It’s the most wonderful time of the year for independent and art house films. Sundance has finally revealed their program for 2011. Independent films have suffered enormous setbacks over the past ten years. Some of the best distributors of art house fare have shuttered. So what should independent filmmakers to avoid having their gorgeous 35mm prints shelved, falling into obscurity forever?
Begin with the end in mind. The ultimate goal for an independent film should be to be to get some form of distribution. I’d even argue to be profitable, a crass thing to say about any artistic media. But, independent films that generate money open doors not only for the filmmaker and everyone involved in the film, it also makes the sector more appealing to investors. It elevates the medium. The reason so many amazing films were made by American filmmakers in the ’70s (there were myriad contributing factors) was because the film, “Easy Rider” made money. Lots and lots of money. Studios love profits and will, within reason, support any artistic endeavor that will put black ink in the ledger book. A film cannot make any money without some form of distribution.
Choose a good story. Noted screenwriting teacher, Frank Daniel, said “The biggest sin in movies is being boring.” Chose a story with an active protagonist striving for something great. Successful stories are about conflict and the creative and interesting ways characters overcome or succumb to obstacles. If you’re providing the screenplay, educate yourself on how to deliver an amazing script. If you’re producing or directing someone else’s story, be sure the script doesn’t “need work” or “just need to be punched up.” Amazing films begin with amazing scripts.
Cast recognizable stars. Keeping in mind that the film needs distribution once you’ve finished shooting it, you should give it the best shot at distribution before you embark on the rigorous production process. Distributors, especially for overseas markets, want to see recognizable stars in the film even if the stars are from media other than film. Today, it’s not uncommon for big stars to do art house films. The best way to cast stars is through their manager or agent. IMDB Pro, offers information about celebrities including their representation. Even their attorney may be able to pass the desired cast member your script.
Keep production values high. There is nothing more difficult than trying to find distribution for a film that has problems with sound or lighting. Keeping production values high during the filmmaking process makes the post production process easier and less costly and gives the film a better shot at finding distribution. Yet, too often, filmmakers cut corners to save money or time and sacrifice the film’s chances of success in the long run. Sound is extremely important, yet many beginning filmmakers regard it with ambivalence at best. Take the time and preparation to keep the production levels as high as possible.
Actively seek a distributor. Everyday new markets for films emerge whether on the internet, at markets or film festivals. Nearly every state and large metropolis has a film festival of some sort. Do the research to find out which festival works best for the genre of your film. You may want to bring on a sales agent. Sales agents help sell films throughout the world for a fee. Based on the stars of a film, a seasoned sales agent will be able to tell very quickly how a film will sell in territories all over the world. Some banks may even provide financing for the film based on the sales agent’s predictions. Cold calling distributors may be productive. Also, you may be able to work out a distribution deal with a specific vendor, i.e., Walmart, Target or Borders. Another option may be to approach the theaters in your area directly.