Understanding your film’s success trajectory

October 29, 2013
posted by sheric

The idea for this post has been spinning around in my brain for a while and comes up every time I receive a new consultation inquiry. Most filmmakers I encounter are either fairly new to filmmaking or fairly new to the business side of film. They may have been directors for hire in the past so they were only involved in physical production, or they are producers and their last film did not achieve what they had hoped so they are trying again.  In these cases, what they want to happen with their film is often very different than what is likely to happen and it is important to know the difference from the outset. It will save so much energy, time and bitterness to be realistic about your chances of achieving your goal.

What success trajectory is your film on?

There are 2 kinds of trajectories producers will encounter; one is the planned course or direction they would like their film to take to market and the other is the course that their film is actually going to take based on its assets. The worst position to be in is believing your film is on track for your goal and find out that you are nowhere close and it is too late to change it. The best is to know from the start what is possible for the film you are making and accept it or change your assets in order to get on a better trajectory. Since I personally don’t like hearing people hedge their statements with “anything is possible,” I am going to forge ahead with a common example, not examples that somehow managed to beat the odds. No use in trying to replicate lightning in a bottle.

Common scenario:

A low budget film with no notable cast, no clearly identifiable audience and no money to market and distribute on their own is now in post production and looking for advice on how to market the film in order to attract a significant sale. No one involved in the production has connections within the power community of filmmaker labs (and their mentors), top tier festivals, or reputable sales agents, but still believes a significant sale is achievable and will result in a significant release including multi-city theatrical, cable VOD, broadcast and home video.

From a distance, I know some of you can clearly see where this trajectory is sure to end up…but far too many do not even think about it until too late. It is possible to pull back the curtain on almost any indie film that you see as a success and look at the assets they had from the beginning. Their success trajectory existed before they completed the film. Even before their festival premiere, most likely they had some heavy weight help; perhaps some connected producers, several film labs/incubators lending them support and validation, grants and sponsorship from power organizations, personal connections of the director, cast and crew that could be tapped for help. Success is never 100% assured, but the chances are higher when these assets are in place. It is HIGHLY unusual for a film to come completely from nowhere, with no one notable in it or attached to it and go on to have significant success.

I’m not minimizing the talent and effort of these filmmakers, they certainly have to produce a stunning film that their connections feel proud (and safe) about championing. But if you know that your film is not going to have any of this, the success trajectory of your film will not look like these films. That’s ok, as long as you realize this and your goal is aligned. One only has to look at the recent Gotham Award nominees or the list of Oscar qualifying docs vs the short list  and then nominees when it comes out  to see what a successful trajectory looks like. Are there ANY that didn’t have major distributors/connected producers/prestigious labs/major festivals behind them? Are there any that DIDN’T have significant releases?

How to change your trajectory? If you need connections, start making them or choose people to help you who can deliver these. Making an undeniably stunning film will pull powerful people to you, but someone has to make the introduction. If your story is going to need a bigger budget with notable names  in order to succeed in the market (with buyers, with press, with audiences), don’t tell that story without those things. If you can’t attract that kind of financial backing yet (and most first, second and third timefilmmakers cannot), change your story to suit what you already have at hand or what you can realistically raise including marketing and distribution money so you have more options for release on your own. Often, proving your success will attract the attention of those with more financial muscle who can change your trajectory.

Most importantly remember, it is VERY difficult to change your trajectory once your project is in “motion.” Better to give it more thought before starting.

Photo credit Nathan Wells on Flickr
Sheri Candler

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