Know Your Market!

So, recently the guys over at No Film School were nice enough to make our 4K or not 4K post a “Guest Post” on their site. There was a lot of great feedback and discussion generated in the comments. However, one topic really stuck out.

A lot of commenters didn’t quite seem to understand the importance of market acceptance, and why it really matters when discussing 4K and independent film.

Many independent filmmakers roll their eyes at the advice that they should be planning the distribution strategy of their film before they start writing their script.  Planning seems disingenuous; somehow disrespectful to the art they’re about to spend a lot of time, money, and emotion bringing to life. But for those artists who want to be career filmmakers, filmmaking is a business as much as it is an art.

As we’ve said before, one of the trade-offs of accessibility to modern distribution channels like the Internet and lower-cost production equipment is that there is more content to choose from than ever before, and an audience with more venues to find content than ever before, and for a filmmaker to make themselves noticed and make a living in this environment, a filmmaker must also be a business person. And for a business person, understanding the lifespan of a project before you begin is simply common sense.

There is an often-repeated “golden rule” in local business: location, location, location. We believe that there is a golden rule for independent film too: know your market!

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1. Know who is distributing films. Know which companies are buying films, why they are buying them, and how and where they plan to sell them.

2. Know your audience. Know who is watching films like yours, and how, when, and where they watch them.

These aren’t easy questions to ask. They require a lot of investigation, and often require pragmatic thinking that might contradict the more grandiose hopes and dreams you have for your project. So here are a few good questions to get you started, and some links to help answer them.

Who buys films?

The majority of filmmakers are interested in traditional distribution through an established distribution company, rather than releasing online. There are three tiers of traditional distributors.

First, You have the big-league guys: branches of Hollywood studios and independent companies with major financing. Names in this category include: Fox Searchlight, Sony Pictures Classics, Weinstein Co., TWC, HBO, Showtime, and Lionsgate. Films released by these companies usually end up on pay TV or doing awards-qualifying theatrical runs with moderately big-budget ad campaigns, or both. They pick up a relatively small number of films, typically ones with high budgets and big names attached, or films that have won awards at major film festivals. What really sets these guys apart is that many of these companies (or their parent companies) purchase content to supplement the similar content that they produce themselves.

Second, you have the workhouse indie distribution companies who don’t typically produce films themselves. Oscilloscope, IFC, Magnolia, Magnet, Drafthouse Films, Submarine, Anchor Bay, Strand Releasing, Kino are some of these. These companies buy the majority of films that play at the big festivals. Many of these companies have a model of limited theatrical runs not for major profit, but to support VOD and DVD sales. Generally these companies have specific markets they like to target, like horror, documentary, indie dramas and comedies (for American release only) without big name actors or directors. Rarely do these films get licensed to television. Often a filmmaker does not see a profit from their films beyond the initial sale price when they sell to these companies unless their film is hugely successful.

Third, you have the companies that only handle a few titles each or have a narrow focus, distributing specifically one genre. Dark Sky Films is a great example of a company that releases solely horror films. Other companies distribute only LGBT films, or Christian films. These companies are in their element at a film market like AFM, where filmmakers can set up meetings with them directly. They may be more willing to pick up films that didn’t play at a big festival if it fits the specific audience they have built around the titles they release.

Which one of these companies is the best fit for your film? At your budget, which company is most likely to distribute your film? Just like you would with a high school crush, you should spend a lot of time getting to know the companies that are your best match. What are their favorite films that they’ve distributed? What have been their most successful? Their least successful? The more informed you are about the people who may buy your film and tailor your project and your materials to what they need, the more likely you’ll score a date to the movie theater. (Making out optional.)

In a recent Film Collaborative article on the sales of Cannes 2012 films, Bryan Glick notes “that over 60% of the films acquired for US came from 5 distribution companies (and their subsidiaries). TWC, SPC, IFC, Strand Releasing, and Film Movement.”

Why are these companies buying what they’re buying?

There are many reasons why distribution companies pick up certain films. It may not always make sense to you, or you may not understand why your film is not getting the attention that a similar project appears to be getting. The most obvious reason why companies buy a film is that it fits the audience of their brand that they’ve spent years cultivating. Documentary distributors buy documentaries because they distribute documentaries.

They may also look for documentaries that have controversial or topical subject matter, or who feature or were made by notable individuals. They may passionately believe in the message of the film, or they may want to take credit for plucking a new auteur from obscurity. They may be friends with a filmmaker, or want to form a relationship with them because of a future or past project. It’s hard to know why a film is bought, but try to learn. With every film you see appear in the theater or on DVD distributed by your crush, ask yourself: what was it about this film or filmmaker that drew attention from these distributors?

Try to be that.

What aren’t these companies buying?

This may be a downer, but to put on your pragmatic business hat, you should also be aware of what kind of films do not sell. Especially if you are the type of filmmaker who makes these kinds of films; your battle to get to a traditional distributor will be much more uphill, and you may want to embrace non-traditional means of getting your film out there.

