How to Put a Publicity Budget Into Action (and Get the Best Value For Money!)

how to put a publicity budget into action

Recently I’ve been letting you in on how to get more bang for your publicity buck, along with some more no-cost and low-cost publicity and social media ideas. This post is a continuation of that series. In this post, we’re going to look at how best to put together a publicity budget and then get the best value for money out of that budget (even if you have very little to spare).

If you receive distribution for your film, chances are the distribution company will do the PR and social media heavy lifting for you…but what happens if you have to self-distribute but still want to utilize publicity and social media marketing to connect with media and audiences? How do you plan a publicity budget and make the most of it?

I’m no expert, but I’ve worked with indie filmmakers just like you over the past 4 and a half years and regardless of the budget available, we’ve made it work very effectively. I think it helps that I grew up in an impoverished household. I saw how my mother was able to make do in miraculous ways. Needless to say, I’ve adopted that mindset when it comes to budgets of any kind. This is the way I approach publicity budgets and it’s a way that I’ve found works. You may have a better way, or adapt this to suit your purposes. There’s really no wrong way to do this.

planning publicity budget

So, let’s look at how to work with what you have available (even if you’re low to no budget) to get maximum results:

  • Define your project: is it a short film, feature, webseries?
  • Define your publicity and social media marketing goals: what are you hoping to achieve with publicity and social media marketing of your film/webseries? List everything. Examples could include: growing your social media presence for your film, encouraging people to purchase tickets to local screenings, gaining reviews of your film, securing interviews and features in the run-up to your film’s release, etcetera.
  • Look at your publicity and social media marketing budget: absolutely NO money available? NO problem! It just means you’ll be looking for no-cost options, like creating and maintaining your film/webseries social media presence, reaching out to reviewers and journalists, or staging a local screening in conjunction with a club or organization (or a very kind venue that will stage it for free!). Check out our previous posts for some no-cost options. If you have funds available, look at your goals and research your options. If you have screenings coming up locally or on limited release, you might want to put a percentage into running paid Facebook or Instagram promotions, or paid promotions on film genre-specific websites. You may even choose to outsource your publicity and social media marketing to someone else who can do the heavy lifting for you (that’s when people come to us!).
  • Work out a publicity plan going forward and allocate funds based on the above: share this plan with your producers and anyone assisting with publicity and social media marketing. It’s good to have the numbers down so everyone is clear on the financials and you have a record of everything. Even if you have no funds available, I still suggest doing a publicity plan so you’re not flying by the seat of your pants with your publicity and social media marketing efforts!

There’s countless options available that don’t mean taking out a second mortgage- you can achieve great things with little to no funds available and make your film or webseries a huge hit.

Getting More Bang for your Publicity Buck

publicity budgets twitter

Sometimes I think independent low-budget (or no budget) filmmaking is a bit like college: you learn a lot, there’s deadlines, stress (and maybe a few tears) and spare money is tight to non-existent. With that being said, publicity for your film or webseries can seem like a bit of a luxury or a ‘nice to have’ optional extra.

Here’s what I think about that. It’s a belief I’ve held since Film Sprites PR first came into being 5 years ago, and I believe in it passionately to this day: no matter how ‘big’ or ‘small’ your film or webseries, you deserve publicity, and you can achieve it. When I began my career as a publicist in 2013 (prior to Sprites launching a year later), streaming and self-distribution was in its infancy. Going viral was still very much a viable outcome for a film or webseries. Crowdfunding was red-hot for filmmakers, and filmmakers were seeing it as an option for funding their films.

Things have changed so much since then. With so many streaming services and many filmmakers choosing to self-distribute, there’s plenty of opportunities for your film to be seen and loved, but you can also benefit from additional publicity to help reviews and features to roll in. But as you know, every cent needs to be accounted for when you’re making a film, and if you have a small or non-existent publicity budget, what do you do? Most PR firms charge in the thousands (at Film Sprites PR we work in with your budget, however)…so how can you maximise publicity while not breaking the bank?

