Film Fund-amentals: Under Advisement

There are more than seven billion people on this planet just waiting to give you advice. If you are an indie filmmaker, it will feel more like fourteen billion. And I’m not even including your mother.

With so many people handing out advice, you would think indie filmmakers feel especially blessed. However, I strongly suspect that they don’t. Since what I do with this blog is hand out lots of half-baked advice and pushy opinions, you can only imagine the conflict I must feel. OK, I’ll be honest and admit that there is no conflict and the great thing about handing out advice is that there are no strings attached. Not much profit, but certainly no strings.

Some of the currently available advice is actually good, with one of the more interesting being a recent post by Jason Brubaker at Film Slate Magazine. Titled “How to Make Your Movie Without the Middle-Man,” the post sets up a couple of interesting points just before he pitches his book Filmmaking Stuff: How to Make, Market and Sell Your Movie Without the Middleman. First thing you will notice is that Brubaker does not like the middleman (with or without the hyphen).

Brubaker is big on the concept of direct marketing of movies via the Internet. Notice that I just used a term that is not often invoked in discussions of VoD and internet distribution: Direct Marketing. If you are familiar with the commercial use of this term, you will know that it often carries a bit of a dubious rep. The reason is because a lot of direct marketing involves all of those annoying solicitation calls, spam emails and junk letters you get every day. That is the dark side of the concept. Unfortunately, the light side involves a lot of work that gets into a slightly similar vein (though now you get to use the “social networks,” which is certainly more respectable — sometimes).

But it is also one of the major alternative approaches being pursued by a wide variety of indie filmmakers. It has the advantage that you don’t have to deal with any middleman distribution companies. Except for taxes and expenses, you get to keep the money made through your film. You control the whole operation at every level. Gosh, does this sound like a swell exercise in rugged individualism or what?

To be honest, I am of two very conflicting minds on this issue. First-time filmmakers often go into distribution deals with a tremendous disadvantage. A good example is the original Night of the Living Dead. Back in 1968, the only way George A. Romero was able to get distribution for the movie was by cutting a deal with the Walter Reade Organization for less than $400. Since the company then proceeded to make a really stupid foul-up with the copyright and the movie went into public domain, that pathetic upfront payment has been the only dough Romero has ever seen from the most widely viewed horror movie of the modern age. Ironically, that is slightly more cash than many filmmakers have seen from their first movie.

So getting rid of the middleman sounds like a truly fantastic idea. Likewise, Internet distribution has come of age — technically speaking. However, a successful commercial model of this type of self-distribution is still a work in progress. An increasing number of indie filmmakers are working in this direction (and Brubaker’s book is a good starting point if you wish to pursue this), and eventually something is going to hit big, maybe. But it is a concept that is still in the developmental stage. It is also an approach that requires a lot of work. You know, like 18-hour days, 8 days a week. The staggering nature of this process is enough to make you pine for those greedy middlemen. You might even realize that some of these folks (the honest ones) actually do work for a living.

Of course that brings up the next question: Where do you go to find these middlemen? The first thought that occurs to many indie filmmakers is the film festival circuit. But before you go there, please take about seven minutes to check out the YouTube video You Cannot Rely on Film Festivals to Distribute Your Film by Jon Reiss, author of Think Outside of the Box Office and co-author of Selling Your Film Without Selling Your Soul.

As you watch Reiss’s presentation, pay close attention to the numbers he is unreeling. Thousands and thousands of movies ply their way through the film festival circuit every year. Only a very small percentage of these movies will ever get a distributor. Even then, only a small percentage will ever actually get distributed in any major sense. It plays like a culling process created by Thomas Hobbes, and it all feels harsh, brutal and short. Unfortunately, these are the successful titles. The unsuccessful movies simply vanish somewhere in the back of a UPS truck.

Which is why everybody keeps going back to the direct distribution idea. But trying to do it all is nearly impossible for many filmmakers. Fortunately, an ever-growing lineup of websites are emerging to provide indie filmmakers with a pre-established online distribution system. One interesting example of this type of service is EggUP, a growing company designed to guide filmmakers through various platforms and achieve an actual approach to monetization with their movies. Beyond the Box Office recently did an interview with Chris Lucero, Marketing Director of EggUP, that does a nice job of outlining the DIY model of distribution. Currently EggUP is averaging 10 to 50 downloads per day, which is low by web standards but not at all bad in the indie trade.

So there is my two-cents worth of advice this week. It’s all good advice. It’s all free advice. Hey wait a minute, I’ve got to find a way to charge for this stuff.