A Brief History of Why We Started an Indie Filmmaking Incubator
I am a filmmaker who works in artist support (currently as a distribution consultant). In October 2020, I received an email from Naomi McDougall Jones referencing a vague idea regarding collective filmmaking. Naomi and I both sit on the side of artist support where we feel the system is not working as effectively as it should be. Our advice to filmmakers is always in consideration of the system being flawed. So, how can we write, produce and release (I direct and Naomi acts, respectively) our work in a way that garners more attention than the traditional indie release. We also want to work in a way that isn’t emulating the studio model, which often cuts out indie filmmakers and reinforces a very unhealthy way of living one’s life.
From that point on we started meeting regularly and brainstorming ways to make indie filmmaking more sustainable. We wondered what are the keys to raising money, connecting with audiences, and ultimately releasing our work? Is there a place outside of the entertainment industry with a more conducive ecosystem than the ones we’re entrenched in as filmmakers? So, Naomi and I set calls with people we thought were doing interesting things in filmmaking and film releases. For example, we talked to people involved in:
- Blockchain Distribution
- “Slow” Filmmaking
- Battling with Financiers Over Market Value of Attached Cast
- Producing Sundance Films
- Pod filmmaking
- Other expertises that relate to sustainable practices in indie film
We did some recon on what others were doing. And then asked ourselves, what we could do – as people who want to effect change in the indie film world – to make things better for all of us. Naomi had a theory that pod filmmaking was the potential key. But, as we had more and more conversations regarding potential models, we realized, there are a LOT of presumptions we are making about what is effective. Perhaps we were selling ourselves short and decided to instead look at the industry with new eyes and think even more outside the box.
Here is (and always is) where Naomi deserves all the credit in the world. She shared with me the practice of design thinking. Design thinking is defined as creative problem solving using human-centered design. We were inspired to solve specific problems in filmmaking from financing to distribution using this alternative method of design thinking. Toward that goal we decided to gather a group of people who were interested in making radical changes in the film industry. The pandemic was a personal reckoning for a lot of us; a time where we were reevaluating our habits. We saw this as the perfect setting for reassessing how films were being made – as well – and to encourage new habits. The incubator was born out of that.
How Do Movies Raise Money?
For what it’s worth, traditionally, films are financed in a plethora of ways. In fact, this is one of major myths of indie filmmaking. Those outside the system think there is some sort of pathway to financing. THERE IS NOT. It is both luck and who you know. There are grant applications and speed dating through artist support organizations but there is actually no instruction manual for how to finance your movie . Investors put money into films for a variety of reasons, including but not limited to:
- As an investment strategy
- To develop relationships
- To act as patrons for the arts
- Political agendas
- The spotlight – Hanging out with actors, Red Carpet Premieres and Parties
Driven By Design Thinking: A New Approach To Independent Filmmaking
With this concept of design thinking, we then evolved the initial idea of a pod filmmaking cohort, into a think tank, or incubator. A place where we’d invite others to join us as we applied design thinking to the whole of the industry and tested different models for how to make movies, how to finance films, and how to distribute them. We wanted to create an atmosphere where everyone has something at stake. Naomi brought in Angela Harmon and Abeni Bloodworth, who are storytellers interested in efforts of equity and sustainability in the industry. Together we built the application for the Constellation Incubator and launched it on FilmFreeway.
We developed a rubric for how to evaluate applicants based on the tenets of what we were trying to do within the industry, as well as the facets of design thinking. It was important to find people who had enough context to see the industry at a bird’s eye view. We also needed people who were capable of innovative and outside the box thinking, potentially even applying lessons learned from other industries.
We did two rounds of consideration – the first an essay to cut our initial field of 157 applicants down to 60. Next was a video round where we asked people to tell us why they wanted to participate and how they would redesign an effective but damaging item in their house. The question, in part, was chosen because there are parties that do benefit from the current film industry ecosystem, but it shuts out a lot of parties, and creates a lot of harm. We made our final decisions and are excited to connect with them this summer to brainstorm new models of disruptive filmmaking.
Why Films and Filmmakers Fail to Make Money in the Distribution Game
Why? Why do all this? Naomi has a strong background in film finance and has written, produced, and acted in two features in addition to many shorts, theater, and other projects. For her second feature, BITE ME, she did a Joyful Vampire Ball. This wild RV tour of America where she traveled to theatrical engagements for her film and eventized them was discussed on Episode 247 of Making Movies is Hard!!!
Theatrical proved to be a moneymaker for Naomi, but digital was tough. As a distribution consultant (and writer/director/producer of two features) I have witnessed filmmaker after filmmaker tell me that they did not recoup on their indie feature in spite of drastically low overhead which exhausted them by the production’s end.
A lot of filmmakers make haphazard decisions about who should distribute their work. They fall for distributors who use the phrase “I loved it” instead of looking at their options practically regarding what pathway has the least middlemen, the most reach, and a brand that will be an asset for them.
It has long been a theory of mine and people I work with that a filmmaker needs to be involved in the release of their work, and in fact be an integral part of it. If you look at the system of distributing films right now there are sales agents, distributors, publicists, lawyers to help you negotiate your deal, social media/digital ad managers, travel, theatrical/deliverables costs, this list goes on. Every film that is made is a siloed start-up that is expected to fly the plane while building it while simultaneously being strapped for gas, seats, windows, and a pilot.
A New System for Independent Film Financing, Production, And Distribution
What we’re hoping to find is a model of indie filmmakers coming together more often, working together to support each other’s films, to better connect with audiences, and provide more outside the box (and independent of the studio system) content for audiences who – we believe – really crave it. With so many filmmakers not making any money on their work, exhausting themselves on 12-14 hours days, and outputting work that stretches their resources beyond true quality storytelling, there must be another way. With Constellation Incubator, we’re intending to find at least 12 alternative models to present.
Find out more about Liz’s work at lizmanashil.com. Or check out the following links to her work: