Making Money in the Indie Filmmaking Business with Movie Distribution
Making money in the indie filmmaking business with movie distribution is not easy. I personally don’t like to see distributors prey on the hopes, dreams, and hard work of indie filmmakers and producers. This view only applies to a small number of movie distributors that prey on indie filmmakers with movie distribution agreements designed to screw over movie makers out of every skinny dime they can. I admit I’m a filmmaking junkie. I need to make movies and don’t want to quit. There is no movie making rehab that will cure me from wanting to write, direct, and produce movies. Certain distributors know others like me are out there.
These movie distributors know who they are; indie filmmakers that have experience know who they are. Picture a bullshit artist with a fake smile waiting at a bus station for that next green indie filmmaker to arrive with wide eyes and trust looking to sell their movie. You get the scene. The second tier of bottom feeders are people that sell books, put on workshops, and sell other media to aspiring filmmakers and movie producers claiming that it is EASY to make money selling your film.
I only hope Star Price would have an episode of Penn & Teller: Bullshit! dedicated to this. There is a huge difference between selling your movie to distributor and really getting paid. I’ve had great distribution deals where the royalty payments were excellent and on time. I’ve had other deals where I knew creative accounting was screwing me over on money.
I believe in honesty and indie filmmaking is tough as hell business to make a living doing. If you think you will get rich and famous in a snap go ahead and stop reading this. I’m not preaching any get rich quick fast scheme here. This is brutal honesty about the business side of independent film production.
I’ve been told the title of my book “The First Movie is the Toughest” (not just my mug) turned people off because it didn’t tell readers it was going to be easy and the information I shared was too honest about what it takes to get meaningful distribution. People like easy and fast in this world. Selling lies has made many people rich at the expense of others that got took for their hard earned cash.
(Cue sound of ice cold Miller Lite being pulled out of a bucket and the cap twisting)
Damn that beer tastes good on a Sunday afternoon. Anyway, I have not found any easy and fast way to make movies or get them distributed yet. I’m currently working on getting film financing for the urban action movie Killing the Azul’s. Pre-production for the intense mental horror gore movie Psoro with UK based filmmaker Wayne Daniells (LiarDice Productions) and visual artist Paul While (Graphic Delusions) has started. I’m one of the writers and producers on this tale of gore. 24 hours of Hell with Slice of Americana Films coproducer Tim Beachum is in pre-production. This is a dark twisted story that is a take on Deliverance, but we are using the West Virginia woods, and an opening scene that will have viewers shocked. I put it all on Timbo and nothing on me (inside joke).
(Cue sound of ice cold Miller Lite being pulled out of a bucket and the cap twisting)
I take it slow when I write, so it was a good pause to open a second cold one. These are all taking hard work at every stage to move them forward. No easy steps or shortcuts. We are all looking at possible movie distribution channels first because we can’t afford to make movies for free. Paying bills with a note that says, “I make movies for the art, not commerce” doesn’t keep the lights on. I’ve been called a sellout for the reality series America’s Wildest Bachelor Parties. It paid the bills and took care of my family. I have no regrets. Do I want to be a broke a serious filmmaker or one that picks and chooses their spots to make money? I’m with you, we all need money.
There is no stability or guaranteed paychecks you can count on from the time, effort, and energy you put in to making a movie. It just doesn’t work that way at the true indie cinema level in my experience. I always learn new things or get fresh insight on movie distribution by talking shop with other indie movie producers and filmmakers that are out there really in trenches making movies. Let’s cut to it. Every indie filmmaker I’ve come across in my walk down the filmmaking road wants to know how to make money from their movie. Like a legal or illicit business it takes having a solid distribution outlet to make money.
It’s been crazy to me to the hype that’s been associated with digital distribution for movies to mobile devices, computers, gaming consoles, and whatever is the current hottest way to deliver entertainment to viewers is. This is supposed to be every indie filmmaker’s wet dream to be able feed their creative passion and make money doing it. Hungry indie filmmakers that can’t get a distribution deal are looking at self-distribution by digital means as the greatest thing since toilet paper. They don’t need a movie distribution deal; they will move their product on their own. That works for only a very few indie filmmakers. The rest find it’s a long tough fight to get movie viewers to buy their product.
