Your guide to making money with your indie films

In a nutshell

  • Find a hobby, philanthropic effort, political motivation or maybe a personal issue important to a potential investor to get your film funded
  • Selling your film to a sales agent or landing a film festival gets your content in front of buyers
  • Aggregators, sponsorships and licensing your film are other viable options

A wise man once said, “Don’t go into filmmaking if you’re trying to make money…” But don’t be discouraged, no good filmmaker ever followed the advice of a wise man. Let’s disregard that and look at some viable ways to make money with your indie films.

Finding an investor for your indie films

Most film projects are freelance work, so you need to start with a film project to pitch to an investor, one that excites them.

An important thing to keep in mind is, the project you pitch must have some kind of appeal to the investor for them to want to put money behind it. 

Usually, a hobby, philanthropic effort, political motivation or maybe a personal issue that is important to the investor gets you an opportunity to pitch your film.

Ideally, the film idea is something the filmmaker and the investor will both be passionate about. This is important because embarking on indie films requires an insane amount of patience and financing to manifest. If the investor shows passion towards the subject matter, they will come along for the ride. 

For example, if you have a casino in your city that puts on MMA or Boxing events, maybe they will be interested in backing a film about a local fighter that can attract business back to them.

Or maybe you have a family friend that has a non-profit aimed at finding a cure for a medical issue that affected them personally. Thus they want to produce a story to raise awareness and get closer to fulfilling their mission of finding a cure.

The key to finding a good investor who supports your vision is to find a story that appeals to the investor and helps their cause as much as it helps your cause as a filmmaker.

Finding an investor allows you a chance to get the financial backing you need to get your production off the ground and also take the first steps toward making money with indie films.

Licensing and distribution deals for indie films

After you completed your indie film, you now have a product to generate revenue from.

The way you should approach the indie film market is to think about it like this… 

Potential buyers are like an oil pipeline, your film is like the oil and their job is to keep a steady stream of oil coming down the pipeline. 

There are a couple of ways to get your content in front of potential buyers, and that is to either get a sales agent to represent your film or land a major film festival premiere.

From here you should be able to take the next step in landing a major licensing deal that will hopefully make you and your investors some money on the film.

Licensing and distribution deals can come in different shapes and sizes. 

The most lucrative deal and quickest way to cash out would be to sign an exclusive licensing deal for an upfront sum for rights to your film.

Icarus is an indie film that released in 2017 on Netflix – Image courtesy: Netflix

An example of this would be a company like Fox or Hulu screens your film and expresses interest in licensing it.  They will send an offer via the sales agent or to the filmmaker directly, fees and terms will be negotiated and both parties will hopefully reach an agreement.

Once the deal is completed, the funds transfer to the sales agent then to the filmmaker, or directly to the filmmaker. 

For a feature documentary film, a filmmaker can hope to make anywhere from a five to six-figure deal for a first-run licensing agreement. Second run rights will probably be a five-figure deal since exclusivity and premieres generate a higher licensing fee. 

These numbers can vary and some docs in recent history have even scored a seven-figure deal, like the award-winning documentary “Icarus” by director Bryan Fogel did in 2017, landing a historic five-million-dollar acquisition deal with streaming giant Netflix.

Aggregator deals

A film aggregator is another way of distributing your film and making a little bit of money. 

A film aggregator is a third-party service that helps your movie get distributed on a major platform and then customers purchase or stream your content. 

An aggregator can also be referred to as a distributor but really are just a middleman.

Choosing to shop your film through an aggregator should only be done after all options for signing with a sales agent or making a major film festival premiere are exhausted.

An aggregator makes your film available on all major platforms like Amazon, Apple and other places where indie films can be streamed. This does not mean you are going to make a lot of money, or reach a large audience though.

Revenue generates from the streaming numbers reported on those platforms. To really make some money, you have to make a big marketing push to get potential viewers excited enough to go find your film and then pay to stream it. 

Also, the aggregator will take a percentage of the streaming revenue generated usually between 15-25% depending on what you negotiate.

In rare cases, aggregators get your film a decent licensing deal with a major streaming service like Netflix or Hulu. To do this, your film will have to stand out among the herd of other films. The aggregators shop the streaming services on a monthly basis.

A licensing deal made using an aggregator can usually range in the low to mid five figure ranges.

A note of caution regarding using an aggregator…

Aggregators tend to keep third-party licensing deals hidden from the filmmaker so they can control the revenue flow and terms of the deal. Often times this means no upfront payouts for licensing deals, accounting discrepancies with streaming numbers and overall transparency issues. 

So take that into consideration when signing with an aggregator.

An aggregator is often a last resort for a distribution deal and way to make money on your film.

Sponsorship and other licensing deals

Another way to make money with indie films is to generate sponsorship and/or licensing deals with footage from project.

Let’s start with sponsorship deals.

Getting a sponsor for your film is similar to finding an investor for your film. The goal is to find a company or brand that has genuine passion for the subject matter of your film. Pitching to them how an association with your film creates value for their company.

Ideally the audience demographic for the film and the sponsor should be similar. 

The bigger the audience for the film, the bigger the sponsorship deal should command.  

As an independent filmmaker, you are able to negotiate these types of deals and should do so if your looking to bring in some extra money on your film. 

Another way to generate extra income with your indie film is through making other licensing deals.

Don’t confuse other licensing deals with distribution deals. These deals are usually one-off opportunities where the filmmaker licenses a small amount of their footage in exchange for a one-time licensing fee.

An example of this would be the HBO show “Real Sports with Bryant Gumbel” licensing some footage from your MMA film about weight cutting for a segment in an episode having to do with the same subject matter.

These types of sponsorship and licensing deals can usually pay out four to low five figure type sums.

Wrapping it up

Making money with indie films is an uphill battle. With a relentless attitude, a hustler’s spirit and a little bit of luck, a career in indie filmmaking isn’t out of reach.

Landon Dyksterhouse
Landon Dyksterhouse
Landon Dyksterhouse is an award-winning documentary filmmaker and is the founder of D-House Entertainment.

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