In an interview Sheri Candler conducted with Ariel Veneziano about indie film distribution last year, Veneziano says that indie dramas, particularly coming-of-age dramas, have a “zero percent” chance of international distribution; “Non topical dramas do not sell internationally unless the director is a big name or it’s based on a property.” Films that can’t be distributed internationally are less valuable to a distribution company that relies on international territories to make a profit on your film. Veneziano continues:

Ultimately, if you want to make a career in this industry, you are going to have to make film that connects with paying audiences and make some commercial sense. First films can be something very striking visually or artistically, but not make much or any money. They can have an artistic integrity that isn’t necessarily attractive to a buyer, but can find a small audience.  In order to capture industry attention, the films are going to have to be accessible to an audience.

It’s important as a business person and an artist to identify which films do not find distribution. Try not to be that. If you want to build an audience, please investors so they come back for more projects, and gain traction for the hard work and money you’ve put into your film, it’s your duty to yourself to make sure that work pays off.

How do distribution companies buy films?

Now that you know which company you want to woo and what kind of films they like to buy, find out where their reps are, and how to get their eyes on your film. Most companies have representatives at the major film markets like AFM, Berlin, and Cannes. Companies that buy films at festivals also usually send representatives to festivals, especially Sundance, Toronto, and SXSW. Figure out where the companies you want to approach buy their films, and try to arrange a meeting. Even if your film is not playing at one of these festivals or screening at a market, it still may be possible to “arrange” a “meeting” with a rep and talk turkey–it’s why their there, anyway, and it’s a lot easier to talk business in a place like Park City or the Loews Santa Monica than it is to stick your DVD screener in mailboxes all around town.

How is my film likely to be seen?

Let’s say you successfully bed a great distribution company. Awesome! But when the adrenaline wears off, and you wake up the next morning, you have to roll over and have to face reality. How exactly is this distributor going to distribute your film?

This is the question that many filmmaker hate to ask themselves.

The reality is, most companies have a set strategy of how they release films. They have relationships with specific independent theaters for their limited runs, or major chains for their big award campaigns, or have a good VOD return with a cable channel. They will know which genres of films tend to make money theatrically, which don’t, which cities like your kind of film, which don’t. The strategy they execute is based on these questions. This isn’t a guessing game, and the numbers can be disappointing for the independent filmmakers dreaming of box office domination.

What kind of screens do people watch indie cinema on?

Theatrical returns for independent films are really poor. That’s because most screens in the US are chains, which rarely show independent films unless distributed by one of the top-tier companies we’ve talked about. If your independent film screens theatrically, it is most likely to play at what’s snootily referred to as an “art house” theater, but are really independently operated theaters. Big cities like Los Angeles have a handful of these theaters that pride themselves on showing diverse content. So do New York and Austin. But in most cities, there are no independent theaters. And if there are, they aren’t necessarily showing independent films. Many independent theaters are closing because they can’t afford to upgrade to the 2K projectors needed to screen the DCPs that have replaced 35mm reels as the standard theatrical delivery format. IndieWire reported last year that 1,000 theaters (all independent) are in danger of closing because of the cost to convert to digital; theater owners estimate the number at close to 20% of all American screens. With so many Independent theaters barely able to show 2K, the ones that can project a film in 4K are almost non-existent.

Here are some stats:

  • Movie Theaters Screens: Film = 15%. According to the MPAA, 2012 was the first year that digital screens surpassed analog screens in international market share. In 2012 there were 6,426 film screens in the US / Canada, making up 15% of the 42,803 screens in North America.
  • Movie Theaters Screens: 2K = 62%. This is the way most of us see movies in theaters today, and the way we will see them for a long time to come. Movie theaters started buying 2K digital projectors in 2000, but didn’t rise to a meaningful number until last year. At the end of 2010, the market acceptance for digital cinema projectors (2K) was still at 28%, but between the end of 2010 and 2012 it jumped up to 91% (2K and 4K projectors)! But even though higher resolution (4K) projectors have been on the market since 2007, the adoption rate has been slow, and is continuing to slow down. Theaters are used to projectors they install lasting at least 20 years, and most of the new 2K projectors were installed between 2010 and 2012. Most theaters can’t afford to upgrade to 4K even if they wanted to.
  • Movie Theaters Screens: 4K = 22%. According to The Hollywood Reporter, it may take some time to get to even 25% market acceptance for theaters because according to them, “the sad truth for technology vendors is that money spent on luxury leather seats and waiter service of drinks to your seat is a lot higher ROI for exhibitors than buying a 4K projector.” and, “4K is a bad match for cinema and growing that market will be a challenge.” IMDB reports that so far only 35 films have ever been finished and released in 4K, all in the last 3 years. Which means most films shown on existing 4K projectors have been finished in 2K. Most of those 4K films you love to talk about? Chances are didn’t even see them in 4K.
  • Movie Theaters Screens: IMAX / Specialty = Less than 1%. Wikipedia’s list shows that there are 394 IMAX screens in North America, and while the technical resolution of those screens is 12,000 × 8,700 (27 megapixels), many of the projectors have a 2K input maximum.

