No-Budget Filmmaking: Rise of The Backyard Indie

Like it or lump it, there are a lot of backyard indies being made each year. Thanks to inexpensive production technology, no-budget filmmaking is not only possible, but has become the norm for many first time feature filmmakers, web series producers, YouTube artists and short filmmakers.

These days any filmmaker with passion and a story can make a movie. And unlike years past, backyard indie filmmakers are not prohibited by cash or creativity.

Yet despite the no-budget filmmaking movement, many of my high profile “professional” friends in Los Angeles, have made a conscious effort to ignore the rise of backyard indies. Why?

Because no-budget filmmaking isn’t real! (At least, that’s what some of the old school pros would tell you.) When it comes to no-budget filmmaking, some common questions asked by these Hollywood hot-shots are:

  1. Who signed the SAG agreements?
  2. Who contacted the Unions?
  3. Who notified the MPAA?
  4. Where is your theatrical distribution deal?
  5. Who do you think you are?

Good questions. Why don’t you go back in time and ask Roger Corman!

But the thing is, if you create a good movie – Your audience doesn’t care if the movie was an official union indie or a backyard indie made for pocket change.

no budget filmmaking

Photo © Jacek Krol / Dollar Photo Club

No Budget Filmmaking: Rise of The Backyard Indie

The demise of traditional DVD distribution coupled with the growing market domination of iTunes, Amazon and Netflix had leveled the playing field. The big difference between a $10,000 backyard indie and a $2,000,000 dollar indie isn’t the budget – The difference revolves around the film that gets the most eyeballs (and sales).

Think about it. Hitting breakeven on a 2M feature is going to require a lot of sales.

As a rough example, to recoup 2M dollars, the filmmaker will need to to sell (roughly) 200,000 video on demand downloads at $10 a pop. These first sales will cover the 40% cost allocated to VOD providers (the real winners here), after which, the filmmaker will still need to sell an additional 200,000 downloads to repay the investors.

400,000 VOD downloads x $10 = $4,000,000 minus $2,000,000 in VOD fees = the initial $2,000,000

Meanwhile, through no-budget filmmaking, a backyard indie only has to sell 2000 VOD downloads to recover the initial 10K costs.

While nobody wants to make movies for pocket change, many filmmakers still believe we can somehow continually produce unprofitable (movie) products and expect the money and the subsequent jobs to keep rolling in.

And unlike years past, filmmakers can no longer approach investors with the cliche pitch: “Filmmaking is a risky investment – if we are lucky, we might win Sundance and get a deal.”

Now, with transparent distribution options available to all filmmakers, that line of give-me-money reasoning is reckless, no longer applicable, and in my opinion, unethical. And for these reasons, no-budget filmmaking makes a lot of sense.

Aside from the initial challenge of sales and marketing, the ripple effect reveals an even greater conundrum:

How will you raise enough money to pay your cast and crew AND still pay back your investors?

I mean, what’s the new sweet spot?

How can we once again make independent filmmaking profitable?

“I CAN’T AFFORD TO PAY MY CAST AND CREW. WHAT DO I DO?”

Here is the modern moviemaking model on how to save the movie industry.

(And you thought this was going to be your typical no-budget filmmaking article.)

To survive in this ever changing world of indie filmmaking, we have to change our strategy.

Instead of focusing on making that one big awesome indie, we now need to focus on building a genre specific movie library and spend all of our downtime building a ginormously targeted email list.

Step 1: Find your top-ten closest filmmaking collaborators. Form a company.

Step 2: Write a business plan, but instead of putting all of your focus on making one movie, concentrate on making 3-5 feature films.

Step 3: Make sure that you include a sales and marketing plan for each movie. To do this, take your proposed budget for all movies and work backwards. Start asking yourself, “How many units do we need to sell to recoup our investment?”

Step 4: In this model, instead of paying freelance day rates, you’ll have to hire long term employees and provide each with a salary and back end points (sort of like stock options) on each title.

Step 5: When the title wins, you all win. Over the years, your titles will add up. And the real compensation will come back in the form of residual movie income.

While this is not a fully refined model, it’s a start.

In my opinion, creating a sustainable business model is better than ignoring no-budget filmmaking and pretending backyard indies are not real movies.

We are experiencing a time of change.

This is the indie movie distribution equivalent of the automobile replacing the horse drawn wagon.

You can choose to ignore this movement, and you can probably succeed for a few more years. But there will come a day when all entertainment will be on-demand and cheap to produce and cheap to consume.

The question is, will you ignore the no-budget filmmaking movement and continue to play your distribution lottery ticket in hopes of winning the dream deal, or will you  join the movement and help us filmmakers figure out a way to make indie movies profitable?

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The 5 Immutable Laws of Successful Filmmaking

As an independent filmmaker, the prospect of putting together a project and creating something awesome out of an idea really gets us going. Serious indie filmmakers stop at noting until the movie is actually in the can – or these days – in your hard drive.

Still if you’ve been working to make movies for any length of time, you know there are days when you hit obstacles, sometimes so seemingly insurmountable that you just want to give up on your project.

Here are five tips to help keep you on the path to successful filmmaking.

Successful Filmmaking

The 5 Immutable Laws of Successful Filmmaking

  1. Remember Perspective – You’re not performing brain surgery. You’re attempting to make a movie. This is a fun business. This is a privilege.
  2. Facing Rejection – Always ask WHY? Sometimes your pitch is perfect, but your audience is wrong. Make sure you’re talking to people who are actually interested in your type of project.
  3. Break down BIG goals – Setting out to make your version of impossible, possible can be overwhelming. It is important to break all of your goals into smaller, more manageable tasks
  4. Missing Personal Deadlines – It happens. Sometimes people cry. I suggest you simply change your deadline.
  5. Your Peer Group – If you surround yourself with negative losers, you lose. Make it an ongoing habit to always surround yourself with winners.

