What’s the ideal future scenario for filmmakers?

As our company struggles to raise the financing for our next feature, we’re spending a lot of time and effort asking ourselves—and lot of others who are following the rapid changes in our segment of the industry—just what might be the ideal set up for us in the future from the development phase of a project through distribution.

Mind you, we’re a small production company operating outside of the Hollywood “system” trying as best we can to produce films of artistic integrity that have something meaningful to say about important social and human issues. We also want to be around for awhile and sustain our careers as filmmakers.

The first overriding concern for us is maintaining artistic control of our projects. If we aren’t in a position to call the shots in terms of the kind of films we’re putting out there, then we have to ask ourselves if it’s really worth the effort. Financing deals may be offered, but if the strings attached don’t allow us to have the final say on the kinds of picture we’re going to make, then we’ll keep looking for funding from other sources that can live with us and our artistic vision.

Call it naïve or unrealistic or overly-purist, but we don’t want to get sucked into a situation where we end up being guns for hire and find ourselves taking orders from folks who don’t really get what we’re trying to accomplish and whose only real concern is making a nice return for their buck (not that making a nice return is a bad thing—only that, for us at least, it can’t be the only thing).

These are tricky waters and artistic compromises can sneak up on you—especially if you’re getting exhausted looking for financing. The whole question starts looming of how commercial or marketable a project might be or could become if just a few adjustments are made here and there. And going after a certain actor or two that may not be perfect for the roles, but who definitely would bolster salability. And taking a look at picking up the pace and not getting too far out there stylistically and not overreaching in terms of what an audience can comfortably digest intellectually.

It can get seductive as these “suggestions” come at you one at a time and are accompanied by a little friendly persuasion in the form of six figure checks being waved in front of your face. And slowly but surely the project can start taking on a different shape and focus and suddenly one day you realize—after you’ve given a good piece of you life to it—that your baby is no longer the film you wanted to make. This we want to avoid.

Our other main concern is who controls marketing and distribution. The stories are abundant and keep streaming forth concerning filmmakers not seeing any financial return with traditional distributors. Their film might get out there in the marketplace, but for the producer the cost of making the film remains this big red number that doesn’t seem to diminish over time after the film’s release. And we feel almost a moral obligation to at least return our investors’ money—something that is helping us determine how to proceed given the current morphs taking place in the distribution end of the industry.

Part of this problem is not having any real say in how the project is marketed and on what platforms it’s released and when. Although it’s much more work, we’re thinking we’d like to retain all rights and hire talented and experienced folks who know what they’re doing to work with us where needed to get our films to market. And there are a growing number of wonderful people and firms to choose from for this purpose.

The trade off of workload vs. keeping control of the life of our film, although somewhat daunting, seems worth it to us. So we’re including a healthy marketing/distribution line in our next film’s production budget. That, and starting at least a year in advance in an effort to build a substantial social media presence and fan base for the project.

Keeping up with everything that’s happening in the distribution arena is not easy and sometimes is a bit exhausting. But it’s also exciting. We sense the day in the not too distant future (maybe in the next year?) when we as filmmakers will be able to not only take charge of our own theatrical releases, but also set up website stores that can handle just about all platforms—streaming, downloading, VOD, DVD sales, etc. All we need for the latter (easier said than done I realize) is for television sets to be hooked up directly to the Internet which in turn would allow direct access to our websites where our audience can then order our films any time and in any way they choose. Some filmmakers are already doing at least a partial version of this with the technology that’s currently available.

The constant danger for all of us is that current and future deals by the big boys will effectively eliminate our ability to do this ourselves. No doubt they will do their best to slam the door in our face or make sure that they will get a piece of our action. So, as I’ve said before, we need to stay awake, listen closely, keep talking and sharing, and if need be start thinking about putting together some kind of organization that will protect our economic (and by association maybe also our artistic) interests—something like an International Filmmakers Guild—where there’s strength in numbers and a single loud voice that can’t help but be heard and hold sway.

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62 comments »

  1. D.A. Sebasstian said,
    March 13, 2010 @ 6:05 pm

    An excellent post! Nothing to say but great job and thank you for the insight!

  2. david baker said,
    March 13, 2010 @ 6:45 pm

    Another great post Buzz. Thanks for your thoughts, perspective.

    My head is so in the zone now of marketing, distribution budgets. I could never ever go into a film without thinking about how I get it out there.

    I also think as filmmakers, we see that side as a real drag, but I think we have to change our perception of this other half of the process. We have to make the whole marketing aspect “fun”.