Theatrical limitations are the first barrier to entry in showing your 35mm or 4K independent masterpiece in the format it was originally intended to be shown in. And your odds only get less likely from there. Because the most likely way for an audience member to see your film is at home, on Blu-Ray, VOD, or pay cable.

What kind of screens are people watching at home (NORTH AMERICA)?

  • SD 480i = 25%:  A full 25% of people in North America still have ONLY SD TVs in their homes, and there are still a lot of channels that broadcast in SD. According to Wikipedia – “It is not clear whether broadcasting HDTV or multiple standard definition (SD) channels during non-primetime hours will become common. Many Public Broadcasting Service member stations are now carrying SD multicasts when not broadcasting in HDTV.” According to Nielsen 25% of Netflix users in 2011 connected through their Nintendo Wii, which is an SD device. Many people are comfortable watching SD content, even if they have HDTVs.
  • HD 720p / 1080p = 75%: According to Nielsen, HDTV ownership saw a huge 14% jump in 2012 finally bringing it up to 75% market acceptance, which is the standard for many big companies to feel producing a product is worth their time. But while the ownership saw a huge jump, HD viewership is still low. According to Nielsen, 61% of all prime viewing was done on an HD set, but only 29% of that viewing was in HD, the rest was in 480i.
  • UHD 4K = .1% (yes that is 1 tenth of a percent!): According to IHS Worldwide Television Market Tracker there were 4,000 4K TVs sold in North America in 2012. This will rise to 2.1 million units sold by 2017. At that point 4K TVs will still only account for 0.8 percent of the global TV market which at that time will be around 300 million units per year. And the 4K units that do sell will almost all be above 60″ and priced between $20,000 and $25,000, because very few people can see the difference between 4K and 1080 on screens 55″ or smaller (from normal viewing distances). And here is the kicker: the number of 60″ screens sold world wide today is around 1.5% of all TVs sold. Another words the only significant market share for 4K screens in the next 10 years will be very large sets to very well off people. I know 10 people will post comments that say “well this 4K TV is coming out for $799 or look a 4K tablet”, but according to IHS those won’t sell in significant numbers (millions of units) in the next 10 years. Every study you can find says 4K purchasing will be basically a flat line for at least a decade. And those studies traditionally are very optimistic! In all likelihood it will take even longer.

Mobile is also becoming a contender, as audiences grow accustomed to web video that can easily be disseminated to small-screen devices. iTunes streams much of its content to 720p and even SD because these devices are so small–and they still make a lot of money off of these lower resolution downloads. According to eMarketer movies are the most viewed things on tablets, and the second most viewed thing on smart phones. In the last two years, mobile views have started to outgrow TV and even home computer views, according to Nielson:

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So, what IS your market?

Chances are, if you are an independent filmmaker, your film will be watched on a digital platform, most likely on 2K or 1080p. Even if you shoot your film at 16K, 2K is the realistic format that you will need to deliver to a distribution company, or what you will be able to upload online if you distribute yourself. That’s the reality of the market right now, a market driven by consumer habits, which so far have not embraced higher resolutions. And why should they? Because camera manufacturers and TV companies say so?

As much as technology is progressing, the reality is that with sites like YouTube, audiences are getting more and more comfortable watching footage that’s lower resolution. People aren’t going to the theater as much as in previous decades. People watch content at home, and they spend millions of hours a month watching teens give makeup tips via webcam or skaters with shaky GoPros, just as easily as they watch the latest multimillion dollar music videos shot on new high-tech cameras. As it has been since the dawn of motion pictures, audiences care about content and story more than they do about tech specs. In 2010, Paranormal Activity, shot on a consumer handicam, became the most profitable film ever made in comparison to its initial budget.

Within the sometimes-myopic camera community, a popular opinion seems to be that just because 4K and higher technology exists means that it will actually be adopted on a wide-use basis. Chances are it won’t, not for a very long time.

And as a filmmaker, if you don’t understand your market, the way that people are actually going to experience your content–RIGHT NOW, while you’re trying to build a career and make a name for yourself out of the millions of independent filmmakers on planet Earth, not 15 years from now in some nebulous “future proofed” world–you leave yourself vulnerable to the marketing ploys of the media giants that feed on you, like the electronics companies that have invested billions of dollars in pushing technology faster than it’s capable of being adopted. They are counting on you for a return on those billions of dollars. They want you to feel like you can’t be seen as a professional and you can’t succeed as a filmmaker without buying their product.

But you can. If Oren Peli had felt that his handicam wasn’t professional enough to make Paranormal Activity, if he waited to shoot on 4K with a $150,000 budget that could take years to raise, he wouldn’t in the space of 5 years have become a powerhouse producer with 12 features and a TV series under his belt. He might still be waiting, like many of us are, for the “right” budget and the “right” equipment– because the electronics game is to always keep filmmakers wanting, needing, and crippled by fear that making a film with what you have won’t be good enough.

