Filmmaking 101: Earning a Living as an Indie Filmmaker

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Simon Cade wants to make a living as a filmmaker. And he has a plan.

By James DeRuvo (doddleNEWS)

When Steven Spielberg and George Lucas made the prediction that modern filmmaking is going to collapse due to an over reliance on fewer larger budget tent-pole films, it made some stand up and take notice. Others believe that they were losing their minds due to old age, and others who have been dealing with the fall of the middle class filmmaker all along. Some are even saying that with the current business models, it’s impossible for middle class, independent filmmakers to make a living anymore.

Are they right? Or is there some plan out there to make a buck practicing the craft you love?

“It’s impossible to get an independent picture made at a major studio. The major studios want tentpole pictures that appeal to an international box office. 70 percent of that audience is overseas. Find yourself a billionaire who would prefer to own a movie rather than owning a politician, because it’s come to that.” – Variety Editor Peter Bart, MSNBC

If you take a look at the top grossing movies of 2015, by box office, you may be inclined to agree with the statement above. This was at the heart of an article on IndieWire, which put forth the notion that the ‘middle class filmmaker’ is now extinct. The meme is, that there is no way to make a living as a filmmaker unless you’re a big budget, A-list director, and there’s no advocate pushing the independent film.

Well, maybe in the traditional sense, that may be true. There is very little in the way of micro-budgeted films, which is why television has enjoyed a kind of rebirth as the domain of smaller budgeted storytelling. But I rather link TV to films simply because they are largely controlled by the networks and have larger budgets than you realize.

film set production filmmaking videoSo what happened to the middle class filmmaker? Well, in spite of what William Dickerson at IndieWire says, one only has to look to the Internet. Those who are trying to work out their career as a middle class filmmaker are going directly to their audiences on YouTube, Vimeo, and other portals, and using crowdfunding to get their vision born. Remember Tangerine? That movie is certainly a low budget indie, and it’s gotten a lot of play on the festival circuit in spite of its ultra low budget, mobile filmaking vibe.

So while Dickerson makes a good point about the overall state of filmmaking these days, I think that it would be awfully easy to use his article as yet another excuse, and honestly, as filmmakers we have plenty of those. Filmmaking has always been next to impossible, hasn’t it? When you are trying to break into an industry where only the top 5% actually make a living at it, while the rest of us have day jobs, how has it really changed all that much?

I think the industry is evolving, and those who are trying to make a middle class living at their craft are going where the money is, and where their audience can be found, and that’s online. Over at DSLR Guide on YouTube, filmmaker Simon Cade isn’t complaining about the state of the middle class filmmaker. Instead, he’s making a plan, and his plan involves a shotgun approach of four ways to pay the bills as a middle class filmmaker.

They are:

  1. Go the Commercial Route. “There are plenty of companies that do not have a promotional video on their websites, and even more that could do with an upgrade,” says Cade.  Cade says that if you’ve never done a promotional video, doing one for free will give you a calling card to court more business. Talk to people you know, who have their own small business and make them a video for free. They get the benefit of a promotional video, and you now have a new tool in your quiver to make money.Cade also cautions to learn from his mistakes and not just make boring corporate videos. “A lot of people get stuck in boring corporate interviews with B roll,” Cade says. He suggests learning from the Super Bowl ads that are more entertaining.weddingratesbreakdownThere’s also the wedding route. People still get married, and they still want a video to remember that blessed day. If you can make a cost effective, but cinematic video, you’ll get work. Unlike Hollywood, the wedding industry is exploding, especially with recent Supreme Court decisions on Marriage. So why not cash in? The key here is to make your rates low enough to not scare away the business, but high enought to show you know what you’re doing. Cade even provides a range by which to get started to the right. One good piece of advice: Work as a second camera operator with an experienced wedding videographer to learn the tricks of the trade.
  2. Post on YouTube with ads, List your videos on Vimeo with Video on Demand, and go the Crowdfunding route. This is the long view, as all require a large amount of views and subscriptions to become profitable. That’s just the way the business model works. But if you look at who makes the money on YouTube, the Freddie Wongs, Jenna Marbles, and Phillip DeFranco’s of the world did just that. They started small, kept putting their stuff out there and built an audience. They also went with genres that weren’t over used and could get some play as being fresh. Odds are, you’re not going to make a living doing “lets play” videos on gaming. Everyone is doing that now. The same for cooking shows, unless your niche of cooking is unique (like My Cupcake Addiction). So find something that interests you that has the potential to go viral, but nobody really is aware of yet, and see if you can light the fire. But be aware of the metrics. Who’s watching videos on Youtube or Vimeo and cater to that audience.”
  3. Go the Traditional Route. Keep banging your head against the traditional indie road and hope things get better. Build your resume and contact base and maybe you’ll get on a bigger project over time. And if you get into the right gigs, you can save short ends and make a 35mm film like Courtney Marsh. Then you’re talking. But let’s face it, that’s a game for the young.
  4. Shoot stock footage and sell it. The nice thing about this is you can may be make money on the footage you shoot and practice at, to get better. If you live in an area that has cool locations, and unique vistas, you can get some footage that maybe someone is looking for. Keep in mind cool point of views, like drone footage (be careful about the legalities here), 4K clips, and events that are happening in your area. Cade was even paid to mention Pond 5 in his video, so while it was a commercial in disguise, guess what? It did accomplish the goal of making money while making videos. So good on him.

The bottom line here is to stop complaining about things and get to work. Come up with a plan and work it. If something doesn’t work, try something else. You can do that within one of these options, or go from one to the other. Or do them all. Take the shotgun approach. But the bottom line here is to change your perspective. Or do what Casey Neistat says, “Don’t make films so you can make money, make money so you can make films.” Sooner or later, they’ll converge.

Meanwhile, there’s always Uber or Lyft, which offer a flexible schedule to earn money to survive and make movies.

About James DeRuvo

James has a multi-faceted career that spans radio, film and publishing. A writer about the technology in the video industry for nearly 20 years, James is also an award winning film director, having garnered a Telly Award for his short film Searching for Inspiration. He's also worked as a producer of many talk radio programs in Los Angeles with topics ranging from entertainment to travel to technology.