How I Made an Independent Feature Film on My Own Terms
“Things You Must Do Before Making Your Creative Project”
This is the second article of a multi-part series dedicated to the genesis and creation of the independent feature sci-fi film Mad Genius. It is both a personal expose as well as educational article series with the intention of sharing creative business lessons through the transparent obstacles and successes of the project.
First, let me start by saying this is not a quick article to read “on the shitter.” This a worksheet post. Prepare to learn!!
Yes, I know. The first article in this series left us on the cliff hanger of “All we had to do now, was make the movie.” But in the spirit of non-linear storytelling, let’s do a flashback, and review some lessons learned and my resulting suggestions for you to review before making your own creative projects. Though this article is geared towards the movie business, I believe its lessons will inform all creative projects.
First, we are going to quickly go over some “mental anchors” and “philosophical mindsets” in order to focus on the right path. Ironically, in this “new” democratized-distribution world of ours, creative people must now become much more than just the “Artist.” Yes, you, creative person, must now be an Entrepreneur through and through.
Far too often creative people (including myself) work off of pure “Intuition” alone. But we need to take things a step further, and think like the Entrepreneur. As artists, we feel deeply, and might fall victim to the societal anecdote that some artists are “genius” and don’t have to follow the rules of the world to succeed. We all want to be that “genius” right? In the news or media, we might have also seen romanticized stories about an “genius inspiration” which changed the world. The story is told in sound bites, or a two hour movie and it’s done. Easy right? And even if they include the great obstacles of the story, they will likely lack the element of Perseverance required to do all great things. The story will unlikely tell you the small, boring, endless details required to make a genius inspiration into reality. So, while we certainly should keep and nurture the strength of our “Creative Intuition,” this article is also about using the tools of today to enhance that Intuition. Specifically, Data.
Artists generally avoid data and numbers, but I am telling you, mastery of numbers will make you all the more Powerful in the “new” world of creative works and distribution. As artists and creatives, we can no longer work under old assumptions – that we’ll make something the big media businesses will notice and pay us for. That model is OUT. Most big media businesses are only working with “pre-sold products” or “Intellectual Property.” It is now YOUR job to create that next piece of Intellectual Property as it’s own business that they can buy from you. Then the deal is on your terms.
As you read this article you might say to yourself, “F*ck me, it’s impossible.” But the truth is, people do this every day. I did it very successfully. I’m not saying it was easy by any stretch of the imagination, but I did it. The intention of this article is NOT to dissuade you, but rather EMPOWER you to make the best decisions you can make. Of course, incredible things have been done by people who have “taken the leap” without regard to the outcome. But my intention is to give you a parachute for a better landing.
So, speaking from experience, these are the things you need to do before you make your creative project. Though this list may seem lengthy, I guarantee you, it will be worth it. Here is a quick summary of this article’s topics:
– Creative Project Statement
– Data Collection
– Establish a “basic trend” for your intended Creative Genre
– Change your Hypothesis based on this Information
– Create your Estimated Budget
– Estimate Distribution Conversion Rates
– Compare your DCR to your Budget = “Greenlight?”
– Add in your Secondary Benefits to the Equation
– Ask yourself if you are financially, mentally, and emotionally prepared for the time and obstacles it will take to succeed in your creative project?
For a more in-depth review, let’s set our “Definition of a Successful Creative Project”
As creative people, we have a plethora of motivations behind our work, as complex and varrying as the human creators themselves. But I would argue, ultimately, the foundational motivation for all creative people and their works is the desire to connect with, or “touch” other human beings in some way.
That “some way” can be as varied as there are human emotions. You might want to inspire someone, or inspire them to take action, you might want to inform someone, you might want to make someone laugh, dazzle them, you might want to relate your personal experiences to be shared by others, you might want… to “touch” someone.
And I would further argue that the tertiary or “surface” desires of fame, fortune, credibility, accolades, awards, portfolio expansion etc. etc. are all requisite upon this foundational desire to “touch” someone.
So how do we do that in today’s complicated and “noisy” world?
More than ever, we must prepare ourselves and our works for the potential to “break through.” And this includes everyone. Even big companies, big Hollywood studios.
INITIAL CREATIVE PROJECT STATEMENT
First, in our scientific and data driven creative exploration, we must make what we’ll call our “hypothesis.”
You hypothesis is your initial Creative Project Statement. First, write down the summary of your creative project. Then, below that, write down your hypothesis statement. The key is, to make the statement “testable.” If, Then statements are great. For example:
Mad Genius is a grounded sci-fi film about hacking the human mind, intended for an audience of young creatives and rebels.
If we make the film for low six figures, we will have a large and enthusiastic enough audience to recoup the costs.
What are these statements based off of? These are two statements based off of our Intuition and Creative Desires. Many creatives stop here and just go for it. But, as Creative Entrepreneurs, we must now verify the statements for a more successful outcome.
