Project Lodestar: The Making of an Indie Film

Project Lodestar The Making of an Indie Film

It’s a genuine pleasure to be bringing you a guest post from Daniel Harlow about Project Lodestar, UCLA Film Studies! Want to know what Project Lodestar is, and how you can participate if you are an independent filmmaker? Read on…

TITLE: The Making of an Indie Film

LOGLINE: One man, against the odds, forges ahead while an industry burns. A thriller with an ending that no one can (ever) predict.

Fade In – SXSW 2017 – A Roundtable Discussion

Frank and I sit at the Round Table Discussion table. He’s an Austin filmmaker with a big burly beard, slick backed hair, pony-tail and a burning gaze. Frank punctuates his sentences with a verbal exclamation point that tells you that if he says he’s going to do something – he’ll run someone over to make sure it gets done. Frank is hard core. He pays the rent by shooting rock music videos and if he showed up to shoot your rock music video, you’d think: “Yep, that’s how a guy that films rock music videos should look.”

Frank wants to make a movie – bad. He’s filmed his own short. He’s filmed his own reel. He’ll hand you a jump drive with it on there. It’s not half bad. And he’s shelled out the $1600 for the Filmmaker pass at SXSW to hear what the experts have to say. How do WE get to where THEY are – with a film in South By Southwest.


Tell us.

Teach us.

Frank and I have spent almost every hour of every day the prior 3 days talking to industry experts in one-on-one sessions, round tables discussions and listening to panels. The experts have spoken.

One of the more coveted experts at SXSW is a manager associated with a recent Oscar winner. His advice is clear: “Do work,” he says. “Make something.” Yeah, make something. Stop screwing around and yacking and being a pretender. Make a movie.

I kind of get it. You ask 10 people at SXSW what they are doing and 9 of them will say: “I’m working on a film.” After a little while, once this answer starts to feel a bit well stale, I learn to ask the followup: “What stage are you in?” Expecting to hear: pre-production, filming starts on X date, post-production, editing, distribution, whatever. But I don’t hear that even once. The answer you get in almost every case is: “I’m looking for funding.” As an entrepreneur that ran a business for a couple decades, it’s hard for me not to kink my neck at that answer. Ok. So if you’re looking for funding, you’re kind of NOT really working on a film. So I get Mr. Oscar winner’s advice. Stop looking for funding. Do something.

Project Lodestar Camera 2

Ava DuVernay has a 2013 Film Independent keynote address on YouTube with thousands of views where she speaks about the number of people that ask to sit down with her and “Pick her brain.” She pounds her podium: “Don’t pick anyone’s brain, make a movie. Take all that energy you wanted to spend talking to experts and just make a movie.”

Mark Duplass has a well known YouTube video where he spoke at SXSW: His advice: first, make a short film. Then take $1000, buy food, pay for all the equipment you need with credit cards at Best Buy and Home Depot and return it all when you’re down. Make a film. With a voice. Stop sitting around and thinking about it.

Frank and I sip our two free drinks at the bar at the Intercontinental Hotel at SXSW catching more experts in between beers, asking more advice. We tell them about the films we’d like to make and our plans to market them. One after the other, they give some version of: “finish your movie, then get back to me.”

The experts have spoken and the ruling is nearly unanimous. Make a film. First. Make it good and worry about the rest once it’s finished. If you build it, they will come.

Listen, I get it. Ava, Mark, Mr. Oscar winner, they all talk to people all day long that will never, ever, in a million years, make a movie. So I get their frustration and I hear their message. So should you. But I can’t help feeling there is something dismissively simplistic in their advice. It might not be flat out wrong but it seems unnecessarily extreme to tell people to go from analysis-paralysis to suddenly go to a strategy of: fire first, aim second. I ran a successful company for a long time and that doesn’t fit my personal investment style, nor my management style … nor my anything style actually.

And, do studios make films this way? Um, no. Do I want to put up $100,00 of my own money into a film without the foggiest notion of what will happen once it’s done? Um, no. So I resolve to go find some filmmakers that followed this advice and see how it went.

SXSW closes.

Project Lodestar Camera

FADE IN – later that year – Cucalorus Film Festival, Wilmington 2017

Katherine has made a solid independent film. She sits across from me with her new daughter in a lovely coffee shop unusually crowded due to the influx of visitors from the festival. We are lucky to get the two couches with the coffee table in between giving her and her daughter extra room.

Katherine raised around $300,000 to make her personal film that has received strong reviews for its sensitive drama and sense of humor from multiple, small festivals. I discuss with her how she feels it will do financially and she deadpans that it will make near-zero dollars and she’s just hoping that it will get on Netflix somehow, even if she and her investors make nothing out of it.



About nothing.

From a $300,000 investment to recoup $0?

Almost zero she says.


FADE IN – later that day – different coffee shop, Wilmington 2017

Peter sits across from me wondering how in the world his tiny film with just 2 actors managed to cost $250,000. He was the director and not the producer so he wasn’t sure what cost so much but he knows that was his budget. His film won distribution by a very large, prestigious distribution firm. They, of course, will pay him nothing up front for the film. Zero.

But he’ll make a % right?

Yes, he says. After they recoup their costs.

What costs, I ask?

He has no idea – but whatever they are doing, it will cost him some $30,000 of his film’s first revenues. He believes all they are doing is putting it on iTunes, which costs about $1,500. But they did sell the film to Hulu for $35,000 – almost all of which the distribution company will keep. His investors will make a few thousand dollars back.

Out of a $250,000 investment?

Yes, he says. And he knows many of his peers that are in the same situation.

“We can never use the same investors twice. It’s just a process of burning through investors.”

