Monday, February 1, 2010

Build The Audience and The Movie Will Come

We all know the ‘Field of Dreams’ mantra..."If you build it, he will come" (often misquoted as "If you build it, they will come") Most artists and industries have operated off this philosophy for years and most continue to do so. We, the independent filmmaker, are no different. We blindly have faith that if we make our movie the audience will be there waiting.

Today’s market is saturated with filmmaking hopefuls. Thousands of films are sent off to the top film festivals each year, with filmmakers praying for acceptance and recognition. These festivals have served as the key gatekeepers in the film business for the last two decades. The festival machine has fueled the careers of our predecessors.

The game has changed.

Everywhere I turn, everyone is trying to figure out what the new business model is going to be. All of my peers are talking and writing about this everyday. How are we as independent filmmakers going to sustain ourselves. How do we carve out a career. This is something I certainly ponder everyday.

There is so much being written about this from various sources on a daily basis that it is hard for me to keep up. I believe I have some useful and practical ideas that will be helpful to you.

The answers and the tools are right in front of us. With the right mindset we will see more filmmakers with sustainable careers. Before I continue, I should note that I make ultra low-budget films which I believe is the starting ground for all us.

The staple of what I am writing about here is the subject of this post. If you are looking to enter this game and sustain yourself from this point forward you must focus on...

Building Your Audience Before You Make Your Film.

So many filmmakers will go out and raise money for a six figure film ($100,000 or more) without a clear cut audience to turn to once the film is completed. It may work for a minute few but for the majority this is suicide.

It is getting easier and easier to build an audience online through blogs, video blogs, audio podcasts, short videos, web series, twitter, facebook, youtube, etc. I am not going to go into how to build an audience. For the purposes of this blog, I will say simply that there are numerous resources at your disposal and that it is essential for you engage in conversation with your supporters. If you are not building your audience/network/support system/fans/followers etc. you will get left behind by those who are. This isn't something you can dabble in, it is something to work on everyday.

Let me touch on another idea I believe should be part of your mindset, then I will come back to a tool that serves as a gauge to your fanbase. This tool will show you if have been effective in building your audience. It will show you if you have support for your film before you make your it.

Do Not Focus On Making Your First Feature Film, Focus On Making Your First 5 Feature Films.

The leap from short films to a feature film is dramatic. I, for one, have experienced the difference and it is significant. I know many filmmakers who have yet to make this leap. I believe most filmmakers become so consumed on making their first feature that they lose sight of the bigger picture. I certainly fall into this category myself, though I am working my way through it.

Despite the challenges of making a feature film. If you are going to have a sustainable career you cannot put all of your might into your first film. You will find yourself trapped.

Think about how you are going to finance and recoup the money on your first five feature films. I am not speaking in wishful terms. Let me repeat that, you should be thinking about how you are going to finance and recoup the money on your first five feature films. You should be thinking the way Robert Rodriguez was 19 years ago. There are so many brilliant aspects to his book Rebel Without a Crew. It is easy to get seduced by his story of writing his film in a laboratory, then going down to Mexico to film his movie for $7000. If you go back and read the book, studying his mindset and his career path you will see that he would have had a film career with or without Hollywood.

His plan was not to start with one feature, but with a trilogy of action films. Each one to be bigger than the last. His plan was to make the first for less than $10,000 yet carry the value of a $100,000 film. He knew his market was the Spanish home video market and that in a worst case scenario he would be able to sell the film for $25,000. This would net him $15,000 profit. He would then take that money and make the next film better. You get the idea.

Two examples of filmmakers using this philosophy today are Dale Stelly and Joe Swanberg. They are making films for a specific audience. They are making their films cheaply so that their money is recouped. Each film improves upon the last while they build their audience film by film. They both have a film career.

With all this talk of sustainability, I asked myself, what would it take right now for me to make films that open up a revenue stream for me going forward. My first feature Night Before the Wedding has a ways to go before it breaks even. Let alone making me money and creating a viable revenue stream. Meanwhile it is stress on my shoulders and my wallet.

I can say that NBTW will eventually break even and will be a revenue stream for us. Though it is going to take more time, more energy, and more work. I just have to continue to ride the course.

Having said that, there is hope for me on my next film, Goodbye Promise. I have an opportunity with GP that I didn't have with NBTW. I am going to lay this out in my next blog.

Here are my final thoughts for this blog...

I have the answer for what would be huge for me sustaining my career from this point forward. It is also something that would help me gauge the fan support I currently have. It is something that many filmmakers are already taking advantage of...and it is something that I now believe becomes essential for every independent filmmaker before they make their next film.


ben said...