But you don’t need to be afraid if you know your market.

So before you buy gear, before you write the first word on your script, before you even start thinking about fundraising–do your homework. Find the people or business models that can work for you and the stories you want to tell. And have a plan that enables you to tell that story to those who want to see it.

26 thoughts on “Know Your Market!

  1. The truth is, most people get their film entertainment from sources other than the theater market these days. Getting people out of their easy chairs, and away from their pause buttons, requires a major fireworks display. And that is not an indie movie.

    We need to explore new areas of distribution, and self-distribution online… But even there, we need to be aware of who our market is (and just how we’ll draw them in).

  2. Very informative, thanks for sharing this information; you have answered many questions I had on this subject.
    By the way, your work on the camera “The D16″ is a godsend for Indie filmmakers.
    Keep up the good work Elle and Joe.

  3. You said it above, I commented it on NFS and Kevin Spacey said it recently;
    story is everything. We should stop worrying about what we are shooting *with* (since even Hollywood is using DSLRs for *some* applications), and concentrate on telling *compelling stories* with the tools we have. That would serve us far better than the *constant* arguing over which camera is better.

    We are putting together a “TV” show and the key distribution will likely be Youtube. Bigger audience than paying the local COX affiliate!

    I’ll say it again, color rendition is more important to me than resolution these days. :)

  4. Myself definitely not being an expert here, isn’t the DLP 4K chippery rather new? And wouldn’t that mean that most of the 4K theaters are 4K because they decided to go with Sony’s LCoS? Sony is pushing this, aren’t they? And then, I wonder how many of those theaters will mostly use their Sony projectors for 3D viewing, which will, due to the beam splitter used at Sony projectors for 3D, reduce the resolution back to 2K?

  5. Actually, I believe it might ultimately be Sony that is behind all this 4K hype. I value Sony for the many innovations and standards they made and set, but lately, they got into trouble. They were late to the cinema peojection business and here, their main argument is the resolution. The same at home. They tried hard and failed to develop a new technology to replace their famous Trinitons, and got stuck with LCDs that everybody has. In the high end game, they have to compete with Plasmas, and here, again, their main advantage is in resolution, since 4K will (probably) be out of reach of Plasma manufacturers (too expensive). The same on the production side. Sony’s strength here is sensor manufacturing. So, they try to benefit from this core competence by pushing the resolution. Only a theory, of course.

    • There are definitely a lot of companies putting their eggs into 4K (and higher) baskets.

      I think the real issue is that because we have finally reached 75% market acceptance for HD TVs it means that most of the people that want one have one, which means TV sales are projected to drop significantly over the next 3 – 5 years. So TV makers are desperate to find the next thing. 3D didn’t work out, now they’re thinking 4K will, but it won’t, not for many many years. The TV business is bound to see a significant drop in sales for a while.

  6. All I’m waiting for is a camera that I can move without the image being skewed by a rolling shutter. Which, in my view, is the worst thing to ever happen to motion pictures.

    • +100

      I think of the D16 as pretty close to a minimum VIABLE movie camera. That’s the advice of a lot of the business books I have read including “Lean Startup” which is a great book.

      What is the minimum viable product for your market?

      For me it’s 2K, Uncompressed Raw, Global Shutter, and professional quality sound. We have pushed a few things above what I would call minimum standards, but the original intention was how do we make a camera that is the exact thing you need to shoot a movie you could project in a theater and not have the audience notice which camera you shot on. Oh yeah and at affordable prices :)

  7. In the real world on real productions we always end up choosing the most practical solution and there are often many compromises we have to do. Nobody I know rents a camera because of the resolution. Of course there are some things you can do in 4k you can’t do in lower resolutions but that also means you have to spend more time in post production. When it comes to indie films I agree that the distribution format will be 1080p or 2K. It just make sense. “The 4K revolution” is driven by the industry. Truth is that most people don’t have a need for higher resolution. They have a need for great content.

    • Yeah the funny thing is that while many people on the indie side are focused on 4K, 5K, or 6K Roger Deakins shoots SkyFall at 1080p, and they blow it up to 4K for distribution, and no one can tell the difference.

  8. wow guys. great great post. you clearly put a lot of time and love into this.
    thank you for this. You shared with us something very important and very well researched.

  9. I think I have the answer to that. A lot of people on the indie side are insecure. They need to feel certain they have choosen the right camera for the job. They focus on gear and everything practical that has to be taken care of when you make a film. As a pro you don’t think so much about these things. It’s just work that has to be done. When you get more secure and get used to work on the set, the main goal is to find time and space to make your work as creative as possible. To find that right angle, that perticular mood in that scene. And so on.