Okay then. “There must be a better way,” I say. He agrees. Absolutely. He just doesn’t know how. He has no clue how to make a profitable film.

“I’d make a zombie movie if you told me it would make money. I’d make a movie about 2 stoner skateboarder kids fighting zombies if you told me that would make money.”

What makes money?

Project Lodestar is born.

Project Lodestar BannerI am heading a research project out of UCLA to find out what is the better way to make a movie. Here’s a few quotes from sales agents and distributors once I told them what the experts were telling me about “Just Do It”:

Sales Agent #1: “That’s the dumbest advice I’ve ever heard.”

Sales Agent #2: “…the stupidest thing that you could tell a filmmaker.”

Distributor X: “Why do filmmakers make these movies that no one wants to see and are impossible to sell?”

Distributor Y: “I know it’s hard for many filmmakers to hear when they worked on a film for one or two years but many times their films are worthless, not worth very little – literally worth nothing,  zero.”

Over the course of many conversations with sales agents, distribution companies, and producers (of films that have made money), another approach to making small films starts to emerge. As the final interviews are conducts and the notes are compiled, I can begin posting the notes. But another problem facing the industry has become clear that affects how hard it is for filmmakers to make good films with commercial success. The film business has a long history of secrecy. One of the film consultants I talked to explained it well:

“You might be too young to remember, but the movie business decades ago was going to a theater and paying for ticket. It was a cash business, Dan. And what happens with cash businesses? A lot of that cash disappears at one point or another. It’s impossible to audit. The mafia and other disreputable groups get involved. Everything was secret. The numbers you saw were never trustworthy and this veil of secrecy about who made how much (gross or profit) from where, it’s still a big secret for the most part. It’s impossible to get real numbers from anyone.”

And she was right. Almost no agent nor distributor would give real financial results. The best I got was “we are in the black” or “we are not even close” or “we are close and probably in the next year we will be in the black”.

They are (slightly) more transparent about the budgets of the films but there are obstacles there as well. First, a distributor and a sales agent don’t technically need to know the budget. Sometimes they really don’t and you have to ask the producer. But they almost always do – since making the filmmaker a “profit” on their film is usually the first goal, and success on that criteria is impossible to gauge unless you have a target/budget to make up.

Second, filmmakers, producers, everyone are – once again – always giving you dodgy information. They don’t want to give you the real budget, they want to double or triple it because films get pre-judged based on budget. No matter what the budget is, the filmmaker will hope you think it’s 2-3 times that much. There is a stigma associated with films under $1M so all films want to appear to have at least $1M or else they will lack enough “production value” to be good. On the other hand, they don’t want to tell you the movie “lost money” either. Thus the complicated dance around the numbers. The movie is “in the black” – which is good. But it is in the black because it was so cheap to make – which is bad.

The data is a real problem and thus we launch  A place where Film Industry personnel can send their real_film financial results anonymously – without being judged for being a failure, nor sued for being too successful.

The lack of data does make a difference. If filmmakers don’t know what films make money then how are they supposed to make films that make money. If all filmmakers use a benchmark like “Little Miss Sunshine” and “Napoleon Dynamite” then they will think comedies rule. If they use “Paranormal Activity” and “Blair Witch” as comparable films then Found Footage Horror is the way to go. One Sales Agent was adamant at how risky comedies were, saying that humor doesn’t travel. And it doesn’t even travel usually to Britain or Australia. The sense of humor can be very different in other (even English speaking) countries. If filmmakers saw real returns, actual sales figures for comedies that consistently showed a big drop-off from the US to Britain or Australia then that might get a lot of filmmakers to think hard about their next RomCom.

The financial margin for error on film is getting much smaller. Making a film that can has a chance to be profitable means knowing what sells in the US and in foreign markets.

Participate in the project. Send in your film’s results.  Foreign, Domestic, VOD, whatever budgets and revenues you are seeing and get a window into whether your film is an outlier or close to the average.  We will collect, categorize, summarize and report back to the participants what patterns we can see.

Maybe we can usher in a new age of greater transparency, better data, smarter films, more profits, better movies and better careers in film.

Then stay tuned to change metaphors for a moment from film to TV. Don’t touch that dial.



For the financially minded filmmaker: do you think that a good start to a career as a filmmaker is showing you can make a (good) film that makes more money than it cost? We do.

If you agree, then we are talking to you. Maybe you are using their family’s money, you own money or maybe you just don’t want to lose your investor’s cash. To those filmmakers: listen up. There’s a UCLA Research Project that you should be paying attention to.

What makes small films successful and profitable in the new digital age is what Project Lodestar is about. Can you “Moneyball” your cast? That is, can you find cast that is feasible for a small budget but will guarantee returns on your budget dollars spent? What genres are most reliable and is that changing from 5 years ago? We are not looking at outliers but rather averages and, in fact, we are trying to remove the outliers since they tend to throw off the curve.

If you or someone you know has developed a small film, send us your case study and contribute to the overall body of information. Once we have crunched the numbers, we will have the good, the bad and the ugly news that you can use to inform your next films! Participate HERE.


Daniel Harlow started his career at UCLA  in the Computer Science Department. Daniel ran an I.T. Consulting firm for 20+ years with offices in San Francisco, San Jose, Oregon, North Carolina, Arizona, New York, and Minneapolis before making his exit and starting his career as a Professional Golfer. However, his golf career was short-lived realizing that the inability to get out of a bunker at the age of 45 would likely be a big obstacle to his goal of winning the US Open. Never one to be daunted by the odds, he now approaches the fast-changing world of Film and Entertainment with the same mindset that allowed him to build a large and successful startup.