Film as a Business: The Business of Film

You’ll hear freshly hatched film students and budding filmmakers say their creation is out of love for the work.  But many would, at best, like to make a living at it.  Still, few view filmmaking as the monetization of a high-demand commodity.  I say high-demand because of the proliferation of Video On Demand and other streaming channels.   The increasing numbers alone indicate a growing desire and/or need for fresh cinema.  Cinema is the number one export in the United States, and now with Federal recognition as a viable business entity, a filmmaker can and should approach the long-term track of their work with more precision and direction.  But it’s less about planning the route of their commodity than the importance of managing a ‘corporate structure’ surrounding the commodity.  Focusing solely on the object leads to, what Michael E. Gerber says in The E-Myth Revisited, an Entrepreneurial Seizure.  He continues in saying even though a product may be phenomenal and, in the context of movies, a beautiful example of cinematic expertise, weak support structures will burrow the product into obscurity.  “Indeed, the problem is not that the owners of small businesses in this country don’t work; the problem is that they’re doing the wrong work.  As a result, most of their businesses end up in chaos – unmanageable, unpredictable, and unrewarding.” Louise Levison, author of Filmmaker’s & Financing: Business Plans for Independents says, “many filmmakers lose interest when they realize that writing a business plan takes work.  The impulse is to think, ‘I have a good script, just give me the money.’” But doesn’t work like that anymore.

In film production, the business plan is an extension and articulation of the producer’s package, while the producer’s package itself is primarily used to seek for distribution and industry support.  Many experts believe creating business plans around a film attracts not only serious investors, but also, as John Cones writes, may useful in “identifying founding shareholders for the initial corporation.” A successfully positioned film will lead to greater monetization, thus creating momentum towards the making of another film.  Isn’t this the goal independent filmmakers have in mind?  Then forward-thinking ambition is required.

Business owners turned investors will view incorporated films with business plans as focused and professional.  Investors will appreciate the respect this extends, and will respect the forethought of a filmmaker as well. “Your business plan is your first impression,” says Cindy Freeman of the Film Method.  “Make sure it reflects you, your project, your passion and your professionalism.” It’s a paradigm shift for filmmakers, I know.  But if you think about it, incorporating a film as an LCC (or other) makes sense for many reasons.  The film becomes an entity entitled to legal protection; crew positioned as employees or individual contractors will increase validity; and doing so will help a film acquire clout and reputation beneficial to the marketing of the film.  The moviemaking climate in the industry has progressed in ways very different from the past.  Independent filmmakers are more empowered with control over their work, and therefore their future.  For indie filmmakers, the industry is ripe for harvesting.  Make sure the seeds of your “small business film” are planted well.

Specific business plan resources to review:

John W. Cones: How Filmmakers Can Avoid the Business Plan Scam

Louise Levison: Business Strategies blog

Jason Brubaker: Filmmaking As Your Small Business


Needle In a Haystack

Smaller Than a Big Mac

A beautiful thing entered my life this week: the Roku 2 XS.  It’s a wireless unit the size of a small box of Whitman’s chocolate, and I think it’s the best thing since sliced bread.  Ten minutes after opening the box I had access to an almost cable repertoire of Internet content – on my TV.   The biggest selling point for me was the impressive amount of access to independent films and online video content (i.e. Hulu, Netflix, SnagFilms AND Vimeo!).  But how did those channels even acquire said content?  Digital distribution.  Still, even if a filmmaker has their work available through these channels, it doesn’t mean instant audience gain.  Awareness has to be built; campaigns have to run; and viewer relationships have to be fostered if filmmakers want to attract an audience, and therefore, a profit.  One may argue that since it’s hard enough to land a theatrical release, campaigning for Internet viewership must be harder – especially with the sheer amount of content on the Net.  On the contrary, as Dustin Woodward, ‘WebConnoisure’ blogger and freelance SEO professional says, “People that are passionate about your film’s topic are out there and want to find you. And it is a level playing field—Hollywood studios have trouble ranking #1 for their own film titles!” With the Web and the power of social media, filmmakers without deep pockets can quickly spread the word about and exhibit their work before it even sees a theater.  And, should a filmmaker get the privilege of showing their film in a theater, a solid support system may have already been built under their work.  Which comes first, the horse or the cart?  I opine that, for the film industry, the Web is now the horse and the theater is the cart – not the other way around.

