For today’s post, we have a special guest article from Katherine Lents of ShowUpMedia, a great new upvoted video content site that aims to put filmmakers front and center.
Katherine approached me to do a guest post about indie filmmaking, film funding and distribution. She’s a great writer who really has her pulse on the indie film scene and I’m sure you’ll get a lot out of this article.
The typical independent film cycle goes something like this: project financing, creation, submission to film festivals, promotion by sales agents, pick up by distributors, further exhibitor/theatrical release, then DVD release and video on demand (VOD). For each step in the chain beyond creation, another hand reaches into the pile of revenue a film makes, leaving less money and fewer rights for the creators.
This outmoded model is beginning to crumble under its own hulking financial weight. Even with festivals supposedly geared toward independent filmmaking, anything under 1 million dollars is still termed “low budget,” and under $500k is a “micro budget” according to Elliot Grove at Raindance.
In what universe is $500,000 chump change? The answer is the universe that only major studios and the leviathans of cable television can afford to live in. Outlandish sums of money are thrown around and yet we still get a dozen versions of The Lone Ranger and Shiny Cars with Explosions 6; the Fastester.
A MAJOR SHIFT IN FILM DISTRIBUTION
Fortunately for us, a major shift in distribution began with the rise of YouTube in 2005 and Netflix Instant Streaming in 2008. YouTube made uploading video accessible, while Netflix had built up enough financial clout and legal support to make VOD viable to the heavy hitters of entertainment.
Unfortunately, neither caters strongly to independent film. Netflix prefers not to interact with individuals, opting to make large contracts with distributors of films that have a proven theatrical release record and massive marketing campaigns. YouTube is, well, YouTube.
You never know if you’ll get a screaming goat, a Russian dash cam, or your roommate’s secret fetish vlog. (That, and monetization only becomes viable for a rare few.)
There was a great chasm between the cell phone videos and the blockbusters, and the last few years have seen an explosion in different iterations of VOD sites catering to everything in between.
Billions of dollars are pouring in to distributors, platforms, aggregators, self hosting sites, and applications that are all jockeying for position in the race towards big returns. Some are transactional, some are free, and some are subscription, or a combination.
The Film Collaborative gives a good overview of these terms. The choices may seem daunting, but the basics of making your endeavor successful are pretty simple.
Find your audience first
There is this pervasive notion that “if you build it, they will come.”
Audiences who want to support your work do not materialize out of thin air. Unless you’re Radiohead or Louis CK, you need to have a specific audience in mind and advertise effectively to them if you plan on using your own VOD website or a platform like Vimeo.
The likelihood a “Staff Pick” will launch you into fame and fortune is not good. Get people excited in a concise summation, trailer, or elevator pitch. It shouldn’t take a 20 minute in depth conversation for someone to “get” why your film should be made or watched.
The reason distributors want to buy your rights forever-and-always-in-perpetuity is that they think they can sell your film to an appropriate audience better than you can. In many instances, they may be right.
Even David Lynch’s Interview Project probably didn’t get the attention it deserved on his standalone website. But look at Justin Simien. He tested out the mere idea for his film Dear White People in a well-made trailer. This went viral, which drove massive support to his IndieGoGo campaign later on. When it came to studios and distributors, he had his pick of the litter, and was able to choose a financier that let him keep the most creative control.
MAKE AN EFFECTIVE CROWDFUDING CAMPAIGN
If your project needs some help in pre, post, or marketing, and you want the funding to remain independent, crowdsourcing is a powerful tool. It can serve a dual purpose of raising money and getting the name of your project out there.
That being said, your campaign video absolutely must be the best thing you can produce on the budget you already have. If you cannot be trusted with this, why would anyone give you money to make an even longer, more expensive video?
As Emily Best says in her interview with Film Courage, it’s not the crowdfunding platform’s job to make your material popular. Even a spot on the front page or temporary bump in traffic does not guarantee you will get fully funded. You need to focus on making your video engaging instead of simply asking for money.
Give people a tangible reason you need the money. Seed and Spark lets you specify items you need on the set, or services you need from professionals. In addition to funding you can market and distribute your movie.
If crowdfunding is not what you’re aiming for, there are often local and international grants depending on your subject matter. Here’s an entire international list if you’re filming a documentary, and another for UK based films.
