'Indie Game: The Movie' Case Study: You Don't Have to Be Louis C.K. to Successfully Self-Distribute

We've talked about a number of success stories involving self-distribution on this site, from Louie C.K. to Aziz Ansari (who both also happen to already be famous and successful). What if you're not famous, however, and your name isn't already plastered on billboards? That's exactly the case with a film we've featured on this site before, Indie Game: The Movie. The filmmakers, Lisanne Pajot and James Swirsky, self-distributed their film and chronicled their success in a case study (part of which we're featuring below), wherein they discuss what it takes to get yourself and your movie out there.

This is a guest post from Lisanne Pajot and James Swirsky, the Directors/Producers of the film.

Months before we began pre-production on Indie Game: The Movie, we went to go see Louis C.K. perform at the Walker Theater in our home town of Winnipeg.  It was a great show. Naturally, he was hilarious and we walked away cemented in the idea that Louis C.K. is one of the funniest people of the planet.

Creatively, it’s hard not to be inspired by someone performing at the top of their field. However, little did we know, two years after that evening, Louis C.K. would be inspiring us again in a completely different way - having a landscape-altering effect on not only our industry but on the film that was, at the time, faintly dancing around in our heads.

The past two years have been pretty amazing for independent artists.  You can actually feel that something is happening - real & significant change.  But, beyond just a collective vibe, the past year(s) has given us amazing tools and solid examples of independent success: KickstarterHumble BundleVHXSteam & Steam Greenlight, the Vimeo TipjarTugg, Kevin Smith’s Red State DistributionGary Hustwit design trilogy, This American Life’s ‘Sleepwalk With Me’ & recent stage film,  and of course, Louis C.K. and his digital release of ‘Live at the Beacon Theater’

With Indie Game: The Movie (IGTM), we always thought we were going to self-distribute.  This thought was equal parts inspired by independent game developers & the amazing template of Gary Hustwit’s work, and by the fact that we assumed we wouldn’t have much of a choice in the matter (it’s good practice to aspire to things like a Sundance premiere; it’s never good practice to plan for it).  Even though, we had a solid plan for self-distribution and were very open to the possibilities made available through premiering at Sundance, when Louis C.K. (LCK) happened we were more excited and more resolved than ever to do self distribution.

It was a tipping point.

Not just for us personally, but for a larger creative industry.  It was this coalescence of tools evolving, audiences opening up and artists being empowered.  Overnight, Louis C.K. became a gold standard for self distribution, audience mobilization and artist independence.

Needing to be a Name...

But here’s the weird thing:  He also became a very popular reasoning against why others can’t do similar things.  The argument is a basic one, and goes something like this...

“Sure.  That works for Louis C.K.  But I’m not Louis C.K.”

We’d like to say: You don’t have to be.  You don’t have to be a name.  Believe us - we’re two people from Winnipeg.  It’s not our name or pre-existing fan base making our self distribution work :)

What you do have to do is put the work in - engage audience early & often, and build towards your ultimate release/distribution.  Never before has the means of production, promotion and, now distribution, been so equalizing, available, cheap and powerful.  If you have a good and unique product that resonates with an audience, you can leverage all of this, cultivating & working your way towards creating an audience.  We spent the last 4 blog posts doing a case study that was basically a long winded version of saying just that.  Leveraging technology, making something good and communicate with the motto:  ‘Think like a fan’.

Even Louis C.K. Wasn’t ‘Louis C.K.’ Until He Was ‘Louis C.K.’

When looking at LCK and other examples of self-distribution, it’s important to reach far back,  prior to the moment of launch day.  LCK spent decades as a working comedian, perfecting craft, building audience. He built towards that fantastic moment last December through countless sets and club bookings.  There was lead-up.  A lot of it.

This may be a discouraging thought for first-time filmmakers, making the prospect seem much further away.  But every good self-distribution example has a similar story of building audience and momentum.

Our version, in the broad sense, includes 10 years of doing corporate and commercial work - learning the craft & becoming better filmmakers. But in a more immediate sense, our IGTM fan base started at absolute zero at the beginning of 2010.  It grew to a modest (but cherished) 297 through our first Kickstarter, and then over the course of the next two years built to 30,000+ prior to launch.

And we did this, by engaging audience, being very open and thinking like a fan.  We responded to every email, tweet, facebook post - everything.  Building audience one person at a time.  Our version of working a small comedy club in Idaho was spending 5 minutes responding to an email about what type of camera we were using or a tweeted questions about the film.  Little by little, it added up.