  10. Dear Elle, dear Joe,

    first of all thank you for this very informative and well written post and insight on american film marketing. You guys are so adorable that I will buy your camera even if it ends up being out of date by the time it really is up for sale in Europe … Which I honestly do not want to believe. :-)

    I will not get into this discussion of 4K mainly because of two reasons: a) It will become a standard at some point but not just yet and for some years to come, hence it is not really relevant at this point. b) 4K is lacking justification in the field of low budget independent producing, also because the costs and time involved in post production simply do not correspond with the reality and majority of the low budget independent filmmakers worldwide. And also because a lot of the movie theaters, and film festivals are not able to project 4K atm.

    The real reason though being as you wrote: „ audiences care about content and story more than they do about tech specs.“ And 2K will just make your project compatible with at least 99% of the market, by means of tech specs atm.

    Now the main reason I am writting is that on one hand I completely agree on everything you wrote, from a producers point of view… But on the other hand should all this be also a creators point of view or interest? I very much doubt that! All those „know this and that“ is actually the job of a producer, not mine. Or are we talking about a mutated one man show super hero? If not, then I certainly want my producer to put some work into all those „this and thats“. He is not just there to count the profits… I do have other things to think and care about as a director/creator.

    It reminded me a lot of seminars and lectures I have experienced within the EDN (European Documentary Network), the past decade or so… So yes these are the „cold-hearted“ rules of the industry, that is how they function and how they would like us to function. Why? Well because that is how their status quo business model functions, and markets or industries do not like deviations from the norm. Deviations make profit upredictable and that is what markets hate most… In television for example you get all these so-called professional discussions on quotes and how they end up defining content … and it is all actually just crap. The idea of quotes was actually invented by businessmen and marketing companies for the needs of product placement, that have nothing to do with art. In reality there is no such thing as measurable quotes…

    Without getting further into what I just wrote I would like to disagree completely on some very substantial issues that you are mentioning – from a point of view of a professional that loves fiction but has spend 25 years working for almost all major european broadcasters with focus on my true love – the documentary. And ofcourse from a (southern) european point of view…

    So allow me first to throw some virtual stones on you :-) in form of quotes:

    “Learn the rules like a pro, so you can break them like an artist.” Pablo Picasso.

    „If I’d observed all the rules, I’d never have got anywhere.“ Marilyn Monroe

    „If you obey all the rules you miss all the fun.“ Katharine Hepburn

    „Sex is full of lies. The body tries to tell the truth. But, it’s usually too battered with rules to be heard, and bound with pretenses so it can hardly move. We cripple ourselves with lies.“ Jim Morrison

    „I am free because I know that I alone am morally responsible for everything I do. I am free, no matter what rules surround me. If I find them tolerable, I tolerate them; if I find them too obnoxious, I break them. I am free because I know that I alone am morally responsible for everything I do.“ Robert A. Heinlein

    „If you have always believed that everyone should play by the same rules and be judged by the same standards, that would have gotten you labeled a radical 60 years ago, a liberal 30 years ago and a racist today.“ Thomas Sowell

    „Hell, there are no rules here – we’re trying to accomplish something.“ Thomas A. Edison

    … and so on.

    Having thrown some „heavy“ stones, please do forgive me if I go on saying: If you must have a rule to follow, I would suggest cultivating a dialogue with your inner voice… If you listen to the clues your own images and experiences offer, the resulting work will be fresh, and authentic. Fall in love with your own world first … The field of creativity that exists within each individual is freed by moving out of ideas of wrong-doing or right-doing. If we can answer ‘yes’ to the question. ‘Is my self-worth as strong as my self-critic?’ then we are ready to engage our creative expression. The first rule in this process is to keep an untroubled spirit. The second is to look things in the face and know them for what they are.

    In this sense, the very first question that an independent filmmaker, or someone in the process of becoming one, should answer is: What do I want to achieve? And almost hand in hand with that: What am I prepared to do or sacrifice for achieving my goal? Having answered that will lead you to the very first golden rule: get to Know yourself.

    Ok. So now you know yourself, let us see. You want to make films, a film career. Be able to drive a porche, buy a villa with swimming pool in Beverly Hills, buy any nonsense gadget Apple or Sony might come up with, raise three fat kids, buy diamonds for your wife and occasional mistresses, drink french wine at a price of at least $ 500, and jet-lag yourself thru all high society parties, etc. In general you want to play it safe and never miss a day without food. That sounds great. Then you better prepare yourself and learn, follow and apply to your work ALL rules the market and industry will throw and (take my word for it) will keep throwing at you throughout your film career. And never miss a compromise, because that might mean you will loose in an instant your living standard – maybe even your very self… But if that is what you want, hell there are no rules directing your own life – go for it! In this case your second golden rule would be: Know and adapt to your market and its rules.