The first thing we must do is collect and archive audience behaviors we see involving our creative fields. Most of us do this by osmosis. But I suggest writing this observed information down into an Archive, or a Journal. Make it scientific. Ask questions like a scientist.
What do you see? What are the trends happening? How are people interacting with your industry or genre? What is their behavior? How is technology disrupting your genre or your audience’s behavior? Will your genre or industry be dramatically altered by the time it takes to complete and distribute your project?
And don’t just focus on the outliers. The “Get Out” or “Blair Witch Project” ’s of the world. Instead of taking an Average, which accounts for all projects in a genre, take a Mean, which focuses on the mid range, ignoring the outliers. Plan for the Mean, not the outlier.
Here’s an example of recording behaviors in your personal life:
Observe your friends and family on a few consecutive week nights trying to decide what show or movie to watch on any of the given cable or streaming platform. This exercise alone will tell you the great odds you have against you and the great opportunity that lies before you. You’ll quickly find people saying that “There’s nothing on” despite the endless streams of content available. You’ll see them skip over the new Hollywood sequel, you’ll see them skip over the self-indulgent festival film, and you’ll see them skip over the foreign financed star driven drivel that wishes it were a Hollywood film. And then you’ll see them select… “Friends.” (Nothing against Friends. I love that show.)
What is a creative person to do?
In order to break through, the contemporary creative person must make the right thing, for the right audience, and then get it to them in the way they want to consume those types of things.
How do we do that? We must collect more Data.
After you have created your own “field study” based on personal observations, now is the time to compare that to the actual data trends of your industry. Never before has there been so much data available, and in many cases for FREE. We must use it to our advantage. Find out the data sources for your industry, and read ALL OF IT. Record it in your Archive.
Specifically focus on your audience and demographic. Is there a specific audience out there large enough to reach? Are they buying?
How does the industry data compare to your personal observations?
For film makers three great resources are:
Use their Audience Calculator
ESTABLISH A TREND
Based off of the Personal Observations you have archived, and the Industry Data you have reviewed, now is the time to use that powerful creative tool you love; Intuition!
In your Archive, make two columns, or use two pages. On one side, bullet point all the trends you see in your creative field and genre as of today. On the other side, do the same, using Intuition to predict how these trends will be shaped by the time your creative project is FINISHED. Essentially, you are future forecasting.
Include all of the specifics of your industry or project. For filmmakers a list might be;
Writing, Casting, Crew, Equipment, Locations, Edit, VFX, Sound, Music, Distribution Platforms and Methods, Return on Investment, etc. etc.
Now, on a new page, summarize what you have predicted in a “Trend Statement.”
Have you learned anything that might influence or inform your creative project? Undoubtedly.
ALTER YOUR HYPOTHESIS FOR SUCCESS
Now that you have Personal Observations, Industry Data and a Trend Statement, it is time to take your original Creative Project Statement and alter it’s contents to create a new “Working Hypothesis.”
A hypothesis is simply a testable prediction of the outcome of your project. Has the new data changed your outlook on what you intended to make? Has it changed the “why” you wanted to make it?
If your “why” is still as strong as it was in the beginning, you should continue full steam ahead, but you should also make adjustments based on the data you have collected to help ensure success.
CREATE YOUR ESTIMATED BUDGET
You have your data. You have your creative hypothesis that you believe can achieve success. Now you need to get a budget made. If you aren’t thoroughly experienced in making a budget for your specific project, spend the money to get one professionally estimated. This is a MUST.
Also, in this “new” world of ours, I highly recommend factoring in Marketing and Distribution costs into your budget. If you don’t they will come back to bite you in the ass.
(And, in the movie business, gone are the days when someone will waltz up to you at Sundance and buy your film. Weinstein is out. Netflix and Amazon are out. It is now up to you to be the Creative Entrepreneur and figure out the ways of the Distribution Force. If you are a filmmaker, it’s tough out there.
So, how do you estimate the numbers for Marketing and Distribution? Read on.
ESTIMATE DISTRIBUTION CONVERSION RATES
Estimated Distribution Conversion Rates are simply about taking the amount of money the project costs, ie, The Budget, versus the amount of people who must buy your project/product in order to make your money back, ie, The Audience.
These formulas need to be specific to each project. They can be complex or simple depending. Artists generally avoid numbers, but I am telling you, mastery of numbers makes you all the more powerful in the “new” world of creative works.
Conversely, some Creative Projects are not intended to make their money back. Or if it is a desire, it still might be preempted by the original intention, which is simply to “connect with people” in some way. Regardless, these principals still apply for generating the greatest audience connection.