Ben Hur, 1959

As far as churning your film through the glut of content like cream to the top of milk, this is where SEO, or search engine optimization comes in.  But it’s not just about the film’s brand.  Brand building also centers on the filmmaker him or her self.  Sheri Candler, marketing expert and publicist for independent filmmakers, specifically, says SEO is key to building a personal brand.  “Your Personal Brand. Your online reputation. It’s the same thing.”  Know your professional name and how that translates, or doesn’t translate, across the web.  Consistency builds relevance, and relevance builds trust.   The filmmaker is the representation of the work.  As a unique representative, are you ranking positively with search engines? Sheri continues,  “Filmmakers interested in building a personal brand on the web do not have the luxury of anonymity.”  SEO and brand building is not simply a nicety.  For filmmakers, they are essential.

However, the seriousness of SEO should not overshadow content.  Buzz will fall flat without any substance behind it.  If you have a choice between spending time on your blog and producing creative works, produce creative works.  Nobody wants to be considered a poser.   Talk is cheap, and it’s bad for business.  Even still, try to find a balance.  From my end of the Roku, I won’t get the pleasure of seeing your works if my channels can’t find them. Get your stuff found. I’m sure I’m missing out.

** For kicks and giggles, watch this Shakespearian work on SEO.  As serious as having a robust web presence is, it’s always good to keep it real:

A Watched Pot Never Boils

No doubt every filmmaker wants their film projected to the big screen in front of a large audience.  We dream about it every time we sit watching someone else’s film, thinking, “Surely if they could do it, then so could I.”  That is 100% true.  You can and should.  Your film deserves it.  Every film does.  The big screen is where it’s meant to be.  But it may not happen in your time frame or in your way. It may take years for your film to reach even one theater, and often at a financial loss rather than gain.  The ‘screen’ may not even be the screen you envisioned.  The odds for a marketed film in the U.S. to generate financial gain is roughly 3%.  “Wow.  Thanks for being such a Debbie Downer,” you may say.  “Why don’t we tuck our tails between our legs and call it a day.”  But let’s get real: The San Diego Padres have roughly a 0.0% chance of making it to the playoffs, and the Colorado Rockies are close behind.  Odds say they should hang up their cleats and shut the team down.  The Padres haven’t entered the World Series since 1984.  Then again, the Padres went to the World Series in 1984.  So did the Rockies in 2007.  Who’s to say they won’t again?  But besides that, what keeps a ball player playing when the odds seem stacked against them and the years between keep stacking up?  The love of the game.  And even if they never made it to the World Series again, the teams keep playing games because, for one, their fans keep paying.

So how does baseball have anything to do with filmmaking?  Nothing.  And everything.


“A League of Their Own”

We live in a magnificent time of opportunity and versatility with regards to exhibition and distribution.  Your film’s ‘premiere’ doesn’t have to wait for funding or the opportunity to theatrically release.  Instead, outlets like IndieFlixDistribber, and Distrify provide platforms for streaming play and instant download, equating sometimes to instant revenue.  Aggregators such as these branch out to major players like Hulu, iTunes, Amazon VOD and other streaming services, delivering your content to a wide spread audience.  You could approach the outlets individually, of course, but that’s your preference – your prerogative. This isn’t a new revelation, but a reminder that the resources exist to, quite frankly, eliminate excuses.  Men all over the country, including Major League ball players, were called away during WWII.  Did that mean baseball stopped? No. The league worked with what they had to “get done what they had to get doing.”  It was about the game – not about the player.  Here, it’s about the film – not the venue.   Some day you’ll have your theatrical release.  It’ll be amazing.  Your twenty-dollar tub of popcorn will have never tasted so… buttery.  But in the meantime, “get to doing what you gotta get done:” show your film.  Because, “There’s no crying in baseball.” (Columbia, 1992)

Whose Permission Is It, Anyway?

It appears that everyone who has a camera can be or thinks he or she is a filmmaker.  The resources are such that make this realistically feasible for the financially deprived.  As digital distribution options grow plentifully on a global scale, getting your movie out and bringing money in becomes less of a pipe dream and more of a possible reality.  Micro-budgets and crowdfunding avenues make upfront costs shrink to a fraction of what it takes to make a Hollywood-level film, and the evolution of acceptable formats satisfy consumer pallets sometimes in 4 minutes or less (i.e. ‘webisodes’).  The rules have changed and the processes have simplified.  Truly, anyone who has even a cellphone camera can make the next Blair Witch Project or Clerks 4.0 – the reboot.  Still, as options increase so do legal complications.

