Strategic Filmmaking: the Path to Creative and Financial Freedom for the Modern Independent Filmmaker

The most frustrating and distasteful aspect of a filmmaker’s life is having to depend on people we viciously despise: those with the power to finance and greenlight a project; those who put hoops up for directors to jump through; those who endlessly meddle with our vision from their lofty position of power. But filmmakers can now make their own destiny and bypass the talentless undesirables. It’s not in the future: it is happening now.

In the bad old days the only way to shoot an independent feature film with a six-figure budget — other than financing it yourself, of course — was to obtain the support of a production company or other source of finance. These people are very frustrating to deal with for filmmakers, because they sport an infuriating combination of power and lack of talent. There is nothing worse for an artist than depending on someone you do not admire and respect. Seeking to impress someone you look up to is quite acceptable and in fact quite stimulating, but in the absence of that respect, it is an atrocious indignity.

We can now unceremoniously cut out all those dim-witted undesirables with crowd funding platforms like Kickstarter. The crowd funding concept is very simple: you publish a page on the crowd funding website, with a pitch and the target amount. People donate in return for whatever you are willing to offer them. The rewards are usually distributed along tiers in such a way as to give more substantial rewards to those who contribute more money. Typical rewards range from a digital download of the movie for people donating around $10 all the way up to attending the film shoot for one day as an observer to those who donate a few thousand dollars, with all manner of intermediate rewards in between.

If the project is not funded by the deadline, the money is returned to the donors and the project does not go ahead.

Filmmakers make a profit, for once

The supporters are not entitled to a profit share of the film — you are not allowed to offer this even if you wanted to. The importance of this cannot be overstated, because it means that when a project is fully funded, the filmmakers have full equity in the project. The project is fully paid for, with no debts or rather liabilities. The filmmakers make the film, the supporters get their rewards, and any money made by the film goes to the filmmakers. This results in a completed film that is not encumbered by debt and other liabilities.

The filmmakers wholly own the completed film and are then free to shop it around traditional film distribution channels, and any profit made from that distribution is entirely theirs. The other advantage of this is that, since the film has no liabilities attached to it and is already fully paid for, the filmmakers have tremendous negotiating power with the distributors. You can really drive a hard bargain with the distributors and impose iron-fisted discipline, because you are not desperate for the money. You will relish the sweet taste of an inverted balance of power. Enjoy!

Crowd funding is essentially a way of pre-selling a film project direct to the fans, completely bypassing those who would have tampered with the filmmaker’s vision.

I now turn to the original title of this post, namely, the strategic aspect of crowd funding.

Strategic filmmaking: working backwards to make the most of the crowd funding opportunity

I did some quick research on Kickstarter and discerned the following trends:

– The maximum budget raised by Kickstarter film projects appears to be around $100,000. Some have exceeded it, but it’s rare.

– The average donation, obtained by dividing the sum raised by the number of supporters, appears to be around $50, pretty consistently.

Where does strategy come into all of this?

The point is that it is now perfectly realistic for a filmmaker to raise the money needed to make a feature film, but you need to work backwards from a realistically obtainable budget in order to assemble a film that you can realistically shoot for that budget.

For example, let’s say that, on the basis of your social and professional network and the quality of your pitch, you determine that you can realistically raise $100,000.

$100,000 will buy you 10 decent-quality shoot days, using high-end professional equipment hired at advantageous rates and professional crew members who are willing to work for considerably less than their normal day rate. (With equipment and crew all paid the full rate, $100,000 will barely buy you a single day of shooting. You need discounts and favors, and that in itself will require some persuasion skills.)

You therefore have to write a script that you can realistically shoot to a high standard in 10 days. This is what I mean by “working backwards.” This is also known as “backing into a budget.”

To ensure that reasonable value is extracted from each shoot day, it would be sensible not to have more than two locations on each day. Changing locations burns a lot of time that you could otherwise spend shooting. That gives us a maximum of 20 different locations, which is not bad for a feature film if the script is very compelling. And make no mistake that 20 locations over 10 days for an independent feature film is going to be absolutely grueling — but also probably the 20 most satisfying days in the filmmaker’s life so far!

$100,000, 10 days, 20 locations: this is the strategic path to freedom for the modern independent filmmaker. In my view, crowd funding will be seen retrospectively a few years from now as the emancipation of talented filmmakers. $100,000 is not a huge amount — it comfortably falls into the low-budget category — but it is quite enough to make a compelling feature film if it is designed from the beginning to be made to a high standard with that kind of money. Obviously if the script you want to shoot cannot realistically be made for less than $10 million, shooting it with $100,000 will result in a film that you will find embarrassing a few years down the line. Determine the budget that you can realistically raise from your social and professional network and work backwards from there. This is why I call this approach “strategic filmmaking.”

The amount of money you are going to raise depends on the size and quality of your social and professional network and on the persuasiveness of your pitch. Friends, family and colleagues are obviously much more forgiving than regular film industry management personnel, but having a decent director’s reel will make the pitch more compelling and will also attract support from complete strangers who find your crowd funding pitch through social sharing. Without a good director’s reel, even a measly $100,000 budget will be unattainable, and rightly so.

This is a path that I plan to follow myself, and indeed this post is inspired by my own strategic thinking. Needless to say, nothing will move until I have a screenplay with serious commercial potential, regardless of how long that takes.

Summary of the advantages of crowd funding for filmmakers

– The filmmaker completely bypasses the traditional gatekeepers. If you have never had to sit through a meeting with a “creative executive” who is long on power but short on wits, you cannot imagine how psychologically abusive this feels to a filmmaker. We will never have to go through that again.

