Making Your Filmmaking Journey Matter to Your Audience

Making Your Filmmaking Journey Matter to Your Audience Header

Recently, I was pleased to see that The Power of Myth was added to Netflix NZ/Aus. This PBS series featuring Joseph Campbell and Bill Moyers is truly powerful stuff. You may be familiar with Campbell’s Hero’s Journey template. You may have even found yourself utilizing it if you are a filmmaker. It’s a reminder of the commonality of themes and stages in myth and storytelling, as well as in life.

Don’t worry- we’re not going to get deep into Hero’s Journey territory here, but we are going to look at how your own filmmaking journey can inspire your film’s audience, and how to utilize that to great effect.

Our world is a tapestry of complex stories, of narratives and viewpoints. The advent of social media has provided more people with the means to bringing their own personal story to the world. I was in college when the Arab Spring happened. In decades past, uprisings would be told to the world through traditional media, with these events then being relegated to history. But with the Arab Spring people were taking to social media to let the world know what was happening.

At the time I was learning about the political economy of the mass media and the media conglomerates who had shares in media outlets. That landscape was beginning to change in real-time even as I was learning about it. Back then I got the sense that something very important was happening in the way we receive information about the world. People could tell their story in real-time and receive real-time feedback. Obviously, that’s a really broad statement because it doesn’t take into account some of the inequalities faced by people in different areas of the world (financially or due to censorship), but that’s how I saw it at the time.

Making Your Filmmaking Journey Matter Book and Photograph.jpg

As a filmmaker, you know the importance of stories- after all, you’ve had one (or more) play out in front of the camera! Telling the story of your film (behind-the-scenes details, work in progress, etc) is something that can be used with good effect to connect with media and audiences…but sharing your own personal filmmaking journey can also be incredibly powerful and compelling.

Now, I’m not suggesting you share all of your dirty laundry. You don’t have to get that personal. But the hardships, obstacles and sweat equity that goes into any endeavour can be truly inspiring. Pick one successful person in history and look at their story. I can guarantee you it wasn’t smooth sailing the whole way. Just like with the Hero’s Journey, there were tests and stages. I once heard a successful nanotechnologist say that success isn’t a straight line, it’s more a wiggly one. People are inspired by hard work and struggle. After all, Steve Jobs ended up with two biopics for a good reason- his path wasn’t always smooth sailing. He got fired from his own company. He had an incredible phoenix moment with Apple in the late 90s- early 2000s.

So….what’s your story- and how can you utilize it in publicity and social media?

As you know, filmmakers don’t just pop up out of holes in the ground (if they did, that would be weird). They’re not packaged up like dolls that can be unwrapped and liberated from their boxes to create pitch-perfect films every time. It takes work, it takes skill, and it takes dedication to their craft. The same goes with you. You have a story of your filmmaking journey, and now it’s time to share it. Last year, I heard David Michôd (Animal Kingdom, The Rover, War Machine) talk about his films. Animal Kingdom‘s final incarnation was different to the script of 10 years prior. Perhaps you pursued filmmaking because you heard the call after 30 years of doing the same mind-numbing desk job. Perhaps your film was in distribution limbo but you managed to secure a deal thanks to a serendipitous meeting. It’s things like this that can be shared with media and audiences to good effect.

Here’s ways in which you can share your filmmaking journey:

  • If you love to blog, then blog about it! Film fans love unique insights into the filmmaking process and the filmmaker’s journey because it feels intimate and special.
  • Share on social media. Perhaps you have some old photographs from your early filmmaking days, or a snapshot of the first day’s filming of your first film. Nostalgia is fun and accessible.
  • Think about vignettes and insights you can share when you are being interviewed. In my case, when I do interviews or podcasts about the creation of Film Sprites PR I am more than happy to discuss the fact that my career started as a result of being an earthquake survivor and re-building my life to reflect my passion for film and the desire to work in the film industry. You can think about sharing similar (if you’re comfortable with it). Have you struggled with mental illness and are now dedicated to reflecting these struggles in the narratives of your films? Did a beloved childhood film spark your path towards filmmaking?

