August 7, 2017

6 Dirty Secrets: How to Make Money as a Filmmaker

A new video series from Zacuto spills the secrets to making a living as an emerging filmmaker.

"The single least talked-about thing in our industry is making money," says producer/editor Steve Weiss in a new video series from Zacuto. He's not wrong; industry-wide, we are struggling to finance our movies, let alone make ends meet in a market that is constantly in flux. (Alejandro Jodorowsky, on the other hand, proclaims to make movies to lose money.) 

So, what is a filmmaker to do? Zacuto's five-part series has some answers. DPs Jens Bogehegn and Kevin Otterness and Executive Producer Phil Wnuk join Weiss in a roundtable discussion. Watch all five videos and see below for the most important takeaways. 

1. Be a 'predator'

The key to being marketable as a filmmaker, says Weiss, is to become a jack of all trades. The most in-demand position on the market right now? The producer-director-editor, otherwise known as the "predator."

"People are asking for producers who can shoot and edit," Weiss says.

"Graduates coming out of school can make money right away if they have a knowledge in each [filmmaking] category," Bogehegn added. "That way, if a job opens up, you can take it. And you can start your own production company, then move to the bigger stuff."

2. Go corporate

"Films schools are a business," Weiss cautions. "They're selling a dream. It's American Idol. I always ask students coming out of film school, 'Would you rather do weddings and corporate jobs and make one short film a year, or work at Starbucks and make one short film a year? They say Starbucks."

That's the wrong answer, according to Weiss. "There's no way in hell you're going to make a movie and see it play in a major-run movie theater," he added. Film students can't expect to come right out of the gate and be offered their directorial debut. Instead, young filmmakers are better served to get their feet wet in corporate videos. "Treat them like features," says Weiss.

Wnuk agrees. "What it all comes down to is relationship development, and you get that from corporate videos and small productions."

3. BYO audience

"Build your audience yourself and get three million viewers, and the feature money will come," Weiss says. "The web is the way." 

Some ways to build your audience: shoot educational content, behind-the-scenes footage, shootouts, or inspirational material that is easily shareable. Weiss also recommends you take to YouTube with some heavy-hitting imagery. "Your video thumbnail is your marketing tool," he says.

And remember: "When you gather a lot of people in an audience, you need to sell them shit," says Weiss.

4. Keep the budgets low

"Netflix will pay you up to $100,000 to license your movie," claims Weiss. "That's great—if you made it for $30,000."

5. Always be hustling

"In terms of running a production company, getting the work is the hardest part," advises Wnuk. "The creatives are expendable, so have someone on [new business] full-time."

 

6. Knock on the doors of the future

"When cable dies, companies will have their own shows—Ford, Target, etc.," says Weiss. "The future of the indie film community is in companies making shows. I mean, look at Amazon!"      

Visit Zacuto.com for more great filmmaking tips.

Your Comment

22 Comments

This might be the best article on NFS that I can remember. Thanks Emily !!

August 7, 2017 at 5:49PM, Edited August 7, 5:49PM

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A refreshing look at a hard subject.

August 7, 2017 at 7:36PM

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Curtis Polk
Principal
208

Please don't post these anti-film, anti-art videos.. this kind of advice is completely wrong for anyone who wants to be an artist in film. These guys are still stuck making corporate/wedding videos after 30 years and everything that they mocked, what the filmmaking students would do, is what they were suppose to do.. I'd pick a dozen theaters over 3m views any day. On the side note, these guys aren't making any money compared to those "crazy" film students that end up making feature films.

August 7, 2017 at 7:53PM, Edited August 7, 7:53PM

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Veljko
8

Veljko... honestly you need a reality check.

August 7, 2017 at 10:45PM

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Old ferengi proverb "Integrity and a sack is worth the sack." There's no sustainability in poverty and you'll never be great at something unless you get the chance to do every day.

