How to Make Indie Filmmaking a Viable Business

Today on Filmmaker Freedom, a healthy dose of hope for the future of entrepreneurial indie filmmaking.

In the last episode, I shared a quite a few reasons why the current economics and business of indie film are irreparably broken.

But today, we’ll work through handful of counterintuitive ways to shift these economics back in your favor. In fact, I’m going to share quite a few ideas today that will open your eyes to a whole new way of doing of business for ambitious filmmakers.

You game for that? Let’s go..


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A (spruced up) transcript of today’s episode

If you listened to the last episode, you already know just how much the deck is stacked against indie filmmakers in the current system.

Not surprisingly, after making a feature and not making any real money, many filmmakers come to the conclusion that it's just not worth their time and energy to pursue this as a career.

Honestly, I can't fault anybody who comes to that conclusion.

However, before you draw a similar conclusion for yourself, just hang around until at least the end of this episode. Because I'm going to share a bunch of ways to shift these awful economics back in your favor.

Now, what do I mean when I say “shift the economics?”

Basically, these are changes that you can make to your process for making films, your mindset when it comes to reaching an audience, and your process for earning money from those films. And by making these changes, or at least a handful of them, it will put substantially more money in your pocket over the long term.

So with all that said, let's get into my giant list of economic shifters.

Learn to make films more quickly, and for less money

This first one is probably the most obvious, and that's just learning to make films more quickly and for significantly less money.

And there are a couple of ways that I recommend for doing this.

The first one is probably my favorite, and that's cultivating a tribe.

For me, a tribe is a small group of like-minded filmmakers who share the same values and the same vision or definition of success. Basically, it's like a super tight-knit collective.

Because everyone shares the same goals, a tribe is a truly symbiotic organism, where every member can share their resources and their talents, all in the name of making awesome work that moves the group forward. So everybody helps on everybody else's projects, and when it comes your turn to make something, the tribe reciprocates.

When you have a tribe, even a small one in the range of three to five people, the cost of making quality films fall dramatically.

Plus, of course, you just have more fun and build deeper relationships, and ultimately develop a level of like trust and caring that you just don't get with random one-off collaborators.

The next way that you can do this is by embracing like new models of production.

So that's leaning on smaller, leaner crews of multi-talented people. I like the term like full-stack filmmakers here.

These are people who are genuinely skilled at multiple elements of the craft. It's not like the jack of all trades who isn't really good at any specific thing. These are people who are legit skilled, and can take on multiple roles within a production.

And again, ideally these are the type of people you build your tribe with, as it will make the whole group so much more effective when it comes to getting projects made and finished.

Another way that you can speed up production and lower the cost is by using more improvisation in both acting and shooting.

A lot of filmmakers these days are embracing techniques like working from a treatment, and then just giving their actors a motivation or a goal in a scene, and using multiple cameras that are all doing improvisational stuff.

Now, that might not be what you want the aesthetic of your film to be, but it's an option that can help you dramatically cut down on the time it takes to make a film. Just something to consider.

The next thing to keep in mind is that when you take the entrepreneurial filmmaker route, you're no longer tethered to feature films.

As we'll talk about later on, when you make work for a niche audience, many of the traditional rules of the film business go right out the window.

So that age old idea that only feature films can be products, whereas your shorts and web series can't, is untrue (at least in the context of niche marketing).

And when you truly get this idea, it'll be liberating. You'll no longer have to spend a year or three of your life on one project based on the assumption that that's the only way to make money.

As long as you have a viable niche, and an audience that's hungry for your work, you would be amazed at what people are willing to pay for. You can sell short films, you can sell access to individual episodes of a web series. You can sell films that are like 40 minutes long. Or whatever you want.

This just gives you so many options for producing new stuff way quicker than you would otherwise if your only focus was feature films.

And the last thing I want to mention under this category is just learning how to make films for the resources that you have now, so that you can snowball into bigger more ambitious projects later.

I'm sure you’ve seen this before, but many indie filmmakers have this tendency to throw all of their hopes and dreams into one big ambitious project, thinking “oh, this is going to be the one that breaks me through.”

