“Nobody knows anything,” begins the infamous William Goldman quote from his revered book Adventures in the Screen Trade.
Written in 1983, this quote has lived on, quietly spoken on the lips of generations of filmmakers afterward, like a mantra every time something either falls apart, is a success, or there’s a risk to be taken. It remains in the back of the mind when someone tries to navigate a business that is, in the absolute simplest terms, unpredictable. Cut to 2017, and I’m not sure even Goldman could have predicted the state of the industry as it exists now.
There have been dozens of think-pieces about where we currently are as a collective business, amounting to the sum total of a few unified thoughts: The industry is changing quickly, the old paradigms and structures are collapsing or being re-worked and anyone who doesn’t adapt is going to drown. There are seemingly more films produced every year than ever, both due to the increasingly affordable technology and the explosion of platforms to place content. With this comes a growing rift between studio fare and the indie, and the independent scene is becoming difficult to survive. You could almost assume the sky is falling, metaphorically speaking, if all you read are the words of the doomsayers.
All is not doom and gloom, however. The key word to take away from the above, in my mind, is ‘change.’ I’d go even further to call it what it truly is: evolution. While it is accurate to say that the old business model is not working like it did, and film is no longer the only dominant form of media vying for the eyes of the consumer, there is still opportunity to thrive in a business that has a while to go yet before it gives up the ghost. If a filmmaker is savvy enough, keeps their ear to the ground, never stops learning, never stops creating with whatever means they have available, and understands how to adapt, there are a wide variety of roads to success, in relative terms.
Let me take a moment to back up, and preface the rest by stating that while I have a fair bit of experience in the business at this point, I’m no expert. Anyone who self-identifies themselves as an expert when it comes to the film industry is probably not worth listening to. What I am is an active independent filmmaker, festival programmer, and distribution consultant. Due to these various positions, I get a unique perspective on multiple sides of a big question, one that not just filmmakers ask themselves, but festivals and distributors as well: how do we adapt to the times?
The first thing to realize is that you are not unique. Being a filmmaker does not mean you stand out from the pack. In fact, you are one of countless thousands of people vying for the same thing: an audience for your work, enough revenue to keep going as an actual career, and some degree of artistic fulfillment. The best, luckiest and savviest have a habit of rising to the top of this massive pack, but that still doesn’t make you special. You are not anointed. This business will chew up and spit out a name director as quickly as it will some kid fresh out of film school. The moment you believe you are above the machine, the machine will take you down.
The traditional indie route of “play a major festival, get major press, get picked up by big distributor, enjoy your career” does still exist, but it only happens for a very small percentage of us. And for those that do get the ‘Golden Ticket,’ it may not come for quite a while into their career, so waiting for it to happen is pointless. Even major festival success is no guarantee your film will be some big hit, or truly launch your career. Sometimes lightning strikes, but sometimes you end up with a film that gets a lot of great festival buzz and then languishes on a streaming platform with no promotion behind it, never to find its audience.
You have to make your own way, and eventually you will build a team of supporters and collaborators that believe in you enough to allow you to have a career. You have to be willing to fail, to suffer through middling reviews, to make movies that very few people even notice. You have to realize the business is a ladder, one you have to climb rung by rung with resolve and perseverance. If you put in the work to promote and build your audience, you will get noticed. It is important to put thought into what you are creating, though. If you are making the 15th zombie film that has been released in a given year, you may want to ask yourself why, and what makes your film different.
From the festival perspective, the average genre festival (i.e. Fantastic Fest, Fantasia, Sitges) gets anywhere from 300–600 feature film entries a year, or more. Major festivals like TIFF, SXSW and Sundance are getting significantly more than that. Tons of quality films every year go unnoticed due to programming trends, and not enough slots to go around when it comes to selection. So how do you make a film that stands out when the odds are against you? The obvious answer: make a good film. But the truth is more complicated than that. What you should be trying to do is making a unique film, something that isn’t just good, but shows the audience something they haven’t seen before. Something that is hard from a programmer to say ‘no’ to.
After the festival window, your film needs to find distribution, and this is where things get really tricky. The good news is that with the advent of dozens of streaming platforms, hundreds of boutique distributors, self-distribution options, aggregation, and platforms such as Vimeo and VHX, it is almost impossible not to find a home to host your film now. Finding an audience, and most challenging of all, turning a profit, is where things get difficult. There is now more entertainment produced and distributed than you could possibly watch in your lifetime, which means there is more product than there are consumers to enjoy it. The dream scenario of my childhood: limitless access to anything I could possibly want to watch. The nightmare scenario of modern reality: limitless access but way too much content to absorb, meaning most of the films that get made don’t really get seen, despite being right there at the audience’s fingertips. If they only knew it was there.
