The Art of the Business of Film

Making movies is an art. It’s a telling of a story on film instead of a canvas; the director is the painter, the crew is the brush, and the actors are the paints that transform into art.

Although I describe both in a similar fashion, the reality of bringing art to life for both is different. Movies are much more complex to create, they are more expensive to make and are a collective effort by so many professionals, requiring a tremendous amount of tools and resources to bring a story to the big screen canvas.

As a filmmaker I would love nothing more than to be on a movie set creating art every day of my life, but as a filmmaker in the independent film world it’s not that simple of course, unless you work as a salaried employee for a film production company.  But in my case I love the freedom of working for myself. To be free to create as I envision, I had to also become a businessman and learn the film business.

When I started in the business in the early 1990’s it was much easier for me as a filmmaker to raise money and go out and make my films, and actually my movies made money and I was able to continue doing what I loved and grow from there. In 2002 I wanted to make bigger budget movies but I was unable to raise the funds necessary to do so. That’s when I started to study successful film producers and production companies to learn how they conduct their business.

What I found – these producers primarily use bank-provided production financing; they release their films through major distributors; they attain their creative visions and their films are profitable.

So how are they able to do so? They understand the art of the business of film.

Normally, when independent film producers want to make their movies, they first raise the funds for the production costs, then go out and shoot their film and when it’s completed they then seek distribution. This is what I did when I started up. It worked for me and I am sure it worked for many producers who came before and after me. But truly, even though the movies I made earned a profit, I did not understand the art of the business of film.

You see the successful producers I talk about, they start from the end, they seek distribution first for their film projects, then raise the money and finally shoot their films.

The way I made my films early on, I took a risk by not knowing if global distributors will buy them when they are completed. Yes, I researched the market and I knew the films I made would sell, but I did not have any guarantees. I was lucky then that the market was able to respond favorably. But this is not the way to a sound business approach, and since then the market has changed tremendously, and if I make my films today the way I did early on, I will definitely lose my money and be out of business.

Yes, I say it again that making movies is an art, but if the painter of that art does not sell his or her paintings they will not be able to continue to create art. The same goes for filmmaking. We need to be able to sell our movies and make a return-on-investment; otherwise we will not be able to continue to do what we love. It’s that simple.

For indie filmmakers to share their creations with audiences around the world they need to work with worldwide film distributors who will release their films in each of their territories. That is only way it is done. These distributors are the ones who will pay you a license fee for your film rights – it’s not the audience. In addition to paying you a license fee, they are the ones who will also invest a large amount of money to market your film and release it in their respective countries. If your film does not work in their country you lose the license fee from that territory and your return-on-investment will be affected accordingly.

You can argue that to create art you should not be influenced by any outside force. Then it will not be pure art. I agree. And this is where the art of the business of film comes to play.

As I said above successful producers are able to attain their creative vision because they prepare their films for the global marketplace. Their creative and production decisions are tied together with their rights-sales decisions. They engage distributors early to insure they have the right commercial elements in their films to complement the story they want to tell; like great actors or movie stars, or huge action scenes, special effects and other high production values these distributors can utilize to market the films to their audiences.

These distributors are in the business of releasing films.  This is how they make their money, so they need films, and if filmmakers present them with a solid package demonstrating that the film they want to make has all the right elements and has a great chance of being a commercial success, these distributors will take a risk and pre-buy the rights to the film before its made.  This also helps them by insuring that their competitors in their territory do not get their hands on that film.

To do business with these distributors I have to listen to them, they know their market and what sells and what doesn’t. For example, I was meeting with theatrical film distributors from Brazil and we were discussing the possibility of doing film projects together, they told me that films with a female as the leading actress are not in demand, so in this case I will you find a strong and well known male actor to be her co-star, side kick or love interest so they may use his name to push the film in their territory. In China, which now is a huge market and cannot be ignored, if there is any mention of the word China in the script, the first question I get from Chinese distributors – is there any negative mention of the Chinese government, so if I want my films to sell there, I cannot be negatively attacking the government.

You cannot give every distributor in every country what they want, but you compensate for what’s lacking with other popular elements that appeal to audiences worldwide.

If these successful producers are not able to pre-sell a majority of the territories or a great percentage of their film budget, they will not make the film.

This is not a sell-out in terms of creating art. If you do not employ this method and distributors do not license your film, then no one will get to see your creation and hear your story.

Tony Kandah