Then they'll spend years, maybe even a decade, waiting on all of the pieces to fall into place for this one film. And then even if it does get made, it almost never turns out as well as that filmmaker hoped.

(And not surprisingly, these are also the people who get preyed on the most by those just vulturous bottom-feeding distributors we talked about in the last episode.)

So that's the traditional way people approach indie filmmaking, by going for those big ambitious projects.

But remember, the filmpreneur doesn't wait for permission. She takes the resources she has and makes the best possible project from those resources. And of course, she markets and sells and builds relationships, thus creating more resources for the following project.

It really is like a snowball, where eventually you get to the point where you can create the type of work that lives up to your highest ambitions. But for the entrepreneurial filmmaker, that just cannot be the starting place.

**You have to live by that that age old mantra: start where you are, use what you have, do what you can. **

Just that mantra right there will get you so much farther in your career than most filmmakers ever get.

Hang on to your intellectual property

Now this next economic shifter is probably the most important one of the whole bunch, and that’s hanging on to your intellectual property.

Like I mentioned in the last episode, many filmmakers end up giving up the vast majority, or all of their rights over to investors and distributors.

While this can help you get a film made and earn some money from it, what's really happening here is that you're allowing other people to reap the financial rewards from your hard work.

That's the shitty trade-off you make when you play into this traditional system.

However, when you adopt the storytelling and production strategies I just talked about, you don't necessarily need a lot of outside money to get a project made.

And then when you approach the business side of things as an entrepreneur, you don't have to sign away all of the rights to a distributor (who may or may not pay you another dime).

Basically, this whole way of operating allows you to hang on to all, or the vast majority, of your intellectual property, and be the primary person to profit from it for years and years to come.

The other option here is that you can also evenly divide the rights to the films that you create between your tribe and you. There are all sorts of ways to make sure that everyone involved is enriched, whether you pay them upfront or whether you cut them in on the back end by giving them a piece of the profits.

Create perennial sellers

The next economic shifter is creating perennial sellers, and this goes right along with owning your intellectual property.

In the most basic sense, a perennial seller is a media product that stays relevant over time, and continues to sell for years on end, maybe decades on end.

Particularly in the film world, there's this tendency to make things that are hot and trendy in the moment, in the hopes that it will generate a ton of revenue up front.

Inevitably what happens is that those films become totally irrelevant five or ten years down the road.

However, as an enterprising filmmaker, one of your primary jobs is to build up a portfolio of perennial sellers that continue to earn money over time.

Not only does this give you multiple streams of income, which is the key to real financial stability, but much like other types of financial portfolios, this is one of the ways that you build true long-term wealth.

And I know that sounds crazy as a filmmaker, but when you start thinking like this over the long term, you can start to see how it's possible. It’s all about creating a lot of assets that pay you continuously over the course of your life.

Again, we're going to talk more about this whole concept later in the show. But if you want a head start, grab a copy of the book Perennial Seller by Ryan Holiday, as it's quite good.

The riches are in the niches

The next shifter is targeting niche audiences instead of mass market ones.

If you remember back to the last episode, I pointed out some of the problems associated with shooting for the mass market.

Essentially when you're doing this, you're competing with some of the biggest, most well-resourced companies on earth for the attention of that audience. And as an indie filmmaker (somebody with basically no resources), you're going to lose that battle every single time.

However, when you create niche media for passionate niche audiences, you're no longer competing against every other platform or company that's fighting for people's attention.

Instead of being a tiny little microbe in the midst of a vast ocean, you now get to be a much bigger fish in a smaller lake.

In fact, what you'll find is that many niches are dramatically underserved when it comes to films, and sometimes media in general. That's because the big media companies don't see the benefit of making stuff for a small group of people. And that leaves the niche wide open for somebody like you to come in and create work that truly matters to them.

That's the key. Did you catch it?

When you niche down, you're able to create work that matters so much more to this group of people than a Hollywood project ever could. And when your work matters more to people, they'll be far more likely to pay you for it, and even pay a premium over what they would for other media.

In other words, niching down is one of the ways that you can break out of the world of commodity media, where the lowest cost option is the one that usually wins.

There's one other big benefit of going after a small niche, and that's that in general, they care way more about the subject matter of your content and less about traditional markers of indie film marketability.

  • So this means that you no longer need to limit yourself to a single genre that would traditionally be seen as a smart business choice.

  • It means that you no longer have to attach A-list talent to your project in order to win the attention of the mass market.

  • And it means that you no longer have to create spectacle for spectacle's sake, hoping to draw in a bigger audience.

Instead, you just have to tell stories that matter to the niche that you're serving. They can be as flashy and expensive as you want, or they can be as raw and inexpensive as you want. Your niche audience will eat it up as long as it's a story that matters to them.

So that, my friends, is why you need to niche down.

Don’t just target a niche. Build a niche audience

Now, this next shifter is the most powerful thing that you can stack on top of niching down, and that's building a niche audience of your own and cultivating a long-term relationship with them.

I would argue that if you want to truly thrive as an entrepreneurial filmmaker, it's not enough just to target the right niche. That can be a big advantage, sure, but it's not enough to guarantee you success.

For that, you have to build your own audience.

And of course, this is one of the primary things that we're going to talk about on this entire show. Like, this is primarily a show about building audiences.

But for now, just know that this means cultivating relationships with the people of your chosen niche, and having a direct, reliable way to communicate with them.

For almost everyone, that means building an email list, because it's still the most reliable, ubiquitous way to communicate with people, and it cannot be limited by any kind of algorithm or platform or anything like that. It's something that you directly own, and it's great for building relationships.

When you build an audience like this way, where you have that direct means of communication, you're building an asset that's going to end up serving you well. It’ll help you make way more money from your films for as long as you choose to serve that niche.

You'll no longer be in that position where you have to hope and pray that your film is going to do well. You'll know beforehand, because you've been building up excitement and anticipation with your audience in the weeks and months leading up to the launch.

Now, there are a bunch of other benefits to building an audience.

The biggest benefit is that eventually, you'll create true fans.

A true fan is defined as any person in your audience who will essentially buy anything and everything you ever make. They are crazy about you. They're like your internet stalkers, but in a fun, profitable way.

Now when you have enough true fans—and for a filmmaker, this might be somewhere in the range of like 1000 to 5000—you will be able to earn the vast majority of your living directly from them.

Plus it opens up the door for other types of revenue, such as patronage, sponsorship, online and in-person events, supplementary products, and so much more.

Now another cool thing about building an audience is that crowdfunding becomes way, way easier.

When you already have a direct relationship with the people who like you and want to support your work, all you have to do is tell them about your campaign. That's it.

You don't have to spam your friends and family, or beg your rich uncle to donate, or any of that annoying crap. You just have to tell the people who already want to see you succeed. Easy peasy.

And this whole approach, when you crowdfund, is another way to hang on to your intellectual property, because when you when you go that route, you're not giving up any rights to the project in order to get money. So keep that in mind.

Now another great thing about building an audience is it allows you to create supplementary streams of revenue.

So that might mean creating your own products beyond your films that serve this audience. You might be able to find other products and be an affiliate. You can start adding high-touch services like consulting to your arsenal if that makes sense for your niche. And if your audience gets big enough, you might attract sponsors and advertisers.

There's all sorts of ways to make money from an audience once you've cultivated it and created that relationship.

The last point I want to make about building an audience is that it's just rewarding as hell.

It feels good to connect with people and for those people to support your work. It's just a very fulfilling way to do business and build a life that is awesome.

The incredible power of influencer relationships

The next shifter that I really want you to consider is connecting with, and building a relationship with influencers.

When you work with in a vibrant online niche, there will be other people creating media, building communities, and generally just commanding the attention of those audiences.

Generally, I absolutely loathe the term influencer because it brings to mind images of entitled, narcissistic people taking pictures of themselves being entitled and narcissistic, and then for some ridiculous reason getting paid significant money for it. Barf.

But that's not what we're talking about here. We're just talking about anybody who has influence within the niche that you're trying to reach. Think people with social following, bloggers, YouTubers, podcasters, community admins, and more.

And one of the biggest, most important superpowers that you can cultivate as a filmpreneur is being able to find these influencers and then build long-term reciprocal relationships with them.

