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HOW TO MAKE A BIG SUCCESS WITH YOUR FIRST LOW BUDGE MOVIE

Simon Sharman
7 min
1 month ago

Have you ever asked yourself the question: how can I make my small budget movie a success? It's the challenge that every new film maker faces, and if not dealt with properly it can be the biggest stumbling block for every director starting out.

Why? Because making your first film is the 'easy' part but getting it out there - finding an audience, getting into film festivals, doing a distribution deal - is where the real challenge is. Filmmakers who understand that this is just as important as the creative process are the ones who will make their career happen.

The good news is that it is a lot easier to achieve success with your first film than many realise, as I discovered with my first feature documentary Cosmic Whistleblowers. It was made on a small budget but screened at film festivals around the world and now plays on multiple channels. The film won awards, got me on as a guest on the Jonathan Ross Show in the UK, and opened the doors to bigger and better projects.

Don't get me wrong, it doesn't happen overnight, but by the end of this article you will see how you can also achieve this kind of success with your first film, even if you don't have deep pockets or access to any industry contacts. 

Does it take hard work? Yes. Is any of the work difficult to understand or achieve? Absolutely not.


THE RIGHT APPROACH


Often the problem can start with the mindset of the new director. Everyone dreams of walking into their local multiplex and seeing their film playing, or walking the red carpet at Sundance at their first big premier.

And of course there's nothing wrong with big dreams! What's the point of it all if we can't enjoy the big moments?!

Although many might see this as their ultimate goal its the filmmakers who focus more energy on what comes after the glamour of the festivals who will enjoy the biggest long term success with their productions.

Objectives for a first film should be ambitious of course, but by aiming for 'smaller wins' places first time filmmakers in a better position to get a film in front of paying audiences which must be our Number 1 Aim. And the way to do this is via the film festivals.


SMALLER WINS GIVE BIGGER RESULTS


As an unknown filmmaker we cannot expect the general public to be excited about our film as we will be ourselves. So what does this mean for our path to success? It means we have to know where to take our film to give us the best results.

Does this mean we enter the Venice Film Festival with our first film? Probably not. If you just completed on a low budget horror then focussing on smaller festivals in the horror genre will probably be the smarter play.

If your first film is a feature documentary about social injustice, then you should look for those film festivals that only accept social cause films and make them a big part of your festival strategy. At this early stage - and especially with a first film - its about getting as much traction for your picture  and getting it as quickly as possible.

Being a bigger fish in a smaller pond is the secret to success at film festivals.


Which smaller festivals seem to favour first time directors? Which ones specialise in our genre? Which festivals give our films the best chance at extra publicity because they are blowing up this season?

FRONT ROW EXPERIENCE: My first feature production, Cosmic Whistleblowers, was only entered into a smaller number of strategically selected film festivals but still achieved screenings across three continents which helped to sell the film to a distribution company.

By entering smaller film festivals it can bring highly valuable smaller wins and expand the reach of a film around the globe at a rapid pace. Taking this approach will also save hundreds or thousands of dollars that could easily be wasted trying to make a name at the world's biggest festivals (if you've ever tried to book accommodation near to Cannes during film festival season you will already understand this point!).

Number 1 Aim - check!


SO HOW DO WE SELL OUR FILM?


Having a film screen at multiple smaller film festivals will put you on the map as new talent. This is what a distribution company must see to know we have a product they can sell. They need to see audiences putting their hand in their pocket to pay to see our film.

And ideally They need to see at least some good comments or reviews. These don't have to be written by a professional film critic either. Feedback from audiences will do just fine at this stage.

So how do we hook the distributors once we have got this far?

Guess what... we already did!

Well, that's at least partly true. Don't think that just because you got your first film accepted into a few film festivals that distributors now automatically know that you exist and who you are. It's still down to us to tell them who we are and why they should be interested in our work.

But...

...once our film is playing at more than one film festival this is all we need to engage with potential agents who can sell our product to the market. And we don't need to have won the Palm D'or at Cannes Film Festival to get their attention!

From here on in its all about approaching the companies that best fit your production. This is the Number 2 Aim.


HOW TO CHOOSE THE RIGHT FILM DISTRIBUTOR


Film distribution companies come in all shapes and sizes, from the big corporations right down to  one man operations who make a living smaller titles. The right choice for your first independent film will probably be somewhere in the middle of this spectrum.

