-sheet. A film sales sheet is an 8.5×11 front (or front and back) printed piece of marketing collateral that lays out your film's plot, the audience, info about the filmmakers, festivals it played at and any awards won. It’s a great tool to help promote your film and typically something we always create to pass to distributors or festivals. SAMPLE SALES SHEET DOWNLOAD
- Cut a great trailer. Think like the audience and don’t be to masturbatory with your beautiful shooting. Tell an interesting story, but leave the audience wanting more.
- Enter film festivals, but be prepared to fork over cash for entry fees and travel expenses. Top tier festivals like Sundance and SXSW charge between $40.00 and $120.00 for submissions. However, if you start your festival season with a tier one fest, you’ll garner attention from other big players. That said, many top festivals want world premiere status (and other bullshit) so you may have to pick one of the big ones to give the exclusive to (a good problem to have). The festival scene, in my opinion, is very political and filled with drama. It’s also a cool way to meet other filmmakers. I have a love/hate relationship with festivals.
- Hire a sales agent. If you don’t have time to be chief advocate for your film, you should hire a company like ECG Productions to be your sales rep. For a small fee and a percentage of the distribution deal, we package up your film and work our relationships and connections to get it distributed. We typically focus on digital distribution. If you’re looking for theatrical distribution, start reaching out the the theatrical distributors and do plenty film festivals/film markets.
- If you have the ambition call on every distribution company yourself. Some will distribute your film for an encoding fee of around $2500.00, plus a percentage of the sales with zero marketing support. Some will do the encoding for free in exchange for a larger percentage of the sales. Some will take 20% of the film while supplying marketing support, and still others will buy your film outright.
- Develop an online following. This takes a ton of work but you can develop an audience with great social marketing. You’ll need to create video and written content on a regular basis and give people a reason to care. That’s the tricky part. You can grab all your friends but how do you reach a real audience? What’s your hook?
- It’s very hard for most independent films to make money. Here’s a sampling of data I found with a quick Google search: 97% of independent filmmakers never make a second film. Making a film is hard. Making money doing it is even harder. I’ve done plenty and the idea of doing another one for less than $5,000,000.00 makes me want to vomit. If you are doing it right and giving your all, it’s an all encompassing, day and night proposition that requires you to work through holidays and even childbirths. The first couple indie films you make are intoxicating, but once the novelty wears off, it’s just a really hard, largely thankless job that doesn’t pay great. I would not trade my experiences for the world, but I would not recommend them to anyone. Our films have done well, but the money we’ve made versus the effort expended is pretty depressing.
- You can easily get screwed out of backend payments you deserve. If you are not the main shareholder/decision-maker for the film’s LLC, your share are essentially worthless! Here’s a quick story about The Fat Boy Chronicles: we filmed FBC in 2009. It was finally released in 2012…I think. From this point on, this story is all hearsay from fairly reliable sources as to what happened. The film was distributed by a company called Melee Entertainment, who apparently then turned around and cut a deal with Phase4 Films. Shortly after the release of the film, Melee went out of business. At that point the films EPs could not get any information from anyone. We later heard that Phase4 Films owned the rights to the film because of the demise of Melee. That was the last information we had as it relates to our ownership stake. It’s one of those things that is not worth bringing lawyers into because we’d spend more than we stand to make, so we will never really know what happened.
- Don’t count on it. Let’s be realistic: indie films rarely make money. Their success is a hard to repeat combination of skill, timing and luck. Our films, some of them award-winning, can be seen all over the world, but we don’t make a ton of money from them. For example, we have a film we own a decent percentage of that is currently available on Hulu. Last quarter, the payment to the film’s LLC from Hula was a whopping $1400.00. The film was viewed about 14,000 times. That’s an awesome number and we are pumped that people are watching the film, but for those who aren’t that great at math, that’s only $0.10 per play! Now split that $0.10 between the owners of the film. On this film we own 10% so, in the end, we get $0.01 per play. Let’s just say it’s not exactly a retirement plan.
- Don’t do it for the money. Films are a labor of love. Keep making them if you want to. If you have a film that has high production quality and you can’t get it sold, contact us and maybe we can help.