Is It Stupid To Ask If A Movie Should Even Make Money?



I’ve been on the edge of making an actual film for a while now. Two things are holding it up – time and money.

No surprise.

I’ve made music and posters and commercials and this and that and blah and et cetera. They all took money and only making commercials put any actual profit in my pockets. When making a film, be it a feature or a short, you need to have an end goal in mind. How are you going to find an audience and once you do, what are you going to do with it? Sell them a DVD? Get them to pay for a ticket in a theater? Hit them up for the funding of your next project?

There are more ways of getting your film seen than there were ten to fifteen years ago. The internet alone offers a million paths, or at least two or three. There’s YouTube, Vimeo, bit torrents, or just hosting it on your own site and blasting the web with ads, images, and links. There are also film festivals.

I know this route from writing, and it usually goes like this. You create your package. DVD and other materials. Fill out an application and send it all in with a check payable to ‘Big Time Film Festival.’ If you’re lucky enough to get accepted and get shown at a major festival, you hope that people see it. And if they do then again you should ask yourself, ‘now what?’

This is all too familiar. When you’re in bands and making music you’re used to playing shows to empty bars and handing out CDs to friends, family, and disinterested strangers. Sometimes there’s a crowd, and sometimes that crowd even has a few unknown faces in a room of those same family and friends. This is good. This is the process of doing what you want to do. Getting your work out there. No matter what.

With film it’s different. Very few filmmakers treat their films the way musicians treat their music. At a film festival nothing is free. There are no free DVDs or free film showings. You’ll get a well-made flyer with a film’s title and description, dates and locations of the upcoming showings. I understand this. A truly independent film, unlike music, costs tens to hundreds of thousands of dollars to make. An aspiring filmmaker has put years of tireless effort into their project and probably backers who want to see some sort of return on their investment.

My current plan is to treat the film like I would a music project. Give it away for free. DVDs. Online. Everywhere. Put my face out there. Each actor, grip, gaffer, editor, cameraman, and producer should have copies to give out. If the film gets into festivals – same thing goes. Free. Everything. Get it front of people’s faces. Smashed in eyeballs. If they hate it, let them gripe on my Facebook page. On Twitter. Pass the DVD on to someone who might like it. Just get it out there.

The major downside of this approach is obvious. I could lose a ton of money. The marketing cost of DVDs alone isn’t anything to shrug off. But, you could also follow a more practical path and have nothing come of that too.

Oh, right. That’s the question isn’t it? What do you want to come of your film?

My goal can be summarized something like this –

I dig making stuff. I’d love to make a movie. I’ve never worried about making money off of my projects, so why start now? But I want this film to be seen and maybe it will, or could, get me paid work as a writer or director.

Stranger things have happened, but nothing will happen if I sit here and do nothing. I’ve talked to a few filmmakers about this, and my hypothetical situation is missing one major component; at this point it hasn’t cost me anything. I have no backers to answer to, no credit debt to repay. In the end, every filmmaker wants their films to have an audience. They want people to wonder when the next one is coming, what their next project is going to be.

At the Austin Film Festival I met Curtis Woloschuk, a writer from Vancouver who also happened to have experience working for festivals. We did a little discussion about making movies, but more importantly showing films, and the place that festivals have in all of this.



Curtis Woloschuck presenting at the this year's Vancouver Film Critics Circle awards.

Curtis Woloschuk presenting at the this year’s Vancouver Film Critics Circle awards.



ET: You’ve worked for numerous film festivals. What sort of role did you play? Were these jobs you sought out or did they come to you?

CW: To be precise: Aside from writing some program notes for the Palm Springs International Film Festival and serving as a juror for Vancouver’s new Rio Grind Film Festival, I’ve worked exclusively for the Vancouver International Film Festival. I started working for VIFF in 2009 when I was alerted to the fact they were looking for fresh eyes to review film submissions to the festival. As I had already been writing film reviews for several years, it seemed a task I was well suited for. A few months after that, I was approached by the Editor of Publications about writing notes for that year’s program guide. I readily accepted his offer.

After continuing in the same two roles in 2010, I lobbied for the position of Associate Editor when it became available in 2011. Working from the office for the first time, I saw my writing workload increase substantially and took on the added responsibilities of assisting with the copy editing of marketing materials and inputting of pertinent information into our database.

This past year, I tended to all of the above duties and also oversaw the scheduling of our 235 feature films, nine short film packages and two live events into our 10 venues. This involved liaising with all department heads, including Print Traffic, Venue Management, Guest Services and Sponsorship & Development. It was a very busy year.

What do you think the purpose of a film festival is? Is it for the filmmaker or for the general public? Can they serve both audiences?