I’m going to give you some handy options, including options that are absolutely free. Yes, really! Plus, I’ll give you some other low-cost options to help you get more bang for your publicity buck. At a later date, I’m going to cover the best way for you to work out a potential publicity budget for your indie film, but for now let’s look at some smart options:

FREE OPTIONS:

Cultivating your social media presence

woman on social media

As mentioned in the last blog post, having a social media presence means you can grow your audience, connect with fans and prep fans and followers for up-coming and future releases. Growing your audience takes time (don’t buy followers!), but it’s something that is extremely worthwhile. Plus, signing up for most social media sites is free…the only thing that’s not free is your internet connection and/or data usage on your smart phone. If you do have a bit of cash to spare, you can think about doing some promoted posts via Instagram or Facebook, but it’s not completely necessary.

Getting indie-loving blogs and websites to publish your press release

There are a few excellent indie-loving blogs and websites that will very happily publish your press release, which means you have added visibility via their sites and social media. For instance, FilmDebate provides a FREE promotion service that is well worth checking out. You can also find genre-specific sites who offer similar.

Connecting with your audience via e-mail marketing

air mail

As I’ve mentioned previously, e-mail marketing via a service like Mailchimp is a great way to connect to your audience. You can provide updates, share news and previews, and can also provide things like digital assets or copy-and-paste Twitter and Facebook post suggestions your subscribers can use on their social media in the run-up to a film’s launch.

Screening your film for interested local groups

film strip film publicity

Having public screenings can be expensive when you have to hire a venue, etcetera…but how about having a free screening at meetings of interested local groups? Many interest groups and societies feature guest speakers at meetings, so getting in touch with relevant groups and societies could also be a great option to help amplify the signal. Does your film have an astronomy theme? Get in touch with the local astronomical society. Would it appeal to the local multisport community? Have a chat to a local multisport group to arrange a screening and Q&A if they’re keen. Take your film right to your audience locally and who knows what could happen on a wider scale?

Uploading video content to Facebook

The shifting sands of the Facebook algorithm means content creators have to keep on their toes constantly. At the moment, the algorithm on the Book of Face (which dictates what content is shown to users over other content) favours video content that is uploaded, not just a shared link. So instead of just sharing the link to your trailer, take the time to upload it to your Facebook page. Better yet, uploading means you have options for tags that are relevant to your video, giving your content a better chance of being seen.

INEXPENSIVE OPTIONS:

Promoting a post on social media

posters on wall.jpg

If you have a little bit of money available for publicity and social media marketing purposes and your audience are a demographic who use Facebook and/or Instagram frequently, it’s worth promoting some of your posts. I find promoting posts more effective than paying for advertising from an algorithm and engagement point of view. In one previous instance of promoting a post during a crowdfunding campaign we saw an upswing in donations during the promotional period, and at one point during the promotional period we raised $2,000 in thirty minutes.

If you’re strategic about where and who you want to reach with your promotion, as well as the tags you use and the right image, you can see tangible benefits.

Screenings at art co-ops and local venues

Hiring a cinema for a screening can be expensive…but what about smaller local venues like art co-ops, galleries and other multi-use spaces? Many have inexpensive renting fees, or if you can twist a friendly arm you might be able to wrangle a venue for free.

It’s also worth talking to local campuses about renting spaces for screenings, for instance lecture theatres. Look at all of your options and see which is the most cost-effective.

Website promotions

Some websites (particularly in the horror film genre) offer promoted posts or advertising space on their sites. These can vary in price-range but can also come with additional added extras, like having your posts shared with their (usually extensive) social media following. This is definitely more effective than print advertising, a lot cheaper and you have the added bonus of having your film or webseries connect with the very audience you want.

As you can see, there’s plenty of options available to help you achieve your publicity and digital marketing goals when you’re stretched for cash. Our blog also provides a wealth of hints and tips on publicity and digital marketing for indie filmmakers, so make sure you check it out. Don’t want to do the publicity heavy lifting for your film? Have a chat with us about how we can assist your film. We work in with your budget to ensure you get maximum results and don’t break the bank.

When’s The Best Time to Grow Your Film’s Audience?

when to grow your film's audience

A few weeks ago I was up in Auckland to catch up with clients and film industry acquaintances. One afternoon, I was chatting with an acquaintance who has been in the film industry here in NZ for many years. We were discussing the best time to grow your audience for your film via publicity and social media. The consensus? Pre-production.

Yes, really! Pre-production is the best time to start to grow your audience. Mainstream releases and tentpole films generally have the benefit of being able to secure coverage and have a built-in audience due to things like the cast, a known director, being part of a franchise, and more. It can be a lot harder for indie films and filmmakers to receive that sort of coverage…but it’s not impossible. It just takes a bit of strategic planning early on in production.

