How to Make a Living as an Indie Filmmaker

'Happy Christmas' director Joe Swanberg candidly details his finances.
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'Happy Christmas' director Joe Swanberg candidly details his finances.

Ever wonder how a prolific, but truly independent filmmaker makes any money? In a refreshingly candid interview on Filmmaker Magazine, Joe Swanberg details how he makes a living off of his work.

“Usually I would sell a movie and put the proceeds either back into the next movie or live off of it until I could get the next thing going. Selling two [films] in [2011] meant that we were living off of one of them, and then [with the money from the other], we decided to make a down payment on a house,” Swanberg explains. “I was still living the same way I always had, cobbling together a month-to-month existence, but, in the meantime, I started to make money on movies that have been out there [for several years]. They’ve reached their second life: Netflix licenses, the Sundance Channel, DVDs, international VOD. There are these tiny accumulations so that every six months, when IFC does their accounting, I get a check for a few thousand dollars.”

While making some money off of his back catalogue, Swanberg has also started to partially invest in some of his bigger movies, rather than being the sole owner of a much smaller movie. “Honestly, I would love to be the sole investor for a $1 million movie. Over the years, I learned that the people who take the financial risk also benefit the most from a successful movie,” he reveals. “It’s a form of gambling, but I’d be betting on myself, and one success could pay for two or three financial failures…It’s the filmmaker equivalent of a retirement fund.”

Swanberg is also fair and realistic when it comes to paying his crew. “You can do no-budget movies up to a certain point, but in order for it to really be sustainable and to work in a truly, artist-friendly sort of way, at the point when your work is commercial, you need to pay people. Otherwise it’s exploitation,” he says. “No budget is the best way to start, and maybe it’s the best way to finish, but at some point in the middle, there’s a reason why we pay people upfront as well. It can’t all be riding on the success of the backend, unless it is in a fair way, [which means] you’re paying people their true rates after the movie sells.”

Read the full story here.

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