Filmmaking itself isn’t a business. It takes business savvy to support filmmaking. That said, how can filmmakers make money with short film to support the habit? I’m always on the lookout for examples of how independent filmmakers make money, and new ideas that filmmakers might try.
There’s no high-dollar commercial path for short film. The idea is to try and break even so you won’t have to ask for money to make films. Just use whatever money, equipment, relationships, and time you have for making your first film. See if you can recoup that investment. Then go make more films. Along the way, maybe you can build it into a business that supports you. If not, see if you can break even and keep doing what you enjoy.
Here are some ways that smart filmmakers have made some of their money back:
DVD compilations. These can be distributed through Amazon.com and other retailers, directly through your own website, video on demand through Netflix (almost NO money to be made as of this writing from Netflix streaming, by the way). Just like musicians selling their recordings, you’ll do better if you have your own mailing list, social media relationships, media-media relationships, and curate those relationships directly. Build a following, and keep offering them the films you make. As an example, see independent film director Hal Hartley. He’s been doing this since the 1980s.
Library sales. A perfect example of a filmmaker who does this is documentary film master Frederick Wiseman. Wiseman isn’t a short film guy. But look at how he does it. His company, Zipporah Films, owns all the rights to his work. He sells his DVDs through his own company’s website. Take a look at the sales forms on his site. All set up for libraries and public institutions to buy his work. It’s an old-school model (he’s been around since the 1960s), but one to consider as you build your filmmaking business plan. He supplements by doing workshops, personal appearances, film festivals, and so on. Remember filmmaking itself isn’t a business. It takes business savvy to support independent filmmaking. Wiseman has it. And his documentaries are incredible, too. Check it out!
Youtube and other online video communities. If you successfully promote your films and gather a following, you can be paid for the web traffic attracted by your short films. It takes millions of views for this to add up to real money, but it’s a pretty level playing field. If you’re planning on this, consider how you’ll promote your work. Don’t just upload stuff to Youtube (or anywhere else) and wait to be found. How will your short films stand out from millions of other film clips online? Who might like your films? How can you tell those people about what you’ve made?
Cable TV. Since they don’t have commercials, occasionally they need filler content when a movie is shorter than the time slot allotted. Your film can show up there. This was the fate of one of the funniest short films I’ve ever seen, called “Bun-Bun.” It was shown at film festivals, and ended up bought by Showtime or some such.
Film festivals. This is what most filmmakers think of as promoting their work. Which is fine, except that everyone else is doing it, and making money here involves going through a gatekeeper. If this works for you, and you enjoy going to festivals and seeing new work from other filmmakers, then why not?
Other ideas for monetizing an independent film? Please comment!