Some good points here but your key example of Robert Rodriguez (although inspiring) I feel is no longer relevant in terms of something we can compare ourselves to. I'll admit it takes this kind of spirit but it also reflects how much easier it was to get money for your films before the explosion of digital filmmaking. Robert Rodriguez knew he could sell his film on straight to the Spanish home video market for $25,000 but I'll bet you that today the Spanish home video market would pay much much less simply because there is more content to choose from. I bet that they would pay so much less that Robert Rodriguez might not have even gotten enough to pay off his film.

This is the problem we're all in now. No one is paying us for our work even though there is a big demand for it and in some cases are being seen hundreds of thousands of times in a matter of days.

The system is broken (sorry for the plug) but we're working on a new platform to try and fix all these problems that filmmakers face in order to sustain.

you can check out what we're working on at

filmmaker diary said...

I think its paramount that we know our audience, who they are, where they are, how we will get to them cheapy or for free, before you even write your first scene.

I never really did that with my current film Mission X, as it was made for nothing as a knee jerk reaction to losing £500,000 for a horror film.

However, I knew my personal aspect to the story would still have to get an audience. But I also knew with hard work, in worst case, I could find my audience on thousands of military sites like airsofters, paintbllers, and other war movie lover groups.

Got the corman attitude of making a personal film, but wrapped in a genre. Just like horror that is easy to find groups of people, as so many horrors have been done. And of course it makes sense to do a sequel I had etc etc.

For my next film, Death Movie, the one I lost the £500,000 on. I got that money from the distribution proposal, not the script. The investors never even saw the script. They saw a simple pitch, and a mobile-drive-in roadshow concept, which will also partner with a lot of brands to do screenings this year.

My point is, I could NEVER even be inclined to write a movie, without knowing who my audience is, and how I will get to them. It is kind weird because for years after my first film, the problem was “How do I make the movie” Then “How do I distribute the content"

The distribution itself, is not really a major problem now as we know. At least to kick start yourself career on the first ladder. Now the problem is, how to I get those precise “eyeballs” to see my work for no money, or very little.

So every project I write now, has always had a brain storming session about how I get to my audience before I write. If I dont pull off the Mission remake, I will do a micro budget sequel, and sell it to the audience for the first.

And the 2nd one will have more viral wild action vidoes, so it might turn the first film into a prequel.

Anyway. I agree with your blog. I dont even think the future is about our films anymore, in terms of how we build a career, its from all the other potential revene streams that can spin off from it.

I hear a lot of filmmakers so desperate to make their first film, and I just know they are going to be in so much distress when they realise the REAL world in this biz. A world that really is only for the truly passionate, and 7 days a week until you die dedicated.

We all think we work hard, I thought I did on my first industry funded and distributed film, but damm, that was a slacker ride compared to the time I put it now, and I will have to keep this up until I die if I want this as a career.

On an upbeat note. I see it as a GREAT! Time. I can see the future. Its tough, but it should be to make a career out of a job like this. And agree that its not about the back slapping attitude of “I made a movie” Filmmakers need to be industrious. Get a bit of the Rodrguez attitude of cranking your talent out there, building a personal brand.

On a final note. Bill Gates and Steve Jobs, and many other pioneers had a vision, when there was really nothing to invisage. A crazy vision they realised and made happen.

My point. If filmakers cant see the amazing opportunties ahead of us, then they should not be in this biz, as I hear too much downbeat stuff. But yes, agree, too many are living in lala land about the practical realities. Filmmaking is only one half.

Ok, too much yakety yaking from me. I'm off!

Love your blog, film courage, and I have no doubt I will love your movie too when I get to see it.



David Branin said...

Great to have your comment Ben. I am certainly excited to see what you have coming with FanDependentFilms.

With Robert Rodriguez, I know that market option is no longer viable. I reference it because I believe his mentality is key. Too many filmmakers are only thinking about how they are raising money for one feature film, rather than a series of films. It is no easy task to make money off of one film. If you are going to sustain yourself, it is going to take more than one film. I believe this perspective is essential. Common sense, yes, but as I look around the landscape of independent cinema I do not see enough of this mentality.

JBMovies said...

My favorite line from FIELD OF DEAMS is from James Earl Jones' charecter. He said, "I'm going to beat you with this crowbar until you go away." For some reason every time we heard that line it made us laugh. Ok, I'm weird. But there's a point to bringing up that quote. Costner's charecter pursues connecting with Jones's charecter because it is needed to fullfil the goal. My new perpective on the film biz is that it's not REALLY about storytelling/filmmaking it's about cultivating relationships that are needed to for you to make your film. You could make the greatest film in the world but without key relationships you'll end up with a film sitting on your shelf gaining dust.