New ‘Acts,’ policies and laws regularly crop up to ‘protect’ artists while conversely deterring them from producing.  What often deters artists from making a living with their craft is the multitude of legal hurdles to hike under and over.  I may be speaking blasphemy to the independent, rogue creative, but thank goodness for lawyers.  Without them, our ignorance may make the difference, as Ana-Klara H. Anderson of the law firm of Thomas & LoCicero PL says, between bank or bust for an artist’s labor of love.  Without legal protection front-loading, she says, “You invest a lot of time, money and creativity only to be stopped in your tracks.  All that hard work would be for nothing.  It could bankrupt the work.”

So what types of IP protection should a filmmaker consider before a film captures first light?  According to Dr. Anderson, the producer should own every piece of intellectual property associated with their project.  This includes the copyright to the creation itself as well as the right to use the idea, concept or work for post-production purposes (i.e. distribution and exhibition).  It is similar in the music business to the difference between an artist’s musical work and the sound recording of that work itself.  Permissions are required for both.  Other assets that need protection are sound, script, music and the right to use the title.  Yes: the title.  The film’s title becomes its trademark, captured in a catch phrase as its identifier.  Also, if a filmmaker desires to place specific products within the film for funding, permission needs to be secured before – not after the fact.  These points seem obvious, but they wouldn’t need articulation if filmmakers practiced them.  Obviously.

One of Dr. Anderson’s points stood out poignantly in its obviousness: Filmmakers contract with actors to employ their ‘product.’  An actor’s performance secured in a tangible medium, i.e. film, is a copyrighted product.  As such, permissions required are dependent on variables, variables Dorothy Fadiman, a social change documentarian considers based on the situation.  In an interview with Tony Levelle of MicroFilmmaker Magazine, Dorothy says there are two releases she acquires for each shoot. “’The first is a “model release” or “signed permission form” from each [talent].”  She says the two are important for both the film itself and for publicity afterwards.  All permissions, Fadiman says, are designed not only to protect the artist but also the filmmaker.  Dr. Anderson concurred.  She stressed the importance of “memorializing things in writing.”  Word as bond holds no water in court and, from history, intellectual property disputes are diverse in their frequency.  This is why seeking legal council for permission review and advisement is an essential investment.  Tony Leville echoes this in his MicroFilmmaker article by saying, “the money and time you spent finding and talking to an entertainment lawyer could very well turn out to be the best money you spent on the entire production.”  I’m a fan, Tony.  I’m a fan.  Glossing over the legalities associated with filmmaking, out of complacency, is a dangerous tightrope to dance on.

My interview with Dr. Anderson was both informative and reassuring.  Reassuring in the sense that all the textbook warnings I’ve received are true.  We, as artists, pour our heart and soul into our craft.  It takes tremendous self-investment to turn a vision into reality.  It may be true that all capable thought and effort is spent on its creation, but that is no excuse for disregarding legal formalities and laws.  The hassle is no hassle if viewed as a shield and protection for both you and the work itself.  In the immortal words of Smokey the Bear, “Only YOU Can Prevent Forest Fires!”  Boy I hope using that tagline passes the “fair use” test.  I might need to consult my lawyer on that one.


Ana-Klara H. Anderson, Ph.D, Esq.

In 2009, Ana-Klara earned her law degree from the University of Florida Levin College of Law and her Ph.D. in Media Law and Policy from UF’s College of Journalism and Communications.  Ana-Klara has authored numerous articles for media law publications and has been a frequent guest lecturer throughout the southeast on First Amendment and media law issues.  In her commercial litigation practice, Ana-Klara litigates commercial disputes for corporate clients, including contract disputes, class action defense, business torts and related areas. She also prepares and reviews contracts and other documents related to business operations and management, with a particular emphasis on the arts, entertainment, and publishing industries.

Areas of Practice: Media/First Amendment Law; Contests & Sweepstakes; Corporate Litigation; and Arts & Entertainment Law.

