The headline to a June 23, 2008, article in the Los Angeles Times declared, “The Sky Is Falling on Indie Film.” In the article, Patrick Goldstein explains that of the 5,000 films submitted to the Sundance Film Festival, fewer are getting a theatrical release and even fewer are making any money. He reports only five of the 5,000 (one tenth of 1 percent) actually make money.
Goldstein discussed remarks made by Mark Gill to the L.A. Film Festival Financing Conference. Gill, who has worked with Miramax and Warner Independent Pictures, laid out the bad news about the independent film industry but concluded with, “As simple as it sounds, it all comes down to a good story, well told.” Goldstein disagreed. He wrote, “For me, that’s not just simple, it’s too simple. The Indie biz is full of people trying to make quality films. What this ignores isn’t just that most films aspiring to quality don’t end up achieving quality, but that many quality films don’t make money because their subject matter is too narrow or dark or solipsistic to find a sizable audience.”
Goldstein is right. If you want to make a movie that makes money, you need to carefully consider who you hope will buy a ticket and what they would like to buy a ticket to. Too often independent movies, including “Christian” ones, are made because of the filmmaker’s desire to tell a story regardless of how few people may want to see that story told. Poor quality is an issue, and a failure to be entertaining can doom profitability, but making a movie without an idea of who will buy the tickets for it is probably the most common cause for landing among the 4,995 out of 5,000 losers in the Indie film market.
A few might get shown in small film festivals. Many wind up on DVDs that only make it into the hands of friends and family. This is true of both secular and “Christian” films.
Christian filmmakers have been known to make the mistake of “taming down” the Gospel message to reach the secular market. They wind up reaching no market at all.
The ‘who cares?’ factor
So, how can you make money on an Indie film?
Ask yourself, “Who cares?”
There are millions of people paying to see movies and buying or renting DVDs every week. So, who cares if you make a “Christian” horror show or another anti-U.S. military diatribe? Don’t bother! There is no audience out there waiting with bated breath for the next “Christian” vampire movie.
Mel Gibson made the ultimate Indie film with “The Passion of the Christ.” He invested $30 million of his own money, was turned away by the major distributors and made $611 million worldwide because he had a very good idea of who his audience was and he made a movie huge numbers of people would care about. Before the movie even opened, millions of people cared because the press implied that “Christians are bad if they like this movie about Jesus dying for their sins.” The “who cares” factor went off the charts.
On a far smaller scale, Sherwood Baptist Church in Albany, Ga., ventured into the filmmaking business in 2003 with “Flywheel.” They simply wanted to reach more people with the Gospel and saw that a lot of people attended their local theater every weekend. Their primary target was to reach the people who attend the Carmike Cinema in Albany. Their budget was miniscule, their image quality poor and their acting only passable, but their story was incredible. It’s the kind of story Christians care deeply about. The movie made money in Albany alone. It made it onto television, into Blockbuster stores and has become a favorite for church “dinner-and-a-movie” nights.
Their second film, “Facing the Giants” (2006), got a publicity boost from the MPAA when it got a PG rating for too strongly preaching the Gospel to teenagers. The filmmakers wound up on national television defending Christianity from MPAA injustice. The “who cares” factor rose rapidly. The word of mouth on “Facing the Giants” was great in Christian circles because the message of the filmmakers again nailed the “who cares” factor.
In a world where one-tenth of 1 percent of Indie films make money, two out of two is a great track record.
Sherwood released “Fireproof” on Sept. 29, 2008. They already had a large number of people who care about anything Sherwood makes. Like Steven Spielberg or Pixar, they have earned a sizable “who cares” factor with their track record alone. Many Christians went to see “Fireproof,” expecting the Sherwood folks to deliver another entertainment experience they will truly care about.
Movieguide® has reviewed a lot of Christian movies. Many of them have better lighting and acting than “Flywheel.” Their problem is they don’t pass the “who cares” test. The producer, director, actors and their families may care, but they’re about the only ones to wind up with DVDs because no one else does. If forced to watch the movie, most people come away thinking, “that was OK” or “what a waste of time.” They are not about to recommend it to a friend.
At Movieguide® it can be painful to tell well-meaning Christian filmmakers that the project they have poured their heart into for years will be a flop. You can lose friends that way. It’s like calling someone’s baby ugly. Sadly, no matter how many nice things you say about a movie, it will not be a success unless it can get a large audience to care.
“Fireproof” attracted more than 4.6 million ticket buyers because it was an inspiring, personal story about a Christian trying to save his marriage. If you believe Jesus Christ is Lord, it’s hard to come away from the movie without being inspired to accomplish more in your own Christian walk. The care factor was enough that “Fireproof” became the top-grossing picture of 2008 for Samuel Goldwyn Films and was the most successful independent movie in the last two years. Not far behind was “Amazing Grace” from Roadside Attractions, which was the most successful independent movie in 2007. These two movies far surpassed their closest competitors.
Consider the “who cares” factor for the rest of the top independent movies in 2007 and 2008:
Then, consider the “who cares” factor for other movies released by Samuel Goldwyn Films and Roadside Attractions in 2007 and 2008:
These charts show that even independent filmmakers who get a distribution deal can make movies with very small “who cares” factors. Imagine those who can’t even get a distributor to care.
The good news is that the above charts also show that Christian movies can lead a revival in the independent film market if they succeed in their “who cares” factor.
The independent film market is in trouble. The vast majority of independent films are never distributed. The vast majority of those that get distributed lose money. Independent distributors are closing their doors, while some are being gobbled up by the major studios. They are not learning what Movieguide® has made clear to the major distributors:
- R-rated movies do not do as well as G, PG and PG-13 movies;
- Audiences don’t want lots of foul language;
- Audiences aren’t out to further the sexual revolution;
- Audiences don’t buy America bashing;
- Audiences want biblically sound moral values and Christian theology respected and promoted.
Independent distributors who ignore these truths will pay the price. Independent distributors that heed these truths stand to prosper.
Look for some independent distributor who gets it. Look for the day when this independent distributor puts out a full slate of winners. Look for the day when anything released by this distributor has a great “who cares” factor simply because of their track record.
The industry used to benefit from the Motion Picture Code. It served as an objective decency standard for movie production. Look for an independent distributor willing to advertise they will not release a movie that cannot pass the old Motion Picture Code.
Consider the charts above. Based on following the Motion Picture Code, the distributors above would have said “no” to their losers and “yes” to their winners.
Such an independent could actually challenge the major studios.