How Filmmakers Can Beat the Recession

From freelance work to virtual tip jars, The Independent examines the different ways that filmmakers can put their creativity to use for financial survival.


Filmmaker Brian Pickard used an alternative form of funding for his film, "Slayers".
Filmmaker Brian Pickard used an alternative form of funding for his film, "Slayers".

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As the recession continues to cast a shadow on the American economy, Hollywood studios are emerging as one of the few success stories. Audiences seeking an entertaining reprieve from layoffs and pay cuts are bringing theaters increased ticket sales and revenue and giving the film industry a "recession proof" reputation. Unfortunately, few realize that this label hardly applies to independent filmmakers, who must struggle to secure funding well before ticket sales enter the picture. With the economy starving and fewer investors willing to take a chance on a low-budget films, independent filmmakers must adapt by applying their creativity in original ways: seeking side jobs, Internet publicity, and alternative fundraising solutions.

The Independent investigated some of the most innovative and useful ideas for cash-strapped filmmakers to survive through difficult times. Many of these point the way to a new, sustainable business model that could bring independent film increasing relevance and financial promise as the economy recovers.

Play Host

If you can’t get money to make your own film, why not teach someone else how to make one? That’s the idea behind documentarian Shelly Frost’s kid-friendly Make-a-Movie Studios, which provides a complete movie-making kit and licensing agreement for would-be filmmakers. After buying the kit, which includes scripts, prop-lists, costumes, and a licensing agreement, you can start profiting by hosting your own movie-making parties for children. You’ll need to have a ready audience to earn back your investment—serving as a PTA leader or educator may help—but for the right person it’s an opportunity to earn money while sharing a love of filmmaking with the younger generation. And if you already have your own production rig, why not take it on the road and host a party yourself—many indie filmmakers have set up websites and organized local marketing around filmmaking birthday parties and day camps.

Kits cost $1,500, and "Movie Directors" charge between $400-$700 per two-hour party. More details at MakeAMovieStudios.com. Or if you have the tools and talent, simply create your own kit and website and start promoting it within your community.

Freelance

This may seem obvious, especially since independent filmmakers often juggle multiple careers already. However, due to cutbacks and layoffs, several industries are replacing staffers with freelancers. For example in the news industry, full-time commercial filming jobs have been cut and freelancers are in demand. Local news stations with tightening budgets are increasingly likely to take a chance on a young independent filmmaker who may be willing to offer lower rates than established professionals.

Go Viral

You may not have Joss Whedon’s budget and celebrity friends, but you don’t need to make the next Dr. Horrible to get major Internet play and an open door for future opportunities when the economy recovers. Vimeo, for example, offers a supportive and growing community of directors and a stated goal of “inspir[ing] members to take that next step… to go from a pro-sumer to a professional.” The Vimeo staff regularly promotes their favorite videos and has the power to launch them across the Web. Atom.com, which both hires filmmakers full-time and features a royalty-paying "Go Pro" program for top user-rated videos, and Revver.com are other proven launching pads for aspiring filmmakers.

Check out Vimeo Staff Picks here. Read about Atom's "Go Pro" program here.

Work for Tips

When Todd Rosenberg became a victim of the 2001 dot-com crash, he didn’t just descend into depressed unemployment—he descended into depressed unemployment and made cartoons about it. The shorts achieved cult fame and launched OddTodd.com and a successful second career. In order to profit from his venture, Rosenberg devised a virtual “tip jar” through which visitors could send him money: he’s made over $30,000 from it, to date.

Sites such as Scratchback.com and Tipit.to, and widgets including Buy Me Beer streamline the process of setting up your own online tipping systems.

Get Your Own Stimulus:

Of course, it’s not just filmmakers who are hurting from the recession. State and city governments are also struggling. Some counties are combating lagging economic conditions by luring filmmakers to town. As the auto industry deteriorates, Detroit is seeking to reinvent itself as a filmmaker-friendly city: recent laws have instituted 42 percent tax refunds on production costs, and the government is investing $100 million in filmmaker-friendly infrastructure. In an interview following the release of Gran Torino, which was filmed in Detroit, Clint Eastwood declared, “Michigan will be the next film capitol of the world.”

Long Island’s East End is an example of one of many smaller jurisdictions offering major incentives to filmmakers: Assemblyman Fred Theilie explains in a Hamptons.com interview that “anything that creates economic activity and creates jobs and creates revenue for a state and local government are good things and this incentive is one that's been extremely successful in doing those things." Other states that have recently improved incentives or lowered budget floors for filmmakers are Louisiana, Illinois, and New Mexico.

Check with your local representatives or state film office to see what locales near you offer.

Get Free Distribution:

Indieflix is a unique film distribution company that strives to empower un-established independent filmmakers to make money off of major online film distributors. Though they are selective about which movies they accept (it should be an “official selection” at a film festival), it is free to apply and if your film is chosen you retain all rights. Indieflix will market your film to their own users as well as to sites like Hulu and Netflix in return for a 30 percent commission. Recently, Indieflix has branched into social networking-powered marketing and educational distribution. Amazon's Createspace.com offers similar Internet distribution opportunities, giving filmmakers the opportunity to sell DVDs and video downloads through amazon.com. Setup is free and you earn royalties on every order while retaining the rights to your film.

See if it Indieflix or Creatspace are for you at www.indieflix.com and www.createspace.com.

Go Public

A group of British filmmakers took an innovative approach to combating dried-up funding: they started a website and allowed visitors to buy shares in their film, Michael’s Resignation, which is suitably enough about the “emotional effects of the rescission.” Visitors to MichaelsResignation.com can invest as little as 5 British Pounds to have a stake in the film, and they stand to make money for both themselves and the film’s crew. Brian Pickard engineered a similar "production by committee" strategy for his film Slayers. Depending on an investors contribution, they unlock special website access to behind-the-scenes facts, forums for expressing opinions on the movie's progress, and advance copies of the completed film.

For her latest film, Losing Control, filmmaker Valerie Weiss received fiscal sponsorship from the 501(c)3 Filmmakers Alliance, which means that contributors can choose to make tax deductible contributions to the film's budget as an alternative to investing. Investors and contributors receive updates and mention in the closing credits; those who donate over $1,000 are invited to the cast and crew screening in L.A. Public investment schemes have the potential to attract funding while bringing your film early buzz and a committed community.

For fiscal sponsorship, consider organizations such as Filmmakers Alliance, Arts Engine, Center for Independent Documentary and Documentary Educational Resources.