Your story is just as much a part of your film as the script and the actors in it. Don’t be afraid to share your journey…you never know who you will inspire.

 

Making E-mail Marketing Part of Your Film’s Publicity Strategy

Making Email Marketing Part of Your Film's Publicity Strategy

Back in the late 90’s I created my first e-mail newsletter. It was a film news and reviews newsletter, very basic and in plain text. I gained subscribers through friends and acquaintances. Before long, I had around 300 subscribers- not many in today’s terms, but not bad! I would scour the Internet for film news, do reviews of favourite films, and so on. When I look back, it was sort of a foreshadowing of what I do now!

E-mail marketing has thankfully come a long way from my rudimentary attempt in the 1990s, and it’s something that can be extremely useful for connecting with your audience as an independent filmmaker. It can also be integrated into your film’s publicity strategy in some very fun ways.

If you’ve had the experience of crowdfunding before, you’ll know that many of the various crowdfunding platforms provide a space for updates. When you post an update on your crowdfunding page, it’s also e-mailed to donors who contributed to your campaign. E-mail marketing is not all that different to providing those updates on your crowdfunding page. If you haven’t had the experience of providing updates to crowdfunding donors- no worries! E-mail marketing is easy, it can be incredibly fun and is a great asset to have as part of your film’s publicity strategy.

Where do I start?

It’s a good idea to pick an email marketing platform, like Sendlane or Mailchimp. I don’t recommend just sending out e-mails from your e-mail account as people won’t have the option to opt out of receiving your e-mails unless they e-mail you back. Email marketing platforms generally have the option of a free account provided you have under a certain amount of subscribers which is perfect for when you’re just starting out.

In order to grow your subscribers you can create a landing page for your film’s website or share the link to a sign-up form via your social media accounts.

email marketing for filmmakers

What about content?

When it comes to the content of your newsletter, the choices are endless! Here’s a few ideas:

  • Provide subscriber-only exclusives, like behind-the-scenes videos or giveaways (signed film posters, a prop from the film, etc)
  • Update subscribers with the film’s progress via short vlogs that can then be re-purposed via social media at a later date
  • Mobilise your subscribers to spread the word about the film (especially in the lead-up to release) by providing them with digital assets they can use on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter. These can be housed in a dropbox and subscribers can download them via a link in your newsletter. You can also provide sample tweets they can copy and paste
  • Let people into your filmmaking world: is music particularly important to your process? Share a list of songs or albums that have influenced you. Found resources that you know fellow filmmakers and filmmaking fans would love? Share them!

Experiment. Have fun. See where the mood takes you and what your audience responds to. It’s another way to connect with your audience from production onwards in an intimate and rewarding way.

And speaking of mailing lists….yes, we have one now. Sign up to our mailing list to receive film publicity, social media marketing and crowdfunding hints and tips, exclusive content, and occasional FREE resources. You’ll also be the first to be notified of discounted service rates. You can sign up HERE.

Strategies For Reluctant Self-Promoters

Strategies for Reluctant Self-Promoters Twitter Heading

I can honestly say that I owe about 99% of the opportunities I’ve had in my career to being a smartarse.

And I don’t mean being a smartarse in a disrespectful way, but some of the biggest and most exciting opportunities in my life have arisen because I’ve been cheeky enough to ask for them in a playful way that doesn’t come off as pushy. This isn’t something that would work for everyone, but that’s my schtick. I pretty much live my life on the verge of telling a joke anyway, so using my sense of humour (and my cheekiness!) have become second nature.

It’s something I’ve had to develop over many years, because to be completely honest I’m very much a reluctant self-promoter. Part of it stems from the fact that here in New Zealand we’re not big on tooting our own horn. Part of it is because I’m very much an introvert, and while I can bring the energy for presenting a workshop or networking events, I need at least a day to recover afterwards. Introversion isn’t a hindrance to things like networking and self-promotion, but it needs careful consideration when it comes to utilising your energy resources and being at your best (I’m sure many of you can relate).

