Evolving to Meet the Challenges of Making a Living while Making Movies
By James Mathers, Cinematographer and President of DCS
For a lot of years I’ve primarily earned my living shooting Indie Features, or to put it in less glamorous terms, Low Budget movies. I’m talking about budgets that would typically fall between one and five million dollars, with three to six week shoots; and although there were no huge Stars, there were usually a couple of very talented “name” Actors. There was once a thriving market for such faire, rarely for domestic theatrical release, but still enjoying a healthy audience and financial gain via the Home Video and Foreign Sales venues. While I have thoroughly enjoyed serving as DP, (and sometimes more), on a wide variety of these little movies, I have seen my ability to support myself from them diminish in the last several years.
This is not to say that there are not a lot of little movies still being made; there are, perhaps too many. In fact there is a glut of product, and while much of it is of marginal quality, there is also an abundance of good product. So what’s the problem? Lots of nice little movies being made, and with so many new distribution outlets, isn’t it a win for everyone? I wish it were, but the problem is that no one is making any money on these little movies, and rarely are they even being seen by anyone more than the Filmmaker’s family and close friends.
Budgets that were once in the $1-5 million range have fallen to a small fraction of that and now run from as little as $150K up to $500K. I’ve been told several times, that in order for a small movie to have a good chance at profitability it needs to stay under $300K, (probably less than the craft service and catering budget for a major production). But don’t think there is any less requirement for recognizable on-camera talent; even for a small picture with a total budget of $300K, it is recommended to invest up to $100K in order to attract a “name” Actor or two. This obviously doesn’t leave much to actually get the movie shot.
Most of us are not lucky enough to have a rich uncle, and even if we were, we could never hit them up more than once. Even your family wants to make their money back, and in the Indie world, the lower the budget, the better bet that will happen. As the return on investment shrinks, resources are squeezed, and most small movies are left with more passion than budget. There may be some tax advantages for investors, but if they hope to return their investment, budgets must be so low that hiring experienced professionals has become a luxury that Indie Producers don’t think they can afford. And while I enjoy being a part of the process, for me, working on movies needs to be more than just a hobby.
It’s not just salaries that are sacrificed; corners are cut at every turn. Proper permissions, permits, insurance, equipment, and safety are often overlooked. Filmmakers beg, borrow, and literally steal; in short, professionalism flies out the window. Even if I could afford to offer my services free of charge, these are not the type of productions I would want to be associated with. I’ve been working in the low budget arena a long time and know how to make dimes look like dollars on the screen, but there are certain standards that I think are important to maintain.
A Producer might be able to scrape together enough funds to get the material shot, but typically there is nothing left for post, marketing, and distribution. Even if they get an offer of VOD distribution, the Filmmaker will be responsible for creating all the deliverables, a significant additional cost that many First Timers forget to factor in. So much competition has been created in the market place that Distributors routinely offer little or no upfront compensation to the Filmmakers, while creative “Hollywood Accounting” usually works to absorb any future share of earnings. And if the Distributor doesn’t commit to any advertising and promotion, no one is going to be aware of, or see the project, anyway.
Major motion pictures have the same concerns and insecurity about making their money back, but they seem to approach the challenge in the opposite way. Instead of shrinking the budget, they throw money at the screen with big name bankable Stars and Special Effects. This has led to the rash of sequels, formulaic concepts, and live action cartoons based on Comic Book Superheroes. With budgets routinely falling in the $150 to $200 million range, it seems almost as if they are trying to make them too big to fail. Unfortunately, they do sometimes flop, but the odds are still predominately on the side of the Studios, and the tentpole success stories make the occasional flop a reasonable cost of doing business. Still, this world of large multinational corporations pushing money around the globe is far a field of the Indie feature world where I have resided.
So what is the right approach for fundraising? For the Indie, financing via social media platforms such as Kickstarter, GoFundMe, or Indiegogo, is in my estimation a lot more social than it is financial. The most successful campaigns that I know of were mounted by Zack Braff and Christin Bell, who are already well heeled Star Actors and funded follow-ups to previously successful projects which already had a dedicated fan base. They could have skipped the fanfare, self financed or gone to the Studios, although this method did offer them more independence as Filmmakers since they had no pressure, or even a requirement to return any investment to the Financiers.
Braff was very successful collecting over $3 million on a campaign with an original goal of only $2 million. The incentives ranged from offering a “Visual Effects Provided By Credit” in exchange for a $9000 contribution, down to prizes like premiere screening tickets, signed DVDs, set visits, and appearing as an extra for pledges ranging from $100 to $2,500. The film, Wish I Was Here in theaters next month, sold at Sundance to Universal’s Focus Features for $2.75 million. Such a large acquisition fee would traditionally be a home run for the investors and immediately go toward paying back most of the budget, with future royalties and ancillary sales coming down the road as icing on the profit cake. However, that is not the case for this film; backers will get what they signed up for, the aforementioned pre-release screenings, credits, posters, DVDs, etc. All in all, a pretty sweet deal for Braff.
In the case of Veronica Mars, with a goal of $2 million, a total of $5.7 million was raised to become the all-time highest-funded project in Kickstarter’s Film category. They also ended up with the highest number project backers of any project in Kickstarter history by encouraging even small contributors of $1 to feel a part of the project. Incentives such as credits, signed memorabilia, and digital downloads were similar to other such fund raisers. It was recently released by Warner Brothers, and is well on it’s way to profitability after grossing $2 million in it’s opening weekend alone.
I’m not saying the rest of us Indie Filmmakers and Filmworkers should be resentful, or just sit around bemoaning the challenges of our market. Instead we need to adapt and evolve. At the same time that the doors of opportunity are closing in some sectors of our industry, others are opening.
“Original Series” and “Webisodes” are two areas that are currently seeing huge growth. Netflix, Amazon, Microsoft, Yahoo, and many more, none of which were even around a few years ago, have become new outlets actively seeking content for Original Series. Meanwhile, with shows including Game of Thrones, True Detective, and Boardwalk Empire, established outlets such as HBO are rivaling Features to create some of the highest quality narrative content around.
With less expensive production tools so readily available, anyone can now make a movie, and likewise, the Internet has removed barriers to access an audience. Anyone with a computer and a web connection can upload programming and potentially reach the masses. Although Distributors can still serve a purpose in helping to expose content to a larger audience through marketing and promotion, they are not the Gatekeepers to the web they have been in the world of theatrical exhibition.
There is a paradigm shift now taking place, and those that are aware and able to take advantage of the changes will prosper. Perhaps we are moving away from the small feature, but there is still a demand for quality storytelling, and I plan to apply my skills to these new kinds of narrative formats. Although I can’t share the details yet, there are also plans in the works that will see the Digital Cinema Society take a role in helping members to create new and innovative content…Stay tuned.
In the meantime, lets keep Charles Darwin’s words in mind: “It is not the strongest of the species that survive, nor the most intelligent, but the most responsive to change.”