August 8, 2017 at 8:18AM, Edited August 8, 8:21AM

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Matt Drummond
Writer/Director/Producer
100

I love how you quoted the Ferengi.

August 8, 2017 at 10:20AM

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Patrick Ortman
I tell stories. Sometimes for money. Sometimes, not.
740

It's comments like this that inform us that you are not a working professional in this field. You've got a lot to learn, kid.

August 8, 2017 at 11:34AM

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Chris Kas
Jack of all trades
184

I know your name from somewhere. I think you directed Lawrence of Arabia, right?

You're precious, Veljko, don't ever change.

August 11, 2017 at 4:00PM

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Can't you do both? You could shoot viral things and use that money and platform to show your art?

August 21, 2017 at 3:32PM

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Abi Stricker
Student
266

How relevant is this advice to filmmakers starting out today though? These are old guys who got their start a long time ago in a different age (and with an admitted huge stroke of luck). Sure, the Internet is a huge opportunity with potential for literally millions of viewers, but there are also thousands of other people making videos and you have to find a way for yourself to stand out, and not just be seen once, but for people to keep coming back for more. And you have to do all of this without money--by the way, what are you supposed to live on for those five years after film school while you hone your craft and build a business? And furthermore, how can you get a team member to take care of the business side of things and find you jobs if you can't afford to pay them? I've worked in marketing before, and believe me, even for a small business, this film/writer/social media character is actually a team of 5 - 10 people working full time to make a business visible and bring people in and turn them into paying customers, and even with constant scrutiny of new trends and trying to do everything right, you often simply get lost in the competition. I'm not proud. I'm more than happy to work on corporate videos to bring in the money while I continue making narrative films. I also am a writer/director/editor and work with a DP/producer/editor. Nevertheless it's a constant struggle to keep finding work. It seems like corporations are becoming even less willing to pay decent prices for good films, because they can "do it themselves" or someone else is willing to give them an inferior product (which they may or may not know) for less money. As for narrative short, when you try to market them to media companies, they often want you to hand over all the rights (including credits) for a paltry sum like $300 or even $100--for a short film! That's often hundreds of hours of many people's work plus equipment plus the inevitable money you end up spending during production. I agree that there is a huge potential market out there: sure, lots more people are making films, but lots more people are wanting them too. But at this sticky moment in history, we still haven't found a way to connect buyers to creators in a streamlined fashion. Media curating companies are popping up all over the place, but it can be hard to know who to trust, often the deals are so bad, and I don't know how many times I've created profiles on their websites and never got a whisper about any work from them. I really don't think we can depend on models from the past to figure out how to make it today, except for things that will always be true, like work hard, don't give up, do excellent work, etc. It would be really nice to hear from filmmakers who've made it in today's world and are in the same boat we are.

August 8, 2017 at 4:08AM, Edited August 8, 4:26AM

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Stephanie Spicer
Writer/Director
184

Hi Stephanie

Some of the advice in this article is relevant. Some is not. Both my features have sold to every major territory. My latest feature had wide release theatrical runs in both Australia and New Zealand and is also going to theatres in many other territories including China and the US early next year. My advice is learn to do everything from script to screen to keep your budgets real low, know your market and build your pipeline to it. Build relationships with people who have access to your market.

August 8, 2017 at 8:13AM, Edited August 8, 8:16AM

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Matt Drummond
Writer/Director/Producer
100

That's amazing, Matt. Maybe you should write an article--I'd read it! :)

August 9, 2017 at 4:33AM, Edited August 9, 4:33AM

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Stephanie Spicer
Writer/Director
184

A tricky subject to be sure, but all of these videos assume that the sole aim of being a filmmaker is to make money. It's the exact opposite of the Jodorowsky article about making films to lose money.

Sometimes...making films simply isn't about making money, it's about making films. Ask any musician if making music is a sensible way to make a living. It isn't, it's probably the worst way on the planet to make money. So why do they bother? Sometimes life is about the stuff you do for yourself not about the things you do to for a wage. There are plenty of people out there that have no intention of making a penny from their film, they just want to make one. Just like the people that want to write a novel, rather than some copy for a Doritos ad, and people who'd rather make experimental jazz than a jingle for the latest price comparison site.

