Feature films are the gold standard in the world of filmmaking, but the cold, hard truth is that most of us just aren’t ready to make one… yet.
Unfortunately though, most of the filmmaking advice out there centers on getting people to make features early and often. We live in a culture of “just do it” that leads many of us to make features well before we’re ready.
Thanks to inexpensive and democratized filmmaking tools, online distribution, and crowdfunding, no one needs to wait for permission anymore. And with a wealth of knowledge about how to make films at our fingertips, it might seem prudent to just get out there and start making features.
On top of that, there’s no doubt whatsoever that feature films can be extremely valuable and profitable if done right. Small, inexpensive indie features have been known to launch careers and skyrocket people to success. There is a huge potential upside.
However, what filmmaking blogs usually fail to tell you is that those success stories are few and far between.
And it leads to this notion that all filmmakers should be focusing on features, regardless of their skill level, intention, experience, or business acumen. Frankly, I think it’s a dangerous myth that needs to be put to rest.
So in this article, I’m going to argue that pursuing feature films is not a wise strategy for most of us, especially if becoming a skillful filmmaker and growing as an artist are your primary objectives. It’s also not the best strategy if your goal is to get noticed, stand out in an increasingly noisy world, and build an audience.
So without any further ado, here’s why you should think twice before making a feature film.
Feature films are outrageously time consuming
It should come as no surprise that the longer your film, the more time, energy, and money you will need to invest into it to ensure that it doesn’t suck. That much is common sense.
Let’s break it down a bit further, though.
The average indie feature usually takes 2–4 weeks just to complete principle photography. And that’s several weeks of full-time work for at least 5–10 people, usually with long production days and plenty of weekend work as well. Just for principle photography.
Then when you factor in the time for pre-production and post-production (usually several months each), you’re looking at roughly half a year to produce a feature film, and that’s at the low end. Sure, there are exceptions, but if you’re being realistic, that’s the amount of time you can expect to spend on a feature.
Now, there’s nothing wrong with spending half a year working on a project that you’re passionate about, especially not if you genuinely enjoy the process of making films. However, as the old saying goes, time is money, and as such, it’s important for us to invest it wisely.
Which brings me to the next point.
If time equals money, then making an indie feature is almost always a terrible investment
I don’t want to be the bearer of bad news, but the vast majority of indie feature films fail to break even, let alone make a profit. And those stats are sure to become even more disheartening as the number of feature films produced each year grows while demand for features fails to keep pace.
The hard truth of the matter is this: if you don’t have a distribution deal already lined up, big-name talent attached to your project, or a pre-existing audience who will ensure plenty of VOD sales, you’ll very likely lose money in the world of independent features.
Yet many of us do it anyway. We tackle features before it makes business sense to do it, largely because of this culture that tells us, “just go make a feature and everything will work itself out.”
Unfortunately, the reality of this business is a bitch, and counting on forces outside your control to make you successful is a strategy designed to disappoint.
Making indie features won’t help you stand out in a noisy world
Let’s say you actually make a feature film. The film is decent, but it’s certainly not going to Sundance and SXSW and Toronto.
Perhaps it screens at a few smaller festivals, which is great, but eventually you’re left with an unsold film. Maybe you then decide to put it up on a few VOD channels, and a couple of sales come in, but nothing major.
Or maybe you decide to release it for free on your YouTube channel. It racks up a couple hundred views, maybe a couple thousand, but relatively few people actually watch it. Because let’s be honest, almost no one comes to YouTube looking for indie features made by amateur filmmakers.
The problem with this scenario (besides how common it is) is that it really doesn’t move people closer to their goals. Sure, you now have the experience of making a feature, which is intrinsically valuable and likely taught you a lot. But it probably hasn’t actually moved you closer to being able to make your next feature a worthwhile investment.
What I’m getting at here is that there are a few tangible, relatively inexpensive things that filmmakers can do to improve their craft, find their unique artistic voice, and build an audience. I’m going to talk more about that in next week’s article, but you can bet your ass that doesn’t involve going out and making a feature before you’re ready.
Feature films can be great, but most people just aren’t ready to make them
I know it probably seems that I’m very much against feature films after all of that. In truth, I love features as much as the next guy, but I wholeheartedly believe that far fewer filmmakers should be pursuing them.
Making features and being successful with it (no matter how you define success) requires you to have your act together. It requires that you’re a legitimately skilled filmmaker who’s made enough smaller projects to warrant the trust (both from investors and the people you work with) required to make a feature.
It requires that you not only have something to say, but that you have your own unique sense of style and voice with which to say it.
And most of all, if you intend your feature to make money (which you should considering how much time it takes), it requires that you have some legitimate avenue for ensuring that it will actually happen. Most practically, this means that you’ve built an audience around your filmmaking, a group of people who follow you intently and are keen to see what you produce next.
Most of us, and I’m including myself in this, don’t have all of that yet. I say “yet” because it’s entirely possible to work hard and acquire these things.
So there you have it, a few reasons why it’s not a great idea to rush out and start making features right out of the gate. In summary, it’s because few of us are legitimately in a position where a feature will be a good investment of our time and money.
In next week’s article, I’m going to share a strategy that should help everyone drastically improve their filmmaking skills, find their voice, and build an audience. It’s a strategy that should help folks get to a place where making a feature is actually a good idea.
To give you a hint of this strategy, I’ll just say that before you can think big, you have to think very, very small.
Until next week.
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