So why start building your audience in pre-production?:

  • You will cultivate a following that wants to support you every step of the way: this can be particularly beneficial if you’re looking to crowdfund during production or in post.
  • Your intended audience will have more awareness of your film on release: imagine having a dedicated following and fan base ready and waiting to see your film and media outlets who are more likely to provide coverage and/or review your film because they’re aware of your film prior to release. That’s powerful stuff!

Audience Preparation Before Release-min

So, how do you go about building your audience in pre-production?

Make sure you have your social media accounts and website established: if you have a production company website and social media accounts already set up and with a large following, you may want to retain that instead of setting up separate accounts, especially if you are building your audience for a short film or have a slate of films in the works. Check out our post on the most frequently asked questions about social media for filmmakers for more hints and tips.

Crowdfunded in pre-production? Capitalize on campaign updates: the great thing about crowdfunding platforms is that they provide you with the opportunity to raise funds for your project, but also help you to build an audience at the same time. The campaign updates function on your campaign page should not be forgotten after your campaign! You can find out about maintaining contributor connection after a crowdfunding campaign here.

Establish a mailing list: invite people to subscribe to your mailing list via your website or a call to action on social media. Provide content like production updates, competitions, and cut-and-paste sample tweets or Facebook posts that can be used by fans when you’re getting ready to launch!

Reward your fans: some of the most passionate, dedicated fans are the ones who follow your entire journey, so why not reward them? Think about having a ‘Fan of the Week’ post on social media, share fan art, have competitions for signed merch, and more. Your imagination is the limit here!

Start building relationships with journalists and media outlets: get to know the journalists and media outlets that you would like to secure coverage from when you’re ready to release your film. Follow them on Twitter and like them on Facebook, interact with them and share content from them that is relevant to your audience. Never underestimate the power of a great connection with media and journalists.

Building your audience in pre-production may sound daunting. After all, you’ve got so much else to juggle! But think of it as an investment in your film that will return to you right when you want it.

Why Hoping to Go Viral is Like Waiting For a Fairytale Prince

Why hoping to go viral is like waiting for a fairytale prince

A note: while I’ve used the concept of a fairytale prince, you can substitute it for ‘princess’, ‘Iron Man’, or a gender-neutral savior…whatever suits you- the point is, you’re waiting to be saved! Now, carry on…

Gangnam Style. The Harlem Shake. Rebecca Black’s Friday. Chocolate Rain. They shared, we shared, they went viral, we moved onto the next viral hit. One of the things I’m asked most is “can you make me go viral?”, which ultimately gets a hard “no” from me. Why?

There’s nothing wrong with wanting to go viral. The prospect of having your work go viral is exciting, right? But keep in mind the fact that just like having the ‘flu (which is a virus), the infectiousness of your viral content will pass, too. Add to the fact that, according to Socialbakers’ Jan Rezab the lifespan of virality is on the decline thanks to social media going mainstream and hoping to go viral is basically like waiting for a fairytale prince. Not convinced? Read Jan’s post Stop Trying to Go Viral on Recode- he gives evidence but also gives some fantastic alternatives that really work.

Add to that the fact that since the advent of social media in the mainstream there has been a consistent and steady stream of content available to the public, and it’s harder to make a dent virally. Even Tay Zonday of Chocolate Rain fame thinks that it’s more difficult to go viral now than back in 2007.

If you use virality as a sole benchmark for the success of your work, you’re going to end up feeling pretty bad about things- not because your work isn’t great, but because virality is so unpredictable and on the decline. There’s also this myth that going viral means you become an overnight success and everything is peachy keen. That can happen for some, but the experience is different in every case.

I always say to people when it comes to building an audience for their content: “it’s a marathon, not a sprint.” Even though virality is juicy and attractive and seems like the goose that laid the golden egg, it’s less valuable in the long-term. As with any relationship-building, it takes time and care. You can’t just throw any content out there willy-nilly and hope it sticks. Experiment. See what your audience resonates with, and what they’re not so keen on. Keep tabs on engagement levels and what your audience is saying about your work. And most importantly, let them know that you appreciate their shares, comments and support. Build a solid foundation for your work and your brand and you will reap more consistent benefits than a moment of overnight success with a viral video.

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

making-email-marketing-part-of-your-films-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

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!

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.