In the work that I do, I get to talk to a lot of filmmakers about their work, and I often hear them express the difficulty they have in self-promoting their work. Sometimes there is a reluctance in reaching out to people for donations to their crowdfunding campaigns,  promoting on social media or reaching out to media outlets to secure coverage or a review. It’s something I understand- sometimes it’s not easy! But your work deserves to be seen and appreciated.

Better yet, the information age provides filmmakers with a variety of opportunities to connect with their audiences in ways that were not previously available prior to the Internet going mainstream and the development of social media. The world is literally at your fingertips.

So, how can you grow your audience and promote yourself and your work if you’re really reluctant? I have some strategies that may help- they’re the same ones I have used over the years successfully:

camera strategies for reluctant self promoters

Work out what’s stopping you: chances are, when you think about promoting your work, you’ll have thoughts and/or feelings that arise over it. It’s a good idea to really drill down and find out why you’re reluctant to promote your work. Find 5-10 minutes in your day to sit undisturbed with a pen and paper or your laptop with a word processing document open and ready. Take a few deep breaths, focusing on each breath and clearing your mind. When you’re ready, think about self-promotion of yourself or your work and identify any thoughts or feelings that come up around it. Write them down.

Now that you’ve got your list, look at what you wrote. Here’s where it gets interesting! Step outside of yourself for a minute and imagine that it’s your best friend thinking and feeling these things. For each thought or feeling, write a statement that refutes that thought or feeling. For instance, if this thought came up:

“Nobody gives a damn about independent filmmakers and their films”

You might write:

“Who is this ‘nobody’? There are plenty of people who are passionate about independent filmmakers and their films. You will find those people when you connect with your audience.”

Do this for each thought or feeling. It sounds silly, but it really does work!

Take approaches that you’re comfortable with: perhaps you’re not comfortable with social media, but have someone on your team that is and can provide social media assistance. If you’re more comfortable reaching out to media outlets via e-mail, then that’s completely fine! The same applies when you’re crowdfunding your project: if you’re not comfortable with social media, you may want to approach people individually or via your mailing list.

Authenticity is key: you don’t have to be anyone else. You don’t have to try and put on airs and graces with people. Being yourself and sharing your passion for your filmmaking well and truly resonates with your audience. People are passionate about filmmaking, so let them into your world and your process.

You don’t have to do it all at once: while it’s a good idea to have your social media presence established and also tap into resources for publicity of your filmmaking, you don’t have to do it all at once! If it’s easier for you to start with one thing and then add other strategies later, then do so. After all, good things take time!

Strategies for Reluctant Self-Promoters film sprites pr

Remember your WHY: I say this so often with different scenarios because it’s applicable across the board. If you start to feel really reluctant about promoting your work yourself, remember WHY you started filmmaking in the first place. This helps to not only bring you back to your centre, but it also provides a boost of inspiration to propel you forward through your reluctance.

Happy filmmaking!

How I Built Film Sprites PR

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If you want to find out how to make triple digits in a year….this is not the right post for you.

Similarly, if you’re looking for juicy stories about red carpets and celebrity encounters…this is also not the right post for you.

So, why should I bother reading?, you might say. Well, if you want to gain some insight on chasing your dreams, being of service to a community you’re passionate about, and how to thrive (and not just survive) after disaster and loss…this is definitely for you. If you got up this morning, feeling hopeless about a cherished dream and stumbled across this post, then perhaps this is for you. In fact, when I first started I wish I had someone who could give me insight into their path and perhaps inspire me to pursue my dreams further. Maybe I can do that for you.