    Another version might be, you think all the above is tempting but in some way it is all meaningless for you. It does not express you. Ok. So you want to be authentic, to experience life in a completely „artistic“ way. You want to live your art and not „work“ your career. You dont give a damn about rules or the (existing) market, because you are not a salesman, but an artist. You believe that a bicycle will take you from L.A. to N.Y. as a porche would do, but only in a different time frame … You even found a girl that loves the song „Diamonds are a girls best friend“ but will never blame you or leave you for not buying them for her. (You lucky bastard) You also believe that people can actually survive on love only and not necessarily on food as well… And finally you can not imagine or be settle with the idea that a box always has to be a box of identical shape, no border can mean the end and nothing else exists beyond … Etc. Well then my friend you are a true „hardcore“ case, a true believer. I would lie if I told you, you have an easy ride ahead of you. But this path regardless where is going to end, regardless of the anticipated success or fail is a true piece of (life)-art. Your second golden rule here will be: You have no predifined market, so Learn to survive „failure“. Be content with your „failure“, as you will grow stronger every time you fail and stand up again, and because the most difficult path in life is the path of your heart.

    Ofcourse 90% of us „real“ people are and will live a life between those two extremes. 5% will live the Hollywood-Elite-version and 5% the Van Gogh version. In any case I do believe that you have to learn all the rules, exactly as Picasso puts it. Only then you will have a chance to move in all directions according to who you really are and want to be.

    In an odd way it is a contradiction for me to hear from young independent filmmakers talking about rules of the market and industry as a binding necessity. I then have to ask myself … From what are they then independent? if they also just follow market-baked rules? They should then call themselves dependent filmmakers…

    Ofcourse you can make your films according to the recipy (and reference) screenplay book of Sid Field, for example… a lot of great rules and insights to gain there, by the way, … but hey wake up … look around you … 90% of Hollywood and major productions in Europe that are being made this way are just expensive B-movies. The latest Will Smith movie „After Earth“or the one with Tom Cruise „Oblivion“, for example, were both made according to all those well formulated rules. Took knowledge of the market and audiences into account, were made by more professionals than many of the people here in this forum will ever even meet in their lives. All dedicated to the cause, the industry, the market and its rules. And what are you going to tell me know … you liked them? They were complete rubbish! Golden rule number three: It is you that will make the difference not the rules you follow.

    The only reason these „market rules“ really work and create profits is not mainly because the audiences have grown stupid, or because the filmmakers follow all those rules which are great. It is because ca. 100 years ago the world and distribution markets were planned and divided by the majors worldwide, with the US controlling the major part of the pie in the western world. Movie theaters were and still are ruled by the majors, serving 90% crap to audiences. I live atm in Berlin, a city of 5 million with ca. 370 film theaters – only ca. 20 of them show movies not distributed by majors … So we come to golden rule number four: Only lobbys make and need rules not artists.

    Further, to my opinion an idependent filmmaker should not care about markets and should not even care about audiences, as opposed to an „industrial“ filmmaker. Not because he should die as a stray dog on the street out of hunger, but because he is closer to being an artist and is regularily not a salesman. He has a dream and he should spend his time following this dream and putting it into life. In order to survive his project and then have strength for the next, he should find allies to help him. One of his most important co-workers will be an independent producer, that can cope with the fact that the artist has no „healthy“ relationship to money and will thus provide compensation in that field, dealing with the rules of the market or even inventing new ones. Golden rule number five: Put your ego aside, socialize, unite. Create a team.

    Especially if we are talking about filmmaking and not art in general, film is a synonym for team work – a fact that audiences tend to forget. (We always basically know the main actors, the director and maybe the cameraman and producer – the rest of the people involved just mostly vanish in film history…) The main difference between those two species of filmmakers, is that while the industrial is aiming towards a block-busting product, the independent is (should be) aiming towards a piece of art, and not necessarily a product, I would think. Golden rule number six: Art is not a product. Art is culture. Know and respect the difference.

    Ofcourse there are so called independents that are somewhere inbetween, meaning they actually want to be with the big boys or just be the big boys themselves, but do not have the access to the major companies. There are many colours of „independent“ filmmaking – basically defined by being independent from the Big Cash and at the same time having the freedom not to follow some of the main market and distribution rules you have posted, while entertaining a small budget.

    A very good example is R. Rodriguez. His first film „El mariachi“ was made guerilla-like for $1500, if I recall correctly. At the time he was propably more of a „terrorist“ to the industry as an independent … Well I think you all know where he ended now. I honestly do not believe that at the time he was thinking about audiences or marketing. He just wanted to shoot an action film. That is what he says anyhow. This brings me to golden rule number seven: Have a dream and let nobody and nothing get in your way. Live your dream or die trying.

    And since I am running low on my time budget … :-) I will give you directly golden rule number eight: Have faith in your self, be a true believer. Only your Will will throw light around you in times of darkness in this business. Know that fear of failure and doubt in respect to art, is one of the most important and natural elements in the creative process for an artist. Question yourself, have doubts, it is normal, but never stop believing.

