4 Ways to Make Money as a Filmmaker

Categories Life & Opinions

These are the musings of someone trying to figure out how the hell you become a profitable filmmaker. It seems that the more and more I research the topic, the less hopeful the outlook appears. But—that’s only if you’re committed to one ideal of filmmaking (a.k.a. the one where you make big movies and win Oscars).

And I would say that I am, to a degree. 

Still, it’s kind of important to face reality and figure out how you’re going to survive. That said, I’ve made a list of ways to sustain a filmmaking career, along with the pros and cons I’ve weighed out for each option. At this point, I’m pretty sure I’m going to be focusing on doing #4.

1. Freelance for corporate gigs.

Pros:

  • Can pay well.
  • Fairly common if you know where to look.

Cons:

  • Kinda soul-sucking.
  • A lot of fluffy B.S.
  • Corporate people don’t (for the most part) understand the production process.

What I Would Do to Start

First, I would take inventory of all the people I know. Who do I know working a corporate job? Am I comfortable asking them for favors? After answering these questions, I would reach out to them by e-mail and see if they can put me in touch with someone who oversees marketing and creative efforts at their company. Even better: see if they can set up an in-person meeting. If you can get one, come prepared with a comprehensive presentation that includes work samples, price breakdowns and pitches for possible projects specific to their company.

If you don’t have any direct contacts at a company, move on to cold calling. The first step would be to compile a list of prospective client companies. Following this, I would either call the company to get contact information for their marketing director or someone of equivalent status, then send an introductory e-mail and follow up with a phone call if a reply doesn’t come within a week.

2. Start your own production company and break into the ad world.

Pros:

  • Looks great on a resume.
  • More opportunities because you seem “legit”.
  • Working for yourself is always nice.

Cons:

  • Takes startup capital.
  • Difficult to scale.
  • Possibility for getting undercut, may become a race to the bottom.
  • Overhead costs may prevent you from offering highly competitive prices.

What I Would Do to Start

The first step would be to make sure I have the funds in my bank account to incorporate. Following this, I would recruit a team– if not salaried (at first, anyway), then at least the go-to people I would hire as independent contractors for client projects. Speaking of clients, it would be absolutely necessary to bring someone on to make these deals if you aren’t able to do it yourself. Ideally, bringing in someone who’s familiar with the ad world would be a huge benefit. If you can’t do that, at least find a contact to get the inside perspective so you don’t commit any faux pas during a pitch.

3. Work your way up on big sets

Pros:

  • Bragging rights (within the bounds of any NDAs).
  • Possibility for networking.

Cons:

  • Long hours.
  • Moving up is a big “if”.
  • Infrequent work.
  • Big ego personalities on set.

What I Would Do to Start

Move to L.A. Make friends with people working on the big sets already. Get them to bring you on as a production assistant or another low-level set position. Work hard at said job. Make more friends on set. Work your way into your desired department, then climb your way up.

Obviously, this is an oversimplified list of instructions, but there are plenty of people who’ve taken this route with mild to moderate success. If you can stand the tediously exhausting 12-hour days, you may want to look into joining the appropriate union for better working conditions and job frequency. Make sure to research that union’s guidelines for entry– most of the time, an application requires a certain number of logged hours worked on union sets, plus additional parameters and requirements.

4. Find an easier and more profitable way to make money and then fund your film projects.

Pros:

  • Preservation of the “art” and “passion” of filmmaking.
  • You’ll have money to pay for your film (or at least some of it).

Cons:

  • You may get sidetracked.
  • Is it really a career at this point?

What I Would Do to Start

As I mentioned earlier in this post, this is the step that I’ve chosen to actively pursue for now. Upon further contemplation, I’ve come to see filmmaking as something I want to treat as art– might I even say, my hobby.

How did I come to this conclusion?

Well, production is costly and exhausting, so it’s difficult to make sense of using my time and resources for it unless it’s something that I truly believe in. Because of this, I’m not normally too keen to jump on other people’s indie projects unless the prospect of success is fairly likely. But let’s face it: even movies with large budgets flop miserably. It’s a very risky game.

So this is my plan now: I want to find financial freedom through other streams of income to preserve my love of filmmaking. I know if I relied on it exclusively for my livelihood, I would burn out fast. There are smarter, more effective ways to make money, whether that’s working an actual job and saving up, or starting your own business to sell other services or products. I have a few business ideas, but until they’re actually working out for me, I don’t think it’s too necessary to write about them. Instead, I’d rather focus on people who’ve actually transitioned to filmmaking from other work.

Names that come to mind include: Terrence Malick (who taught philosophy and worked as a journalist before making films), Joe Swanberg (who did web design work to fund his first couple films) and even Tommy Wiseau (who obviously isn’t listed for the quality of his work, but supposedly imported leather jackets from Korea to get the $6 million he used on The Room).

Obviously, deviating from filmmaking for awhile to make money is not the right answer for everyone.

You have to ask yourself what you want from your career and what’s feasible. So much of this industry depends on luck and stubbornness, so as long as you stay focused on your end goal and keep in touch with reality (for the most part), you’ll be okay.

What else?

For any veteran filmmakers out there, feel free to weigh in on this list with your expertise. And for those just starting out, which route do you think you’ll take? I would love to hear your thoughts in the comments!

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