The only film sales representative I currently trust in my career shared with me that digital distribution via the VOD route is getting tougher for indie films. Without name talent in the movie it is hard to get a deal that makes money. The movie needs to be damn good. This is what separates movies that are cheap rotgut well drinks from top shelf liquor that rocks.
Self-distribution is great if you want to completely control your product. It also takes complete dedication to reaching out to potential viewers with a constant online marketing campaign. I’m in a fortunate spot as an indie filmmaker because Slice of Americana Films coproducer Tim “Timbo” Beachum is a paid SEO expert if we ever have to go that direction. At this point, knock on wood; we are not at the point where the entertainment we produce does not get a deal. This is where making money in indie filmmaking with distribution takes learning from the school of hard knocks.
It takes being able to tell shit from Shinola when dealing with a distributor that wants to release your movie. Whoever you deal with from the nice assistant to the head of the film distribution company is not your friend; they don’t care anything about you except if your movie can make them money. A distributor of independent films that caters to first time independent filmmakers will tell you everything you want to hear. You’re their prom date and they know every indie filmmaker wants to get their movie released.
A person I greatly respect from Youngstown, Ohio named Ray B. told me something from his experience in the music industry and in life. “Sid, you can tell they are lying because their lips are moving boy.” That’s the way I look at any movie distribution deal now. The certain BS movie distributors out there will blow smoke up your ass to get you to sign a deal.
I had one tell me once that we would go to Cannes and what the movie would make if I signed a deal with them. We both knew this was an indie feature, but the dollar figure they threw out to me they could make for them and me was interesting. That sent up a red flag in my mind. How could we both make what they were claiming we could? We couldn’t. It was more smoke.
I thought about what Ray B. said and was polite about in telling them after I sign their deal then I know the smoke stops. They didn’t need to stroke me or puff me up. I’m not an ego driven person. I don’t give a shit about craving ego boosts. That’s not what makes me want to make movies.
People that are my close friends know if I have ten bucks they have five bucks without asking. I asked the distributor to email over their distribution agreement to see if we could make it work. It didn’t. There are really good movie distribution companies that do right by indie filmmakers and producers. You will always have a few film distributors that are crooks with smiles not holding guns that rob sales money from filmmakers. It’s just the way the game works.
I don’t have all the answers on indie film distribution. All I can do is share with you what I’ve experienced and learned selling entertainment. Right now I don’t feel digital movie distribution is going to make any indie filmmaker or producer the money they think they are going to get. It is a hell of battle to get movie viewers to pay money for a VOD download for a movie with an unknown director and cast. It takes a lot of hustle to sell your movie yourself.
Here is my advice to indie filmmakers that sign a deal with a movie distributor and wonder how they will market your movie.
Ask for a buyout deal. They cut you a check for your movie and you’re both done. You know what your budget was. Any money you get over that is profit.
If you can’t get a buyout deal ask for a 5-7 year distribution agreement. When you see 10+ years in the contract say hell no, unless they pay you a real money advance that you can count and spend.
A distributor of independent films that caters to first time independent filmmakers will never pay you on a backend deal. Creative accounting makes sure you never see any later money. Always ask for an advance (it has to be over your budget) if you can’t get a buyout deal.
If you can’t afford to hire an entertainment attorney or film sales rep like El Tigre I work with to look at your distribution agreement focus on the definitions section of the contract.
Hidden fees will be placed in the definitions section of a movie distribution agreement that will screw you over. I found a flat marketing fee of over $100,000 (USD) in one contract in the definitions section. That is crazy.
Most movie distributors that cater to releasing indie films don’t market your movie. The marketing fee is their way of making money off your sweat. They will put your movie in a catalog with all their other titles they sell. So make sure you ask for a cap on marketing fees. An entertainment attorney I had that represented my reality series did that. That’s where I learned that.
Throw a movie distributor on their heels by asking to see a sample of the royalty statements they send to their producers. If they don’t show how many sales by what movie outlets they will screw you in accounting.
There is much more I’ve learned, but that is for a different day and book I’m working on. This is indie filmmaker Sid Kali typing SMASH CUT