Why Most Indie Films Never Sell & How to Make Sure Yours Will

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The ability to build a sustainable career as a filmmaker hinges on one unfortunate but all important aspect of your projects. Are you able to sell your film? As much as we would like to believe a good film will simply find an audience, the number of films that end up in a closet somewhere is alarming. This is especially scary if you have invested a sizable amount of money into your film. The inability to sell your film will make it not only a huge waste of time and effort, but will most likely derail your future attempts to raise money for projects.

One of the biggest reasons filmmakers are unable to sell their film or make a distribution deal is simple lack of planning. Most of us don’t really understand the world of distribution and don’t want to think about it until after the film is ready. I can tell you from talking to hundreds of filmmakers, this is a huge mistake. In this aspect of filmmaking, indie filmmakers can learn a lot from their bigger brothers in the studio world. Even before production begins on any hollywood blockbuster, there are huge anouncements at Comic Con and online. Disney is very conscious about building a buzz early as a way of creating anticipation. You can learn a lot from the marketing of any Disney film, but The Force Awakens was basically a masterclass in film marketing. What else is a trailer, but trying to wet the appetite of an audience.

Now imagine two scenarios. You are a distributor and you are looking at 2 different horror films that you may want to potentially offer a deal. With one, you get an email with some homemade poster art. They have a facebook page with about 90 likes. They also have a trailer that looks kind of homemade with about 40 views.

On the other hand, you take a look at another film and it arrives with an absolutely beautiful poster with a very clear horror genre. You go to the website and it is also very well done with all the information you would ever want to know about the film. They have blog posts about how the film was made. Behind the scenes photos from a popular instagram account. There are links to popular facebook, instagram, twitter and pinterest accounts. And their trailer has 15,000 views.

It’s a no brainer right? But now I want you to imagine one more thing. It is the same film in both scenarios.

So I want to touch on a few common reasons indie films don’t sell.  Then, we will look at some simple fixes and ways to guarantee a sale.

Unrecognizable Faces

As most of you know, I design posters, so obviously I am a huge proponent of making a great poster early in the process. Usually a film poster will feature at least one main person. And one of the first things a sales agent will look at is the face on the poster. That is your golden moment and why so many films feature a recognizable branded actor on their posters. As a sales agent you have to put yourself into the mind of your audience. With all the choices out there, would I want to watch this movie.

Recognizable faces affect us at a very deep and subconscious level. It is a defence mechanism. If we see a face we don’t recognize, we get a very subtle alert. Danger! So it is important to have the face of someone your audience recognizes and has a relationship. So look at Robert Downey Jr. for example. By simply having his face on your poster you have pretty much secured distribution all over the world. But obviously you can’t get RDJ. But the theory of indie film is the same. Can you put a recognizable face on your poster that has a good relationship with your audience? How about an 80’s icon? How about a youtube or vine star?

Now there is a dark side to the recognizable face. There are certain actors who have a reputation for bad B movies. We’re talking the Eric Roberts and Tom Sizemore movies. And to be honest, especially if you are working in the horror genre, you are better off with no recognizable faces than someone in this category. In fact, horror is one of the few genres you can actually do better with no name on the poster.

False Hope in Film Festivals

Most of the filmmakers I know love film festivals. It is a great time to meet other filmmakers and have a forum to show your film. But the chances of selling a film at a film festival is often exaggerated. I know a great number of filmmakers who did the entire festival circuit and even got into some larger festivals who ended up with very low ball bids on their film. Some of them never got an offer. If you are hanging all of your hopes of selling your film on being a film festival hit, you will most likely be disappointed. That’s not to say that it can’t happen, only that it’s kind of like winning the lottery.

Failure to Understanding Your Genre

The vast majority of first-time filmmakers decide to make a horror film. There are tons of reasons why horror is such a great genre. It can be shot for cheap without known actors. It transcends cultures. It has a very specific audience. But it is also completely over saturated. Now, I have put my foot in my mouth in the past by saying that nobody should ever ever ever make a found footage film or a zombie film. I mean, I would highly advise against it, but that’s the same thing they said to Jeremy Gardener when he made his film The Battery. So I don’t want to say never.