Compound this with unpredictable returns from these various platforms, and while it may be easier than ever to make a movie, it’s more difficult to actually make your money back. The platforms, distributors, and sales agents all take a cut, as it always has been. Figuring out how to balance your release so that you don’t get killed in expenses while still getting the level of release you need to see a return is not easy, but it is possible. It can be a bit of a catch-22, deciding if you should go with a bigger company that will give you the higher-level exposure, but you may never see a return from, or going the more self-driven route and maybe not getting the exposure necessary for enough audience to find your film, and then also never seeing a proper return. Sometimes you get lucky, or your film is the right mix of good and sellable, and you do very well. Sometimes that same formula just doesn’t work.
The key is to go into everything trying to mitigate your risk. This means keeping your budget at a number that makes sense for the marketplace, and gaining an understanding of how the international sales world actually works. Get to know sales agents, go to AFM, Cannes and/or EFM if you are able. Really see how film is sold, and what seems to actually draw in the buyers. Contact sales agents you trust before you even make your film, and get their honest opinion on your budget and chances in the market. Ask them what you can do to make the film more attractive to buyers. If you know nobody, we live in a world where you can easily connect with someone online. Be respectful, and reach out. You may end up with conflicting answers ultimately, but at least that is better than a guess. Don’t spend a million dollars on a film that has no chance of returning any more than $150 thousand. You would be surprised how many people can point out that mistake ahead of time, if you just do your legwork.
Due diligence is also key for survival in the current market. Before signing a deal with anyone you don’t really know well, reach out to other producers and filmmakers they’ve worked with, and get a clear picture of who you are about to do business with. I’ve lost count of the number of bad deals I’ve been presented with over the years. You have to be aware of this, and never go into something blindly. It will save you huge headaches, potential financial loss, and a growing sense of resentment in your future. The distributors take risks sometimes too, and you need to make sure that if that risk is on your film, it is a calculated one.
You have to play the long game if you want any kind of career in this business. I’m still fairly early in mine, but am seeing clear signs of reaching the next level. Don’t burn bridges unless absolutely necessary, don’t take rejection as a personal attack, and take criticism in stride. Learn from your mistakes. Be gracious and professional. You never know when a contact who wouldn’t give you the time of day a decade ago might actually want to produce your film now.
In the indie world, finance truly is a puzzle, with little bits of money from various partners making up a whole budget. The days when someone says, “Sure, your film is greenlit” are long gone for most filmmakers, and the rest of us have to hustle multiple sources to find the cash. To have a clear understanding of how international co-productions, increasingly rare pre-sales, potential distributors and regional funding bodies can combine to help us reach this goal. Or at least work with a trusted producer who understands all this.
Education, research, and continually keeping on top of the trends, new tech and platforms are all valuable to a filmmaker’s toolkit in 2017. If you don’t make an effort to be on top of the changes, your head will stay in the sand. Maybe once you amass enough knowledge, you will be able to contribute to the change, be a pioneer, instead of just running to catch up with where the business is going.
I do not offer any firm answers or definitive solutions. As Goldman stated, “nobody knows anything,” myself included. But I know more than I did yesterday. And yesterday I knew more than I did the day before that. It has taken years, and a body of work built behind me, to even begin to understand how to navigate this business. And now, I look at the future and realize that while “nobody knows anything,” the ones that pay attention and carve their own niche survive. Success in the film business is a relative term, a personal metric we place upon ourselves. The better prepared you are to adapt, to improve, and learn, the more successful you will be, on a personal level. Eventually, an audience will notice. It just may not be on the terms you expected, and that is okay. Every path is different, and if you stick to one that is true to your own voice, you’ll make it. Whatever ‘it’ ends up meaning in the future. MM
Justin McConnell is a writer/producer/director from Toronto, Canada. His most recent feature, the DIY single-take thriller Broken Mile, opened on August 4, 2017 and was released on Blu-ray and DVD on August 15, 2017, courtesy of Gravitas Ventures. Additionally, he programs for Toronto After Dark and his own festival Little Terrors, runs the production/post company Unstable Ground, and offers distribution consultation services. All images courtesy of Gravitas Ventures.