Over the past year, I've been attending as many film panels in the Chicago area as possible. These are not filmmaking workshops, per se, but business-oriented panels on everything from distribution to fundraising to legal issues facing the independent filmmaker. One of the common themes I've heard is this, summarized rather succinctly by a horror film director: "Content is worthless now; no one wants to pay anything to see your movie."
The first time I heard this message, I was angry, depressed, indignant... you name it. But after about the tenth time I heard this message, and from a wide range of sources, I started taking it more seriously.
Of course, the last thing a filmmaker wants to hear is that their movies are literally worthless. But the reality is that most consumers are just not willing to pay a lot to watch movies, especially online. Online distribution, however, is the reality for most independent filmmakers, since truly independent films rarely make it into theaters. And even if they do, they get a week-long run at a small art house theater that sells an average of like 10 seats per show. This is not a way to make a living. As one filmmaker said on a panel I attended recently, "For the indie filmmaker, a theatrical release is basically just advertising for your film."
So assuming your film doesn't win a big award at Sundance, and assuming you're not the one-in-a-million who gets picked up for a wide theatrical release, how are you supposed to make money from your film? Whether it's a short or a feature, narrative or doc, the answer I keep hearing is this: Merch.
That's right -- good ol' fashioned merchandise.
Your movie might not be worth anything, but if people like it and you can drive them to your website, you can maybe sell them some stuff. This includes T-shirts, posters, and coffee mugs, as well as DVDs with extra features, and, if you can, merch that is unique to your film -- e.g., the bloody knife from the final scene of your slasher flick.
To me, this is all very depressing. I didn't go into filmmaking just to end up hawking T-shirts and hats. Of course, musicians and bands have been doing this for years, and for some of them it actually makes what they do sort of financially viable. And that's the dream, right? Getting paid to do what you love. Maybe this is not exactly the dream independent filmmakers had in mind when they imagined "making it." But it's a version of success that I see more and more filmmakers embracing, because it actually pays the bills.
What about Netflix, Amazon, iTunes, etc.? I've been shocked at how many panelists spew vitriol when discussing these companies and the arrangements they make with indie filmmakers. The thing I hear often is, "Yes, you have to be on these platforms as a filmmaker, but you won't make any money. Figure something else out."
I don't claim to have figured it out myself, and what I'm hearing from the filmmakers a little further along in their careers can be discouraging. But I'm actually starting to feel somewhat optimistic, because I don't have to wait for some rich benefactor or Hollywood producer to wave his magic wand over my head. As an independent filmmaker, I can create my own career, even if it's one that is a hodgepodge of income from screenings, public lectures, YouTube hits, DVDs, and, yes, hats and T-shirts.