Give your film away for free, and you’ll make more money than you ever would selling it to distributors or to audiences.

That’s the premise behind Pedram Shojai’s and Nick Polizzi’s Movie Maker (no relation) Academy, an online course they’ve been running since early 2016.

Shojai (above, left) and Polizzi (right) designed their model after being soured on traditional, “parasitic” distribution deals (Shojai has made three docs, Vitality in 2012, Origins in 2014, and the “conscious capitalism”-centered Prosperity, out October 2017; Polizzi’s credits include 2011 doc The Sacred Science).

“We got one distribution deal,” Polizzi says of that title. “After I’d signed the agreement, I realized how little we would make—it got us on major VOD networks, but the money wasn’t really there.”

For his part, Shojai sold his online screening rights for Origins to a distributor whom he says misspelled the names of his talent and, after months, left his film “chucked in a box and packed away.”

So the pair came up with the central idea behind their subsequent successes: “You make your movie not to sell it, but to start the conversation and get people excited about the community,” Polizzi explains. “Once you have that community, you can market and sell other things to them that take the conversation further.” The movie therefore becomes a loss-leader, an advertisement for an array of other items and affiliate products which, in Shojai and Polizzi’s cases, have included DVDs and Blu-rays, apps, groceries from affiliate stores, accounts with affiliate banks, lifestyle programs, and a “road map course” starting at $99 that Shojai designed as a deeper dive into conscious capitalism around the U.S.

Streaming for free online, Shojai says, “gives me an enormous audience and, for every subsequent movie, a built-in distribution list. If just five percent of people who watch the movie are inspired to purchase my $100 lifestyle program, it more than pays for itself—and eradicates the need for any distribution channels.” He works with affiliates, and puts thousands into social media promotion, to market his title to a targeted group of people. “For every dollar I’ve put into acquiring leads, I’ve made about $2.20,” he says. That includes “hundreds of thousands of dollars in DVD sales from people who watch the movie for free online, then are like, ‘I love this thing! I want to own it,’ and buy the DVD—and DVDs are a dinosaur!”

Sure, you may be thinking, studios have been banking big on ancillary products since Star Wars came out. Yet this kind of “creative deal-making,” as Shojai puts it, can be hard to pull off for indies with limited time, contacts, and energy. At the same time, the pair argues, it’s integral to be setting up partnerships with affiliates and targeting an audience at the concept stage of a feature. “Saying ‘I’m going to make this movie and then figure out how to sell it’… That’s just so backward,” says Shojai. “If you’re making a movie about tattoo artists, and you figure that there are two million people in the world that would want to watch this, then you can’t budget $1.5 million. You have to say, ‘OK, I have $150,000 to work with, based on the audience size.’”

Movie Maker Academy, which the pair co-founded with entrepreneur and filmmaker Jeff Hays, was a response to the questions they were fielding from indie filmmaker friends impressed by their success. The three-month course comprises 12 weekly modules, each of which contains eight to 12 different video seminars of varying lengths. The founders hold a monthly “office hours” call session as well, with 40-50 students joining in on any given call, asking questions about the curriculum. Signing up gives you lifetime access to the materials, entry to a private online forum, and a ticket to live events that take place in L.A. and feature industry guest-speakers and case studies of Shojai’s own films. (So far they’ve only done one such event, but aim to increase that number.)

The Academy accepts web series and shorts, besides feature-length titles. The recommended time for a project to come into the fold is at the concept stage, so that creators can take full advantage of the Academy’s lessons at every step of their filmmaking. While the course seems like a more natural fit for issue-driven documentaries than for narratives, some of Movie Maker Academy’s 400-plus students have been narrative filmmakers, for whom Shojai’s and Polizzi’s methods have apparently resonated as well. “At first we were reluctant [to take on narratives], but then we had narrative filmmakers say, ‘Dude, this helped me more than I can even tell you.’ So the model works across the board. There’s no formula, but we teach a way of thinking,” says Shojai.

It’s about “approaching film from the perspective of an information marketing specialist,” adds Polizzi. “We’re taking some of the best information marketing strategy out there and relaying it to the edutainment world.”

They’ve learned to be a little more selective about applicants these days than when Movie Maker Academy first launched, the pair tell me. “We want to make sure we can get behind a film,” Shojai, who refers to himself as a progressive environmentalist, says. “There was one particular [conservative] film that we took on… these guys were talking about freedom and America, about taking back our liberty. I’m not going to stonewall someone who has different beliefs than me. But they sent me a copy of the movie, and it was just this barrage of angry people talking about angry things. It didn’t even have a narrative. Nobody could watch it, not even conservatives.” The lesson: “If you want to move the conversation forward, I’m OK with that, but we’re getting way pickier about projects because this takes our time and energy.”

On that note: The founders are looking to expand, in the near future, the currently limited bandwidth of their small staff. Ideas for growth include going beyond mere instruction and providing some VOD aggregator-like services for selected students’ films.

At $5,000, the course is a significant investment, and it’s a little too early yet for any bona fide success stories, but if the glowing testimonials on its site are to be believed, you might well make your money back in the long run. MM

MovieMaker is the registered trademark of Moviemaker Media, LLC. Movie Maker Academy is not affiliated with MovieMaker Magazine and is solely owned by Rebel Alliance, LLC.

This article appears in MovieMaker‘s 2018 Complete Guide to Making Movies.