March 15, 2016
SXSW 2016

How 'Drinking Buddies' Director Joe Swanberg Made 7 Features in a Single Year

If you want to make small indie films, you kind of have to be okay with a few things: you'll most likely always be broke, work non-stop, and won't find a whole lot of success.

I don't want to mislead you — low-budget indie filmmaking isn't all sunshine and rainbows. This is evident in the keynote director Joe Swanberg (Drinking Buddies, Silver Bullets) gave at SXSW today, in which he talked about the struggles he faced as a filmmaker from Chicago, whether it was trying to make films for nothing or the sheer insanity of making 7 feature films in a single year.

Here are several takeaways from his SXSW keynote (update: embedded in full below).

Try to put out as much work as you can (even if it's shit)

If you want to know what kind of filmmaker Swanberg is, all you have to do is take a look at his filmography. The man has only been making films for the last 10 years, but he already has 29 director credits to his name, 6 of which were all completed in 2011 alone. (Yes — that's 6 feature films in one year.) So, needless to say, Swanberg is prolific.

But why? Why would a filmmaker ever want to churn out such a high volume of work in such a short amount of time? According to Swanberg, it was mostly about getting his work noticed. He quipped that even if festivals, audiences, and critics ignore your work at first, if you start producing film after film after film, you're bound to get noticed eventually — even if your work is total shit.

'Happy Christmas' (2014)

Attention spans are shrinking, so release your film wisely

Making a film is difficult, but all the work that must be done after the cameras stop rolling is next level. You've got to start thinking about distribution strategies, film premieres, and festival runs, and one major issue Swanberg noticed after several of his films showed at SXSW is that audience attention spans are shrinking. He noticed that even if there was a significant amount of buzz during a project's festival run, it would all dry up once it was distributed 6 or 7 months later. His solution was to do a "festival day-and-date release", which just means releasing your film on VOD right after it premieres at a festival — that way, audiences will be able to watch (and pay for) your movie at the peak of its hype.

"The only way you're ever going to make any money is if you invest in your own movies."

Making 7 features in one year is not that crazy

Okay, yes it is, but not in a bad way. After meeting director Adam Wingard (You're Next, V/H/S), Swanberg learned that lightning quick, improvisational, super cheap filmmaking was a great way to raise your potential to make some money making movies. He notes that during this "7 films in a year" period, he was spending less than a week making these features and then turning right around and selling them to IFC. Was he making a huge profit? No. He admits that none of these films alone made much money, but cumulatively, they kept him fed, clothed, and able to continue working.

Invest in your own movies

You have to spend money to make money, right? It's pretty true when it comes to making small indie films, and there are several reasons why. First of all, you may have no other option. If you can't find financing, chances are you're going to have to foot the bill up front. Second, it allows you to keep working — and (hopefully) keep working the way you want. Lastly and most importantly, if you put up a significant investment that gives you a higher percentage of the ownership of your project, the more of a percentage of the profits you'll get back. This was an issue Swanberg addressed after making Drinking Buddies. He says he didn't make a whole lot of money on the film because he only had 7% ownership of the project. So, he decided to invest all of his earnings from Drinking Buddies into his next film Happy Christmas, and in doing this was able to make more money than he ever had before.

'Drinking Buddies' (2013)

It's better to have no money than some money

This is one of the most interesting points from the keynote, because almost every filmmaker out there would agree that it's better to have a small budget than no budget at all. However, Swanberg says that having no money has more perks than having some, because, as he puts it:

If you have "some money", everybody is going to want some of that "some money." If you have "no money", everybody knows it — and then they're just there to work. In a best case scenario — you sell a movie and then you're able to pay people afterwards better than you could've paid them if you had "some money."


For more, see our complete coverage of the 2016 SXSW Film Festival. Listen to our podcasts from SXSW (or subscribe in iTunes):

No Film School's coverage of the 2016 SXSW Film Festival is sponsored by SongFreedom    

Your Comment

13 Comments

I like this guy.