    I mean in the sense that the thought of say doing a national, or international screening tour of our films, meeting other people, buiding new fans, seeing new places, doing a video show on the road, I really do see that as the way ahead. Its excitng too!

    Thanks for watching my film sir. Look forward to watching yours this week.

    cheers

    david

  3. Angelo Bell said,
    March 13, 2010 @ 7:49 pm

    You asked some thought-provoking questions here. Thank You! So much of what you say mirrors m own thinking about the filmmaking process. We filmmakers should accept that fact that not only are we writers and directors, but we are also producers looking to get our films to international audiences. A producer’s job never ends.

    Not long ago the one-stop-shop was all the rage, with directors also editing and handling cinematography, etc. Enlightened filmmakers now understand that many of these tasks should be delegated to the experts. I’ve heard whispers of a new above-the-line role that many indies are incorporating into their budgets: the role of Director of Marketing (DM). Smart. Very savvy.

    However, long careers in this industry are built on negotiation and concessions. George Clooney agrees to do a big budget Ocean’s 13 with the studio. In exchange, the studio backs his desires to do a Michael Clayton or Up in the Air. I think it’s smart to follow similar career ideas and look for balance in the future. Being a hired gun today might provide access to funding for the more independent film on your radar — as well as help pay mortgages and college tuition tomorrow.

  4. david baker said,
    March 13, 2010 @ 8:12 pm

    Agree with Angelo’s comment about wearing two hats. John Houston saying, “one for love, one for money”.

    I want to get into industry work too, as hired director on bigger films, as that can help grow the fanbase back to self owned smaller films. I would hate to see filmmakers not reaching for the stars with their talent, just reaching safe filmmaking because we all can make films now. I think versatility is so important too. I beleive a balance of art and commerce is possible

  5. Phil Holbrook said,
    March 13, 2010 @ 9:21 pm

    Great post, Buzz. I am always appreciative of filmmakers that can hold on to their creative integrity. I also think we are coming into a time where there are more options to keep ones creative integrity, while at the same time be able to make a living doing what we love.

  6. Fans Of Film said,
    March 14, 2010 @ 12:28 am

    True story

    A guy I know that hangs out at the same local coffee shop I do comes to me the other day and tells me an amazing story, first let me tell you this guy too most people would just be another grey hair toothless grin nerdy, almost homeless looking kinda guy… So he comes to me and says Michael your not going to believe this I went to store the other day and used my credit card to buy a pack of smokes, but after I used it I realized I was overdrawn “now mind Jose lives dolor to dolor” so I go down to the bank to find out why my card worked… The banks responds “well sir we pulled money from your saving to cover you over draft” and Jose say’s excuse me I don’t have any money in my saving….. the bank responds “well actually sir you have $7400″ It turns out he had been getting direct deposits from itunes and few other music site for his studio produced album http://www.myspace.com/liquidplanet007

    There is more to the story, Jose did what he did on very little, well there was hours at the coffee shop working myspace and the equipment that he got on the last money he had in the world from an insurance claim, after getting out of the hospital from a accident that left him unable to work and on the streets…

    I think my point is filmmakers need to be less dependent on funding, at least later on, I mean with the affordability of producing digital content, it has become more possible produce this kinda of art, and distribute it.. Really it’s as easy as getting a website, a paypal button, then getting on facebook/twitter to tell everybody about it and keep telling people… Then go get a will made up, so your family is making $$ on your film long after your dead..

    Something filmmakers in my opinion are overlooking right now is how lucky they are to be the first indie labels online, a few years from now there will be a sea of websites with a single film on them, bringing us back to the need for distribution sites that are categorizing and filtering films in a listed environment such as indieflix.com, amazon.com, fansoffilm.com and others…

    So ideal for a filmmaker is the cost of their film doesn’t leave them homeless and they go right from the festival to the web and start making money from multiple platforms so they can make more films!!!

  7. Andrew Middleton said,
    March 14, 2010 @ 10:48 pm

    Another great post…thanks Buzz! Personally, I’m convinced that the films as entertainment/films as thought-provoking distinction is a false one (I don’t know if this is actually what you were getting at, but I’ve heard it from other filmmakers)…they’re definitely not mutually exclusive. That said, if a filmmaker needs to err on one side or the other, I’d argue that filmmakers need to be primarily concerned with creating engaging and entertaining stories. If a filmmaker also has something meaningful to say, that’s going to come out…almost without effort. Obviously, I’m not talking about base comedy or farce…but a film like, say, The Matrix…or…Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind…profound messages (to my mind)…and at the same time unbelievably entertaining films.
    BTW…I assume you’re familiar with OpenIndie.com ?

