Seeing Red: Thoughts on selling movies without making money

I recently read the latest accounting statement for Dare Not Walk Alone, the documentary for which I was both a producer and executive producer. You could say I saw red. Let's put it like this: The project remains in debt and there are no indications  that it will ever get out of debt.

DNWA in the redI'm not complaining. There never was a plan to get mega-rich off this movie, but we did hope it would pay for itself and then earn some money that we could put back into the community from which it arose. That did not happen. The people who put money into the movie lost their money, me included.

Ironically, one group of people who "made money" from this project were the TV networks to whom we had to pay thousands of dollars to license news footage, some of which was never shown on TV when it was shot back in 1964. With licensing prices as high as $100 per second for old news, making a documentary about the sixties can get expensive pretty fast.

Having seen the latest spreadsheet from the accountant I feel that I owe aspiring directors and producers some "Lessons Learned" about making indie movies, a sort of payback for one of the non-financial rewards of the project: the openness with which both aspiring and accomplished indie film makers shared their knowledge as we took our fledgling film around the festival circuit.

One lesson you don't learn until you've made the movie and set up retail distribution is that people think offering a movie for sale on DVD or for digital download is the same as selling DVDs. For example, I've had people say to me: "Wow, I see is selling your movie." To which I reply: "No you don't."

What you see is the world's largest online retailer offering Dare Not Walk Alone for sale. That's way different from actually selling any copies. Sure, the movie is out there, for sale or rent, but that does not mean sales or rentals are happening. In fact, 2011 DVD sales for Dare Not Walk Alone, nominated as one of the top documentaries of 2009 by the NAACP, added up to roughly $400. Rentals earned about $40. Add those princely sums together and you get $440 in annual revenue, less than $40 per month, none of which is money in the bank because the initial costs of production and distribution have not yet been paid back. With tens of thousands of dollars in unpaid obligations still on the books you can see the path to profitability is long indeed.

Another lesson is that critical praise is not bankable. People may love your movie. You may get a lot of compliments, some of them in person, some published in the press. All are a pleasure to receive and they are part of what makes a project like this worth doing on a personal level. That does not mean a lot of people will buy your movie, particularly during a recession.

When people ask me where this particular movie project went wrong I tend to skip the hypotheticals--like the famous documentary distributor that signed us up then went bankrupt with our full earnings unpaid, or the pirated copies that may have cut into sales--and go right to the one thing we know for sure: The movie was launched into the teeth of the great recession. I'm convinced that tough economic times crushed the market for a film like ours, a film that stirs troubling emotions and memories, a film in which the feel-good moments are out-numbered by harsh realities, past and present.

The election of President Obama probably didn't help. All of a sudden a lot of people wanted to think that issues of race were settled, but we had a movie about race that is unsettling to watch, whatever race you happen to be. Not a good fit. In all likelihood, most of the people who want a copy of a movie like this have got one already, legally or through some stretching of the concept of copyright.

What advice do I have for people who want to make a documentary? Here are some points that come to mind:

  1. Shoot your own footage. Licensing of archive footage can be hugely expensive (did I mention $100 per second).

  2. Make your own soundtrack. It can cost thousands of dollars to license music for your soundtrack, even if you use lesser known artists (those artists may want to give you a deal but their label may not).

  3. Think long and hard about the market for your film. Avoid napkin-math such as: "We are bound to sell at least 100 DVDs in each of the 50 largest cities and at $10 profit per DVD that = $50,000." Reality does not work like that.

  4. Find a famous person to associate with your project. Giving a named star a producer or narrator credit can make all the difference when you are looking for press coverage.

I'm still glad that I got involved in this project. I'm proud that the film got made and seen at festivals. I'm proud that I helped make it available in the mass market, even though it did not achieve massive sales. And I'm very grateful to everyone who donated time and effort to get the film made and shown.

The film caused a lot of people who saw it question what they had been told about the history of civil rights; it brought the struggles of the sixties into sharp focus for many people to whom they were previously just a chapter in a history book or a few clips of people marching, shown every Martin Luther King Day. I wish people tens of thousands of people had bought DVDs or digital copies. They did not, but I'm still glad the movie was made.