How To Be An Independent Filmmaker

Independent filmmaking means producing a feature film outside of the film studio system.

To learn how to be an independent filmmaker, you need to know how to write a screenplay – but you also need to develop expertise in several other areas as well.

Why Pursue Independent Filmmaking?

Independent filmmaking requires having knowledge of screenwriting, directing, producing, editing, marketing, and distributing your film.

That’s the cost – the time and energy involved in learning to wear all of these hats.

The primary benefit of independent filmmaking is that you can have more creative control.

Creative control is especially important when:

  • Your idea is highly original
  • Your film is aimed at an ultra-niche market
  • You have an incredibly specific vision for the film

Why Learn How To Be An Independent Filmmaker?

Even if you are interested in working on mainstream movies, learning how to be an independent filmmaker can be an incredibly smart move.

Independent filmmaking is the best kind of “OJT” (On the Job Training) for Hollywood.

Successful independent filmmakers are often sought after by studios to work on bigger-budget productions in Los Angeles or in other hubs of film production around the world (e.g., London, Toronto, Sydney, Berlin, Tokyo, Beijing, Moscow, Tel-Aviv, Bombay, etc).

Independent filmmaking benefits you when:

  • You want to develop the skills to making a living as a creative professional
  • You want to prove yourself as a writer-director
  • You want to eventually get access to the studio system

Independent Filmmaking Sheri Candler

Introducing Sheri Candler: Independent Filmmaking Expert

Sheri Candler is an expert in independent filmmaking.

Candler is the Director of Digital Marketing Strategy for The Film Collaborative. She regularly advises filmmakers on using online content marketing tools such as social networking, podcasts, blogs, and online video dissemination.

Her goals are to help independent filmmakers:

  • Build relationships with organizations and influencers
  • Develop an engaged and robust audience for their work
  • Grow and sustain their independent filmmaking careers.

I asked Candler about how to be an independent filmmaker, specifically:

  • How to break in
  • How to get distribution
  • Secrets to being financially successful.  
Stephanie: How did you get started in independent film?

Candler: I studied film and broadcasting in college, but quickly found that actual filmmaking was not my talent. I love film, especially independent film with its intimate stories, but I didn’t love making them. To do anything successfully, you have to love it so I set out to find something I did love.

Out of school I worked in TV broadcasting and radio before moving overseas. I also studied marketing in college and later worked in marketing for a broadcast equipment manufacturer in London. It wasn’t until I moved back to the States and started working with a local film festival that I came in contact again with filmmakers.

It happened at a fortuitous time because the internet was really starting to play a role in distributing video content online and many distribution companies were going out of business. I started to see how the burgeoning use of social media and the ability to stream video to a global audience could benefit filmmakers who were unable to secure distribution for their independent films, so I began working with them to reach audiences and start using online services to sell directly.

How do you recommend filmmakers break in?

Breaking into the business means getting started on your own.

Learn how to be an independent filmmaker. Then, once you cross some milestones and see some success with your own efforts, you won’t need to break in, the business will come to you.

I have seen this many times with films that have planned and started executing their own distribution paths. Once they book cinemas and start getting positive publicity and build up a sizable fan base on their own, suddenly calls from distributors who wouldn’t talk to them previously start coming in.

Start making work on your own. If it is remarkable and you start building an audience and gaining some recognition, you will find it much easier to get help from the industry.

One path to follow is gaining acceptance into a prominent film lab (FIND, IFP, Sundance) because once inside, your work will be seen by industry insiders who can help. Just by being accepted into the program, you gain a validity that would take you longer to gain on your own.

Besides the obvious benefit of having help with scripts or with producing, the access to mentors who can help you, make calls for you, champion your work is an enormous benefit that I don’t think most would be indie filmmakers realize.

These labs aren’t the same thing as film school. Labs tend to have mentors who are currently working in the industry with active contacts, not instructors who haven’t set foot on a set or worked in the industry for years. Both have their uses, but after gaining the foundation of independent filmmaking, I think labs are a good way to meet with and learn from those currently in the business of film.

What’s the independent film market inside vs. outside of Los Angeles?

To me, Los Angeles isn’t about independent filmmaking.

Everyone I know there is only doing independent work until they can get into studio work. That’s fine, but it makes for a very competitive atmosphere, not a supportive one. Yes, there is Film Independent, but the vibe I get from them is one of grooming for the studio system and we all know that the studio system is a very elite club. Few will actually make that transition. I personally don’t aspire to be in it.

Outside of Los Angeles, there are many other communities that do foster an independent and supportive atmosphere. Austin, San Francisco, Chicago, Atlanta, and Seattle all have indie filmmaking communities.

However, the truth is you don’t need to ask permission of anyone to get started, no matter where you live. For networking, there are online social channels. For live networking, there are a few film events (IFP Week, Sundance, FIND Forum, AFM) that you can save up and travel to for the educational aspects.

If you are a screenwriter, you can follow or participate in #scriptchat on Twitter every Sunday night. If you are an editor or work in post production, there is #postchat on Wednesday night. To virtually follow most film events, there are hashtags set up that anyone can participate in.

Not only does this help add to your own Twitter follower account, it helps in networking with others in the industry. Twitter is a monster resource for filmmakers and anyone not taking full advantage of it for networking is foolish.

What’s your opinion about whether aspiring filmmakers should work on creating an award-winning short vs. jumping right into making features?

Shorts are great practice and I think beginning independent filmmakers should make plenty.

They don’t have to cost much, in fact they SHOULDN’T cost much because there is virtually no financial recoupment on a short film. But getting a short film into a prominent festival is a great way to access industry attention if you handle it right. That kind of attention can garner help on a feature either through a lab acceptance (previously mentioned) or through the kind of networking that being an alum of a prestigious festival can provide.