The decisions you make during this small time on a dying planet don't all need to be career based. Sometimes you need to just do whatever the fuck you want. Even if you lose money doing it.

August 8, 2017 at 11:20AM

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Liam Martin
DP, editor, part time director
683

This article was all about the commerce of film. The world needs art but the art needs commerce.

August 8, 2017 at 12:01PM

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Matt Drummond
Writer/Director/Producer
100

That's true, Liam. Sometimes people who create don't have a reason for it that they can explain, and it's just because they have something to express and the ability to express it. That's art, and it's beautiful, and it's worthwhile in itself. However, most of us don't have the luxury to indulge in such an expensive and all-consuming art form as filmmaking without getting some kind of financial compensation for it. Moreover, people who create meaningful art deserve to be paid for it, because it's a gift that not everyone has and it's also something that requires a lot of time to develop the skill for. And if you really want to spend your life making films, you need the financial freedom to dedicate yourself to it, instead of trying to squeeze it into evenings and weekends around your "real" job. There's no shame in taking money for creating art, as long as you're not selling your soul by creating work you hate.

August 9, 2017 at 4:42AM, Edited August 9, 4:42AM

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Stephanie Spicer
Writer/Director
184

Good points all. I would never suggest that people shouldn't get paid for making art. I would however suggest that a lot of corporate or wedding videos are not 'art'. Branded content isn't really art either. That said, it certainly doesn't mean that you are not allowed to enjoy that work. I do lots of corporate or commercial shoots, some great, some terrible, but it is a good way to fund other projects and for the most part, I enjoy it. I suppose my main issue with these videos is that they seem to solely focus on the quickest way to get money in the bank, rather than any craft at all. One quote: "If you can gather a group of people, you need to sell 'em shit" is just so 1950's macdonalds style capitalism and we all know it plays an enormous part in destroying the world.

I know that we all meed money and we want to make videos or films, but to bow completely to large corporate companies and only make content that they are funding feels dangerous. We need genuine artistic funding for artistic content to survive, and that is something that is still available in lots of countries across the world, but harder to find in the US from what I can gather. We adopt more and more US style policies in the UK though so I expect it'll go the same way.

August 9, 2017 at 8:38AM, Edited August 9, 8:38AM

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Liam Martin
DP, editor, part time director
683

Maybe it's a matter of criteria. You can make corporate things, being aware it's corporate, and use that for anything else you want to do.

August 21, 2017 at 3:42PM

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Abi Stricker
Student
266

Yes you can make a film to satisfy your dream but you also have to think will I ever be able to make the next one. These guys are right on. Most creative people don't know how to sell or promote their work. Strongly recommend a course or book in the art of selling. I think that's why they call it "show BUSINESS".

August 8, 2017 at 12:41PM, Edited August 8, 12:41PM

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William Scherer
Writer/Director/Producer/Fine Art Aerial Photography
302

Wow, really great share Emily. It helps a lot to have a clear cut idea on how film makers are making money these days - WalmartOne

August 9, 2017 at 2:55AM, Edited August 9, 2:55AM

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john24
8

So Netflix pays $100 000 to license my movie forever ?

August 10, 2017 at 9:23AM

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Budi
Writer - Director
84

I think it's renewed (or not), and then you get paid again, but less than the first time.

August 21, 2017 at 3:40PM, Edited August 21, 3:40PM

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Abi Stricker
Student
266

In a winner takes all market, you have to find a way to pay the bills. The payoff stats are against highly creative / personnal work, but its the most fun and rewarding for moving forward personally and professionnally. Achieving financial independance without losing perspective independance is hard, probably the mother of all problems for the predator.

August 12, 2017 at 10:44AM, Edited August 12, 10:44AM

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