– The project supporters cannot be given profit shares; they fund the project in return for specific rewards that have low monetary value. This means that the film reaches completion completely unencumbered by any kind of liability, leaving the filmmakers free to enjoy any hard-earned profits generated by the project after it is complete.

– The filmmakers will have complete and utter creative freedom. The project supporters do not have the right (or even the desire) to exert any kind of influence on the filmmaker’s decisions. They contribute to the project and they receive the rewards. That’s it.

The price of crowd funding

The price to pay for this unprecedented freedom breaks down as follows:

– To raise $100,000 for a film project on a crowd funding platform, you will have to drive a lot of traffic to the page, because only a fraction of the visitors will actually donate. The vast majority of indie filmmakers will have to shoot their project with less than $100,000 — in some cases a lot less.

– As I described above, $100,000 is actually a pretty low budget and the only way to make an awesome film with this kind of money is to write a script that is specifically constructed to be shot to a high standard in no more than 20 locations over 10 days. This complicates the screenwriting process, which is not easy to begin with.

– Obviously you have to keep your word with the rewards, and most of the typical rewards cost some money to produce, so this will eat into the budget. Digital downloads don’t cost anything to deliver, but DVDs, T-shirts and more substantial rewards will cost money. You have to take this into account.

Conclusion

This “strategic filmmaking” model will not give independent filmmakers access to million-dollar budgets, but it is a realistic way to shoot high-quality feature films completely independently of all the dimwits who would otherwise waste years of your life meddling with your script before turning it down anyway.

Crowd funding establishes a direct connection between the filmmaker and the fans, completely cutting out the pernicious bloodsuckers. This is reason to celebrate.

Do you feel empowered by this? Share your thoughts below!

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10 thoughts on “Strategic Filmmaking: the Path to Creative and Financial Freedom for the Modern Independent Filmmaker

  1. Excellent article. Now I have a script which I can shoot in $100000.
    Suppose through KICKSTARTER I am only able to raise $50000 and then some friend or a family member comes and says I will help you out with the balance in sometime which falls outside the time limit set on the website will I be still liable to refund?

    • Joe Campbell says:

      I am not sure if it is ethical, but say you raise 50000 on a starter page, in order to get the money you have to have your limit met so if your limit is 100000 you don’t get the money; it is refunded to the supporters.

      But if you have another source of funding, they can donate it through the starter page, thus reaching the minimum level of funding.

      Note: the startup site takes several percent so 100000= 95000.

    • Mehernosh — If the project is not 100% funded by the deadline, the project does not go ahead. If one minute after the deadline an angel shows up with the balance, the unfunded project still does not go ahead: it’s over and you have to start from scratch.

  2. How timely your article is for me. I have been doing my own small video productions for years (http://www.bigfatsinner.com/p/actor.html). Budget considerations meant that I had to do everything myself – camera,lighting, sound, editing, the works. Now I want to shoot a new film (a 27 minute short) and do it right this time. But when I priced it out I was shocked at what it costs to hire a DP, Gaffer, Grip, and Sound Recordist. I came up with a cost of $4250 per day for 7 days (the film only have one location). Now I find the numbers in your article and I’m even more dismayed. I had already been looking at Kickstarter and I still intend to try it. But I am skeptical that I can raise $30,000 that way, let alone the $70,000 you estimate. Still, hope springs eternal. I will try kickstarter. Thanks for this article.

    • Hi Daniel,

      Alas, that is what quality film production costs! And that’s with favors and discounts, mind you.

      To implement a successful crowd funding strategy, a filmmaker needs a substantial number of people who have a genuine interest in supporting the project. You need to drive traffic to the Kickstarter page, but it has to be quality traffic.

      The more compelling the pitch, the more money will be raised from a given volume of potential supporters.

      If the director is likeable, appears in the pitch video and has a good reel, and if the project is actually interesting, the chances of success are good. But the filmmaker must make a realistic assessment of how much money he can raise given the size of his network, and work backwards from there. Most filmmakers have no realistic prospect of raising $100,000 because they will not be able to drive anywhere near enough traffic to the page, and of course many film pitches are simply not compelling — nothing new in that regard!

      Work backwards as follows:

      Size of professional/social network –> Budget –> Script

      I didn’t call it “Strategic Filmmaking” for nothing 😉

      Good luck, and keep me posted!

  3. I think it’s important for new film makers to be realistic about their own abilities at first. Nobody is going to give 100K to a new film maker without a track record. Better is to try and raise $1000 through crowd-funding first. Make a 3-5 minute short or two, then move up to $10000 when you want to make a 30 minute short perhaps. Keep your ‘investors’ in the loop – and only when you’re ready go for the $100000, which, if you’re truly independent, will be enough to make a good feature for the festival circuit.

    • Agreed — most filmmakers will not raise $100,000 or anything close to it, due to a weak pitch, limited network or unconvincing reel.

      That said, I have a strong hunch that in the realm of crowd funding, a director’s reel is slightly less important than when trying to convince sophisticated film industry management folks, as long as the project is genuinely compelling and the director is charismatic.

      In short, many civilians who come across a crowd funding page will at least consider donating some money if they like the director and want to see the project made because they think it’s a genuinely cool idea. After all, it’s only costing them a few bucks. The film is being funded by small amounts donated by many people — that’s the beauty of it!

      But it’s tough — no question. I have seen talented directors with strong reels struggle to raise a few thousand bucks for a short — because their social/professional network was not large enough. That’s the catch: you need to send real traffic to the Kickstarter page!

  4. Thanks a lot for that amazing tip! I was wondering these days about Kickstarter…and here it is, you wrote about it 😉

    P.S. Really miss your email tips :/

  5. it is a nice thing to get the money by donation. But dose kickstarter work for Africa ? What is the hop for us !
    Thank you ! I learn a lot from your post !

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