However! You need to understand your genre. To me, that really means that you need to know your audience and not make a film that’s a carbon copy of another film. You need to know what your audience likes…and this really should be an extension of the fact that you know what you want to see. Knowing your genre doesn’t mean that you have seen every film in a genre. It means you are a fan and therefore you know what other fans want to see.

The same is true for action or comedy or even drama. Have you ever watched a movie that feels stale and almost like it was written in a boardroom? That’s what happens when people who don’t understand their genre try and create a product rather than a film. So beware. Don’t just make a movie for no reason. Make something that will be 80% familiar and 20% fresh and original. Make your movie be the movie you would watch over and over if you were stuck on an island.

Zero Buzz

There is one key word that is essential to a film sale. Buzzzzz. I want to talk about 2 aspects of a buzz. One is how to ensure that you don’t generate a buzz and the other is a quick way to generate buzz so that people will be itching to see the film.

The quickest way to kill a buzz is by having a film that seems like its copying a dated formula or concept. As a graphic designer I always have to make sure the design I do doesn’t look like it came from an older magazine.  Imagine one of these fashion A-Holes looking at your film and poster and saying…”Meh, that was so 2012.” That’s the problem you will run into with Zombies or Found Footage. And you can have a great film! But just because it feels outdated you can loose a lot of interest. Remember, sales agents and distributors want to represent properties that other people want as well. The more you can make your film feel like the cool new shiny thing on the market, the higher bids will go and the better deals will be. It’s the velvet rope technique of making everyone feel like they are missing out if they don’t see your film.

Now, one way filmmakers get a buzz going is to have 1 scene that is just completely over the top. Just think of the cutting off the ear part in Resevoir Dogs or the chest bursting scene in Alien. Or more recently the Bear scene in The Revenant. If I was making a film, I would definitely try to figure out at least one scene that would have people buzzing about your film.

Poor Audio

If there was one thing I could say to filmmakers just starting their first film, it is this. If you don’t have great audio, you will not be able to sell your film. End of story. I don’t care if you shot on 4k or 8k or 10000k. In fact, you can shoot on a phone for all I care. but if your dialog isn’t pitch perfect from beginning to end, your film will be DOA.

And having good sound isn’t that difficult. Digital recorders are pretty cheap. You can find good boom mics for less that $100. So just make sure that you always have a sound guy. Having a crappy camera can even be a gimmick. But going back to the subconscious mind….if you can’t hear dialog clearly it will make you very uncomfortable. If you have ever watched a short or a feature where they tried to use the camera’s audio, you know how annoying it is. The next time you watch a film, just listen to the dialog and how crystal clear it is. Even when it’s windy or the characters are driving or in loud rooms…the dialog recording is always perfect.


Cheat Sheet

Essential Things You Need To Sell Your Film

1. Awesome Professional On-Set and Character Stills

2. An Amazing Trailer, Preferably done at a house that specializes in trailers.

3. A professional level poster.

4. Awards from Notable Film Festivals

5. Reviews from Major Media Outlets

6. A following of at least 20k on Twitter and Facebook.

7. Articles in Genre Specific Magazines (Fangoria, Bloody Distusting)

8. Buzz from the public and other distribution companies.

9. A Great Story with Great Acting, Cinematography and Soud.

10. Good Production Design

(Note: I add production design only because its another big thing indie filmmakers neglect. Having a nice looking film doesn’t require a lot of cash. And while many people think this is the job of the cinematographer, it’s impossible to light poorly thought out wardrobes and sets.)

Free Podcast Episodes You May Enjoy:
Indie film Distribution Indie Rights Linda Nelson Jerome Courshon Film Distribution


Jason Brubaker Filmmakingstuff  emily best seed&spark

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