It was a conversation with a producer friend of mine that first set me off on this road of self-releasing. In my eyes, he had hit a home run—premiered at one of the top festivals in North America, landed a deal with one of the top independent distributors and seemed to have the entire industry championing his movie. And then I asked the million-dollar question: ‘So friend, if you don’t mind me asking, how much did the distributor pay to acquire your movie?’
“Nothing”, he told me. “Zero. They were a reputable company who really liked the movie, and we felt like it was the right relationship.”
Nothing. I was shocked.
I mean, in my mind, my friend had already won the lottery. His scenario—top-tier festival, top-tier distributor, A-plus reviews—already placed his movie in the 0.1 percentile. That’s right, 0.1 percent. His movie was in a better situation than 99.9 percent of other independent movies. Yet, he gave away his movie for nothing.
I mention these numbers only because I’m one of these people who always thinks the rules don’t apply to me. Yet, when you start looking at these staggering numbers, one in a 1,000, you realize the incredible obstacles you are facing as an independent moviemaker. I have been saying this for a while now, but I truly believe that right now is the easiest time ever in the history of movies to make a movie. There are people making completed feature-length movies for under $3,000. But as easy it is to make a movie right now, I also believe it is the hardest time ever to receive any real money from that same completed movie. I mean, if you win the lottery like my friend and still lose money, how do you possibly sustain yourself as a fiscally responsible moviemaker in this day and age?
I have struggled for a long time to get my movie made. I have really been tunnel-visioned on this path since 1994. And I’ve certainly had my fair share of times where, like the character in Mulholland Drive, I’ve felt that making it in the industry was almost preordained or beyond the normal things in life like talent and hard work. But also as of late, I had shaken off some of this bias and become optimistic again. That is, until this conversation with my producer friend.
This conversation led me on a whole other search. I hopped on the Internet (IMDb and Box Office Mojo) and started looking up the box office numbers for the independent movies from the last two or three years. And once again, I was shocked. Almost every movie I looked up, and I was only focusing on the most acclaimed, lost money at the box office and hardly any of them did more than $100,000 total at the box office. ‘Okay, wow. The situation is bleak,’ I thought.
Honestly, I believe no one has the answers yet, but I have read some great books and recommend them all: John Anderson and Laura Kim’s I Wake up Screening: What to Do Once You’ve Made That Movie, Chris Gore’s Ultimate Film Festival Survival Guide, Dov S-S Simens’ From Reel to Deal: Everything You Need to Create a Successful Independent Film and Christopher Holland’s Film Festival Secrets: A Handbook for Independent Filmmakers. (If you have read others you would highly recommend, please let me know.)
I also recommend a few other things:
1. Know that in this day and age, distribution is not a home run. You meet someone who tells you that his or her movie has been picked by a distributor, make sure your response is, “Wow, that’s wonderful! Can you give me a sense of the type of deal you struck?”
2. Think about your budget and think about whom your audience is before you even make your movie. And try to make it in a way where the budget equals the type of interest you can expect in your finished movie.
3. If you’re a successful moviemaker or wherever you are on your path, be honest and share your experiences with other moviemakers. We’re all in this together. These are tough times. But in helping each other, by sharing information and experiences we’ve had, I am still optimistic we can figure this out.
After living in Los Angeles for seven years, Jeffrey Goodman returned to his hometown of Shreveport, Louisiana to direct The Last Lullaby. Co-written by the creator of The Road to Perdition, and starring Tom Sizemore and Sasha Alexander, The Last Lullaby was filmed entirely in and around Shreveport and financed by 48 local investors.