What's the economic return like for indie films?
December 28, 2012 5:37 AM   Subscribe

A good friend of a friend completed production of an independent film earlier this year. They've submitted it to festivals and are just waiting to hear back now. Does anyone have some stats on how much revenue a typical independently-produced film can hope to make in the US and how much the most popular ones make? How do indie filmmakers actually make money?

Apparently, she has worked so hard on it for next to no income - working a part-time job on the side. I was just curious about how many people put themselves through this and what they can expect at the end of it.
posted by vizsla to Media & Arts (10 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
I know dozens of people who have done this (including actors, who are the majority) and made no money, but work at restaurants part time.
posted by DoubleLune at 5:49 AM on December 28, 2012 [1 favorite]

It takes a lot... a lot of a lot to make your living off of making art in any form, film making, acting, music, painting, comics, writing... The list of folks I know in one or another of those professions is pretty large. The list of folks making their living from exclusively their craft, even well talented folks, is well... 4.

It is very typical for film makers (and all the others) to work for next to no income.

A "typical" independently-produced film? Is likely to not make much if anything at all. Especially if it is the first, or one of the first films she has made.

A semi famous quote from Mark Gill
Of the 5,000 films submitted to Sundance each year — generally with budgets under $10 million — maybe 100 of them got a U.S. theatrical release three years ago. And it used to be that 20 of those would make money. Now maybe five do. That’s one-tenth of 1%. Put another way, if you decide to make a movie budgeted under $10 million on your own tomorrow, you have a 99.9% chance of failure.
posted by edgeways at 6:12 AM on December 28, 2012 [1 favorite]

yeah, every article and book I've read on this topic the film maker is lucky to break even, even years later. I don't know any specific stats but the stories about never making the cash back are the normal ones, that's why filmmakers end up, once they find their "in" make a film to make cash, then use the revenue to fun the films they really want to make, knowing that they (1) won't be able to find backers for those films and (2) probably won't make their cash back on them.

How do you make cash? Go viral or be a niche film (your film better have something REALLY special about it in the genre it's in). And even if your film gets picked up it likely won't be released for two or more years

The silver lining is if they get accepted to some fests they have the possibility of then getting their name out there, so as they make more films their name may stick out as someone to certainly take a look at.

good luck to your friend :)
posted by zombieApoc at 6:16 AM on December 28, 2012

I'd wager that most indie films lose money. Few people are Kevin Smith circa "Clerks".

If she's doing this because of a potential of reward, I'd tell her there's easier ways to lose money...like playing the lottery. If she's doing this because she loves to make films and she loves to share her vision with the world and can't imagine living any other life...then good luck to her.

All is not lost. If the film is good, it can act as a calling card for your friend. It is her resume.
posted by inturnaround at 6:19 AM on December 28, 2012

The majority of first time feature filmmakers don't make their money back, but it does put them in the unique position of being in a very exclusive club, one which grants them lots of exposure if their films get picked up for distribution. If they don't hit it out of the ballpark with their film, they still may be able to get representation with an agent or manager who can get them working in the industry. And if that fails, having a completed feature helps tremendously with getting their second features self-financed as it serves as a calling card to investors and producers that they know what they are doing.

Sometimes even getting into the best festivals may not be the answer. Several of my friends have won top awards at Sundance and even with distribution, they are somehow exactly where they were when they first started. Filmmaking is a crap shoot.
posted by cazoo at 7:21 AM on December 28, 2012

I was closely involved in a film that made it to Sundance and won a major award and got distribution. The short answer: nobody made any money but it was good for the career of the writer/director.
posted by BlahLaLa at 8:01 AM on December 28, 2012

The film makers I know who have made their own independent films have all lost money on it. However, money was not the ultimate goal, and one of them used their experience and the release of their film to get a real job in hollywood.

All of them, even though they lost money on it, would do it again in a heartbeat.
posted by markblasco at 8:28 AM on December 28, 2012

Well, a recent example is The Sessions which was independently financed (I know of some of the people who contributed), but Ben Lewin has been around a long time and there are plenty of years where he hasn't made much (for more background, see Australian Story about the 'story behind the surprise hit' - there is a transcript if you can't watch the video). It had a budget of $1,000,000 and IMDB says it has made almost $6m. No idea how typical that is, but given the awards etc, I'd say it is considered a good case scenario.
posted by AnnaRat at 1:26 PM on December 28, 2012

She should check out No Media Kings - it's by a Toronto writer who has produced a bunch of indie films, books and comics.
posted by 5_13_23_42_69_666 at 6:18 PM on December 28, 2012

I know a couple of independent film makers who have films that do well at festivals, winning international awards. One guy is a name known by most film makers and academics in the world, and he has also sold some of his films for TV distribution.

The reason I know these people is because they have taught film making courses at my university, which they do because they need the income from teaching in order to be able to afford the travel costs associated with making and showing films. In other words, they do not even make enough money from the films to cover the costs of making them.
posted by lollusc at 10:46 PM on December 30, 2012

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