Making Money with Your Movie: Give it Away and Turn a Profit?

Every artist I know wants to make money from their work. This would free them from their "normal" job, and allow them countless hours to focus and expend energy on the form of expression that gives them satisfaction and release. Every "struggling artist" wants the solution that will grant them this liberty. Can you imagine what you would accomplish if you spend your time at work on the career you really want?

This is a puzzle for every filmmaker. You have creative talent and technical skill. What you seem to lack is an avenue to exploit these abilities for your benefit. Paying the bills and putting food on the table is paramount, and if you could only do this doing something you love, you can begin to set foot on that road to becoming whole. Or you'd sit in front of the TV and watch every episode of "Charmed" ever broadcast.

Either way, the enigma is turning your work into dollars. If you paint or draw really well (and have some connections), you could have a gallery showing. If you create a feature film, you could play festivals or take your film on the road. Others have done this, and made a little cash, but not enough to live on.

I don't have the "magic bullet" for this problem myself (or I'd be doing it), but after listening to other creative artists, I think I have an idea that might work, or has the capacity for working. It involves a simple idea, the internet (of course) and a lot of marketing (of course).

Recently, I listened to one of The Workbook Project's "This Conference is being Recorded" podcasts. It was an interview with sci-fi author Cory Doctorow, who sells his books online, but also distributes free electronic copies in various forms. Anyone is free to download these at their leisure, and read away. If you like what you read, you can get a real copy. If you don't, no problem.

He doesn't feel this hurts sales at all, but encourages it. He compares it to someone browsing bookstore shelves. They pick up a book, flip through or read it, then put it back on the shelf. It sounds a lot like the old Napster debate: give songs away, and those who like it, will buy it.

More support for this theory comes from a Digimart Conference held last year. There, filmmaker Tiffany Shlain speaks of having her short film, The Tribe, on the Sundance website for anyone to watch. This spiked sales of her DVD. When she went to another festival and was asked to take down the film, sales plummeted.

So would this work for a feature film? Could you place your 80-minute wonder on Google Video (preceded by an ad for the DVD), and promote sales? The selling points are better quality of audio and video, and bonus features. If you could drive enough people to watch it, and sold it for a reasonable amount (I'm thinking $13, shipping included), it could work. Cory points out that his electronic distribution costs are zero, and the more people download (and potentially spread it around), the more word gets out.

To equal a modest salary ($30,000) you're going to have to sell 3,000 copies (this assumes you make about $10 per copy). That isn't a very high number, and with effort and marketing it could be a reality. Just make sure you make a good film worth buying, and you could do the unthinkable. That's my plan, anyway.