You must identify companies that already sell films in your genre, and at your level. Look at it this way - why would a top level features distributor like Buena Vista International want to represent your low budget horror? The answer is simple of course, they wouldn't!

The trick is to look for those smaller or mid sized companies that will be an asset for your film and your career, but to be sure that they are not so big that they will still return our calls and emails, and still consider our production.

So...

...let's assume we've identified a distributor that sells films in our genre. Now we must answer another question - and this is probably the most important: do they represent our level, and what is 'our level'

This doesn't just refer to budget. It's possible to have a bigger budget and still make a bad movie (we've all seen these!) or to create a higher quality production with a smaller budget, depending on the quality of your team.

This is where your own judgement must come into play. Yes the quality of a film is often in the eye of the audience's personal taste, but as filmmakers we all have the ability to understand if our film stands up against a potential distributor's slate of current movies they already represent. 

For example, when I was approaching distributors for the first time I spent a lot of effort with one particular company who I thought would be a great fit with my film, but in the end not only didn't take my picture - they were never going to take it.

At the time I felt that my production was big enough for their slate of films, but in fact their catalogue was only really filled with films that would make 'front page news' (their words/reason for not taking mine). As much as I wanted them to take it they were never the right fit.

FRONT ROW EXPERIENCE: By approaching several distributors (that represented films at the same level as my own film) I was able to generate interest from multiple parties and do so relatively quickly.

So when considering which companies to approach just ask yourself the question: does my movie (honestly) stand up against their other pictures?

Once you start looking at it in this way it quickly becomes apparent whether or not the company is a good fit for your production. If the answer is no, don't waste any time and move on. There are almost countless distribution companies you can still approach. At some point you will get a 'yes' or 'we're interested' and then you're up and running.

Send them a screener to your masterpiece and wait for the doors to open.

Number 2 Aim - check!


IS THAT ALL THERE IS TO IT?


Yes, and no. By the time you have reached this point you've actually done most of the hard work. Phew! The only job left is to get the best deal you can get out of any offers to buy your film. This is our Number 3 Aim.

It should go without saying that your film has to have some merit in order for a company to represent it in the market on your behalf. Assuming that this is the case, you must enter this phase with a specific idea of what you want to achieve with your film.

Do you want your movie to make you money, or to make your name? Cosmic Whistleblowers still generates revenue to this day, but my main objective was always to get the film in front of the widest audience possible because this fitted better with my longer term goal - which for me was exposure.

The exposure provided by my distribution deal was worth way more to me than the potential financial returns (believe it or not!) because of the doors I knew it would open for me going forward. Your objectives may be different and whatever it is should help guide your own strategy at this stage.

By deciding on your personal objectives before speaking to any potential distributor you will give yourself a much better chance of getting the best deal for you and not the best deal for them. Negotiating a distribution contract for the first time can feel overwhelming but knowing what you want for any deals.

FRONT ROW EXPERIENCE: Having a clear idea of what I wanted from a distribution deal enabled me to negotiate a contract that paid an upfront fee for the production, a fair revenue split and I ensured that I retained the rights to still sell the picture under my own name.

Whatever deal you make at this point will probably not be perfect, but as long as it gives you something that fits with your own objectives its a process that you will get better at over time as you grow with experience. In the beginning pretty much any deal you make will still be your own golden ticket and will feel very very special.

Number 3 Aim - Check!


A FEW DOLLARS LESS


The incredible truth about this approach is that you could achieve all of this and more on so few dollars. There's no need to waste money on expensive agent fees or PR companies.

You can literally do it all yourself.

Film festival entry fees aren't expensive, and the smaller festivals can be very low cost and especially if you get the early bird entry fee. Compete your final cut in good time and you can also save yourself hundreds by submitting your picture early and taking advantage of lower early bird fees.

Searching, finding and contacting distributors can all be done form your laptop. If you do land a company to represent your film that is based in another country, in a post COVID world Zoom meetings are now the norm. No long distance face to face meetings are required.


THE FINAL CUT


Follow these Do's and Don'ts and make your first film the biggest success it deserves to be:

  • Keep your objectives more realistic for your first release and only enter the big film festivals if you know your film deserves to be there.
  • Understand your audience and target the most suitable film festivals 
  • Make all your film festival submissions as early as possible to maximise on lower entry fees
  • Find and target distribution companies that already sell films in your genre
  • Only approach those distributors that represent your 'level' of production 
  • Know your objectives before speaking with any potential agents or representatives 
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