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3 Ways for Indie Filmmakers to Learn from the Numbers at Sundance

The Sundance Film Festival, one of the top festivals in the world, took place in January. Now the numbers (how many films were submitted, which got distribution, and which turned a profit) are in, and there’s a lot for independent filmmakers to learn.

The main lesson is for indie filmmakers (and investors) to be more selective and frugal with their projects. In this day and age when anyone can make a film, anyone will – but that doesn’t mean the films they make should cost around $1 million, which most of them do. My opinion?

Cutting your budget - literally.
Cutting your budget – literally.


This mantra should already be tattooed on the brains of indie filmmakers, but given the numbers, I’m not so sure. The budget for the independent film industry, as a whole, comes to about $3 BILLION a year. This means all of indie film combined spends about as much as major studios – but these films do not get major studio marketing to help recoup that money.

The killer: of that $3 billion, only about 2% is ever earned back. Abysmal. Indie filmmakers need to reduce their budgets drastically.

I know – most people will feel cutting budget means cutting quality – and, after all, the budget for an indie movie is already so much less than for a studio feature. But smart filmmaking, at a fraction of that budget, with a polished story and thought-out marketing and distribution plan, greatly reduce the risk of loss and put you on the road to greater professional success.

Speaking of which…

Proceed with care...
Proceed with care…


All indie filmmakers want to get into Sundance, not to mention the other big festivals. But with a total of about 12,000 films submitted each year, with only 200 getting in, be honest with yourself – is submitting to Sundance the best use of your time and money when you’re just getting started?

Yes, some folks at Sundance are ‘first-time filmmakers’… but in reality, this probably means they’ve worked on films for years in different capacities. ‘First-time filmmaker’ does not necessarily mean that their Sundance film was the first time they ever picked up a camera.

Chances are, the first few shorts you EVER make aren’t going to be able to get in – and that doesn’t mean they aren’t great films! A better strategy is to submit those great films to a variety of smaller festivals where you have a high chance of getting in and scoring prizes. This leads to more recognition, more experience, more connections – and a better chance of being able to put together something Sundance might be interested in once you reach the top of your game. (Not while you’re still learning.)

Finally, even if you are one of the talented and lucky people to make it into a festival like Sundance:

All your eggs. One Basket. Disaster.
All your eggs. One Basket. Disaster.


About half of the films at Sundance got distribution… but for a lot of them, their distribution deals equalled NO upfront money, since online digital distributors were the only ones biting. If you spend $1 million dollars (or even $10, for that matter) with absolutely no plan of how to get the film to the public – chances are you’ll never make your money back.

Again, it’s important to keep your costs low. Figure out how to make your film on a small budget and monetize it afterwards with different forms of non-exclusive distribution (worked out ahead of time if possible.) Work your magic with various press outlets to get the word out and drive people to your screenings or online store. Also consider organizations like Tugg.com, who can help put on limited showings of your film in major theaters for a fraction of the cost of a large release. Then, when you also get into a big festival and score major distribution, it’ll just be icing on the cake.

Don’t agree? Take a look at the below infographics , courtesy of www.culturalweekly.com – and let me know what you think in the comments below!

sundance infographic



By Digital Film Academy Blog Manager Sara McDermott Jain

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