When you do this, it opens up the floodgates to a much much wider audience than you'd be able to attract on your own.

In fact, when it comes time to launch a project you can tap on all of these influencer relationships at once, and create what I call an Omnipresent Launch. This is where you appear to be everywhere all at oncewithin the niche, thus making you and your film impossible to ignore.

Now at some point I'm going to tell you more about that launch strategy, but for now just know that it's critically important to start building those relationships.

Oh, and the other thing I should mention about influencers is that it opens the doors for them to be affiliates for your products and your films. So there are many different ways that you can mine these relationships to create extra revenue in your business.

Create supplementary media to break out of commodity pricing

Another powerful economic shifter is finding ways to raise the average order valuewhen selling your films.

So again, like I mentioned in the last episode, most films these days are seen as a commodity, and the purchase price is generally pegged somewhere in the five to fifteen dollar range, and that's on the high end.

However, there are a couple things that you can do to break out of this commoditized pricing.

One of them is simply targeting a specific niche and creating unique work that matters to them far more than generic media ever could. And we've talked about that already.

But another, far more powerful way is by creating loads of unique, valuable supplementary content and experiences around your film, so that when you sell it, what you're offering is clearly far more valuable than any other film these folks have ever seen.

And you might even offer two or three tiered packages. So you might have just the film at a regular price of 5 or 10 bucks, or the film plus a bunch of really cool extra shit at a higher, but not unreasonable price point.

A great example here is the Criterion Collection.

Why do people, including me, pay so much for those Criterion films?

It's because we're a passionate niche audience of people who love the art and culture of cinema, who absolutely love the extra bonus features that Criterion provides, and who admire the great work they do just in terms of restoring culturally significant films.

When people care like this, and when you provide them extra, they will gladly pay a premium well beyond what's typical for just regular movie.

And when you do this with your own films, it raises the average value of a purchase significantly, which in turn means that you need to sell way fewer units in order to be profitable.

Sell from your own platform

Okay, and now we're to the last economic shifter that I want to share with you today, and that is selling from your own platform.

So like I mentioned before, platforms like iTunes, Amazon, or whatever else, generally take a hefty chunk of the revenue from your projects.

But when you own your audience, and when you're working within a niche, and when you have influencers on your side, you no longer need to rely on those third party platforms to generate that audience for you.

When all that's the case, you can set up your own e-commerce solutions, and sell your films and supplementary materials right from your website.

So instead of being able to keep sixty percent of the revenue from your sales, as you would on iTunes, you're now keeping 100% of it, and that adds up tremendously in the long run.

So if you're curious what platform I recommend, at this point in time, it's one called Gumroad. Just look it up. It's very powerful. They allow you to stream films, rent them, have affiliates, and all of that stuff.

But the main point here is that when you stack this idea of selling from your own platform with selling higher tiered packages, coordinating with influencers, and all of the other stuff that we've talked about in this episode, I just hope you're starting to see how an indie film can make substantial money for its creators instead of most of that money going to investors or distributors.

And that's it, my friend. We've got a delightful buffet of ways that you can take those awful economics from before, and shift them in your favor.

Just a quick note before we wrap up. You don't necessarily have to do all of these things. It really is meant to be a buffet, and by picking and choosing a few impactful items, you can make a substantial amount of progress towards the end goal of making a living for yourself with your own original films.

Adios amigo.

If you’re truly invested in putting these ideas to use, I’d recommend joining Freedom Fighters, my private community for entrepreneurial indie filmmakers.

It’s not another spammy facebook group or noisy forum. It’s an online oasis just for people like us. A place of sanity and respect, where we try our best to support one another in our respective journeys.

So if you’re interested in becoming a member, here’s where you can get the full scoop and apply (don’t worry, it’s totally free).

Hoping to see you inside.

-Rob Hardy

Lastly, if you enjoy thoughtful content like this, you'll love my Sunday newsletter, Filmmaker Freedom Weekly. 

Each week, I share my latest writing and podcasts, as well as a few hand-picked stories from around the web, a short film I love, and a healthy dose of filmmaking inspiration.

If you’re an ambitious indie filmmaker, it’s an email you’ll actually look forward to each week. Pinky promise :)