The NEW Independent Filmmaker

by guest columnist SHERI CANDLER

I will start by giving credit right off the bat to my futurist heroes Gerd Leonhard and Seth Godin who spend way more time than I do contemplating issues on the future of the media business and how to succeed. What I get out of their talks and posts has helped me to formulate this post and bring my thoughts into order on how I see filmmakers sustaining themselves in the very near future.

There is a ton of talk right now on how independent filmmakers can sustain themselves by making their films and how independent film can be “saved.” So much talk, without many answers. I felt maybe I should take a stab at providing one. This is purely my reaction to all of this talk and I fully expect that I will be challenged for what I propose. It isn’t going to be palatable to the vast majority of filmmakers or others who profit from their work in the industry.

First, let’s address why we need a new business model. Gerd Leonhard has said as a filmmaker, it is all about the story and the connection to the audience. Everything in the middle will be redone. That means the way films have been distributed to audiences in the past, through very constricted routes (theaters, tv, physical stores), is now open via online and through mobile devices, and all over the world. The access to those routes is open to anyone, not just through companies who stand in the middle between the filmmaker and the audience. Our problem is no longer distribution, our problem is attention. How to get and keep and convert that attention in order to live as artists? With this open access, there is a glut of content and, as consumers, how to know what to watch and where to find it? It will be through friends or through the tribe and more and more we are finding this work online. There will be a mass of niches, not a mass audience. Who can access the niche?

Going forward, here is what I see. Two roads to take for sustainability.

Filmmaker as Tribe Leader

The selection of the word “tribe” does indeed come from Seth Godin. The word “tribe” – as the anthropologists use it – means a society or organized group largely based on kinship that looks to a leader for guidance. This is not to be confused with a “crowd,” a non-organized group with no leader. There are lots of crowds in indie film, very few leaders. Filmmakers must create and cultivate an identity around themselves as artists. This identity will serve as leadership in forming a tribe of passionate supporters who will sustain their artist in order for this person to live and keep making the art the tribe enjoys.

This route will only serve the entrepreneurial filmmaker. A person who is good at sharing, making connections, mobilizing, contributing and engaging with audience on a regular basis will be the ideal tribe leader. Those who prefer to create without need or concern of anyone’s enjoyment will not prosper here. The tribe leader must constantly stay engaged with his/her audience in addition to creating so that the leadership does not wane and the tribe begins to feel isolated and wander off to find another leader. The advantage to being a leader is that you are the resource on which the tribe depends, they enjoy your leadership and their kinship with you and the other members. This work cannot be given over to outside companies who are not directly involved in the tribe, they will not be trusted and trust is the cornerstone of this model.

Filmmakers who follow this business model will have no need for advertising in or reviews from mass publications. The media is not going to support you financially. The leader has permission to talk to his tribe, he doesn’t shout at them with uninteresting messages. This is what advertising is about, shouting loudly and repeatedly in the hopes that someone will act/buy. This tribe is small and the leader talks directly to the tribe, not through a large intermediary. He will also collaborate with them and bring them into his process. The tribe will expect to be able to produce and contribute as this is what is becoming the norm for storytelling now, the opportunity to interact directly with the story and the story creator.

Tribe members will speak to others outside of the tribe, share their enthusiasm and, through them, membership will grow. The filmmaker /leader may speak to leaders of other tribes in an effort to find a common area of interest and facilitate a connection for members of both communities to enjoy, but the goal with this is to simply connect people with common interests, not push one group’s interests onto another. This is not a one to many dialog but a many to many dialog with the leader serving as moderator.

“If you make a difference, people will gravitate to you. They want to engage, to interact and to get more involved.”-Seth Godin.

In a future post, I will talk about how you form a tribe and manage it.

This scenario offers the freedom to create content around many different subjects since the tribe is formed around yourself and your vision of art is appreciated. It is also far less stressful because you only have to focus on creating for a small group, not try to conquer the world all at once.

Filmmaker Creating Content for Other Tribes

For filmmakers who are not interested or not capable of creating their own tribe (basically, they CHOOSE not to lead; EVERYONE is capable), they will make content for passionately engaged tribes where they are not the leader or embedded in the community. This will be tricky because to gain the trust of the group, you have to show an affinity for their passion. You will have to win over the leader, gain his/her trust and find out exactly what kind of content you can create for them that they currently cannot get anywhere else. If successful, this tribe becomes your support, a group whose content needs you can fulfill over and over since there is seemingly no end to the want of fresh, interesting content.

This would lock you into the same subject matter over and over. Perhaps you could wander from tribe to tribe in order to change subjects, but the trust gaining process has to be started over each time, a very labor and time consuming process. You are a traveling minstrel going from small empire to small empire to entertain. Again, there is no need for mass advertising or mass interest because you create content only for small niche audiences. Those niches must be highly engaged though, so you will spend your time researching and finding them. But if you can get permission to create for them and your creations delight them, you have the power to make a living that is not dependent on companies, gatekeepers, shouting to the world in hope that someone will buy.

Neither of these scenarios discusses fame, massive fortune or creation just for creation’s sake. Fame is fleeting and if that is why you are interested in filmmaking, it wasn’t going to last (if you achieved it) for long. Fame also depends on creating a very large amount of noise to gain attention in the attention deficit world.

This doesn’t take into account massive fortune because your success will be limited to the size of the tribe. Small, engaged tribes are where the success is, but it won’t make you a billionaire, it doesn’t scale like that. The minute you shift focus to go after people with different interests, your original tribe falls apart. It is the intimacy and trust that holds it together. The auteur who is only interested in their own vision and creativity makes a good audience of one. The auteur who is a tribe leader can sustain, but the obscure, lone wolf with a vision will not.

However, tribes can and do grow through the enthusiasm of the community; that enthusiasm is shared with outsiders who are brought into the tribe. The leader does not need to do this work, in fact it is far more authentic if the tribe does it instead. As long as the leader’s focus remains on the care and feeding of the tribe, the tribe will thrive.

Will there be anomalies, people who are creative and do not connect directly with audiences? Yes, there are always exceptions and I expect that someone will list a few in comments. But I am talking about a sustainable business model, not the rarity or the lucky. If you are willing to step forward to build and lead a group of interested individuals who have not been mobilized or you are willing to identify and connect with already established groups and make quality content only for them, you will sustain.

This post first appeared on Multi-hyphenate and is reprinted here with permission and sincere appreciation.

Sheri Candler is an inbound marketing strategist who helps independent filmmakers build identities for themselves and their films. Through the use of online tools such as social networking, podcasts, blogs, online media publications and radio, she assists filmmakers in building an engaged and robust online community for their work that can be used to monetize effectively.

She can be found online at www.shericandler.com, on Twitter @shericandler and on Facebook at Sheri Candler Marketing and Publicity.