Definitely. When programming a festival, you’re ideally looking to uncover films that have won you over and you also believe will really connect with your core audience. That said, there are occasions when you see a film that you recognize will play well with an audience even if you’re not completely taken with it. Conversely, everyone is victim to their prejudices and predilections. Consequently, you sometimes encounter a film that you’re completely enamoured with, take under your wing and champion in hopes that there are others like you. Sometimes this happens. Sometimes the film ends up playing to eight paying customers.

There is a certain chicken/egg conundrum that occurs with festival programming. For instance, VIFF presently doesn’t program much in the way of genre films. Now, it could be argued that the festival doesn’t program such films because their audience doesn’t have an appetite for them. Alternately, it could be suggested that the VIFF audience doesn’t have an appetite for these film because the festival doesn’t expose them to such fare.

Which brings us back to another purpose of a film festival: To expose audiences to films that they may not otherwise encounter. And while there’s now unprecedented access to media through both bit torrents and legitimate means, I believe that a curated showcase such as a film festival retains a high value.

What do you think makes a great film for a festival? In Austin the general rule went something like, ‘don’t see a film that is going to get a proper theatrical release,’ meaning — use your time to see interesting films that you won’t see elsewhere. This brings up another question of, if the film is so interesting why isn’t it getting a theatrical release?

Every festival approaches its programming differently. For instance, Austin’s renowned Fantastic Fest screens genre films that are best experienced in a room of likeminded viewers. They’re after a communal experience. Prestigious festivals such as Cannes and Sundance are all about world premieres. VIFF prides itself on offering a diverse sample of world cinema (75 countries represented in 2012), as well as the largest selection of East Asian films outside of Asia. If a festival has particular program strands, then you have a sense of the shape it’s going to take every year.

Almost every festival prides itself on discovering new filmmaking talents (and then hopefully continuing to screen that director’s work as they progress through their career). That’s where those “films that aren’t going to get a proper theatrical release” sometimes come in. Why aren’t these films getting “proper” releases? There are several possible reasons for that. For one thing, a theatrical run is an extremely expensive proposition, particularly if you want to do a traditional print and advertising campaign. A better strategy for most of these films are limited runs at small art house theatres where both the filmmakers and venue can use social media for promotion. Furthermore, video-on-demand is increasingly becoming a major revenue stream for indies.

As Hollywood focuses on “tent-pole” movies, so too do most local multiplexes. One side effect of this is that many distributors of independent films have reconciled themselves to the fact that a festival run is the only sort of theatrical release that their films will see. This means that many of them are now charging significant screening fees. In turn, these screening fees are making these “little” films too expensive for more budget conscious festivals.

In talking to a lot of the filmmakers in Austin, most if not all were reluctant to have screeners to hand out for potential fans. Maybe it’s my DIY sensibility, but I think of it something like this — if a band is trying to build an audience they should post free MP3s and hand out free CDs in the hopes of finding people that dig what they do.

My thinking is a filmmaker should hand out DVDs of their films instead of flyers, build an audience, and hopefully get folks to buy a special edition DVD or see it in the theater. Just build world of mouth that can only be built by having people see their work. Is there a correlation to be made between musicians and filmmakers? Because films cost so much, do filmmakers have different rules to play by?

The prevailing mentality of musicians seems to be: if they post free MP3s or even have their entire album streaming online, people will come out and see them when they’re on tour. Playing live is really the only way for mid-level bands to make money off their music anymore.

When it comes to film, garden variety viewers increasingly seem to see no real difference between watching a movie on the big-screen, on television or on their phone. Consequently, if they’ve already seen a free screener of the film, why would they pay to see it in the theatre? In the context of a festival (and audiences that want to see films in theatres): If someone has a screener for MOVIE A, which is playing at 9pm on Thursday, they’re likely going to go and see MOVIE B at that same time, knowing that they can catch up with MOVIE A at their leisure.

Finally, practically every filmmaker working today still has fond childhood memories of stepping into a movie theatre and being transported into another world. When they subsequently dreamt of making movies, it likely didn’t involve someone watching a Vimeo link on their laptop. Perhaps this will change in the future – when filmmakers regale us with memories of the first time they ever saw a Twilight bit torrent – but, at present, I believe every director still aspires to have their art exhibited – and experienced – on the big screen.






Curtis has a lot of good points that all filmmakers should take into consideration when showing at festivals. All films are competing for an audience, hoping to be seen.

The experience of getting something for free is different than willfully paying for it. A DVD on a laptop doesn’t have the same impact of the big screen in full darkness., but I can’t deny my nature and it’s urge to give things away. I want people to have what I make if they want it, and if they don’t they’re free to throw it away, mock it, or just totally ignore it.

I know. This is not an intelligent businessman’s approach. I’ve been DIY for so long that maybe the only thing that can break me of that is a nice fat debt owed on behalf of my film. That’ll kill a freewheelin’ spirit pretty fast.

Psst…guess who’s on Twitter? Curtis Woloschuk is! BAM!



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