On Monday, Regal announced it would be indefinitely closing US and UK theaters.
I also heard from Christian Cinema that one of my titles- arguably my best work- was immediately removed from their catalog because it didn’t meet their small viewership threshold.
And I got an email satisfaction survey from Amazon Prime Video Direct.
All on the same day. This just reminded me how terrible the market is for indie filmmakers right now.
As more major theaters close, and more studios release major movies to streaming first, indie filmmakers watch an already crowded market of independent work get shoved to a second tier. There’s no way a movie with a budget of under $20k can compete with a studio film with name actors and actual advertising money. The only thing we used to have going for us was that when people wanted to stream things, they could choose older movies and shows or indie content. Now, they can choose new content from major studios.
That brings me to Christian Cinema. A few years ago I put my series on there. It wasn’t the most amazing series ever produced, but it was a niche product and I was a small fish in a small pond. A couple of months later, Christian Cinema added a ton of family friendly, but not specifically Christian content. Suddenly my small pond was pretty big.
When I submitted my documentary to Christian Cinema, I asked about partnering with them on some promotion. My doc film is different than anything else on their platform and still fit their audience very well. They would not even answer the question.
My doc film was available on pages and pages of “documentary” content. The only highlight it got was from my efforts. And frankly, it was easier for people to use Amazon or Vimeo on Demand. So it never saw a lot of sales or rentals on that platform.
Fast forward two years, and amazingly my old series has seen purchases while the documentary did not meet their minimum threshold. So, it’s gone. Like surprise- open an email, last line says it’s gone as of today. Gone. I know that’s in the contract, but I guess I expected some notice, instead of a by-the-way-we-deleted-it email. It’s disheartening to see something you spent 2 years working on get so few views it gets pulled from the “small pond” you put it on.
That leaves Amazon and a couple of places Film Hub is placing the movie. And Amazon pretty much stinks with regard to confusing policies and low royalties. I guess they can because they are Amazon, and their algorithm works, sort of.
To be honest, no one knows about the movie. I mean, local people know, but no one knows. My meager marketing efforts never reached a tipping point with awareness of the film. I can spend money on social media ads and see views of the film, but with royalties being so low I could never earn more than I was spending. I spent a lot of time trying to find a magical formula for ad spending vs earning, and never figured it out. Maybe I just needed a lot more capital to start with, maybe it’s not scalable? How can no-budget films break through the noise to be seen?
The barrier to entry for indie filmmakers is low. That’s a two edged sword. One the one edge, anyone with a smart phone can make and distribute a film. On the other, no matter how bad it is, anyone with a smartphone can distribute a movie. How can your work get noticed in the sea of content?
I was approached by a marketing firm recently. After the 3rd email, I responded. Their program is this- pay them $800 up front and 30% of revenue and they will market the film. So I did the math on how many revenue shared $1 rentals it would take to recoup $800. When I asked if he could promise I would see that money back… the conversation stopped. I also asked if he had watched the movie… he apparently had not. I might (might) have been tempted to use their company if he had a real passion for the project, instead of just using google to search for indie content and cold emailing them.
There was a time in Indie Christian filmmaking, when just getting a DVD of a movie into brick and mortar stores guaranteed thousand of sales. I heard people say that “You just have to keep the budget under $200k, because that’s about what you will bring in.” Things have changed so much. I definitely missed that window.
I tried to break the system for Christian TV series, and saw great openness to broadcast the program, but very, very little ability or willingness to pay for the program. I’ve now tried working within the broken indie, self-distribution system. I’ve been smart enough to not spend money I could not afford on production, and fortunate enough to break even or not end up more than a few hundred dollars underwater on a project. But I cannot make a living the way I have approached filmmaking. I describe myself as a part-time filmmaker, but normal part time jobs pay something.
So, after all that downer talk, why would anyone keep making movies?
Well, it’s not to get rich. The only reason to keep making content is because you are passionate about the content you are making.
That’s it. The market is terrible, you’re likely not going to even make your money back. So only produce what you are passionate about. From concept to eventually being removed from streaming platforms, it’s your passion for the project that will carry you through and on to the next one.
[By the way, the documentary is available for free with Prime membership on Amazon now. You can watch with your membership and Amazon will give me about one dime. But at least people will be watching it.]