Several years ago (I think back in 2014), I made a feature length documentary called the History of Liverpool. Liverpool being the city I live in. I made it with the intention of selling and making money back from the final product. This post explains why I made the documentary. And most importantly why it didn't sell. You can now watch the full feature length film on YouTube here.
My documentary was a mistake to make in the first place
I made it back when I was depressed, I had just quit working on film sets and didn’t know what to do with myself. I began to search online as you do for work and ideas on what I should do with my life.
I found a podcast that spoke about making history documentaries, and how documentaries like this can be sold easily and make money. I was a fool to believe anything could be sold easily, the podcast was exaggerating, simple making a good story for filmmakers to hear online.
I couldn’t think of anything else to do with myself (I was ashamed at the time to get a normal job) so I made a documentary. (not what most people do when they're depressed but it's what I did).
I completed the documentary within 6 months – researched, shot and edited it myself. It was a low budget film, Selling the film proved to be difficult but I managed to make my money back. I have decided that being honest and open about my experiences and mistakes would be more useful, this blog was created for me to share what I learn with others. If anything making this documentary was a terrible idea. I don’t recommend ever making a documentary and expecting it to make profit.
Always Tell A Story You Are Passionate About
I made a terrible decision and made a film I thought I could sell (a history documentary) instead of making a film with a story I was passionate about. This is the worst mistake you could make. You need to live with your film for years after you make it throughout distribution. With documentary you need to talk to many people on why you made it and what the story means to you (perhaps more than with fiction).
My Personal Mistake Was Giving Into Pride I was ashamed that I left working on film sets.
I told some people about my decision to leave the film industry and everyone was disappointed. I was told it would be embarrassing to go from working on film sets to an ordinary job. People were disappointed in me (or was it in my head). I was told I was lowering myself and then my pride took over. I was ashamed to get a normal job and so I decided to start a business instead.
Unsure what to do I started to google for ideas on how a filmmaker can make money. And I came across a podcast by a man who had made a lot of profit making documentaries.
This man had made profit from his film but the profit had been very slowly trickling in over the years – too slowly. Also the majority of his profit would come from market stalls, literally standing at market stalls and flogging copies of DVDs like you would bananas. (It turned out the podcast I had watched sugarcoated the truth, they forgot to tell you the key details on how they sold the film and how hard that was).
The problem is online people like to sugarcoat the truth. I am trying to not do that here selling any film is very hard so make sure you make a film for the right reasons.
Owning The Rights To Your Own Project
The film was shot and edited within 6 months. I filmed it on a basic DSLR camera and recorded with a zoom mic. I enjoyed doing the interviews, but since I was not passionate about the subject finishing the edit was difficult. Everyone who appeared in the film signed a waiver form which would help with selling later on. You can download a copy of the waiver form here to use in your own film projects.
I own the rights to all material shown within the film, images, music and intellectual property. I wanted the film to be able to be shown anywhere TV or cinema if the opportunity came up. My film is not great but the quality at least is OK and people who have been interested in the subject matter have been happy with the film. I also got out Public Liability insurance prior to filming. I am from the UK so I did this through the union Bectu. Overall the film cost £2,000 to make and I made about £3,000 back.
Selling The Film What Worked what didn’t
SHOPS - Before I made the film I researched into shops that I thought would be a good place to sell the film on dvd. You can simple go into a shop and ask for the contact details of the person who buys the stock. Before I made the documentary film I had 10 shops listed who said they would sell my film. The problem was only 2 shops were interested after I made the film. Not because the film was bad, people just like to say yes.
Shops did not care for the quality of the film just as long as the DVD design looked good
However with only 2 shops selling my DVD I made money. One shop has bought 200 copies the other 80. By getting your film into many shops it could be possible to make good money.
MARKETS - I had been told that selling DVDs at markets can still make you a lot of money. This proved to not be true . I sold my film at a christmas market first. The cost of hiring out the stall was expensive, £50 per day and the market was not very busy. I tried out selling at a spring market later that year and didn’t sell a single DVD. I believe that the market culture has faded, some people claim online to have done well selling dvds at markets but I found it to be a waste of time.
TV BROADCAST - Despite local television being interested I decided to not give up the broadcast rights to my film. The television station wanted my film for FREE but also wanted to stick commercial slots within it and make money themselves. A common problem with being an independent creative – people want everything for free.
ONLINE - I sold many copies of my film when I first launched the DVD but after the launch there was nothing. Selling anything online is not easy. If I wanted to I could have spent the past year building a blog dedicated to my documentary subject and gathered subscribers to sell the film too. Since I was not passionate about my documentary story I could not do this.
I learnt how to make a documentary film and sold enough DVD copies to make my money back with a bit extra. I learnt the basics on how to sell a film. I learnt a lot from taking the risks even if they were not so very clever. In the future if I wish to make feature films, I may have no choice but to sell them independently to make a profit.
From now on I will only tell stories I am passionate about. I would love to make surrealist and fantasy films, they may not be genres that sell easily but selling this film would have been a lot more fun if I had passion for the story. If you take away any advice from this article and my experience just know you must be passionate about your films story.