Written by Usher Morgan.

Making movies for a living is something that a lot of filmmakers aspire to. Having the freedom to write, direct, and produce feature films and then release them to theaters or straight-to-video on a consistent basis is the ultimate dream for most, but it is also a cause of frustration and anxiety to many.

The cost associated with moviemaking, along with the pressure and artistic skill demanded, and the obligation to adhere to budgets and crazy schedules, can prove to be a challenging feat that many artists assume is beyond their capabilities. On top of all of that, filmmakers are expected to have a thorough understanding of the “business world,” where movies are marketed, distributed, and brought to market (and hopefully, make a profit).

However, this world seems to exist outside the exciting realm of “independent filmmaking” because, frankly, it’s not nearly as exciting and therefore, not often talked about. 

How distribution works

There are two ways by which independent filmmakers can derive their income from this business.

  1. They can make a movie and sell it to a distributor.
  2. They can make a movie and sell it on their own.

However, when most filmmakers think about the prospect of getting their movie made and sold, they’ll opt to go for option one. They’ll send it to major film festivals in hopes that during the circuit, their film will hit a chord with a capable distributor who will show an interest in buying it. If the distributor is big, they may get a theatrical release, and a good deal of money could follow. They’ll be featured in the press, be courted by agents, and have an easier time getting funding for their next project—and life will be grand!

And if the distributor is small, the movie will go straight to DVD/VOD/Blu-ray, and they’ll make a little less money and maybe have to work a little harder to get their next film lined up, and the next one… it will be the big break they’ve been waiting for! 

Take any of these filmmakers and offer them the opportunity to distribute their own films, and they’ll slow-blink at you, “I’m not interested in doing marketing or handling sales. The business side of moviemaking is not something that I’m really interested in. I want to focus on making movies and let other people worry about selling them.”

There is nothing wrong with that approach, it is, as the name states, an approach—it’s just one way of doing things. In fact, it’s the go-to approach for a big chunk of the filmmaking population.

However, what do you think will happen if you take that very same filmmaker and give them a “less-than-successful” festival circuit? Meaning their film got accepted into festivals, but no one bothered to buy it; no one licensed it or showed any interest in distributing it. Well, now these very same filmmakers are in “panic mode.” They’ll eventually make their way to signing a deal with an “online film distribution company," and their movie will most likely die in obscurity. 

These online, independent film distributors are the kind that’ll put your movie up on VOD and leave it there for seven years without doing a lick of marketing or promotion. They call themselves “film distribution companies,” but in reality, they’re more like vanity book publishers.

They’re “movie brokers”—meaning they ingest your film, upload it to iTunes, Amazon, Xbox, Google Play, and other VOD channels via an aggregator (to which you, as a filmmaker, also have access), and send a press release out via their website and social media channels, and that’s pretty much it. 

The offer you get when you sign the contract is usually $0 in advance but 30% of the net, and you feel confident in the fact that you have a distributor and that your masterpiece will finally see the light of day. A month later, the film comes out to VOD, and this “distributor” didn’t put a dime into P&A (print and advertising). They didn’t market the movie, they didn’t sell it, they didn’t build a marketing plan for it, and they don’t intend to push it, promote it, or sell it. It gets very few reviews from the indie fans who might buy it online, and after two years of selling, you still haven’t seen a dime—because the distributor had “marketing expenses” that kept you from actually seeing a profit. 

Believe it or not, that is the grim reality that many independent filmmakers face after spending years of their lives pouring their hearts and souls into the making of their indie features. They hope and pray that it’ll get picked up during the festival circuit and are willing to give up their rights to do so because the thought of leaving the festival circuit without a deal is terrifying.

Screen_shot_2021-04-19_at_2Credit: Usher Morgan

The self-distribution game

This is where the current state of DIY film distribution comes into play.

Some filmmakers who failed to sell their movie at a film festival and are not interested in giving away their rights to a vanity distributor would say “the hell with it.” They’ll bypass the middle man and submit the movie to the aggregator on their own.

If they can’t afford the iTunes fees, they’ll send it straight to Amazon’s Media on Demand and Video Central (free services that let you sell your movie on Amazon in both VOD and DVD/Blu-ray formats), and other alternative services like Vimeo on Demand until they can afford the cost of selling it on iTunes.

That is all fine and dandy, but there is one major flaw in their strategy, which is: they don’t have one.

A big percentage of indie filmmakers who opt to self-distribute their films have no distribution or marketing plan in mind. They don’t know what they’re doing, so they’ll either spend themselves to death trying to market the movie, or put it up on Amazon with no marketing and get upset when the film fails to sell. 

