Studying the Economics of Independent Film: A Proposal

As we wrap up the eighth annual Film Independent Forum, I’m struck by the amount of discussion about the economics of independent film lately, and the widely divergent perceptions of where we are right now. Some people point to a good sales year at Sundance and see it as a sign that the indie business is back to some degree of health. Others continue to find the basic model of indie financing and films sales to be broken, one decent year at Sundance notwithstanding. The problem, it’s argued, is that it’s almost impossible to sustain a career as an independent filmmaker, financially speaking.

One of the best recent pieces on this topic was Ted Hope’s blog back in August, “How Much Does An American Indie Producer Get Paid?” Hope breaks down how much a starting producer, and how much an experienced producer, can expect to get paid on a film these days. The numbers aren’t pretty, to say the least, and they lead to a sobering conclusion: “Recognizing what it costs to live in NYC, it looks like one might need to produce 5-10 features a year to make it work. It doesn’t leave much room for a hands-on craft-oriented approach to producing.” And of course the question that Hope is asking about producers could also be asked about any number of other positions in independent film.

Hearing so many people talk about the difficulty of sustaining a career in independent film can create the impression that there is truly no business here, and that indie film, as the IRS recently argued about documentary film, is more of a hobby than a for-profit business. (See Paul Devlin’s excellent piece on this IRS case at Filmmaker Magazine.)

But while it’s obviously true that it’s hard for many independent filmmakers to sustain a career doing what they love, it is simply false that there’s no money in independent film. This fact should be obvious, but it apparently needs to be stated: there is a lot of money in independent film. Money changes hands every time someone makes a film, regardless of how small the budget. Money changes hands every time a festival screens a film, regardless of how famous or obscure the festival. Money changes hands every time a company puts sponsorship dollars towards a festival. Money changes hands every time a distributor buys and releases a film, no matter how small the release. And so on.

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