  8. Buzz McLaughlin said,
    March 15, 2010 @ 12:36 pm

    D.A.–Thanks!

    David–I couldn’t agree more about folding the backend into the whole producing picture. All that’s needed to convince a filmmaker is to go through an old model distribution rollout. Jon Reiss suggests adding a Producer of Distribution & Marketing to the mix who is on board from development on. Also, I agree, it’s always a balance between art and commerce–it’s just that the commerce can’t run away with it to the point that you lose your sights as a filmmaker–it happens all the time. BTW, your behind the scenes stuff on your DVD was also strong. You are one honest, look-you-in-the-eye dude who made an art film whether you like it or not (and I don’t care if it’s called MISSION X)!! Cheers.

    Phil–I couldn’t agree more. If we can just survive the transition…

    Fans of Film–What’s wrong with a sea of websites now or in the future if the filmmaker is able to build a huge fan base and direct it to the site? (Big “if” I realize). Distribution sites are fine (not sure if I’d call them “distribution’ sites) if indeed they only catalog and gather info about films and offer up this info for film lovers who can then order off of the filmmakers’ sites. I think the trouble starts with the gatekeeper or filtering part of it because then exclusivity rears its head and suddenly it becomes “important” to get listed on a site (or special sites) and if we’re not careful, then the price of being listed on the elite sites inches upward and very soon we could be back where we started. My point is that middlemen who can only work for a fee or a percentage in this day and digital age have to be watched closely or we might find ourselves still staring at red figures long after release (are you following the panels this year at SXSW?). Don’t get me wrong, your site is a good one and your optimism is great. I’m just nervous about elitism and the middlemen/businessmen mentality that has permeated this industry since it’s inception and what it has done (or more accurately hasn’t done) for the artform.

    Andrew–I agree that distinctions of this sort are not helpful. A good film is a good film because it carries you along and invites you in and grabs your heart and perhaps your mind as well, leaving you somehow enriched in some small or large way. It runs the gamet of genres. And yes, I am familiar with OpenIndie. It’s a good idea and certainly has it’s place. The annual flat fee approach is a good one. It’ll be interesting to see how it progresses–I wish them the best.

  9. Buzz McLaughlin said,
    March 15, 2010 @ 1:15 pm

    Angelo–Sorry, didn’t mean to leave you out of my above replies to everyone. Your comment is well taken. Our thinking is that the marketing and distribution of our films is as critical as anything else. And it starts upfront. The idea of a producer of distribution and marketing that you mention is what we’re planning on doing with our next feature. As Jon Reiss point out in his book, a lot of that job starts before pre-production as the audience is analyzed, NGO’s (if any) are identified, all the social media sites have their pages and links, the website is constructed with lots of flexibiltiy, early doc footage is captured for prudently timed release as production nears, and on and on. It’s all intended to build the fan base, of course–a demand for the film. And that seems to be the key if we’re going to make this work. Sort of a no-brainer I guess. And I agree that a person can get involved with more commercial projects in order to pay the bills, but there’s always a danger lurking with it–namely that the career track takes a slight turn and although it is almost imperceptible at first, it subtly sends you off in a new direction that over time leaves you miles away from where you thought you wanted to be as an artist. Of course, the Clooney exceptions are out there. But then he’s a big bankable star actor. In the end, you just have to keep your eyes open and your artistic integrity closely guarded.

  10. Zev Robinson said,
    March 16, 2010 @ 4:32 am

    My ideal future would be winning the lottery, literally or figuratively, and having financial independence.

    But til that happens, I’d rather not think of an ideal future, as I have enough dealing with the very real present. There have always been more artists than the marketplace can support. Fame and fortune have always been fickle, art and money/power have always had a love-hate relationship, and landscapes have always continuously shifted. A new series of digital tools won’t change that, it just means that new opportunities and new obstacles have arisen. There will be those who can take advantage of the former and overcome the latter.

  11. Buzz McLaughlin said,
    March 16, 2010 @ 10:07 am

    Hi Zev– Ah, yes…financial independence, that elusive dream. I wonder sometimes if it’d be as much fun, but I think I’d take it if offered! However, in the meantime, I definitely hope to be one who takes advantage of the new opportunities and overcomes the obstacles. Is there really any other option…?