We don’t want to push the analogy too hard.  We’re not trying to say we’re just like Louis C.K.  Not even close.  But we do want to make the point that you don’t need throngs of ready-made fans to make this type of distribution effective and worthwhile.  You can build towards it.

Independence & Playing the Long Game.

When making the very challenging decision to not sign with a traditional distribution company, it was indeed that:  A decision.  It was never the result of independence for independence sake or a larger independent artist philosophy.  We have nothing particularly against ‘The Man’.  We are big fans of ‘The Man’ - it has created some of my favourite films, music and experiences.  Heck, we even signed an option deal with Scott Rudin and HBO television - it doesn’t get much more Man-ish than that.

Rather, and what we think is quite encouraging, after we looked at all the options, we determined that not selling and embracing self-distribution was the best decision for this film.  Not only financially (which is certainly important), but for our film, it’s worldwide & highly-digital audience and our careers as filmmakers.

We talk about our decision to self distribute in this post and this one.  But, one thing we want to point out is that our decision to self-distribute has nearly as much to do with our current film, Indie Game: The Movie, as it does our next film.  We’re playing the long game here.

Scary Thought...

The vast majority of first time filmmakers never go on to make a second, third or fourth film.  Not too long ago, Cameron Bailey, the executive director of TIFF tweeted a stat that 66% of (Australian) first timers never make a second film.  We imagine the stats are similar in North America.  That thought terrifies us.  We very much want to make a second film.

And while, there are many reasons as to why a person’s second film might not get made, we never want it to be because we are dependent on someone else making it happen.  By self-distributing, not only are we controlling our own present-day destiny, but we are making connections and building audience for the next film in a way that likely wouldn’t happen with a strictly traditional rollout.

When it comes time to start the next film, we won’t be starting from scratch.  In much-less abstract terms, the film has tens of thousands of facebooktwitter and email (opt-in) contacts that, if they dug our first movie, will hopefully dig our next one.  Having a person put down actual, real money for something you made is a special thing.  You want to cherish that relationship and the resulting audience.   Keeping in contact with those people is powerful and well worth doing.

Of course, the audience does not need to be Louis C.K. sized and this concept is not really anything new.  It’s Kevin Kelly’s 1,000 true fans in practice really.

Things Continue to Change...

At the time when we were making our distribution decisions, self-distribution was the best fit for our film and our audience.  This may very well be different for your project and things are certainly changing.  Distribution companies are becoming more flexible and more innovative with every release.  On the flip-side, self-distribution techniques are increasingly becoming more professional, effective and audience friendly/recognized. Leading to an exhilarating, somewhat chaotic murky middle, full of uncertainty and opportunity.

IGTM Case Study...

The murkiness of this middle ground is why we’ve been posting the Indie Game: The Movie case study. Of course, it’s not meant to be a template or guidebook, rather it’s the type of information we wish was out there when we started making IGTM.  Even at five verbose posts, it’s still just scraping the surface of what went into the process.  But, if you take anything away from it, please let it be this: This is all very possible, even for non Louis CK people.  You can do this too.


NOTE:  If you'd like to be included on future updates and a potential and expanded eBook version of the IGTM case study, please sign up for the mailing list in the top left column [on the Indie Game: The Movie website].

This post originally appeared on the website for Indie Game: The Movie.

Indie Game: The Movie is a first feature film for both, Lisanne & James. Before making this film, they ran the commercial production company, BlinkWorks, in Winnipeg, Canada, producing work for major companies and governments in North America. A former video game tester in an earlier life, James has an MBA and has directed several award-winning short films. Prior to joining James at BlinkWorks, Lisanne was TV producer at the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation.

Your Comment


I think it was. Good post, these are the posts I like to read on NFS, the tech stuff is also good to some extent, when it's not about rumours of some random feature x or y camera has. I like filmmaking posts, so this one was really good. Thanks.

November 20, 2012 at 2:33PM, Edited September 4, 7:54AM


Great read and a wealth of info. Thanks for sharing Joe.

November 20, 2012 at 3:08PM, Edited September 4, 7:54AM

Vashi Nedomansky

I met Lisanne during one of their city tours during the theatrical release. I'm glad they're succeeding and also taking the time to show the film community how they did it. I agree with maghoxfr, this site has been mostly on cameras and gear, but not a lot about the business side of filmmaking and what to do after you've shot your movie.

November 20, 2012 at 3:21PM, Edited September 4, 7:54AM


Great article. Though most of the content in IG:TM is great, the "filmmaking" part is terrible. I've never seen such over use of a slider. The 2nd time I couldn't even finish watching the movie it annoyed me so bad.