Independent filmmakers who are making a living via their art don’t find themselves on one end of the spectrum or the other—it’s wrong to say that if you want to make a living in movies then you must distribute your own content. It’s also wrong to say that you should only focus on your art and leave the film distribution business to other people. And that is where basic business savvy can come into play. 

It took a lot for me to make my first feature film, Pickings. We shot it for 35 days over the course of a year, and after a year of tasking principal photography, peppered with all sorts of production problems and obstacles, our shoot was concluded (against all odds), and we had to go through an extensive post-production process to finish it.

Long story short, it had a successful festival circuit that did not result in a “sale,” and I was put in the same position as thousands of indie filmmakers before me. Do I give my rights away to a distributor for free? Or do I try and sell it myself?

I decided to opt for strategic self-distribution. The film was picked up by AMC Independent, promoted heavily, and released to theaters across six major cities. It received wide acclaim in periodicals such as the Los Angeles Times, Hidden Remote, and Film Journal International, and currently has an 80% score on Rotten Tomatoes.

A few months after its theatrical release, the movie was sold to Japan, China, Germany, and a couple of other territories, and has already recouped a big chunk of its cost. Since I didn’t have any investors—every cent is coming back to my production company, which is now hard at work on my second feature film—you can say that I am now making movies “for a living.” I earn 100% of my revenue, and I don’t have to share it with a small, insignificant “vanity distributor” who would have let my movie die in VOD hell. 

I guess the thing to keep in mind when deciding to enter the world of independent film is that you are, in fact,independent. Meaning, you are not tied to anyone or anything. You’re not restricted to a singular strategy, you don’t have a prior commitment to unions or guilds, and you’re not expected to break box office records. You work independently; you are an entrepreneurial artist working in the entertainment industry, and your products are motion pictures. 

Enter Lessons from the Set

When I embarked on the making of my debut feature film, I came to realize that I was expected to produce a piece of art in a financially responsible way and make decisions that reflect my business acumen, reflect my talent, and match my ambition at the same time. That, to me, was an oxymoron, but as I came to realize, it was also the job description.

Your job as a filmmaker is to express your artistic spirit while putting harsh limitations on yourself at the same time and finding creative ways around these limitations. It’s to tell a story in an effective way without going over budget. It’s to make an entertaining piece of art that people would want to pay money for and watch again and again and again.

As an indie filmmaker, you can feel as if you’re being torn apart between “business” and “art.” The financial element limits you, and your creativity frees you. You have a million-dollar dream, but only $50,000 to work with. This is where my book comes into play.

I was fortunate enough to be born with an entrepreneurial spirit, and to have accrued some business acumen over the years, and it was this business acumen that saved my butt when the time came to sell and market my debut feature film. It was the relative success of that film that gave me the confidence to put my know-how to paper, compile the many notes I’ve taken over the years, and publish a book that teaches hopeful filmmakers real-life strategies to making a living in this industry and to mixing the art with the business. 

Lessons from the Set is a comprehensive filmmaking guide that takes a cinephile’s “Do It Yourself” approach to low-budget indie film production and distribution. It covers the most effective DIY approach to writing, directing, producing, and distributing a film to a wide audience, winning awards, getting reviews, getting press, and building the base for your next feature film.

It offers valuable insight into the process—from the very start (the idea) to the very end (distribution and foreign sales); from screenwriting to scheduling; pre-production to post-production; from writing checks to dealing with insurance companies; hiring actors; solving problems; creating marketing plans, distribution plans, and social media plans; dealing with unions and securing a theatrical release.

Basically, everything you’ll ever need to know about the process, every lesson I learned along the way, and everything I wish I knew when I was first getting started in this business.

If you want to venture into the world of low-budget, independent filmmaking, the information presented in Lessons from the Set will be a life-saver! It’s an essential guide for anyone who wants to tell stories and make movies for a living.

Do you have business insight to share? Leave it in the comments.

Usher Morgan is an award-winning screenwriter, film director, and producer residing in New York City. He produced his first documentary film The Thought Exchange starring David Friedman and Lucie Arnaz in 2012, followed by his directorial debut, the award-winning short film Prego. Morgan's first feature film Pickings was released to wide acclaim and received a limited theatrical release via AMC Independent in March of 2018. His directing style is influenced primarily by film noir and spaghetti westerns. He is currently in pre-production on his second feature film, which he plans to shoot in the autumn of 2021. The Los Angeles Times calls Usher Morgan "a talent to watch." The 405 listed Pickings in its "Top 18 films of 2018" list.  

You can follow him on Instagram,Twitter, or via his website.