Auspicious beginnings

Film has been my great love for as long as I can remember. When I was very young, I recall my first trip to the cinema with my Mum to see Labyrinth on the big screen. I remember the colour and pattern of the cinema complex’s carpet, the other film posters on the walls (films like Blind Date and Masters of the Universe were playing), the smell of popcorn, Fizzy Fruits and Jaffas…and the magic on the screen. Growing up, I could remember every film I went to with friends, every film I saw at slumber parties and the classic films that made a huge impression on me. It was an illicit viewing of Danny Boyle’s Trainspotting as a teenager that really cemented my passion for films, however. I began to seek out films that went above and beyond the traditional blockbuster fare, immersing myself in Kubrick, Bergman, and following Quentin Tarantino’s then-blossoming career. There had been the odd thought about working in the film industry when I was older…but I dismissed it as easily as you’d flick a fly away from your face. People I knew didn’t work in the film industry. They picked a trade or got a Bachelor’s, they went to nursing school or teacher’s college. I had considered working in PR, however- I had been writing and submitting manuscripts to publishers from the age of 11 (yes really!), and was a freelance journalist at the age of 17 while still in school. I wrote articles for the Christchurch Press’s now defunct youth interests page.

Lynnaire MacDonald Press Article 1

One of my articles for the Christchurch Press’s YOUth page (now defunct)

Unfortunately, a very severe bout of glandular fever with complications meant that by the time I left school I didn’t have the energy to pursue a definite career path straight away, and when I did I chose teaching. I should have known that that wasn’t the right path for me, because every Thursday when I didn’t have any classes or lectures in the afternoons I would sneak away and watch a film at the local cinema. I know a lot of people don’t like the idea of going to the movies alone, but I loved it. You block the rest of the world out. You become one with the screen. Nothing else matters.

Crisis Point

I didn’t finish my teaching degree, and ended up aimlessly working through my 20s in various roles, including retail and administration. But 2011 would dramatically change everything. The old would be swept away whether I liked it or not. I didn’t think a natural disaster could have such a dramatic impact on my life…but it did.

Christchurch Earthquake Building

We’d had an earthquake in September of 2010 and while it was large in magnitude, Christchurch managed to try and get back to normal as soon as possible. We had a huge amount of aftershocks, something which is unnerving and deeply unsettling, but we didn’t think it could get any worse than that. February 22, 2011 proved us wrong.

I was one of the fortunate ones- my friends and family all came out unscathed, and while we had to boil water that came to us from milk tankers for a week or so, we had power. My flat was structurally sound, my parents were fine and we even celebrated my partner’s birthday 5 days after the quake with a small chocolate mud cake we managed to source from a local supermarket. But I didn’t come out completely unscathed. I was a wreck. I lost hope. I grieved for the people who had lost their lives…and I grieved for the city I had grown up in. Things got very, very dark.

The Muses to the Rescue

It’s a very strange feeling to grow up in a place that seems to change gradually over time and then have everything seemingly change overnight. For months after the quake I struggled seeing landmarks and places I’d known by heart suddenly disappear. Huge swathes of land in the central city and in the suburb where I grew up suddenly became a blank canvas. You would have clusters of particularly violent aftershocks that would have you at your wit’s end. I stayed with a friend up north for a week and one day her dog bumped the chair I was sitting in and immediately my nervous system registered it as an aftershock. They thought it was hilarious. I didn’t. I stopped going to the cinema, which was a really bad sign for me. It wasn’t that I was afraid that a bad aftershock might happen….I just didn’t have the strength and energy.

But then a limited screening happened that tempted me out of my house and into the cinema….and something clicked. The muses of cinema poked and prodded at me, and I for the first time in what seemed like forever I felt like I was stirring from a slumber. I was so inspired that by the time I left the screening I couldn’t speak. I didn’t want to speak. It felt like such a sacred moment that words would feel dirty at that moment. I knew I had to make a change. I had waited too long to really, truly live my life and achieve my dreams. This was it- there was no turning back.

Thank You, Amanda Palmer

There’s a brand of cheese here in New Zealand whose tagline in their commercials is ‘Good Things Take Time’, and that’s exactly what happened with my career. I had gotten a Bachelor of Arts in my mid-twenties, but I pursued a Certificate in Public Relations and Business Communications as well. While I was studying, I began to network with filmmakers around the world and build up my social media network. I figured, hey- it’ll be easy getting a film job…right? Not quite. After asking for advice, a few closed doors and not really knowing where the heck I was going, something happened that I didn’t expect.