November 20, 2012 at 5:20PM, Edited September 4, 7:54AM


"Terrible" -- yeah, movies that win "Best Editing" awards at Sundance are just sooooo terrible at the "filmmaking part."

I actually had the exact opposite reaction, I thought there was an amazing amount of filmmaking ability on display, from the shooting to the editing to knowing what their story was about and clearly finding those themes in their 300 hours of footage.

If you think they used a slider too much, just say "I think they used a slider too much." No need to go Full Terrible on it.

November 20, 2012 at 6:07PM, Edited September 4, 7:54AM

Ryan Koo

Haha, "full terrible"--nice.

November 21, 2012 at 4:24AM, Edited September 4, 7:54AM


I think they did overuse the slider a bit but hey I enjoyed the film! Worth every dollar I used to purchase it!

November 26, 2012 at 1:37PM, Edited September 4, 7:54AM


I love reading articles about filmmakers that think outside the box and are successful doing it. It is a very informative article that inspires me to think of doing something similar. Kudos to the filmmakers for executing at a high level.

November 20, 2012 at 6:39PM, Edited September 4, 7:54AM


Great Article, times are changing and it is very helpful to witness others succeed during this wild west era of film-making.

November 20, 2012 at 6:49PM, Edited September 4, 7:54AM


Excellent post. I have been following these filmmakers for a while, so inspirational(I'm from Canada too). Goes to show how success in filmmaking doesn't have to come from Hollywood.

"The vast majority of first time filmmakers never go on to make a second, third or fourth film." This statement really caught my attention. Actually I think all of our actions(selling the rights or keeping the rights, equipment purchases, website design, mailing lists, etc) should be rooted in this statement because nothing really matters if you not around to take part in the game. A lot of this posts also closely relates to what Ted Hope said in his recent podcast that you posted on this site.

Anyway, I feel like all the pieces of the filmmaking puzzle are coming into to focus thanks in part to the insights gleamed on this site.

Glad to have access. Thanks.

David Simpson
Illectric Sheep

November 20, 2012 at 7:05PM, Edited September 4, 7:54AM


Write ups like this are why I come to NFS! Excellent write up and case study.

We are at a beginning of a renaissance in indie filmaking. A paradigm shift if you will. The old hollywood models are less and less relevant and the indie scene is growing rapidly. While hollywood fears "open" distribution, indies embrace it and are finding success.

It's an exciting time to be a story teller!!

November 20, 2012 at 9:51PM, Edited September 4, 7:54AM


this is exactly what I needed right now. have been working on a documentary that came to a halt becos the production company is thinking the traditional oldschool way and is adapting the whole concept and story to a traditional cinema audience. this is invaluable info for me to help me get the documentary back to where it all started and re-develop it from there.

November 21, 2012 at 1:01AM, Edited September 4, 7:54AM


I look forward to reading their whole study in the next day or so, at the moment don't have the time. But right now the question is burning--did it work? In other words, did they turn a profit comparable or exceeding what they would have with traditional distribution? And was it worth the extra effort? Did they make enough money to give them enough time to get started on their next project?

November 21, 2012 at 4:26AM, Edited September 4, 7:54AM


awesome and inspiring, thanks for the post!

Trying to get more in psychology for the cinematographer...the "reason" behind the choice of a specific lens / why are we moving into a close up now / why are we lighting like this - it all comes down to subconscious story telling - colour psychology...i can go on ;)
Any posts or thoughts on this?
Great website btw, thank you for the time and energy spent...


November 26, 2012 at 1:49AM, Edited September 4, 7:54AM

Pierre de Villiers

For me this is the most informative thing I had to read or watch since "The Art of Getting Pay" from Vimeo.
Cause we all know how to make a film (more or less), the key point know is to reach the audience

December 4, 2012 at 11:12PM, Edited September 4, 7:54AM


It's really interesting as of late how many people seem to be talking about the triumphs and misfires of self-distribution. Some people say it's not viable at all, others say it is but it's difficult and now with this article the "difficulty" has been sidelined in favor of proper research and implementation.

I recently saw "Indie Game", too, so this is all-around relevant to me. A very interesting and informative post.

December 8, 2012 at 10:28AM, Edited September 4, 7:54AM


I liked the movie quite a lot. Interesting to read about it here too...

But the fact that they never asked Phil Fish's ex-business partner for his side of the story and then wrote in the end credits that he had declined to comment of course hits their credibility as documentary filmmakers.


December 16, 2012 at 2:20AM, Edited September 4, 7:54AM


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