Now we must Estimate our Distribution Conversion Rate. (DCR)
One way to do this is to connect with an established Producer, or Sales Agent, or Distributor who you 100% absolutely trust to give you this data. Then do the same with a second opinion, and possibly a third. Ironically, you might find these “established” folks don’t know or have this information.
Personally, I like to have as much knowledge and control over my endeavors as possible, and thus like to do my own conversions. So the second option is to run these numbers yourself.
A simplified example DCR might look like this:
Total Project Cost (from genesis to delivery): $100,000
Product Sales Price: $10
Total Distribution Fees: $5
Net Profit Per Sale: $5
$100,000 / $5 = 20,000 units must be bought to break even
But that’s not all is it? How do you reach the 20,000 buyers needed to break even?
This is where you must factor in Marketing Conversion Rates (MCR). A typical MCR equals 1-3% of people you reach via marketing will actually buy.
At a 2% MCR, that would mean you would need to reach 1,000,000 people to achieve 20,000 buyers.
But what is the cost to market to that many people? Well, there are a whole ton of options and skill sets required to answer this question aren’t there?
That is the CREATIVE part of the MCR equation. And I cannot stress enough, you want to know this answer on the FRONT END of your creative endeavor, before you start making the thing.
Many creatives put this off and say, “That’s what the Distribution company will do.” But are you willing to bet “the farm” on this “what if” scenario? And if you get a Distributor, the truth is, they will try to do some marketing and public relations, but it won’t be perfect because they have 10 other films they are marketing and distributing. And this is your baby isn’t it?
This is obviously complex. So sign up for our newsletter to receive the upcoming article on CREATIVE GROWTH HACKER MARKETING
Continuing this article, our example Distribution and Marketing Conversion Rates equation now looks like this:
Total Project Cost: $100,000
Product Sales Price: $10
Marketing Cost Per Buyer: $1
Total Distribution Fees: $5
Net Profit Per Sale: $4
$100,000 / $4 = 25,000 units must be sold to break even
1,250,000 people need to be reached at a 2% CR for your project to break even.
COMPARE YOUR D/MCR TO YOUR BUDGET
Comparing these two elements is implicit to the D/MCR calculation. And now is the time to squarely ask yourself, “Do the numbers make sense?”
Do you feel you can reach 1,250,000 people to make back your $100,000 investment?
How do you know? Now is the time to refer back to your Observations and Industry Data. Is there an audience out there large enough to reach? Are they buying? How will you reach them?
And don’t despair, because remember, the original intention of your Creative Project is to connect with people! By connecting with 1,250,000 people, you might ironically say this whole D/MCR equation is paramount to your original intention!
ADD IN YOUR SECONDARY BENEFITS
Okay, you’ve got the numbers. Do they add up? Maybe not yet. But maybe your Secondary Benefits may outweigh the Return On Investment.
Is the project about a greater social or environmental cause? Is the project connecting or growing a movement? How much are these worth?
Is the project a “calling card” or “portfolio builder” that will elevate you into the next level of creative and financial works? How much is that benefit worth? Try to come up with a future forecasting number. Be realistic. Then cut that number in half for this calculation.
ARE YOU READY?
If you believe the numbers make sense. And the Secondary Benefits connect. And if you believe you have a good plan. Now you must ask yourself, “Am I ready to do the damn thing?” Am I ready to be a Creative Entrepreneur?
I will tell you now, it will take you twice as much time, and twice as much effort as you think it will take. Are you prepared? You must ask yourself, are you financially, mentally, and emotionally prepared for the immense effort and sacrifice it will take to make your creative project a success?
Do you have the personal, financial, support system necessary to bring your great creative vision to life? You will count on your support system constantly.
I was able to create MAD GENIUS because I had an undying belief in myself and the project. This is truly the only reason it is available for audiences today. I worked with countless incredible collaborators who put their own mark on the project, but I was the undying force that drug the rock up the mountain. Collectively, we made something greater than the sum of it’s parts. It would have been impossible without them. But I was the ox who pulled the cart, as all CEO’s, Entrepreneurs and Leaders must do.
This is the ultimate question you must ask yourself.
And in effort to help you answer that question, I leave you with this quote by the great writer Charles Bukowski…
“If you’re going to try, go all the way.
Otherwise, don’t even start.
This could mean losing girlfriends, wives, relatives and maybe even your mind.
It could mean not eating for three or four days.
It could mean freezing on a park bench.
It could mean jail. It could mean derision.
It could mean mockery–isolation.
Isolation is the gift.
All the others are a test of your endurance, of how much you really want to do it.
And, you’ll do it, despite rejection and the worst odds.
And it will be better than anything else you can imagine.
If you’re going to try, go all the way.
There is no other feeling like that.
You will be alone with the gods, and the nights will flame with fire.
You will ride life straight to perfect laughter.
It’s the only good fight there is.”
How I Made an Independent Feature Film on My Own Terms