My father once pointed out to me the story of Tom Sawyer having to white wash the fence. I have pointed this story out to tons of people when it comes to filmmaking and building your career. I believe how it is applied is the key to your success in the biz.

Tom is told to paint the fence. This is his goal/project. But instead of complaining or even asking for help he instead greates a sense of "implied value" that draws the attention of his friends. By the end everyone is paying him to paint the fence for him.

My point: create some implied value right of the begining about your project. Find a simple, cost effective way that you can express who you are as a unique artist, draw in people and they will want to work with you because their inspired by the beauty of your artistry. And you don't have to break the bank in order to do it. This is what I am doing with The House:

Sheri C said...

great post David. I hope you don't mind that I am NOT picking you apart. And I love everyone else's comments too. The audience building mentality is finally catching on!! YAY! and about David Baker's comment, he is right. This is going to be so much more work than just making the film. Many would be filmmakers will turn back and the field will not be as crowded as it is now. Guaranteed! Those who have an audience and continually cultivate it and feed it with interesting content will be the survivors.

Darrell Kiedo said...

Okay, I for one think Robert Rodriguez (inspiring and viable today), the market has and always will be evolving, now same as when Robert Rodriguez produced his film that inspired soo many of us. Look, the studio's and powers that be have been trying to pay as less for more since Charlie Chaplin, and in talking to many Producers from Monster to Big Fat Greek Wedding (which were also independents by the way Nobody knows what a movie can achieve - we put the puzzle together and yeah market it, audience in mind, but 2010 has and is producing it's own Oprah effect in regards to the internet, social media and a world wide presence. I am producing a micro-budget movie and I am expecting a large following with the cast/story/ studio pickup(hopefully)/underground/ viral/ and web-based marketing. We'll see what happens but I think you guys are selling the market place short. Yeah, it's changed but it's always changing - We as filmmakers, actors, creators, live adapt & grow. We (the Dawn) shortened title, have a multi-international cast, two cities, A star-less but extremely talented cast, one of the best Independent production teams and Four Countries represented in this film. The possibilities are endless. Anyway that's my rant - It boils down to hard work which is why I'm up at 4:30am starting my day with this blog. The next 6 hours trying to raise money, the 4 after that with talent for film, the 3 after that connecting with more investors and potential sponsors. Sleep? Maybe after the Premiere.
(From Darrell Kiedo: Actor/Screenwriter, "Before The First Dawn" based on the Book "The Black Actors Guide To Not Working In Hollywood" by same available via or Barnes and Noble Bookstore or Co-Produced with Glimpse of Dreams LLC. Producer Richard Jacob: 202-812-9906 Fax 866-593-7941 for more info.

movieseals said...

I have been reading about the future of the film industry (and medias in general) for a while now. I have seen a lot of creative ideas (Kickstarter, crowdfunding, Artemis project, CwF+RtB, etc.).

I am a filmmaker and I used to earn a decent living selling my films worldwide. In the last few years, the bottom fell out and the prices are dropping so low that making the films become unsustainable. Everybody is scrambling for the exit and looking for a new business model or looking for ways to go back to the status quo. While I agree that it is impossible to stop piracy and pointless to sue for that, I however wonder about the viability of a CwF+RtB model and other propositions, like crowd funding (which is a legal grey area and I believe it is only a matter of time before that plug is filled).

So as far as I can tell, the reasoning goes a little like this: spend years building an audience for your film, in order to convince them to finance you and your film, keep them posted on the progress, shoot the film, give it for free along with some reasonably priced schwag they can't download, and keep promoting the shit out of it until you eventually (or more realistically hopefully) break even then start again... Fun perhaps, but at this point, it's not a business it is a hobby! You cannot sustain an industry like this!

If you factor in all the time and effort to make the film, plus all the time you spend "connecting with fans" and providing them with (free) added value, you end up making less than a quarter of a penny an hour for your time! I love my job but I also need to pay my bills! Under the CwF+RtB model, I not only do I need to raise the money to make the film, a difficult proposition even under the "old" model, now I also need to find cash to finance the schwag ( and the warehoouse to store it - you can always go "print on demand" style, but the costs are higher, diminishing your chances of selling it unless you want to make pennies of profit - and let's face it, only the hard core fans will buy the schwag!) and spend even more time connecting with the audience than ever before, plus add all the support time of maintaining what is now also becoming a retail business!!! I fail to see how it is sustainable for indie filmmakers with limited resources to begin with. It does not appear to make economical sense to me. Maybe I am not understanding it right but feel free to enlighten me. I'd like to understand what I am missing.