How NOT to Make Friends


Infamous Fish-Hooking Move

I’m not going to pretend I fully support Internet regulation and governmental piracy controls.  But I’m also not 100% certain that streaming sites adequately protect the artists they broadcast.  For me, there are a lot of unclear and undefined demarcations.  On one hand I can’t police the entire web on my own, and I would appreciate someone uncovering misuse on my behalf.  At the same time, if you give a thief an inch, he’ll take you for a mile.  This applies to both ends of the argument: ignoring copyright infringement on the basis of 1st Amendment rights, or allowing power to rest in uncertain hands of legislation.   Should the power to regulate and police be with the streamers?  I believe so.  But then we have cases like the YouTube vs. Viacom one of 2010.  This was one of those, “He Says, She Says” cases where both try to “fish-hook” the other side out of the way.  An embarrassing amount of evidence surfaced, proving gross levels of arrogance and the conflagrant abuse of power – on both sides.  Viacom said YouTube had the responsibility to prevent copyrighted material from appearing on their site, but turned a blind eye for fear of losing site traffic.  But Viacom stacked up as no saint, either.  A head executive was quoted directing viral videos be made to look like fan rip-offs – then uploaded to YouTube from a non-business affiliated location.  We want to trust big companies with big resources to keep the fighting clean.  We want to think that we don’t need Big Brother chiming in.  But here we are witnessing a failure of the private sector to keep things honest, or the outright creation of big-box pirating sites like “Megauploads.”  Positioned as a file-storage and sharing site, MU says their piracy-policing tools show they are trying to do things right.  But the U.S. government says their “safe harbor” resources are just a cover.  They claim instead that Megauploads is one of the largest piracy hubs on the net.  Similar to Viacom and YouTube, lead executives left soft-copy trails throughout their email exchanges suggesting awareness and support of illegal practices.  Even if the case fails to gain traction, it is still another example of media powers disregarding copyright laws.  But such pride doesn’t exist solely on a bigger corporate scale.  New schemes and pirating practices are maturing like mold on bread every day.  In March of this year, a twenty-something from Southern California admitted to illegally collecting copyrighted movies to share on the net.  IMAGiNE Group, the company he worked for, was purposed to circumvent pirates by streaming movies online as they hit the theater.  Ironically their employee Sean Lovelady, along with other co-conspirators, illegally captured audio from film premieres to enjoin with stolen video of the film available online.  In short, IMAGiNE employed pirates.  Their pirated content was uploaded to servers owned by IMAGiNE.  Employees of IMAGiNE shared the copyrighted information with each other.  Did IMAGiNE know?  The case doesn’t say.  Even if they weren’t, did they set in place preventative measures against system manipulation?  The question could be posed to YouTube, Viacom and Megauploads, all the same.  So who will be their fact checker?

Enter from left stage: SOPA, or the Stop Online Piracy Act, on the heels of PIPA, the Protect IP Act.  The DMCA, or Digital Millennium Copyright Act, already shuts down pirated content in singularity, but the SOPA and PIPA are designed to attack sites as a whole.  According to the Justice Department, it isn’t enough to simply delete offending content but the sites that host the stolen content.  Sounds reasonable enough – like shutting down crack houses for making and selling drugs.   Of course pirated media are not life-threatening substances, but a law is a law: creations are under copyright protection the moment they are created.  If someone breaks that law, they are accountable for the consequences.   Silicon Valley argues it will stifle innovation and deter start-ups from “starting up” for fear of costly legal fees in the event of ‘accidental’ copyright violation.  But do doctors picket against expensive liability insurance?  Do construction companies storm Washington for being required to have Worker’s Compensation?  No.  They don’t because accidents happen.  Without those types of insurance, they could lose their business.  In the long run, it protects them.  If you want to run a business then treat your company like one.  There are costs associated, and if budding Internet companies want to operate, then they will have to put in fail-safes to keep it running.  Copyright cases surface all the time, and injunctions are ordered at the expense of the offending party – whether unwitting or not.  If you don’t want to go to court, perform due diligence in keeping you site clean.


Spotify says NO to SOPA/PIPA

But let me step off my soapbox and examine the other side of the argument – the one I’ve previously stated: Crooks abuse power.  In theory, involvement by the Justice Department would help artists protect their source of income.  But do we have a clean record with regards to corruption and greed?  No.  Referring back to the “crack house” example, how many times do we hear of cops who have fallen from grace, taking spoils for themselves?  Respect for governing power has not had a good track record in our country.  I want to slap the hands of pirating enablers just as much as any other artist, but I also don’t want another Pandora box of regulations and policies opened – one that, based on historical facts, will likely be manipulated for gain.  So here I am – we are, stuck between a rock and a hard place.  The cases above prove piracy is no small peanuts.  But should we trust a government agency to take stewardship over it?  Which is the lesser of two evils: ‘trust’ companies to police their own hosted content, or give Big Brother a pass to suffocate free flow of information like Russia, China or Iran?  Tricky indeed.