FILM FESTIVALS STILL RULE
Paying to submit to film festivals and having to keep your finished project invisible for the better part of a year may seem tough when you’re excited to share your work, but slapping those laurel shrouded titles onto your marketing materials proves you’ve been vetted by industry professionals. A screening also gives you a chance to pitch your film to a wider audience than your immediate friends and family.
The biggest players like Sundance, Tribeca, SXSW, and Cannes aren’t likely to pick it up, but if they do, you have a much higher chance of a major distributor approaching you. So perhaps you should take a chance at one or two but not all.
Depending on the project, it might be wise to aim for smaller, local film festivals, which have popped up in many major metropolitan cities. Part of what makes the independent film revolution so amazing is that living in New York or LA is no longer a requirement. Utilize what’s near you.
Or perhaps even apply in another country; just make sure to read the stipulations for each one. Some require a theatrical release in the country where you screen or restrictions on your home country VOD release window. If you have a series, make a short that highlights the drama of your main characters, and investigate which festivals highlight shorts.
LIFE AFTER THE FESTIVAL CIRCUIT
This is often the most challenging stage for indie film. You’ve taken your shot at building an audience and winning awards, but the truth is your project is one of thousands completed every single month. The next step may be to join with an aggregator that is appropriate to your subject matter. You will have to keep a few things in mind.
1.) Second Verse, Same as the First: Keep Seeking your Audience
Viewster is perfect for anime and non-English language films among others. Fandor can help with more art-house and experimental films, since they already have a subscriber base that appreciates the finer points of cinematic quality. If you have factual/educational material, you may be able to get on with Curiosity Stream. These sites already seek a specific type of audience, which you can use to your advantage.
2.) Ad Revenue and Competition
If you don’t mind competing against Jimmy Fallon clips and Maroon 5 videos, AND you have some plans for marketing to a specific audience on your own, YouTube and its subsidiaries could possibly make you a small amount of money.
This approach works best for series, or if you team up with other filmmakers in the same genre to create an engaging channel. Full Screen gives you access to monetizing many big label pop songs without worrying about copyright infringement. Vessel can give a YouTube channel an extra bump in revenue, since subscribers pay to see content before the drooling masses who just wait an extra 72 hours for it to be available.
3.) Exclusive or Non-exclusive?
Whichever site you choose, you will be forced to confront whether you want to agree to use that service exclusively.
- How much faith do you have that they will successfully find a target audience for your piece?
- How many people go there for content?
The most flexible sites will offer you the opportunity to decide for yourself, so you can keep your video on Vimeo, or your own website. Some aggregators include distinct advantages.
Indie Boogie helps you with your production timeline, uploading your script to create call sheets, and team management. IndieFlix organizes content by Festival if you have any awards you want to show off, and their content varies greatly in length. IndiePixUnlimited has the backing of the Los Angeles Times, which will get you some marketing tied into your submission.
4.) Keep an Eye Out for New Opportunities
The landscape for direct distribution is changing daily. One newcomer to the scene is ShowUp. (Full disclosure, I founded ShowUp, so I think it’s the bees’ knees.) Currently being built, we are focusing on feature length films, short form projects, and webisode series to launch with.
We’ve already had lots of interest, and your content will only be surrounded by other high caliber, independent flicks. We offer a non-excusive level of participation where you can receive ad revenue. Our site helps consumers specifically pick the genres they want to see via Tags, giving you a more tightly focused audience. The aim is not just to be an aggregator, but a community of people who love great entertainment in a sleek design.
Your grandfather is still right: it takes dedication and time to ensure success. Even with a great idea, it’s not as simple as uploading it somewhere and watching money roll in. You’ll have to be persistent, and loud about your project.
Go to local Meetup groups; find others with a passion for film. The best asset in the film industry is friends, and even better, friends with equipment and skills.
In Austin, Texas there is an entire building full of professional gear and studio setups available with a low yearly membership at Channel Austin. Their only stipulation is that you submit content to the public access channels.
You’ll see the best results if you can remain flexible. If you’ve had 20,000 views on your 15-minute trailer, but nobody is buying, then perhaps you need to shorten it. Give people something that motivates them to share your story or your trailer beyond a pity share from your closest friends.
That’s much easier said than done, but sometimes all it takes is finding that perfect, up-beat song to accompany your wide shot, or sharing some beautiful stills from your production.
Now get out there, bust down the doors, and don’t ask people to care. MAKE them care.
Good luck and I hope to see your work someday at ShowUp!
Did you get some new insights from Katherine’s post? Feel free to add a comment below!