It was April 17, 2014. That morning, I had stumbled across Amanda Palmer’s TED talk on The Art of Asking. Another truth bomb, another flash of inspiration…but I didn’t do anything with that inspiration immediately. Prior to this, I think I expected the Universe to do the heavy lifting for me. I’d actually missed out on a really huge opportunity in 2013 but I was 2 weeks too early for it (my intuition kept telling me on the day I was due to fly to Wellington and it was snowing that I should re-schedule my flight for 2 weeks’ time, but did I listen? Noooo!). I went about my day, doing rather mundane things but a little voice inside me kept saying: “ASK.” Ask? Ask for what? Ask who? It then suddenly became clear to me- I have built up a reasonable following on Twitter, primarily within the film community…why don’t I just ask if they want publicity and digital marketing help? So I did.

At the end of the day I had my first 3 clients.

By the end of that weekend I had 6.

By the end of April I had 12.

And Film Sprites PR was born.

Of course, here’s the caveat: don’t do what I did! Or, if you do, make sure you have the things I didn’t have when I started; things like seed money, a clear brand with a clear message and a great website. I ended up having to cobble things together and pick up things I had no clue about, like SEO, because I didn’t have the money to outsource. I learned website design. I learned graphic design basics. I began to build up a fully fleshed-out and realised brand. Even though it was a messy start, I don’t regret that at all. It makes for a cute story, but also I look back at what I didn’t know then and compare it to what I know now and I’m proud of my progress. Film Sprites PR has assisted over 25 filmmakers in NZ, the US, UK, Canada and Australia with publicity, digital marketing and crowdfunding campaign assistance. Sprites has worked with filmmakers whose portfolios have included films that have starred the likes of Norman Reedus, David Carradine, Benedict Cumberbatch, and Claire Foy. Most importantly to me, Sprites has helped to connect filmmakers to their audiences and helped them create a strong brand around their filmmaking.

Film Sprites PR Clients 1-min

Some of Film Sprites PR’s past and present clients

The Future….

Believe it or not, I never actually wanted to work for myself. It’s true! I had always thought about building up my skills and expertise and a strong portfolio and eventually take on a role with a distributor or studio. That’s still something I’m aiming for, and something I would like to happen in the future. But for now, I’m really excited about what’s happening and what the future holds, both for me and for the filmmakers I’m honoured to work with.

If there’s anything you can take away from my story, I hope it’s this: following your heart and honouring your truth are vital. There are so many things the world can take away from us physically, emotionally or mentally, but your truth is something that can never be denied within you. You don’t have to do something as dramatic as starting a business, but you can start your own personal revolution right now. Don’t wait.

 

 

 

Handy Crowdfunding Resources for Indie Filmmakers

Handy Crowdfunding Resources for Indie Filmmakers

I can say with complete sincerity that it’s been a complete blast bringing you our Crowdfunding for Filmmakers month! There’s been lots of great feedback and it’s been thoroughly enjoyable to bring to you hints, tips and advice on crowdfunding of your indie film or webseries. There have been people who have said: “well, what about my (insert non-film project here)?” No problem! All of the hints and tips we’ve provided here are easily adaptable to any campaign for any project- the reason for a filmmaking focus is, well, we work with filmmakers!

This post is going to be a little different from the previous crowdfunding posts, because I wanted to bring you a really useful toolbox of resources that can assist you with your crowdfunding, regardless of budget or size of project. Some of these resources are ones I personally use for the work we do at Film Sprites PR, some are really handy resources that will inspire and add to your crowdfunding resource and knowledge base. Plus, we’ve got a little freebie we’ve been hinting about via our social media as well! So, here’s some resources I hope you’ll find genuinely useful:

TED Talks and Other Must-Sees

I have previously talked about how Amanda Palmer’s TED Talk about ‘The Art of Asking‘ was vital in the creation of Film Sprites PR, and it really is powerful. It’s something I recommend every artist watches at least once before they think about undertaking a crowdfunding campaign. Why? It’s so hard to ask for anything in life because it can be such a vulnerable act, but when you remember the importance of human connection and of being seen it can put asking in a new light. If you’re really amped up after watching this, you can follow it up with Amanda’s Google talk as well. I also thoroughly recommend reading her book of the same name, because the sections about artists and crowdfunding that are interspersed throughout the book will give you insight on the process from an artistic perspective, something which is so very valuable.

