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Indie Filmmaking 101: There’s No Formula in Filmmaking…Right?


I was having a conversation with a director friend the other day and we started talking about art vs. business in filmmaking. He attended a very prestigious filmmaking school (that I’ll leave unnamed) and he said one of the biggest criticisms he had about his master’s program was the lack of a practical knowledge on indie filmmaking. He did attend classes in business, distribution, and marketing of films, but it was often focused on the studio system and their formula of mainstream stories + star names = big box office successes. Of course, it is widely understood that there is no formula in filmmaking and so even this simple equation only hits pay dirt once in a while. So, if the huge studios with tons of resources haven’t figured it out, how can we?

This simple question led us down a rabbit hole about star names, art, distribution and finance in films. I will admit it, I am certainly not a self-proclaimed artist, but I still understand the rudimentary importance of art in filmmaking as well as the desire to turn a profit (or at least break even!) on a film. At the end of the conversation, he mentioned that he wished his professors would have explored many of the topics we discussed so consider the rest of this article a dive into indie filmmaking by Professor Deb. I certainly won’t proclaim myself an expert, but I have surrounded myself by brilliant people who have graciously shared their knowledge with me, and I will now share it with you.

Know Your Genre and Purpose

Everyone knows that when you’re thinking about making a film it is important to know the genre and therefore your intended audience. This will help you figure out the style of the film, whether it will be sold domestically or internationally, and therefore what market will actually be interested in, and able to watch this film.

For example, a movie about a child who befriends a monster in the woods could be packaged in many different ways. It could be a family or a horror film, rated PG or PG-13.  It is important to have an idea about the shape your movie will take and make sure that the entire team is on the same page as you.

Additionally, what is the purpose of the film? Is it the writer/director’s calling card to prove their skill? Is it purely an exercise in making money? While everyone wants their film to make money, it is universally known that most films will end up in the red, so it is important to know what your end game is. As a calling card piece, the purpose is probably a long festival run. If the purpose is to try and make money, a genre film like a horror or faith-based film has a much higher chance of making money.

Know Your Audience

Star Names. YouTube Influencers. Unknowns. All of these terms are thrown around when looking at who to cast, but it is important to understand the purpose of hiring different levels of talent. It all comes back to your audience. If your film is a teen comedy, family film, it can be extremely beneficial to look at YouTubers with a group of people who would love to see a film like that. Built in audience. If your film is a festival darling (meaning it deals with a touching subject matter and will do well on the festival circuit), it could be very important to hire name talent who will help open those festival doors. If your film is horror, it is important to know that they often do really well domestically and overseas and so having unknown actors might actually be viable. The important thing is to know who you will be theoretically selling your movie to, from the start, and targeting that audience.

Know (and use) Your Community

The Ms in the Biz community is FULL of incredible people who have amazing insight about packaging and distributing films. Know your resources and use them!

Some brilliant minds:

  • Alexandra Boylan’s “So You Want To Make A Movie” class: Fellow Ms. in the Biz contributor, Alexandra, is a very successful producer and shares her wealth of knowledge in two formats, an amazing class on marketing and distributing films, and in her book, Create Your Own Career In Hollywood.
  • Class schedule updated on
  • Dog & Pony Creative: When it comes to advertising and marketing deliverables, there is no one better than Dog & Pony. A fantastic movie poster is your greatest asset when selling a film and they know the up-to-date trends that will help you get your film sold.

All in all, it is crucial to understand that if you believe in your story, you will probably find a community that will support you and your art, but not all movies are meant to be financially viable. So, figure out your audience and your purpose, and allow that knowledge to drive your decisions. Thrown in some support from your local community and use that formula to drive your success. After all, if the studio system doesn’t have a solid formula, and neither do we, we all have an equal chance of making something amazing when you take art + business + a little bit of luck!

Deborah Lee Smith

About Deborah Lee Smith

Deborah Lee Smith is an award-winning actor, producer, and founder of “More Than You See”, a non profit organization dedicated to sharing stories and resources surrounding the daily struggles of mental health. Recent projects include “Here Awhile” starring Anna Camp (Pitch Perfect), and “Last Three Days” starring Robert Palmer Watkins (General Hospital). Deborah is also a regular contributing staff writer for the entertainment website “Ms. In The Biz”.