For Money or Art

Dolly move during scene 1Filmmaking is one of the few businesses that give you the choice of making art or a profit. Those entering the industry must either work their way up through the ranks, or capture the market’s attention with an extremely “artistic” film or a very lucrative one. Most filmmakers opt for the artistic film.

The sex appeal surrounding an art film is intoxicating, but rarely launches a filmmaker. There is total freedom in how the filmmaker advances through his process and he answers to no one. While this builds a lot of self-confidence, it can also be confusing when the film turns out less than artistic.

Independent filmmakers have released just under 300,000 films out of the 5MM produced from 1971 through last year. That means only 6% received distribution. The fact that only 19 filmmakers launched careers from their short film is more disheartening. Unfortunately 16% of the 19 made bad features films that ended their career. In other words, out of all the filmmakers producing a short film since 1971, only 0.0000032% of the producer/directors succeeded at launching a viable career – This answer would normally be rounded down, but I’ll generously round the percentage up to zero.

Since a short film is not about launching a career, but practicing the art or craft, filmmakers must make the decision to create a story that will sell or attract attention. Many will perceive the filmmaker that says, “I’ll create a film that does both,” as ignorant. But, if he accomplishes the miracle, he’ll make history.

In my next workshop, I’ll share the key elements that must be in a short film to win awards. I’ll also share the opposing elements that must be in a short that’s designed to make money. Since it’s not possible to do two opposite things at the same time in a short, filmmakers will quickly understand that they must make a choice.

The story structure used for a moneymaking short is very different than an art film. Many have tried to break the structure and create their own, but it’s resulted in the film not making money and not getting any attention. But hopefully those filmmakers learned more about their craft, which they can consider successful.

I’ve won numerous awards with short films (that didn’t make any profit) and also have made $15,000 – $168,000 on my short films (that didn’t win any awards). That experience taught me a few lessons that I’ll pass on to those attending the workshop. I will also share the secrets I’ve learned as a panel judge for several festivals.

Structuring a short as an artistic film or one to be exploited is critical for success. Those filmmakers that don’t use the proper structure create films that only excite their friends and make no money. In fact, years later the filmmaker might look back at the film and see nothing of value because he didn’t commit to either direction.

In the workshop we’ll discuss commercial and artistic loglines, story beats, outlines, writing drafts, rewriting for visual impact, adding subtext, rewriting dialog, and building conflict. We will also talk about stereotypes and character development – Why one is good for art and the other for making money.

I’ll let you know once the workshop location and dates are locked in. The workshop will take place over four 2-3 hour sessions. The networking alone will be amazing, but you’ll feel powerful when you leave the workshop knowing exactly how to pull in money or awards with your story.

Copyright © 2016 by CJ Powers

Found or Not Found via a Short Film

For decades amateur filmmakers put their hopes and dreams into developing a great short film with the hope that it created an opportunity to make a feature. Since 1971 independent directors have created 294,499 short films to date (according to IMDB) that have received some form of distribution. Industry estimates reveal that only 6% of the films made get distribution, suggesting that just shy of 5MM short films were made during that time.

ChartShortFilmOut of the 5MM pictures made, only 19 filmmakers got a shot at making a feature film based on their short. That is less than a thousandth of a percent of the distributed films released and completely insignificant when compared to the total number of shorts made. From an accounting perspective the number would round to zero.

Oddly enough, there are new filmmakers every year that are convinced they can be the 20th person. They pull a team together and instill everyone with the hope that their film might launch the next director and his team.

The industry was intrigued by the phenomenon and built a multi-billion dollar sub-industry to help these filmmakers get their shot at success. In fact, the entire prosumer line of equipment came into being based on the demand independents placed on manufacturers.

Three new filmmakers recently asked me how they could make a short film that would get them a feature. I shared the numbers and suggested they instead focus on making a short that they can sell. They rebutted my comments and said that lots of people get feature deals from their shorts.

The adamant hope within the independent filmmakers is admirable, but not consistent with reality. Filmmakers would find it more plausible to redirect their efforts and focus on revenue. My first short film cost $3,500 to make and generated a net profit of $15,000. It never won an award or brought fame, but it did allow me to continue the pattern until I was fulltime in filmmaking five years later.

From a financial perspective, industry shifts has placed the risk of filmmaking into the hands of the independent macro studios. The small studios are pumping out monthly shorts that make an average margin of 70%. They also pump out television and independent features, both of which increase the risk factor and time before profits emerge.

Distribution has also changed to an independent model that allows filmmakers to sell their works directly to their fans. Major distribution contracts are no longer necessary for a macro studio to be profitable. The business model has shifted to the macro studio’s side, yet independents are still adamant about taking the nostalgic route that no longer exists.

While a psychologist might have a better handle on this phenomenon, I’m confident most newbie filmmakers are going after the glamour, not a functioning business of storytelling. There is no glamour or sex appeal in making profitable short films, but it’s how the market is now positioned.

This new process is more difficult for individual filmmakers, but a perfect fit for macro studios that house several individual filmmakers that team together. The new high quality equipment blazed the road for this format and it also forced audiences to sift through a glut of product.

Macro studios with numerous talented people attached have developed communication processes to keep their audience educated on future products. With each new release, the audience determines if the macro studio can be trusted in providing excellent entertainment and is worth following. If not, the audience hunts for the next studio to follow.

This fan-based process used to be associated with studios, then actors, but today has shifted to directors. Christopher Nolan fans see every one of his films regardless of budget or what distributor was involved in its release. The actor’s draw no longer has the same pull, with the exception of a handful of artists. Best selling authors can also create some draw if their book sold enough copies, but they no longer impact the box office like in the past.

This trend doesn’t stop filmmakers from trying to leverage other people and things to draw an audience. In the faith-based market there was a ten-year push to have a spiritual word in a title to draw an audience. Some believed titles could promote sequels, like “God’s Not Dead 2” reminding the audience of the “God’s Not Dead” successful box office run.

But today’s reality is that people follow people, not titles. Filmmakers must now step out from behind the camera and get to know their audiences. It’s no longer profitable to make a short and hope the audience likes it. The director must know his audience and make a film they will love. And, he must charge for it to survive.

Filmmakers must make profitable content and sell it to an audience that loves his or her style and ability to tell story. Audiences today assume the show will be high quality, as production costs have dropped and quality levels of affordable technology have improved. It’s no longer about being attached to a major studio, but about how well the filmmaker can tell a great story to the right audience.

Copyright © 2015 by CJ Powers