  12. Zev Robinson said,
    March 16, 2010 @ 12:30 pm

    All these things need to be discussed and debated in order to use it well, Buzz, but self-distribution, social media and the rest won’t be anyone’s salvation. The dot com crash happened a decade ago because everyone thought that having a website was going to be their salvation. Many, many people have made commercial concessions – often called day jobs – in order to create more personal works – sometimes called art, that’s nothing new. Used to be people plastered posters on walls, now we post on Facebook. The aim is the same, make good work, get people to see it, make money, a little or a lot, and make the next one. I never wonder whether financial independence would be as much fun because a lack of it has never been any fun.

  13. Luke James said,
    March 16, 2010 @ 1:44 pm

    I really do enjoy reading your posts Buzz, good stuff and well thought out.

    The whole marketing concept, as you know, is something dear to my heart. And several people, including yourself have already touched upon ’several hats’ being worn as a necessity for filmmakers.

    In the same way as one filmmaker wouldn’t be expected to undertake all the key, specialist roles, then marketing and distribution are areas where objective, planned and strategic input are essential if the film is going to be seen. They’re also roles that require as much creative and innovative drive as a filmmaker.

    However, what works for one film won’t necessarily transfer across all productions. This is why it’s vital to discuss the whole marketing project at the start of development. From concept to marketplace, the sales and marketing plan needs as much development as the production. They have to work in synergy.

    So many independent filmmakers in the past wouldn’t even budget a good stills photographer (this is obviously something dear to my heart) and end up having crap images to distribute. If the marketing materials haven’t even been decided upon – how can one sell the production?

    I’m not convinced we can all wear several hats – nor am I convinced we need to. We just need to think of production crews as having PR/Marketing/distribution people involved from the outset. It’s product development.

    Idea/story. Is anyone going to buy it? Make it. Sell it.

    So often filmmakers fall into the trap of:

    Idea/story. Make it. Is anyone going to buy it? Try and sell it.

    The starving artist is not a good look.

    The studios have been planning and organising their marketing strategies from day one. Does this compromise artistic integrity? In many cases, quite obviously it does. We see a conveyer belt approach to production genres. However, it doesn’t need to. For the independent business, production, filmmakers, being involved EARLY on is crucial.

    I don’t subscribe to the rules of thumb currently being suggested that marketing funding requires 50% of budget either. These models are based on old, lack-lustre studio systems steeped in conventional approaches. The online marketing approach is very different. But there’s also a danger of falling into the trap of thinking that it’s free. Everything costs. The time online needs to be factored in too.

    There’ve been some fab comments in this discussion. This is why it’s a great place to hang out.

    Best wishes, Luke :)

  14. Buzz McLaughlin said,
    March 17, 2010 @ 9:38 am

    Zev– You got me on the financial independence question–such a blessing would undoubtedly be more fun. :) Regarding the difference today from ten years ago–what I’m observing is that social media is making this a new ball game. You say “Used to be people plastered posters on walls, now we post on Facebook.” That’s true, but the marketing reach of SM is now potentially enormous as opposed to people seeing a literal poster on a literal wall, one set of eyes at a time. And websites finally can be activated and interactive in a major way because we have direct access to this communications/marketing tool with it’s tremendous ability to make outward spiraling connections. I’m not suggesting that this is going to be easy or not take considerable time and energy (and some $$) to pull off, but it is becoming increasingly clear that we’re finding ourselves on a new playing field where we at least stand a chance–at last–to take control of the ball (our finished film) ourselves and run with it. A decade ago–hell, three years ago–that wasn’t even a viable consideration. Cheers.

  15. Zev Robinson said,
    March 17, 2010 @ 12:33 pm

    Little to disagree with, Buzz, except for a couple of things. True that a poster is only seen by one pair of eyes at a time, but today there are also that many more social media posters which can drown out or overwhelm any message that is put out there.
    I should be in NYC around June 20, hopefully will be screening some work, and hope to meet up and discuss and debate over a glass of wine.

  16. Buzz McLaughlin said,
    March 17, 2010 @ 3:00 pm

    Hi Luke– I couldn’t have said it better. Thanks for your thoughts and confirming what seems to becoming more inevitable every day–that we have to take charge of the backend starting at the frontend.

    Zev–Yeah, it’s a saturated field already, but it’s all in how the fan base is built and the loyalty that you can trigger to your “brand” (not sure I like that word as it relates to filmmakers and their work, but we’re talking marketing, so I guess I should get over it). And I like your idea of connecting in June very much. And that’ll be Spanish wine of course.

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