Another talk (this time at TEDxJerseyCity), is John T. Trigonis’ talk ‘Crowdfunding Today, Tomorrow, Together‘. John knows his stuff, because he’s not only run his own successful crowdfunding campaigns for his films and graphic novels, he’s also a film strategist for IndieGoGo. I’ve said it many times and I’ll say it again- John knows his stuff. I also highly recommend the second edition of his book ‘Crowdfunding for Filmmakers‘. It’s an enjoyable read with lots of no-nonsense examples and advice, and it’s definitely well worth your time. It’s the one book I recommend to every filmmaker.

And if you’re super-keen, grab a cup of your favourite hot beverage and a notepad and pen and get immersed in Emily Best of Seed & Spark’s videos on crowdfunding for Film Courage.

Posts From Our Vault:

During this month we’ve given you a wealth of information about crowdfunding for filmmakers, but we have also posted blog posts about aspects of crowdfunding in the past as well! We give you ways to look after yourself during your crowdfunding campaign to avoid burnout, how to harness Twitter for your crowdfunding campaign, and how to maintain that ever-important connection with your contributors post-campaign.

Social Media Scheduling Tools:

While you should aim for around a 90/10 ratio for organic posts/automated posts, there are some great scheduling tools which can assist you in scheduling and posting across your social media platforms simultaneously instead of having to do it manually for each platform. Hootsuite is arguably the first platform which comes to mind, but I actually like Tweetdeck when it comes to automation and scheduling on Twitter also.

Design Software and Apps:

Confession: I love design apps, not just for their ability to assist me in designing things quickly and cleanly for social media, but because with many design apps they will help you to crop pictures to fit the proportions of various social media platforms. Images are exceptionally useful when it comes to promoting your crowdfunding campaign on social media and sharing things behind-the-scenes of your film, and design apps can really assist you, even if you have absolutely no clue about how to use design software like Photoshop. Here are the software/apps I particularly like:

  • Canva: I can honestly say that I use Canva almost every day in some capacity because it’s very easy-to-use. One benefit of Canva is that it will give you alignment guidelines so you can make sure everything is aligned and looking good. For every design size there are also templates available with different design mock-ups. The basic (and generously extensive) software is free to use and you don’t have to download it if you’re using it on a home computer.
  • Pixlr: here’s another one I use regularly, and have used often during crowdfunding campaigns and for social media posts. In fact, if you’ve seen social media posts for the 2018 Raindance crowdfunding campaign that we’ve been posting on our Twitter, Instagram and Facebook posts, you might have seen collages which show multiple images (like the picture below). These were created via Pixlr. Pixlr is useful for multi image collages, but it also has things like filters, special effects and photo editing which can be useful for touching up images you want to use. The Pixlr app is particularly useful for editing on the run!
Raindance FF Past Screeners

Image created in Pixlr to show films which had previous screened at Raindance Film Festival, to be posted on Twitter.

  • Another app I like is Promo Republic. One of the benefits of Promo Republic is that it gives you a calendar which shows you when international events are coming up (like awards ceremonies, holidays or quirky national days), and there are often templates to match. This can be useful if you’re looking for content to post which matches the theme or vibe of your film.

And now, as promised…we have a freebie for everyone! Click HERE to gain access to our booklet, Crowdfunding Hints and Tips for Filmmakers. It contains two of our most popular (and most useful!) posts about crowdfunding for filmmakers. There’s no catch- no purchase necessary, no opt-in, just click and download. Simple!