    We all flirt with the romantic idea that content and story are important. Well ofcourse they are, who would dare to even think different? If we would think otherwise, we would negate our own existence, no? We would be something like zombies if our lives were without content and stories, no? … I am afraid though it is not that simple … So let us start simple with the example of a director I enjoy very much: again R. Rodriguez. While I think he is ingenious in many ways, a true unique talent, the content and stories of his films is not measured by frames per second but by bullets per second. :-) The only content I see there is bullets, blood, special effects, action – we call it entertainment. He is a multitasking director that has the talent to fill a complete nonsense story with an incredible amount of fun he himself is having producing it. And this makes the difference. (I know I am simplifying a lot and some of you might now hate me, but is for the sake of debate)

    Let me see it now a bit more globaly. A vast percentage of mainstream and also independent US films are basically action, war, and horror films, regardless what gerne they belong (sci-fi, western, criminal, etc.). In other words, and again simplified, this kind of products regardless in what form (genre) they are served in the market, have more or less the very same entertaining content – violence, crime. Most of them really have the same story with different actors, diverging plots… when you break it down to the very basics, it is all about the hero that regardless how vulnerable he was in the beginning, in the end killed them all, had even time to f… the blond and also saved the world. Great. Happy end. I know I am getting mean now…

    So let us go even deeper. Another example: the most successfull, profitable film industry worldwide is the porn industry. Content, story? It is all just one word really. Sex. And is practically always the same product. Yes it could be black or white, interracial or gay sex but is always one recipy, one content, one, the same product!

    I could bring more examples, but I think the point is slowly clearly emerging. If you go by the rules of the industry and the ruling distribution structures, you really have very limited options by means of content and story. Otherwise your product will fail or never get produced. It is important to understand that the market defines thru its superimposed, rational rules both the content and the story, letting you filmmaker basically simply with only the form, the packaging of the very same product over and over again. They do not care if your indians are blue or red, they don´t care if Rambo is played by Stalone or Brad Pitt, as long as the actor is a star and kills them all. They care about serving the audience with the very same tested, bullet proofed recipy. That is the true meaning of rules. They are made to lead you to the very same result regardless of the path you follow. Golden rule number nine: Do not respect the rules. Break the rules by knowing them. Change them using the magic word called – creativity. Only then you will discover new continents, new possibilities, create new markets, new formats.

    Film history books are full of names of people, directors that broke the rules, not with the ones that obeyed them. You think Pasolini, Fellini. Bunuel, Luis Male or Tarkowsky cared about rules, spend a minute thinking about their audiences? Even Rodriguez does not really care about rules…

    And we come to my last and rather reactionary point of view. Golden rule number ten: Most audiences today do not really care about content, nor story, not even about you. Reality TV programs are the best proof for this.

    You are always as good as your last project was. You stop filming and regardless what you have created you will be „soon“ forgotten. The audiences that really do care about content and story and also about you is only a tiny minority of film enthusiasts. A small percentage of the total polulation. They are marginal markets and that is exactly why the industry is not serving them. The vast majority of audiences is served with a handfull of recycled and re-spiced, in their essence identical recipies. They are used to it and do not even care about anything else. Todays audiences are consuming audiovisual products, they do not experience them. They seek superficial entertainment, not depth of content or story. It is like the soft drink industry. Talk with a marketing professional in this industry, he will tell you it is not about the drink (content) itself, it is all about packaging. Even if the content was pure poison, but the packaging and marketing campaign great, people would buy it.

    Look around you, does this world we all live in look like a world where most people care about content and story? No – not at all. We all live some version of true lies. If we did care about content and story would not this world be a better place to live in for all?

    Take documentary for example. Never was and never will be a block buster, with one exception: Wild life documentaries. Why? Because true stories on animals are not the same as true stories on people. It is more comfortable not to identify myself with something real close to my own nature, because otherwise I would have to think. We are living in a world where as Neil Postman put it, long ago, entertain ourselves to death…

    Do you honestly think that if I had the possibility, just now, to make a documentary on Syria, proving that your president Obama is on the verge of making the very same mistake that Bush did – to start a war based on a lie, I would reach a wide audience? Why? Because I would have content and a super good story, being both politically correct and truthfull, hence „valuable“ as an artist? Lol. I very much doubt that… Maybe 10 years into the future I would shoot the story with Matt Damon and get an Oscar, as it happened with the war in Iraq …

    I dont mean to sound pessimistic, and I am not. I just speak RAW. Just like the D16 will do. But I do hate hearing, or reading all those business school graduates trying to put marketing structures into art, so they can sell it for profit. All those slogans : Contet is present – and future – of marketing. All those categories of target groups and the like. Content marketing’s purpose is to attract and retain customers by consistently creating and curating relevant and valuable content with the intention of changing or enhancing consumer behavior. It is an ongoing process that is best integrated into your overall marketing strategy, and it focuses on owning media, not „renting“ it.

    Art is not about owning somebody and is actually not about target groups, it is about everything and for everybody. And every artist was first an amateur. Never forget this.

