The Working Class Moviemaker: Joe Swanberg’s 10 Tips on Earning a Living Making Microbudget Films

Stanley Kubrick and Robert Bresson each helmed 13 feature films over the span of their careers. John Cassavetes shot 12. Béla Tarr made 10. Andrei Tarkovsky finished eight.

Since his 2005 no-budget feature debut, Kissing on the Mouth, Joe Swanberg—at the age of 31—has already directed 17 feature films.

Hailing from the low-budget, mumblecore boom of ’05, Swanberg has since gone on to act in over 40 films, direct a segment of the popular horror anthology V/H/S and, most recently, sell his latest SXSW-premiering film, Drinking Buddies, to Magnolia Pictures.

Though Drinking Buddies has a bigger budget (just under $1 million, according to ChicagoBusiness.com), the largest crew he’s ever overseen (45 people), and features both TV luminaries and an Academy Award-nominated actress (Anna Kendrick, Olivia Wilde, and Ron Livingston all star), don’t think for a minute that Swanberg has abandoned his core values. Just as on his first 16 films, Swanberg retained total creative control on Drinking Buddies, serving as writer, director, producer, and editor.

Swanberg may have graduated from the purebred, DIY moviemaking of his earliest career (he has investors now and doesn’t have to fund his films with credit cards), but he still epitomizes the blue collar, working-class moviemaking ethos he helped spawn. He hasn’t gotten rich (yet), but he’s supported himself with only the proceeds of his moviemaking for the better part of a decade.

So how does Swanberg do it? How has he sustained himself through years both lean and fat? And how has he amassed such a large body of work in such a short amount of time? To find out, we sat down with him, and he bequeathed to us 10 pieces of advice for getting your film made, seeing a profit from its release, and then folding that capital into making the next one. – Andy Young

1. Seeing revenue takes time.

It always takes a few years for the revenue to catch up to the money you poured into making a film. I put my first two films (Kissing on the Mouth and LOL) on credit cards, but it wasn’t until my third film (Hannah Takes The Stairs) was done that I started getting checks from DVD sales of Kissing on the Mouth. And that has largely been the yardstick since: Profit always seems to follow two or three years behind production.

Mark Duplass and Greta Gerwig in Hannah Takes the Stairs

Mark Duplass and Greta Gerwig in Hannah Takes the Stairs

 2. This film should pay for the next film.

Any money I was making in the early days—either from new work or my old films—went straight into making new work. I had a super cheap standard of living. Beyond rent and a little food money, I needed very little. Plus, I made my films very cheaply, so it never took too long for revenue to turn into profit.

3. New work always helps promote the older films.

The larger your body of work, the more valuable it is. It’s easier to go out and promote a new film than one you made five years ago, but the new ones also point people back to your older movie. Plus, constantly discussing new work keeps you fresh as a moviemaker. I’ve seen filmmakers spend a long time promoting projects on the festival circuit—years, even—and with every month that goes by it gets harder and harder for them to jumpstart a new film. But if you never stop making movies, if you’re always forcing yourself to create—which is, as artists, the main thing we should all be doing—you keep innovating. And you keep moving forward.

 4. Have a quick turnaround.

Historically, I haven’t written traditional scripts. I think for most writer-directors, a lot of the lag time between films is related to having to write your next screenplay. But my process is mainly a collaboration with actors, and because I work again and again with people I like, as soon as we finish one project, it typically doesn’t take us very long to launch production of the next one. And because I edit as I shoot, post-production doesn’t consume too much of my time, either.

5. Build your audience.

One of the difficulties young moviemakers face is the sheer volume of competing content out there. At the beginning of your career it can be difficult to get people to even know your movie exists. That’s why, starting off, you just have to work on building an audience and creating awareness of your films so people get conditioned to look for your movies. For your first couple films, when you’re working on a tiny budget, erasing your anonymity is the primary challenge. But once you’ve gotten people to know you exist, you have to clear the hurdle of getting people to pay for your film—so you can make bigger projects.

6. Make your work accessible.

As I’ve said, your first goal shouldn’t be to make your money back. Your initial struggle should be figuring out how to get your work out there by any means necessary. Festivals, Vimeo, YouTube, other pay-per-view digital VOD: They’re all tools for disseminating your work. Until you have a genuine audience, you can’t make money off of them. Being a young filmmaker is hell, but it’s also the best time; it’s tough to make money, but you have the freedom to make films on your terms.

Olivia Wilde and Jake Johnson in Drinking Buddies

Olivia Wilde and Jake Johnson in Drinking Buddies

 7. Choose the distribution route that’s right for you (and your audience).

We made Kissing on the Mouth in blissful ignorance of any form of business strategy.  When we took it to SXSW, I had no idea what would happen. We ended up selling it to a DVD distributor who did a great job releasing it. Of all my movies, Kissing on the Mouth was the most successful on DVD because it hit a nice window when people were still buying them in droves. By the time Hannah Takes The Stairs came out, on the other hand, no one was buying DVDs anymore. Since then I’ve made sure to be as open as possible to new technologies—especially digital and cable VOD. My rule is that any platform that gets your movie out into the world is great.

 8. Follow the gospel of Soderbergh: Don’t be afraid to make your own path.

Soderbergh’s a hero of mine, and his career is an inspiration. Twenty years from now, I would love to be in his shoes—where he can basically make whatever he wants (even if he says he’s retired). He would probably argue differently, but from my perspective he seems able to freely bounce between low-budget personal projects and big-budget mainstream films. He also puts his own money into movies, and he doesn’t seem to be playing by the rules or following any conventional wisdom. Seeing an independent artist making films inside the Hollywood system on, seemingly, his own terms really excites me—because 99 percent of the industry just wants to make movies the same way every time, without ever taking creative risks.

9. Be open to all possibilities.

I’ve moved away from even trying to predict what the future holds for me. While I’ll say it’s hard for me to imagine myself directing a big action movie, I wouldn’t turn the job down, either. All aspects of moviemaking are really exciting to me, and each new project adds something to your filmmaker’s toolkit. Knowing how to direct a car chase is something I’d like to get good at. Moviemaking is more than just small, emotional moments.

10. Make a movie. Now!

You just have to be optimistic and dive in. No amount of strategizing future-proofs your movie. The distribution landscape seems to changes completely every two years, so it can be really hard to figure out what’s working and what’s utterly worthless. You have to get rid of the safety net and hope you’ll discover how to survive while you’re out there in the market. It’s like running on a treadmill: You constantly have to move forward, adapt to the speed, and stay on the machine. You’ll never get ahead of the track, but if you stop you’ll get thrown off immediately. MM

This article appeared in MovieMaker‘s Complete Guide to Making Movies 2014, as told to Andy Young.

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