In the US, Sundance is the festival you want to target with a short. Why? Just by being a Sundance director (short, feature, world, New Frontiers) gets you on a totally different radar than all of the other independent directors. Sundance actively champions their alumni, they keep up with what alumni are working on. Also, Sundance accepts about 80 shorts a year versus only 9 in a festival like Cannes (which is also much more focused on foreign films).

Independent Filmmaking: Apply For Sundance Short Films

How has the independent film market changed in the last five years?

Indisputably, the costs of the equipment for independent filmmaking has come down and that enables many people who would not previously have been able to afford to make films now able to make them. Also, there are more and more outlets for distributing films to a global audience than there ever have been.

But there is a downside to this. There is an oversupply of film which drives down the sales numbers from distributors and the amount of money consumers are willing to pay. Why buy a DVD for $20 or leave home to go to the cinema when you can see the film online for free or for a very low cost ($2.99) and start watching in a matter of minutes without leaving the couch?

Whereas it might have been possible to recoup the production cost of an indie film on the advance payments from distributors, this is now rarely the case unless the film was made on an extremely tight budget, then enjoyed a world class premiere like at Sundance or Toronto.

Even with sales out of Toronto last year, many minimum guarantees were not matching the production budgets. It is very uncertain what films will be able to bring in from the market and that makes it very uncertain what budget levels should be. Digital sales figures are difficult to calculate because very few are making those figures public unless they were spectacular returns.

Of course, this oversupply doesn’t mean that there are many more remarkable films.

There is a lot more “noise” in the market and it is more difficult to get the attention of an audience who now have an overabundance of activities to pass their time (e.g. gaming, YouTube, cable channels with original programming).

A lot more time and attention has to be spent on making an incredibly strong film for a very targeted audience and grabbing and keeping their attention over and over again.

I am afraid that most indie films in the market suffer from lack of craft or lack of audience. There are far more failures than successes. It doesn’t mean fewer films should be made, but it does mean that what you make has to be remarkable and have an audience.

What is a template for a social media strategy that an aspiring filmmaker can use?

As one of my marketing heroes, Seth Godin, would say: No secrets, No shortcuts.

There is no template to follow. The tools change all the time, new ones come up, old ones fade away, capabilities on all of them change. A social media strategy is based on knowing who your audience is in an in-depth way and what you want to accomplish (which changes over time).

Basically, social media is only one part of an overall marketing strategy. Social media is more about sharing than about selling. I think this is widely misunderstood by the corporate mindset where everyone is trained to think only about themselves/their product. This mindset doesn’t serve well on social media sites.

I love talking to young filmmakers because I don’t have to explain to them why they need to communicate using social tools. It is just natural to them to share their lives online, they don’t have to think about it and they don’t find it an extra chore. BUT they do need to be taught how to use those tools for professional use not just personal communication with friends. The same mentality of sharing persists in both, but making yourself valuable to a professional community is different than showing your party photos to friends.

Aspiring filmmakers need to separate their accounts into professional and personal use and keep what they share on those channels divided into professional and personal. What drives you from a professional standpoint will be what you share with an audience and what draws them to you and your work. It will also be what draws in professional colleagues. Privacy settings need to be maintained on your personal accounts.

How does an independent film make money and what sort of return can the writer/director expect?

That is a question!

Independent filmmaking isn’t a job.

Generally, no one is paying you to do it and very few people work making films exclusively. Many people teach, consult, write books, produce commercials, music videos, corporate films, increasingly content for YouTube or other online video outlets or rework/polish scripts.

Sadly, the return in indie film is very small and mainly comes in the form of satisfaction at having completed the vision. Most people do not make indie films for the return, they make them from compulsion. I am not kidding! An overwhelming need to tell a story in a visual medium is what drives an indie filmmaker. If you don’t have this passion, you just won’t take up indie filmmaking or you will quickly drop it. As for writers, film is a very expensive medium to work in. They may try writing novels, poetry, nonfiction stories first to see if that satisfies their writing goals.

Most investors in indie film do it for the love of the craft or the glamour. Despite what most investment prospectuses say, the financial return on investment is rare and profit even rarer unless there is soft money involved through co-productions, tax rebates, foreign government subsidies that can minimize risk.

But the motivation is usually not money, just as those who donate to any performing or fine art endeavor do not expect a financial return. The people who make money in indie film are the distributors, exhibitors, sales agents, attorneys, talent agencies/packagers, consultants and cast/ crew/writer (unless they agree to deferments), post production houses and the filmmakers unless they are using their own money and drawing no salary. Investors (financial or sweat equity) are usually in last position for recoupment.

If you had one piece of advice about how to be an independent filmmaker?

Really think about what this life is because it means sacrificing a lot. It is very hard to support a family and a house and many possessions via independent filmmaking. There will be a lot of compromise and perseverance involved and many, many people do not make it successfully. Tons of films are made through credit card debt and mortgages on a house. It is so risky!

It is very rare that you will make your living only making films and so what else will you do? What other skills can you develop that will allow you to do many jobs? In fact, independent filmmakers do have to be comfortable with many skills: design, finance, marketing, technology, sales, legal. They won’t perform all of it, but they have to have some knowledge of all of it.

Get a well-rounded education and keep reading and researching because there are new developments in the film business every week. Google is your friend and there is no excuse not to know something. You hear a term you don’t know, look it up!

. . . . . . . .

Sheri can be reached on her websites Film Collaborative, Sheri Candler and on her social channels Facebook/Sheri Candler Marketing and Publicity; Twitter @shericandler; and on her G+ community devoted to independent film marketing and distribution.

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