What is an Independent Film?

Picture by Danilo Prates (Cropped)

Picture by Danilo Prates (Cropped)

Can you work for free? — No.

We are an independent film production. We might be able to offer minimum wage, at a max. It’s a great project, it will look good on your reel. —  awkward silence.

What would you reply?

Two questions come to mind:

  • What is an Independent Film?
  • Why is the the scenario above sadly familiar?

An independent film is a professional film production resulting in a feature film that is produced mostly or completely outside of the major film studio system and then distributed independently or purchased by niche or major distributors.

There are three major areas for reflection in the definition above. What is a professional film?  What does distribution mean in the 21st century? What does ‘outside the major film studio’ mean?

“A professional gets paid” – Unknown

Of course, a professional can engage in Pro Bono work for the good of the (filmmaking) community. However, a professional will usually receive monetary compensation for the skills, knowledge and time she/he will have contributed to your project. A production company will need to sell their product in order to generate revenue and be able to pay the professionals needed at the various stages of production. Amateurs are capable of amazing things. Amateurs can succeed in selling their creations and transition into the professional world. But, a professional gets paid.

“Not all distribution is equal”. – Unknown

In the ‘equation’ above, the money required to pay the professionals comes from distribution. Of course, film funding is not relying solely on distribution deals. Governments, speculators and more recently the ‘crowd’ all contribute in their own ways. Without an effective distribution, however, there is no profit. Established independent film production companies having already proven their value have access to a better distribution networks thus maximising their chance of turning a profit and securing further distribution deals. They can often afford to spend more of their resources on marketing and reach further through the noise.

Amateurs can achieve amazing things. They can successfully distribute their creations online and in a few selected cinemas exploiting the power of social networks and the passion they share with other amateurs. Some will be able to generate profit, establish a ‘brand’ and transition into the professional world. Sadly, many projects fail to find their audience, do not generate a profit and end up damaging the filmmaker’s image. The project quickly dies in one of the many dark corners of the internet or, even worse, on a shelf. It might have even been a great movie. It failed to find an audience. Not all distribution is equal.

“I hear you have a movie to sell” – Unknown

Let’s be ‘cynical’ for a minute and see the film industry for what it is: an industry. It is yet another way to turn a profit. (The great thing about the film industry is that film is an art) In comparison, if you were to invest on the stock market, you would need good preparation and research, you would need to spread your investments on multiple stocks to minimise risk and you will need the ‘crowd’ on your side in following the ‘trend’. For that to be possible you would need to have access to various collaborators on a regular basis, providing them with good business, and have access to serious financial resources. Major Film Studios approach filmmaking similarly. They conduct market research to understand the trends and the crowd. They spread their investments on multiple projects thus helping them absorbing the losses of some projects with the profits of others. They have access to various collaborators/filmmakers on a ‘regular’ basis. The distribution channels are well established and provide access to a very large potential audience. Not only they make their own movies, film studios also part-fund and purchase independent films for distribution.

So what does it mean to be ‘outside the studio system’? It simply means you, the production company, will be be responsible for organising the funding, production and distribution of the project. That is what independent filmmaking is about. Amateurs can be guilty of underestimating the importance of securing funding and finding distribution and obsess over their passion for production. Of course, not all amateurs are naive. Some were professionals that have embraced the thrills of being an amateur in a new area of filmmaking. They are willing to share their passion with other amateurs and embark on the making of a project simply based on common beliefs. They will patch a production team together. They will battle the odds of no/low budget filmmaking through all stages of production. They will rally their friends and family as a marketing task force. They will attend film markets and film festivals. They will walk around hoping for someone to approach them and say: “I hear you have a movie to sell”

There is a difference between an amateur project and an independent film production. Because an amateur project has the potential to slowly morph into an independent film, no amateur in his right mind would ever label himself as ‘an amateur’. The beginning of the 21st century is witnessing a revolution in the way we fund, make and consume films. This has opened the floodgates for a multitude of hybrid amateur/independent productions where some people get paid and a lot of people do not. Be sure of one thing, young filmmakers cannot be amateurs forever and professionals bring the knowledge and skills you need, especially if you are an amateur. You might not be able to pay all your professionals during the making of your film, but you might be able to pay them after you sell it. You need to gain some social capital and build an audience. Oh, and you need to actually make a film.

One response to “What is an Independent Film?

  1. It isn’t cynicism to recognize the INDUSTRIAL nature of the film INDUSTRY. There are professional standards for filmed entertainment of any kind, and audiences are intuitively conditioned to expect those standards to be met. Are you (in the general sense) ready to deliver on that?

    The accessibility of filmmaking tools and platforms in the Digital Age is a wonderful thing indeed, but amateur filmmakers (and I don’t use that term pejoratively) shouldn’t be fooled into thinking that having the right equipment makes their work professional-caliber: SKILLS aren’t nearly as easily acquired as EQUIPMENT. And the only way to develop skills is to place yourself in the company of people in your chosen profession who are better than you—who can TEACH you something. Take the time to submit yourself to their expertise; the technology at your disposal shouldn’t lead you to believe that critical stage in your development as an artist can be circumvented. Anyone can go shoot a “movie” these days, but if you want to produce material—even the independent (or independently spirited) kind—that audiences will actually want to SEE, you have learn to compete on a professional level. I could buy a piano tomorrow—that wouldn’t make me a pianist. Master technique first and let the tools serve THAT.

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