Film Sprites PR Crowdfunding Hints and Tips for Filmmakers

Hopefully this has been a really useful month of posts about crowdfunding for you. If you’d like to know more about what we do at Film Sprites PR in terms of publicity and digital marketing of independent films and webseries, you can find out more HERE. Alternately, get in touch with us! Use our contact page, or drop us an email at: filmspritespr[at]gmail[dot]com.

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.

Whoa.

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.

Wow.

Nothing?

About nothing.

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

Almost zero she says.

Oh.

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 www.projectlodestar.org.  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.

FADE OUT

ABOUT PROJECT LODESTAR, UCLA Film Studies

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.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

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.

 

Crowdfunding and The Benefits For Indie Filmmakers

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Chances are, if you hop onto Facebook, Twitter or Instagram and check out the pages of indie filmmakers and their films, you may encounter posts about crowdfunding campaigns. Since the “early adopters” phase of crowdfunding in the early 2010s, filmmakers are looking at crowdfunding and various crowdfunding platforms to help assist them in funding their projects. In fact, Film Sprites PR started primarily by promoting and supporting crowdfunding campaigns for filmmaking. In the almost 4 years of operation, we’ve assisted with various successful campaigns (which you can read more about here if you’re so inclined), and the creation of Sprites came about after being inspired by Amanda Palmer’s TED talk, The Art of Asking. We’ve seen what’s worked, what hasn’t worked, and everything in between. There’s nothing more fantastic than seeing a filmmaker not just cross the 100% mark, but exceed it and be able to celebrate with their donors, fans, friends and family!

There are a now variety of crowdfunding platform choices available to filmmakers; from film and TV-based Seed & Spark, through to all-or-nothing crowdfunding platforms like Kickstarter and flexible funding like IndieGoGo. And while this array of platforms gives filmmakers various options for their crowdfunding campaigns, there are many benefits of crowdfunding campaigns which go above and beyond providing funds for filmmaking and webseries creation. Here’s just some of the benefits:

Crowdfunding is a good chance to grow your audience (and stay connected with them): you’ve planned and prepared your campaign, you’ve launched it, and the contributions start rolling in. You finish the campaign…but what happens next? If you’re really savvy, you’ll use the campaign updates function on your crowdfunding page (and/or update people via your website mailing list), and keep people updated. Your audience gets to see how production is progressing, and it’s also a great chance to have your fans be a part of the process, especially if you get them to share content (like the perks they received via your campaign) with specific hashtags. Don’t think of a crowdfunding campaign solely as a way to secure funds- it’s a way to connect with the core of your audience, the people who passionately believe in your work and want to support you 100% (if you’re interested in more info about maintaining contributor connection after your crowdfunding campaign, you can read about it here.)

Your campaign can provide useful financial information when approaching other investors: let’s face it- funding any film or webseries, big or small can be tough. When it comes to the financials, sometimes funding will come from various sources, making up the finished funding puzzle. But having the ability to approach a private investor or production company and be able to provide proof of the viability of your project? That can be particularly useful.

Crowdfunding is another opportunity to grow awareness of your films: when people come to your crowdfunding campaign page, you have a fabulous opportunity to think of it as a window into your filmmaking world. It’s not only a campaign to secure the funds you require, but it’s also like having free PR! It’s a moment in time to capture the hearts and minds of your audience, and hopefully have them contribute joyfully to your campaign. It’s a win-win.

It can provide valuable skills: as an indie filmmaker you will know that sometimes you don’t have the luxury of having people taking care of aspects of the filmmaking process (like publicity or producing) so that you can solely focus on directing. When you go through the process of planning and implementing a crowdfunding campaign, you pick up skills that are not just useful in the short-term, but will have benefits long after the campaign has ended. These skills include investor relations, pitching to media, audience building just to name a few.

Your crowdfunding campaign can be a unique experience, not just for you but also for your audience and contributors. If you’re thinking of running a crowdfunding campaign, good news: we’re dedicating the month of March on our blog to providing hints, tips, insights and advice on crowdfunding, so keep your eyes peeled for further posts.

*this statistic takes into account the amount of dollars pledged for both successful and unsuccessful projects. For more stats, click HERE.