AKA tears of the new independent filmmaker.
True story. Two years ago, I found myself crying pitifully alone (yes, 28 years old and crying) on a train hurtling through Chicago. I had just come from a Self-distribution for Film Workshop put on by Yvonne Welbon through the Independent Feature Project.
As I looked out at the speeding landscape, I felt desperation and hopelessness. I had just realized that if I were going to continue as an independent filmmaker, I was going to have to sell my documentary and I was going to have to do it all on my own.
I had never thought seriously of trying to sell my first documentary, Proceed and Be Bold! I had only focused on finishing the film and making it to the premiere in one piece to show it to all of my friends and family. Beyond that, I had no game plan – only a whole lot of production debt.
The workshop featured the tremendously successful American independent film Four-Eyed Monsters, which was made for $100,000 in credit card debt. It had screened nationally at theaters across America, due not only to how fiercely the filmmakers marketed their film, but also because they had found the right audience to market to. The film was about two young artists in New York trying to make a living while navigating the extent of their romantic relationship. The audience was flocking to see themselves – along with all of their fears, hopes, dreams, failures and loves – on screen.
I wasn’t part of the audience, but I learned something from the filmmakers: every independent film has a paying audience and it’s up to the filmmaker to find it.
First – Create the DVD
Lucky for the modern independent filmmaker, it’s now cheaper all around to produce, market and sell a film these days. In order to sell my documentary, I knew I would need some DVDs. This was just before the huge push to get films online, so I pulled together $2,000 (thanks to a mini loan from my father) to get 1,000 DVDs of my documentary made.
Tip: You can easily order 1,000 DVDs for $1000 from Discmakers.
Second – Create your Store on your website and set up Paypal
My next step was to have my website designer create a professional and user-friendly online store for my website so I could easily sell the DVD directly to my audience using PayPal.
I started telling everyone I knew that my film was on DVD and being sold at our online store. You can see the Proceed and Be Bold! store here).
Tip: Make sure that it is easy for anyone to purchase your film before you reach out to your audience. You want to make sure that they are able to go through with buying your film as soon as they find out about it, or else you’ll probably have a hard time getting them to come back to your online store. You don’t have to have an incredibly polished website in order to sell a film either. All you have to do is make the site design simple and make it easy for someone to purchase on your site.
Tip: Keep in mind that anyone can sign up for a free PayPal account, but PayPal keeps 3% of what you make using their payment services. Their fees are in line with other credit companies you might go through to process your payments.
Third – Finding your audience
If I can do this, anyone can. I am not amazing at business, but I am passionate about filmmaking and being able to move onto my next film project. The key is to find the right audience for your film, and to reach out to them to let them know about your film.
My film Proceed and be Bold is about artist Amos Paul Kennedy Jr., who gave up a comfortable middle class to become a letterpress printer. Today the self-described “humble negro printer” lives in rural Alabama and sells his socially relevant and politically charged letterpress posters for $15 each.
The first 50 DVDs we sold were friends and family, and after that I steadily sold 5-10 a month over the next year. Then Amos suggested I start contacting university libraries, asking them if they would like to purchase an educational license for the documentary.
An educational license allows a university to rent the film from their library to students, staff and faculty. This may also include in-class screenings of the film, using the film as an in-class teaching tool, and Public Performance Rights.
Tip: Most universities will not purchase an educational license without Public Performance Rights which state they have permission to publicly show the film on their campus as many times as they would like, as long as no ticket sales are taken.
I started by contacting the University Libraries where Amos had personal contacts, asking them if they would like to purchase an educational license. To date, I’ve sold over thirty educational licenses at $300 each. The film has also seen over 40 public screenings at two different rates: $250 for art theaters taking ticket sales and universities that just wanted to screen the film (without the educational license), and $150 for non-profit organizations and special interest design groups like the individual chapters of the American International Graphics Association (AIGA).
I’ve recently been asked by two different graphic design conferences to screen Proceed and Be Bold! For large conventions and conferences with an expected audience of 2,000-3,000 people, I’ve raised the public screening fee to $400-$500. I’ve also sold close to 400 DVDs for home use; at $24.98 each including shipping and handling.
It all adds up. Between home use sales, educational licenses and public screenings, I’ve made back the production debt of $18,000. I’ve chosen to put that money back into my production company.
As of the writing of this article, I have sold out of my fist run of 1000 DVDs and am raising funds via Kickstarter to have another 1000 made. I have yet to sell my film for television broadcast, or to put the film online for digital download or rental on Netflix and iTunes, but those avenues are all on my list for next steps in the distribution process.
My initial terror at having to become my own marketing and sales person is understandable, but once I started to sell DVDs of Proceed and Be Bold!, I was better able to reconcile the fact that to be an artist or filmmaker these days, I had to be a salesperson. I may still find myself crying in the future, but at least I’ll know how to better work through the tears.
Laura Zinger is a Chicago, IL USA based documentary filmmaker, College Instructor and freelance writer. She is also the founder of 20K Films which is dedicated to making independently produced, high quality, low budget films.