This is a guest article from Vanessa Frank, a veteran producer and the creator of Film Funding from A-Z, an on-demand course which teaches film finance to independent filmmakers.
For many nascent filmmakers, a micro-budget feature is the first step towards forging a career as a feature film director.
This is often a necessary exercise, as the major hurdle to overcome when breaking into directing feature films is the fact that financiers typically don’t want to entrust their investment to a director who has never directed a feature before.
For this reason, funding your own project on a shoestring budget can be a shrewd way of overcoming this barrier to entry.
The theory being that if you can knock it out of the park on a micro-budget feature (hopefully both creatively and commercially), it can act as a major stepping stone.
It can open the doors to getting an agent, and being considered for larger budget productions.
However, it isn’t enough to just make a film.
Since the innovation of digital filmmaking technology, the marketplace has exploded with low budget features from directors who are all looking to achieve the same thing!
In order for this strategy to work, there needs to be enough traction gained for you to have a compelling success story to tell.
What many fail to account for is that competition in this space is largely a war of attrition.
Most micro-budget directors are emotionally, financially, and creatively exhausted by the time they complete the herculean task of what is required to pull off a feature film at an extremely low budget.
Unfortunately, it’s easy to feel that when the film is completed you’ve reached the summit of Mount Everest…when in reality you’ve only reached base camp!
As such, if you are that rare filmmaker who understands the importance of stamina when it comes to the distribution and marketing of your micro-budget feature, then you are already ahead of the crowd.
Obviously, plan A is to win a major festival award, and have major distributors falling over each other to give you a hefty advance. But, statistically speaking, the chances of this happening are minimal.
The competition in this space is intense, and when you’ve had far fewer financial resources than your competitors, that’s a disadvantage which is exceedingly hard to overcome.
Certainly, when it comes to distributors, there is a plethora of bottom feeders who service the micro-budget space.
However, in many cases such “distributors” are little more than a middle man who will take a fat fee, and do little to contribute. They’ll gladly take a piece of the pie, but they’re unlikely to provide anything meaningful in terms of P&A funds.
As such, there’s a strong argument to be made that if this is your only choice, you may well be better off going it alone.
Indeed, this is where many micro-budget filmmakers make a critical mistake.
They successfully complete a film, but when they fail to get into Sundance, and unsurprisingly no major distributor is interested in picking the film up, they throw in the towel and entrust it to one of these low performers. And in most cases, their film then dies a slow and predictable death.
Typically, a large part of this is due to filmmakers only planning to run a sprint, rather than planning to run a marathon.
And part of it is due to problematic optimism and a lack of realistic planning. When a filmmaker has put themselves in such a foolish position, they as a consequence face major burnout, disappointment, and potentially financial ruin.
It’s easy to blindly hope that this bottom feeding distributor is going to be the cavalry come to save the day!
A much smarter play is to anticipate this scenario ahead of time. As a micro-budget film director/producer, you should proactively plan for it from inception.
There’s nothing wrong in hoping for the big Sundance deal, or shopping your movie around your dream distribution partners. But don’t put all your eggs in one basket! Hope for the best, but plan for the worst.
The great news is that there are possibilities that exist for self-distribution that would have been unthinkable just a few short years ago. Here are a few of the great tools that you have available to you…
Aggregators and custom VOD options
There are some phenomenal options for self-distributing to the major VOD platforms via third party aggregators.
These aggregators have been pre-approved by these platforms, and will ensure that your upload complies with the unique compliance requirements of each platform.
They typically only charge a small percentage or flat fee, which provides you with a much greater freedom and power over your own work than you would have with a traditional distributor.
A simple google of “VOD aggregator” will provide you with an excellent understanding of the companies currently offering services in this area. For example, Distribber is one such company.
Additionally, there are some great solutions that now exist for literally creating your own VOD offering, which you can easily integrate into your own website.
For example, Vimeo offers a range of turn-key options for creating your own VOD solution. And a pre-designed template website can easily be set up for just a few dollars a month via a platform such as SquareSpace.
Even with minimal technical skills, a robust sales platform can be set up in a matter of days.
Limited release theatrical solutions
If you strongly feel that the movie warrants a limited theatrical release, you could look into doing a deal with a one-night-only event theatrical distributor such as Fathom Events.
Or you could simply “four wall” a cinema screen, which is when you pay a flat rental fee to the exhibitor, and then promote the release yourself.
Pay as you go targeted advertising platforms
Thanks to the invention of social media, buying highly targeted advertising is available to all.
You can target an audience that is identified through location, age, gender, interests, and even what films they’ve expressed interest in in the past. Even just $10 per day can allow you to reach highly qualified prospects.
And if you combine this with your own VOD platform, and a highly researched cost of customer acquisition, this can be a highly commercially lucrative revenue generator.
Free publicity opportunities
It takes little more than initiative and courage to pick up the phone and call journalists that you might have a story angle for.
Certainly, planning ahead of time for this, and choosing a premise for your film that has an in-built newsworthy topic, can help considerably in this department.
And one final thought…
Evidently, there are expenses associated with all this activity. The costs of poster design, aggregator fees, web hosting fees, and social media advertising all rack up.
Not to mention, as this is very much a full-time endeavor, you need to factor in the cost of your own time!
For this reason, it’s extremely wise to plan for this eventuality early on.
You should be factoring self-distribution costs into your overall budget, in exactly the same way that you’re having to financially plan for the costs of the production itself.
If this seems overwhelming, and not yet financially viable, then it may be that now is simply not the right time to embark on making a micro-budget movie.
Self-distribution is the means to mitigate the worst case scenario on a micro-budget project. And if the costs of that are out of reach, then this creates a huge liability. Wisdom is to only proceed if such a safety net has been accounted for!
Diligence in this area can make the difference between your micro-budget project doing what it’s supposed to do – acting as a stepping stone for your career – or it just being a very expensive and unproductive consumption of time, emotional energy, and money.
If you’re going to run this race, you need to make sure that you’re going to complete it successfully!
This may not mean mass critical acclaim and a distribution deal worth millions of dollars. But it should at the very least mean the recoupment of your investment, and the creation of a powerful case study which you can use to leverage the next big step in your career.
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