March 15, 2016 at 4:40AM

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Edgar More
All
1260

>>>you're bound to get noticed eventually — even if your work is total sh*t.

Hmmm... Do I want a reputation for cranking out "total sh*t" ???

March 15, 2016 at 10:53AM

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Guy McLoughlin
Video Producer
31468

At least it would be a reputation.

March 15, 2016 at 11:21AM

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J. Wendell Miller
Writer/Director
131

Quality, not quantity - that's what counts.

March 15, 2016 at 11:04AM

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Terma Louis
Photographer / Cinematographer / Editor
1419

Quality should always be the goal, but quantity is usually the only way someone closes the gap to begin producing quality. And I'm saying this as much to myself as anyone. I think producing a body of work over time no matter how terrible you or someone else thinks it is will eventually produce the results that matter.

March 15, 2016 at 4:55PM

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Derek Armitage
Filmmaker & Vlogger
516

Is his keynote available anywhere, or will I have to wait for it to pop up on YouTube?

March 15, 2016 at 11:22AM

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J. Wendell Miller
Writer/Director
131

I was kinda hoping to hear about the logistics of how to make 7 features in a year. Like how did he plan his life? Did he have a day job? I know that he only took a week to shoot (!!!), but did he write in such a way that there was overlap on the films? How did he gather enough people that presumably were industry pros without a budget to pay them (I'm presuming because day jobs usually stop major time commitments)?

March 15, 2016 at 12:25PM

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Fahnon Bennett
Director/DP
179

I'd like this advice less if I didn't enjoy Drinking Buddies so dang much.

March 15, 2016 at 6:34PM, Edited March 15, 6:34PM

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Steven Bailey
Writer/Director/Composer
936

I don't agree with this. The greatest films of all time were developed over years until they were perfection or at least as close as they could be to perfection. I would rather write something and put it away for six months and come back to it later and tweak a few things or catch some mistakes than rush it out even if it's shit just to say I got it out there. Screw that. Movies are a labor of love not a labor of rushing it out as quick as you can. That category of film is referred to as B movies and exploit films. AKA The movies people only watch once.

March 16, 2016 at 3:13PM

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So my question would be what else should someone be doing for six months while they put a project away? I think it's great to have passion projects that someone would want to do right when the time is right, however, that person has to be doing other work during that time period or they will never be able to achieve the greatness they want for their passion project. There is no substitute to learning by doing. Theory & head knowledge are worthless when not executed on.

One of my favorite quotes is by a guy named Gary Vaynerchuck. He says, "Ideas are shit, execution is the game." A person can potentially be a one hit wonder and never have anything else to show for or they can put out a run of B-Movies and work their way up to a career of A-Movies.

Just my two cents. Take it with a grain of salt.

March 23, 2016 at 9:50AM

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Derek Armitage
Filmmaker & Vlogger
516

Its a hard and long process. Lets not be fooled.The film business takes money, time, intelligence, marketing, script writing, music, cameras, editing and managing people. Its easy to be a critic on someone's work. Stop trying to be perfect it never happens. The experience of filming a project from beginning to end and to complete it is 60% of the battle. Lets get our movie completed and ready for that great opportunity that will present it self.

Johnnie Baker Jr CEO PLATINUM KISS ENTERPRISES &Baker Films inc

March 18, 2016 at 4:46PM

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Johnnie Baker Jr
Film Director Editor Cinematographer
74

I know what you all are saying and at one time I would have agreed but in my experience there is something to what he is saying re. quantity.
My first two films were crap but I learned a lot and when I got to do my third one, I had enough experience to both make it happen and for it to have some substance. (It was a bit of a hit.)
Later on my first attempt at a feature failed basically because I was wanting it to be perfect. I look back and see if I had done it quick n' dirty I would have had more to show.
Look at John Waters' films. The early one were badly done but he kept churning them out and now he's capable of great quality. (Production wise anyway.)

March 20, 2016 at 5:40PM

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March 24, 2016 at 3:10PM, Edited March 24, 3:10PM

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Jon Mills
Filmmaker
894