How to Make a Living From Your Original Films

How to Make a Living From Your Original Films

It's the dream shared by a majority of independent filmmakers—not only having the freedom to make the films we care about, but actually earning a living from it.

For many in the film industry and video production world, this is nothing more than a pipe dream. It's something that sounds nice, but at the end of the day, it's simply unrealistic. After all, a staggeringly high percentage of indie films—even the ones that are inexpensive to make—fail to break even, let alone make a profit for the people who made them.

But the world has changed immeasurably in recent years, and in ways that are benefiting indie artists of all types. So, even though it's anything but easy, it's absolutely possible to make your living with original films now, while completely sidestepping film festivals and traditional distribution. And it's all thanks to a deeply connected world where we can reach anyone at the click of a mouse. And that's what today's episode is all about.

Just like the last few episodes, where I've invited a specialist onto the show to help me tackle the topics of breaking into the film industry and starting a production company, I brought in another filmmaker friend to help us dive into the world of DIY distribution.

His name is Mike Dion, and he's one of a small handful of people I know who not only makes indie films on a regular basis, but actually earns his living by distributing those films himself.

So here's what you'll learn in episode 6: 

  • Why film festivals and traditional distribution are no longer viable for the vast majority of modern filmmakers.
  • Why building an audience around your work is the single most important step for both financial and artistic freedom.
  • My simple five step strategy for audience building.
  • How authentic content that tells a story—and lots of personal interaction with your fans—is the key to keeping your audience engaged.
  • The fundamentals of marketing to your audience, or why you should start building an email list right now.
  • How to have a huge (and profitable) world premiere for your film without ever submitting to a festival.

Here's the episode. You can also listen and subscribe through iTunesStitcher, PocketCasts, and the Google Play Store.

If you enjoy today's show, it would mean the world to me if you'd leave a rating and review on iTunes. That's the best way to support this small indie show and to help new filmmakers find it!


The first season of the Filmmaker Freedom Podcast is sponsored by my friends over at Music Vine.

You have a lot of choices these days when it comes to finding music for your films and video projects. But Music Vine stands above the pack.

Not only is it refreshingly straightforward to license music you’d actually want to use, but it’s also genuinely affordable, even for indie filmmakers on shoestring budgets.

And the best part is, the music is all thoughtful, expressive, and genuine. It’s sourced from indie artists all over the globe who put the same care and attention and soul into their music as you do into your films.

That’s why all of the music in this podcast comes straight from the Music Vine library. Here's the playlist of songs from this episode.

You can get 10% off your first purchase when you use the code FREEDOM at checkout. Enjoy.

Practical Takeaways from Today's Episode

The conventional wisdom is that you should just make a great film, take it to prestigious festivals, have a distribution company pick up the rights, enjoy a nice payday, then start all over.

Perhaps to your surprise, I’m not going to be talking about that strategy at all, because frankly it won’t work for the vast majority of people. I know it sucks to hear that, but we need to bust some of these broken paradigms where success is nothing more than a statistical anomaly.

Here’s the lowdown you probably won’t hear from other indie film blogs.

No matter how good you are at making films, this outcome is about as likely as winning the lottery. For instance, about 14,000 films were submitted to Sundance this year, and roughly 100 were accepted. For you math wizards out there, that means, statistically speaking, your chance of getting into Sundance is less than 1%. Ouch.

And even if you do beat the odds and make it to Sundance or Toronto or SXSW or Berlin, and even if your premiere earns recognition and acclaim, the chances of you enjoying a substantial payday from the sale of your film are slim. The majority of festival films don’t get a favorable distribution deal (or a distribution deal at all), even when they’re good and marketable.

And that, my friends, is why I won’t say anything more about the traditional way of doing things in the indie film world.

So, if we’re not playing the festival/distribution game, then what’s this lesson all about?

In one word, it’s about having an audience.

Why you need an audience

Now, when I say audience, I’m not necessarily referring to people who come to see your films in a theater (if you should be so lucky).

Instead, I’m referring to audience in the way it’s used by online business owners.

Having an audience is about gathering a group of people who are genuinely interested in your work, and having a way to directly communicate with them.

