Indie Filmmaker Spills the Beans: How I Raised $150K for My 1st Movie and Never Saw a Dime Back

“It’s high time indie filmmakers started sharing their budget and earnings,” writes writer-director Joe McClean. “I’ll go first”

life tracker
"Life Tracker"

It’s high time indie filmmakers started sharing data. Yes, that includes your budget and your earnings. I’ll go first.

We’re taught from childhood that “two heads are better than one.” We unionize to have a collective bargaining voice. We’re encouraged to collect as much information, from as many social media accounts as we can manage. Yet independent filmmakers are still told by distributors, and one another, that they should never reveal their movie’s budget. If a buyer knows how much you spent, they’ll change the number they’re willing to offer. People also have hang-ups about budget specifics. If someone finds out I made $xxxx on a production, then future employers won’t pay me more.

These are understandable concerns, but I believe the secrecy is hurting the independent film scene. Too many times I’ve said to my attorney or agent, “Is this a good deal? Are these numbers on par with other people at my level?” I’ve had to ask these questions because the information is nearly impossible to find.

So I’d like to spill the beans, even when it hurts my ego, about the first indie feature I made: “Life Tracker,” a $150,000 science fiction movie with a few recognizable faces in the cast. (My second feature, “The Drama Club,” is available on iTunes and Amazon on June 9.) I sincerely hope it helps some indie filmmaker out there to have this information as they move forward with their own production.

I wrote “Life Tracker” in 2010. I chose science fiction because it’s a genre that has a reliable audience. I wrote a found-footage, dialogue-heavy script because it was cheaper to make. I didn’t include large crowd scenes or explosions because I knew if I was trying to make “Cloverfield,” I’d be one of those filmmakers who always talks about making a movie but never actually does. The goal here was to make a movie, not to write a script.

My attorney, Bianca Goodloe, helped me get the script into a few hands. She also introduced me to a person who found money for productions through personal connections and took a 10 percent finder’s fee. This person ultimately brought $90,000 to the production — $40,000 from two investors, $25,000 from NBA All-Star Baron Davis, and then, at the very end, when it looked like we weren’t going to get the budget we needed to make the movie, $25,000 of their own money.

The rest of our $150,000 budget came from where most indie filmmakers find cash — family and friends. We got $25,000 from a producer’s father, $22,000 from a spouse’s uncle, and $5,000 from a golfing buddy. The last $8,000 was filled in by many smaller contributions from people who were no less important.

What did we specifically do to get people to trust us? Some people liked that a sports star invested. Others liked the résumé of my attorney. We also added a clause to the contracts that we were barred from spending any money on production until we had raised enough to get the movie in the can — $100,000 — which meant no one was going to lose their money on a movie that never made it out of preproduction. We had one year to raise the minimum threshold to start spending the investments. We made it by the skin of our teeth.

Casting also helped us raise the final amount needed (shout-out to incredible casting directors J.C Cantu and Jennifer Levy). An investor introduced me to Rebecca Marshall, who had starred in one of the “Saw” films and just finished shooting the kick-ass Zoe Bell indie “Raze.” She came aboard and people started to feel more comfortable.

But the real game-changer was when our casting directors found Matt Dallas, who had a sea of diehard fans from playing the lead on ABC Family’s “Kyle XY” (bonus points because his show was also science fiction). How did we get Matt to work on our tiny production for very little money? Matt and I went to the same high school. I graduated just before he began, but we knew a lot of the same people. My guess is guilt with a bit of entrapment made him do it. (Hi, Matt!)

To add a little more clout to our cast, Cantu and Levy brought in the recognizable (and super talented) veteran actors Jay Thomas and Ron Canada to play roles that only required a few hours to shoot.

life tracker

There you have it. Personal connections, a wonderful lawyer, killer casting directors and the willingness of the producers to ask every person they ever met to give money. A lot f—ing harder than it sounds. People work hard for their money and film production is a very high-risk investment, as they all soon found out.

We were rejected by 40-plus film festivals. Ouch.

We submitted the film to every distribution company Bianca recommended. They all rejected us. Ouch again.

As a brief morale-booster, we were able to hook up with a startup company that had a side deal with a digital distributor. They threw us a premiere at Raleigh Studios, complete with red carpet, photographers from Getty Images (lured to see Matt Dallas) and sponsored booze. It was genuinely a great night of ego feeding and backslapping.

We were accepted on every major cable VOD network across the country with access to 100 million homes via Comcast, Time Warner, Xfinity, Charter, etc. But since we had no money for advertising, no one knew the movie was there unless someone involved in the project told them personally. The movie never made it onto specific lists like “Science Fiction” or “Independent Release.” It was only in the general catalog. Under L. If you didn’t know us personally, you had to scroll through half the films in the entire library to find us. No one did.

After the Cable VOD window ended, the film went to Transactional Video On Demand (TVOD) services such as iTunes, Amazon and a dozen other places where you can rent or purchase movies. No one found us there either.

The next window was Subscription Video on Demand (SVOD). We got on Amazon Prime and a few others. No Netflix. Again, no one found us.

The last VOD sales report I’ve seen was in June 2015. The movie made a total of $2,137.57. But our VOD contract included an advertising cap allowing the distributor to take the first $15,000 earned to cover any advertising expenses. Since we never got above that number, no money ever made it back to us. I’ve reached out for more current numbers, but my emails have gone unanswered.

I recognize some people might be thinking, “Your movie sucked. If you’d made a good movie, people would have found it and watched it.” I respond with two questions: 1) Have you ever seen a terrible yet profitable movie? 2) Have you ever seen a brilliant movie that never made a dime because no one ever heard of it?

A few “Life Tracker” numbers for reference (as of June 2015), though these are averages since prices can vary even within the same rental service depending on when it was rented and from what country:

• Cable VOD: Rented 850 times. $1.56 per rental. $1.29 per rental back to distributor.
• Amazon: Rented 157 times. $1.99 per rental. $1.63 per rental back to distributor.
• Amazon Prime: Streamed 3,855 times. $0.01 per stream. $0.085 per stream back to distributor. (Yes, that’s less than one cent per stream)
• iTunes: Rented 46 times. $2.79 per rental. $2.30 back to distributor.
• Vudu: Rented 107 times. $3.49 per rental. $2.48 back to distributor.
• “Life Tracker” was also rented, less frequently, on Youtube, XBox, Google Play, Sony, and iN Demand.

Life Tracker is on DVD/Bluray too, but I’m told that market is dead for all but the biggest tentpole franchises.

We also four-walled the movie in a theater in Phoenix, where we had a sizable audience because a number of our cast and crew call the city home. We screened once a day for seven days. The purpose of this was to get reviews (many publications require you play for seven days in order to qualify for a review) and to qualify for the Film Independent’s Spirit Awards. We got a nice review from the Arizona Republic, but we didn’t get nominated for a Spirit Award.

A Phoenix-area filmmaker whom I did not know previously saw the movie during our seven-day run and introduced us to an international sales agent in Los Angeles. They signed us and brought “Life Tracker” to film markets at AFM, EFM, TIFF, and Cannes. We even held screenings at a couple of them. They sold one territory for $2,000: Free TV in Africa. The sales agent had a $10,000 Advertising Cap, so we didn’t make any money on that deal either.

I was told that the movie would be taken down from all libraries when the final contracts ran out in October 2016. As of now, the movie is still on many of the services, including iTunes and Amazon.

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