The Importance of Realistic Expectations

A week and a half ago the NY Times ran a piece about two independent filmmakers who are drowning in debt, even though their film has been screened at 16 different festivals. The catch is that it hasn’t been picked up for distribution.

This observation from the article certainly rings true:

And Geoffrey Gilmore, director of the Sundance Film Festival, warned that tales of overnight success can have a negative effect. “One of the problems with the Cinderella stories is that they create enormous expectation that people come out of the box fully grown,” he said. “Filmmakers are not allowed enough time to enjoy a sense of growth.”

A point that doesn’t get mentioned in this piece is the fact that submitting to festivals itself is an expensive process — there’s almost always a submission fee, not to mention the cost of copies (or film prints) and postage. It adds up quickly. That’s one of the reasons why Jason Scott, the filmmaker behind the excellent BBS Documentary, decided to quit submitting to festivals.

Certainly, there are worse ways to spend your money than to invest it in making art. But it’s also wise to take full account of the odds. Many great films go unrecognized, and there’s an element of sheer luck in every success story.

I think Jason really hit upon a smart model in making and distributing his BBS Documentary. He did it over the course of years and doesn’t seem to have suffered much from the investment. Instead of making a 90 minute film and hoping for distribution, he decided to make a kick-ass 3 DVD package to sell directly.

Now he was both lucky and smart to have picked a topic that has so much latent geek interest, but it also seems to me that his expectations were eminently realistic. And, as it happens, he’s made back his initial capital investment in less than a year of distribution.

The real lesson of the BBS Documentary is that Jason didn’t rely on some other organization or company to decide his project was worthy enough. That’s the problem with the entertainment industry. Sure you can make a film, but if you want to be in theaters, you’ve got to hope that some company thinks it’s worthy.

And lots of really independent filmmakers go out on tour, like a band might, and show their films in clubs, bars, libraries and other nonconventional spaces. And others are satisfied just to distribute online for free or for donations.

That’s realistic, too, provided you don’t get into $55,000 of debt that you can’t afford to pay back.

You have to make independent media because you love it, or because you have to. But I really recommend against putting yourself into major debt to fund it on the hope that one of the big guys will pick it up and pay you for it. Sure, that gamble worked for Kevin Smith, but how many of those stories have you heard?

I certainly invest some money in producing this blog and my radioshow. I don’t really want to count, but I’d say it adds up to maybe $1000 a year for hosting, equipment and other sundries. I consider it my hobby, I’m lucky enough to be able to afford it, and I’m glad to do it. And I feel satisfied on my own terms with regard to how many readers come to this site and that the radioshow is heard on six different radio stations on top of approximately 200 online listeners every week.

I don’t expect to make back my grand a year, and I don’t expect that my efforts will gain me any more money, fame, listeners or readers. And if I can’t afford the $1000, I’ll scale back. I’ll sacrifice other stuff first, but I won’t sacrifice a place to live and food to eat.

Maybe I’m just too risk averse, and maybe I’m not thinking big enough. But, then, why does everything have to be big? Isn’t the idea behind independent media is that anyone can do it? So if everyone is doing it, everyone can’t be as big as Kevin Smith or the New York Times. And that’s OK.

One Response to The Importance of Realistic Expectations

  1. Jason Scott November 30, 2005 at 4:02 pm #

    Hey there, Paul. Thanks for the compliments.

    I actually read that article and went entirely nutso batshit on it. The weblog entry about that is here:

    http://ascii.textfiles.com/archives/000176.html

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