This enables a couple of things:

  1. You’re able to sell films (and merchandise) directly to your audience without any middle men.
  2. You become far more attractive to traditional distributors because it means they have less marketing to do.
  3. Finding investors for projects becomes easier because you can make a stronger case for why your film will actually make money.
  4. Crowdfunding becomes easier because you already have a relationship with the people who love your work.
  5. You can generate income through other means, such as Patreon.
  6. And generally speaking, having an audience opens you up to all sorts of unforeseen opportunities you’d never have otherwise.

Basically, having an audience is one of the absolute best things you can do for your film career, especially if you want to make a living from original work. An audience gives you a more substantial chance at succeeding within the industry, and it gives you the (very desirable) option to skip the industry entirely and make a living on your own.

But now you’re probably thinking, “cool Rob, but how does a filmmaker go about building such an audience?” Glad you asked.

How to build an audience the right way

Building an audience is simpler than you think, but that doesn’t mean it’s easy. And it’s certainly not quick. You should expect the entire process I'm about to outline to take months, maybe even years. But if you like the outcomes I described above, that time will be well spent. So let's get to it.

The best way to grow a healthy audience that’s interested in your work is to…

  1. Decide what kind of films you want to make, then figure out what kind of audience watches those films.
  2. Produce good, topical content consistently that will be entertaining and engaging for that specific audience.
  3. Share your content directly in the places your intended audience hangs out online.
  4. Build systems to convert people who consume your content into audience members.
  5. Refine and repeat.

If you're interested in a far more detailed breakdown of each of these steps (plus a practical hands-on example), I not only teach this in my course The Filmmaker's Guide to Success, but I plan on doing a dedicated course on audience building in the near future. Jump onto the Filmmaker's Process newsletter to know when that's all ready.

Bonus Segment: Strategies for selling physical products (like DVDs, posters, and shirts) to your audience

The conventional wisdom is that DVDs, BluRays,  and other physical items are no longer worth the effort it takes to produce them, at least if you're a cash-strapped indie filmmaker. Mike's experience, however, has been completely the opposite. He sees great demand for his physical products, and he's built the systems to meet all of that demand.

Further Reading & Resources to Help You Build an Audience & Self-Distribute Your Work

Book: Known - Mark Schaefer

I just finished reading this the other day, and I must say it’s probably the most useful book on audience building I’ve found to date. Though it’s geared for people looking to start a sustainable online business, 100% of the principles in this book are applicable to filmmakers.

Book: Show Your Work - Austin Kleon

When it comes to creating authentic content that helps you promote your work and build a fan base, the strategies in this fun little book are priceless.

Book: How to Make and Sell Your Film Online - Scott McMahon

There are a few decent books that teach DIY distribution and online marketing for filmmakers, but Scott's is definitely the most practical and down-to-earth of the bunch, especially if you're starting from scratch.

Free eBook: Selling Your Film Without Selling Your Soul - The Film Collaborative

This is one of definitive texts on modern independent film distribution from a few of the people who know the topic best. Plus it's free!

Article: My Killer Roadmap for Building an Audience the Right Way - Jason Does Stuff

This article covers a lot of the same ground as what I've shared in this lesson. But if what I've written here didn't connect with you very well, you might have better luck with Jason's article because of the straightforward, honest, conversational style.

Free Course: Audience Building Course - Seanwes

Sean McCabe was originally going to make this a $200 course, but then decided to give it away for free. Like the book Known up above, it’s more geared towards online entrepreneurs, but all of these audience building lessons are just as applicable to anyone building an audience for their filmmaking.

Midrange Course: The Filmmaker MBA

I personally haven't taken this course (yet), but I've heard good things, and if the free sample lessons are any indication, this course is a great bargain for the $150 investment, especially if you're looking to distribute niche documentaries.

Premium Course: The Movie Marketing Method - Mike Dion

Mike's course ain’t cheap at $1000, but if you’re interested in being a self-sustaining self-distribution badass, I know of no better place to learn all the technical stuff that this podcast barely scratched the surface on. Seriously, he goes into a ton of depth on every piece of his process, including all of the tools he uses and the marketing strategies he employs.

Join the Podcast Squad

If you want to help with the audience participation segments of the Filmmaker Freedom Podcast, just enter your email below and you'll receive occasional emails from me with a simple question.

Just record your answers into your computer or phone mic, and then you might just hear yourself on the show!