Be an Empowered FIlmmaker

You can’t be dependent on somebody else to put your film into the marketplace. “Empowered filmmaker” is the mantra for today’s indies.  Hear what Tom Bernard, co-president Sony Pictures Classics, has to say about it.


If you look back in the late 70’s/early 80’s when the modern day independent film movement started, filmmakers like John Sayles, Allison Anders, Spike Lee, Michael Moore, Jim Jarmusch, Victor Nunez, Steven Soderbergh and Bob Young, etc., all had extensive knowledge of the business of film that went hand in hand with their filmmaking skills. You can look today and see that all of these filmmakers still have very independent operations where they are very much a part of the distribution and business process for their movies.

They established very early in the creative process what they wanted to happen with their films and then each plotted a course using to their advantage festivals, sales agents, producer’s reps, lawyers, critics, distributors, publicists, etc., as their tools to bring to fruition the goals they set for their film.

With so many distribution options available today you as a filmmaker are the one person that will be able to successfully control the destiny of your film. I say this because of all the carpetbaggers that exist feeding off of the fruits of your labor have their own interests ahead of you. Sure they will perform the services you have hired them to do, but without your direction they will weave your movie into the goals that serve their company.

What I mean (for example): some filmmakers hire a sales agent (a great tool if used properly). But should you be giving away anywhere between 5 – 15% of the lifetime profits from your film for free legal work and a sales strategy that usually is comprised of screening your film at a festival, getting all the buyers in a room and seeing who can come up with the most money?

The 5 – 15% could end up to be millions (to the sales agent) if your film was “The Blair Witch Project.” I tell you this story because a filmmaker empowered with the knowledge of the ramifications of a deal one can make with a sales agent will not be in the position to be taken advantage of. And if, like with “The Blair Witch Project,” they had an understanding of the marketplace, the filmmaker would be a driving force in how they presented their film to buyers with all the knowledge of the different options available for distribution and what each one means financially. If you don’t know what the ins and outs of the financials of PPV are or what distribution windows close if you go day and date with a cable channel, you could end up a year and a half later wishing you knew those answers when your film was sold.


Every distribution avenue that currently exists is a valid option.

You as an empowered filmmaker must have the knowledge to make the right choice. Are you directing your film and asking your mom what camera angles you should shoot on every shot, or are you making those choices yourself? Which way would be better?


How do I empower myself in today’s world? Here are a few ideas.

1) Mentors. Find filmmakers or producers that have been through the process of getting a film into the marketplace and develop a relationship with them. Surely they will have information on what they wished they knew when they were in your shoes.

You need to find out all the companies that are currently in the marketplace that you want to distribute your film in. Then research their employees to see if they are newbies or veterans. See what films they have released recently and contact the filmmakers who sold them the film and ask what the experience was like. You will find this most enlightening. The same holds true for sales agencies, PR companies, lawyers, etc. Do not take just the success stories. Look into the failures also.

2) There are many ways you can impact your film’s life by using the tools you hire to put your film into the marketplace.

For example:

– What time of year do you want your film to be opened in?
– Consultation on when ancillary windows should be opened.
– What theaters should your film play in?
– Which critics should see it first?
– What markets will your film have strength in?
– Collaboration with the distribution team, and on and on!

Filmmaking is an art form that incorporates the business of film as part of the art.

You can’t make a film and think now it is done and hand it over to a stranger that you think will make it work. It would be like having a baby and giving it away to a couple you think looks good to raise the child and then you hope for the best.


As a group you need to reach out to all these organizations that say they are there to help indie filmmakers and urge them to come up with programs and resources to empower filmmakers with the information and tools to guide your films through the marketplace. These organizations spend so much time looking for nonprofit grants they have lost sight of the original goals established when they were formed. IFP, Sundance, F.I.N.D., Women in Film, DGA, etc., should all have mentor programs, data on deals, fees and feedback on sales agents, PR companies and distributors as well as programs that can explain the different distribution opportunities – the pluses, the minuses and the financials. They should create courses that can be taught at colleges that deal with and explain all these issues.

If you are not empowered with the information you are shit out of luck.

We have had movies with Francis Ford Coppola, Louis Malle, Pedro Almodovor, Woody Allen, Richard Linklater, Spike Lee, Allison Anders, Todd Solondz, to name a few, and they are all very much involved in all aspects of the distribution in each window. If a box office gross seems off in a market like Minnesota, a call would come in Monday from Mr. Coppola asking, “What happened?” I have similar stories for all the rest. (Sitting in the screening room with Mr. Allen going over the merits of 25 ad comps for the poster. Deciding that Todd Solondz would be the best person to do a photo shoot with the wiener girl for the “Welcome to the Dollhouse” poster.)

Being an empowered filmmaker should give you the confidence to control the difficult choices one has to make to give your film the best chance for success in the market place. As Chevy Chase said to Danny in “Caddy Shack”:

“Be the ball.”

Special thanks to Indiewire…One of their first filmmaker’s toolkit posts!


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