    Now reading your post, and despite the fact that I trully understand that you are actually helping a lot of people, as the rules you are referring, are usefull and do really help people to structure their thoughts, I can not help myself asking:

    Is it not exactly what most of us here expect from the D16, 2K? A true „revolution“? At last a viable RAW camera made from independent filmmakers for indepedent filmmakers? Not some compromised, pseudo-revolutionary and semi working geisha named Canon 5D, or the like … Is the D16 not a piece of equipment that is not just dead metal and microchips, with excellent tech specs, but is also full of the spirit of its creators? And is not that breaking the rules at an industry killing price? Sailing out into the blue exploring new continents? Will not or should not that lead people to make films ignoring the damn markets, the damn rules and the stupid musts and nots? Will not this reach and create new audiences that were never measured before, because they were never adressed before? Will all this finally not lead to the creation of new production and distribution channels? Gradually fill with „valuable“ content new distribution plattforms like and within the internet? Traditional TV structures are dying. Even most independent film theaters are slowly closing as they can not be viable, since most audiences do not care about content and story other than mainstream. Is it not exactly where you guys (and people like you) jump in to deal the cards of the game in a new way? Will this not help the process of „democratization“ of filmmaking by means of a digital „revolution“ on the level of independent filmmaking?

    I want to believe it will and it has nothing to do with obeying rules and has everything to do with breaking them, based on knowing them and planning your project strategies right from the very start.

    Sorry for the length – and possible language mistakes – it just all popped out like that.

    Bonus golden rule number eleven: Buy a D16.

    Ps. Warning: following or attempting to follow all of the above mentinoned „golden“ rules might prove hazardous to your health. :-)

    theo
    a greek voice

    • Hi Theo,

      Thank you for your comment!

      I think we are in agreement on many things. The only real “rule” we suggest is knowing your market, and as you and Picasso say this one thing can allow you to break all the other rules and still be successful.

      And yes I hope that the D16 will help people venture out into the blue and create new markets, but this is a very slow process that takes many many years.

      I guess what we are saying with this post is, until then, if you need to make money, you should know how to do that. If you go into filmmaking with only hopes and dreams you will probably not make money. And if not making money is OK with you, and you’ll keep making films that is great, but I think a lot of people would be discouraged by not making money for a long time and possibly give up. This is why we are interested in helping people make money with their films, and trying to help that in the best way we know how :)

  11. PPS: one small correction, as it was really late last night I wrote all this:

    …. rule nr. 10: Always have a good story, but realise that: Most audiences today …

  12. Plus One for epic post!

    I like what you said, and I have definitely been doin the Van Gogh thing!

    I believe it is truism historically that the Hollywood game hasn’t been sufficiently punished, yet.

    I think that is our jobs as Artists/writers.

    I also believe that this ratio has already changed, but not nearly enough.

    I believe it our jobs as Producers to cut Hollywood out of the equation as much as possible-and go straight to the distributors.

    Whatever the platform.

    We need to pay our crews and more importantly-OURSELVES.

    Great piece!

    -LB

  13. Yes I can. :-)

    Ultra-short 1: Too often today, art is treated as a business, which misses the opportunity to bring choice to the public.

    Ultra-short 2: Business is merely utilitarian. It is necessary but does not enrich or ennoble a human life by means of „valuable“ cultural content.

    Semi-short:

    Business deals with numbers, art with visions. If you want to experience success measured by numbers, define and choose your market, shape your product according to all appliable marketing rules relevant to your aimed target group of consumers, and if you are capable, you might succeed. If you want to explore new horizons, there are no rules to follow, just your instinct or vision. You then might create new forms, products, audiences and „markets“. If you are capable, you might succeed. Also in some cases your success might take place after your biological death…

    In both cases know the rules that govern your field of work, know your skills and weaknesses, the time-frame, era, and society you live in. This will help you in any direction you might want to move towards.

    Last but not least: ca. 50000 films are produced worldwide every year. Not more than 2% make it into relevant major markets and reach worldwide audiences. You or me „consume“ a microscopic fragment of maybe 100-500 feature-films per year ( if you are a nerd…). Do you think we know what we are talking about when we give „wise“ advise and set up „golden“ rules of any kind? While we ignore dy definition the vast majority of worldwide artistic (or not) production? That is exactly the trick/lie western business and marketing concepts/models use: they convince you of the existence of an one-way-only road to „success“, on a very limited ethical (if at all existent) basis with western (mainly US made) „values“ – and while they superimpose predefined markets and distribution mechanisms created by monopols and cartels, meant to serve their very own business-model.

    with regards

  14. Awesome post. One thing I have always been baffelled by is that uncompromising artists complain about the fact no one ever sees their vision thus and that the only thing that ever gets made is the box office crap that the studios make because they know they’ll make money on it.

    While the other filmmakers who adapted their art and figured out a way to blend art with business are scorned for being called sell outs but the number one difference between the so called “artists” and the so called “sell-outs” is that the “sell-outs” are actually making their art and getting practice improving their craft while the “artists” are complaining about no one wanting to see their work.

    Awesome post and so relevant if you want to make filmmaking your career…unless you want to make filmmaking a really, really expensive hobby. If that is the case make whatever you want.

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