If you like these bite sized filmmaking tips, you’ll love our Filmmaker Checklist.

Sell A Movie To Netflix

The world of indie filmmaking is abuzz with folks wanting to sell a movie to Netflix. And this is for good reason. With over 30 million subscribers, getting your movie into the platform would represent exposure. As a result, many filmmakers have been leaving messages at my office like this:

I want to sell a movie to Netflix! I just want you to know that I don’t care about money. In fact, if I can’t sell a movie to Netflix, I’d be happy to put my movie on Netflix for free.

If you’re having similar thoughts, you may want to rethink a few things. While the opportunity for exposure feels enticing, accepting a silly deal doesn’t pay the bills or pay back your investors.

Sell a Movie to Netflix

Unlike many VOD platforms, the majority of Netflix deals still happen the traditional way. A filmmaker finds a distributor. The distributor negotiates a deal with Netflix. And then the filmmaker gets paid a licensing fee upfront.

If you decide to tackle Netflix distribution yourself, you’re going to jump through a series of hoops. To start, you must first get into their database.

Sell a Movie To NetFlix

How do you get into the Netflix database?

This is the secret sauce. Netflix decides what movies get into their database. And short of knowing somebody on the inside, there isn’t much you can do to change this. So at the very least, you better have an awesome movie that appeals to a large segment of the Netflix subscriber base. Beyond that, it helps if you can drum up tons of publicity.

What does Netflix pay for film acquisitions?

If you are fortunate enough to get your title into the Netflix database, you still need a gazillion people to request your movie in their Netflix queue. This is called queue demand. And this metric will influence the actual amount of money Netflix will offer you. If you want to score a big deal, your movie better have a lot of demand.

Should You Try To Sell A Movie To Netflix?

Aside from getting your movie noticed, the deals may not pay. In response, some of my filmmaker friends argue that it is important to sell a movie to Netflix merely for the exposure. To that, I usually remind them that piracy is also good for exposure. And getting someone to bootleg your movie involves a lot less headaches.

Next Steps For Netflix Distribution

If you are still set on getting into Netflix, then you may consider reaching out to traditional distributors. Utilizing traditional channels may allow you to circumvent some of the requirements I mentioned earlier. And who knows? You might find a distributor able to negotiate an awesome deal.

Conversely, if you’re willing to go the distance, you can start the process by utilizing a filmmaker friendly VOD aggregator like Distribber. (Note: In full disclosure, I once ran operations at Distribber, and they still pay me to promote.)

In both instances, I would advise that you don’t hold your breath. Now that Netflix produces their own shows, getting in (and actually landing a satisfying licensing deal) may still prove challenging.

sell your movieIf you would like to explore other popular (and accessible) outlets for your movie, you might wanna focus on transactional platforms first like iTunes and Amazon and then drive targeted traffic to your point of sale.

While you’re at it, if you’d like more info on modern distribution tactics, check out the Independent Producer’s Guide To Digital Distribution.

Expect The Best Outcome For Your Movie

If you do not expect the best outcome for your movie, you should quit filmmaking. But even with all the optimism in the world, crappy stuff happens. I suggest you create a Plan A, Plan B and Plan C.

As an indie filmmaker, a lot of factors can negatively impact your shooting schedule. Rainstorms, unavailable cast and crew, traffic and the occasional meltdown of your crazy girlfriend (it happens.) These events present obstacles in making your day. When this happens, you will usually go crazy for a few minutes.

Expect The Best Outcome For Your Movie

Surrounding yourself with a great team will help you avoid much of the heartache associated with indie filmmaking. Still, it is best to always plan for inevitable setback. To do this, visualize each day well in advance. Then ask yourself: “What’s the worst thing that can happen?”

Once you figure out the most nightmarish filmmaking scenarios, make sure those things do not happen.

When scheduling your movie, it is best to always have a Plan A, a Plan B and a Plan C. The name of the game is to always push your production forward. If one plan goes haywire, what will you do to make progress? The most important question to answer is this: If something goes haywire, what scenes can you complete as an alternate to your current plan?

If you like this stuff, you’ll love the professional filmmaking tools found here.

Changes In The Movie Industry

Yesterday I had breakfast with a studio executive from one of the Majors here in Los Angeles. Much of what we talked about revolved around changes in the movie industry and how many of the studio folks are slow to implement new ideas.

With an estimated 30,000 to 50,000 independent movies flooding the market each year, the movie industry is experiencing what happens to any industry when cheap labor, inexpensive production technology and efficient distribution enters the equation. Your once high priced product is now competing with cheaply produced, comparable goods.

In the past, studios controlled distribution which provided immunity from outside competition. So even if you made a movie – odds were good it would never get into the mainstream market. But the internet has forever changed this. These days, any filmmaker can get their title into digital markets like iTunes, Hulu and Amazon.

To put it into perspective, let’s say you have the biggest and best Frozen Yogurt shop on your street. Then one day, over 10,000 small Frozen Yogurt shop competitors open shop next to you. What would happen? Would you spend more to market? Would you create flavors nobody else could emulate? How would you keep the business?

This is the dilemma with the studios. And this is also your dilemma as an indie filmmaker.  With all the competition, how will you make your movies profitable?