The Puritanical Debate: Film versus Digital

Since its inception, digital image capturing has faced serious resistance from film professionals – both in still and motion.  The argument being film tangibly preserves an image while digital is a simple rearrangement of ones and zeros. Yet digital is heralded as the next evolution of the art form.  My point of view is that shooting films on film is the highest form of the art because it requires a higher degree of professional expertise.  But when a top director, Martin Scorsese, not only shoots digitally but also in three-dimension (something many pass off as gimmicky), it makes me think twice.  Part of me wants to scream, “Sell Out!”  While the other part, the side that reveres Scorsese, gives him a pass.  There must be something to it if Scorsese, director of the gritty film Raging Bull, takes a leap towards it.


Even so I still prefer film to digital.  Never mind that I own three digital cameras (DLSR, HDV and iPhone 4s).  Don’t judge me.  I have what I have because of production and post-production costs.  In managing a motion media product, I am constrained to my budget – or the lack thereof.  Had I the choice –and the means – I would choose film.  Is it more complicated? Yes.  Is it more costly and time consuming?  Yes.  But I’m a purist in my opinion that images captured on film are real.  Images captured on digital are not.  You catch a crappy image on film – it is what it is.  Honesty.  You catch a crappy shot on digital?  Just hit delete and no one will know.  Janusz Kaminksi, one of Steven Spielberg’s regular cinematographers interviewed with the LA Times, saying that digital makes for a lazy photographer.  I concur – from experience.  “When I was your age….” (and I’m only 30, mind you), I learned to shoot photography with a film camera.  My training took me from black and white, to color and then to slide film, working each in the darkroom and on the light table for hours.  The smell… the feel…. The frustration of seeing my mistakes slowly reveal themselves under the chemicals… It was a process to process.But that time spent made me a better photographer by motivating me to ensure I wouldn’t make the same mistake again.  Importantly, if not more in this context, is the fact that film capturing was a very organic experience. You could literally capture a piece of life, recording it into the emulsion of the film.

Photography and filmmaking are much different now.  Instead of perfecting exposure and camera control, shooters “Chimp.”   ‘Chimping’ is when a photographer shoots a shot, look at the LCD screen or monitor, shoot the shot, look at the screen… adjust settings (or just leave it on auto)… shoot.  Look at screen…. Etc.  It’s why Kaminski laments digital as “the death of the cinematographer,” and creates a co-dependent relationship between the photographer and the review button.  Kaminski continues, “If you see the image on the digital screen I think people become lazy, they get satisfied with just seeing the image, they’re not going for visual panache, not getting the story through metaphors… With film there is still mystery.”  Gone is the confidence that comes with knowing what, why and how a shot is captured.  I won’t lie and say it hasn’t happened to me.   My discipline died when I drank the ‘chimping’ punch.  A ‘sin’ I will never forgive myself of.

But you can’t ignore the fact that digital is here to stay, and professionals like Scorsese and Cameron are on board.  It would not be prudent to push against a bullish trend, but maybe converge the two artfully.  Newer digital cameras are capturing on 4K sensors and projecting “as-is” onto the screen.  Examining the process of traditional 35mm filmmaking and distribution, multiple duplications and projections actually downgrade the film to 1K by the time it reaches the screen.  Audiences have never really “seen” a 4K film in the theater.  Even so, there is still something organic about seeing a movie made from film.  But according to Filmmaker Magazine (Spring 2012 Issue), there is a new generation of filmmakers who hate the texture of film grain.  They are annoyed by small imperfections or the act of looking into a separate world rather than participating in it.  I don’t see that as a bad thing.  We often watch a movie to escape… to see and feel something not akin to real life.  Digital… just makes it too real.  Maybe it’s the way we “old-timers” (again… I’m 30 years old) grew up.  The story of film-making may soon be relegated to rocking chair conversations being reminisced from the front porch.


Fortunately there are companies still trying to preserve the art of ‘real’ filmmaking, while at the same time marrying film and digital for more efficient post-production workflows. Pro8mm out of Burbank, California is a full-service procurement, rental and processing house for 8mm and 16mm film.  They stock a self-invented Super 8 negative film (16X9) along with Super 8 and Super 16 cameras re-engineered for practical use.  Pro8mm creates digital masters of the film while preserving the look and feel of its original capture.  No I do not work for Pro8mm and no I do not get a cut for ‘selling’ them.  More or less, I am selling the idea that film is not dead.   But Super 8?  Whoa.  Who talks about Super 8 anymore?  Apparently  J.J. Abrams and Steven Spielberg do. It may take a bit more effort to proselytize its enduring viability, but making films with film is still a valid and valuable medium to work with – a resource professionals persist in using when managing the product of their film.