Great Tips: How to Make Money as an Independent Filmmaker

June 24, 2021

If you tell your family and close friends that you're going to pursue a career as an independent filmmaker, you're probably going to encounter some cynical looks and maybe even hear some concerns about making a living in this particular line of work. 

Professional filmmaking, in general, is extremely competitive, and hiring practices are often based on networking and personal connections rather than on objective skill and merit. 

Independent filmmaking can make for an even more difficult career, since even successful independent (or "indie") filmmakers earn only a fraction of the income that someone in the mainstream entertainment industry would earn for doing the same job. 

Of course, independent filmmakers don't get into this field purely for the sake of money. Independent filmmakers are passionate about making art, and financial concerns are usually secondary. 

However, especially in the early part of their career, independent filmmakers need to find ways to make money doing what they love. 

That's why we're here to talk about how to make money as an independent filmmaker. We'll even include some advice from a celebrated independent filmmaker as well. 

How to Make Money as an Independent Filmmaker

Take freelance work, Feat. Huan Cheng 

For any artist trying to get their career off the ground, freelance work can be a wonderful stop-gap solution. 

Freelance work is typically short-term work that pays out a set amount agreed on prior to the start of the project. 

Freelance work in filmmaking and general entertainment production is very common because production work itself is periodic. 

Each project has a set team of professionals, and even feature films usually only have a production schedule of a few months. 

As an independent filmmaker, taking freelance jobs in production not only help you get used to the typical scheduling you'll find at the professional level-- these jobs also give you plenty of opportunities to practice different production skills. 

Professional independent filmmaker Huan Cheng, who has created multiple short films (Calm Down, Anny and Danny, Danny) that have been selected for numerous film festivals, including the Method Film Fest 2020, the Center for Asian American Media Film Fest 2021, and the Beverly Hills Independent Film Festival 2019, confirmed that freelance work can be a great option for independent filmmakers to earn some money. 

She even mentioned some of the freelance work she's done in the past, across a range of different production and post-production roles: 

"I often worked as a freelance video editor, production assistant, and BTS photographer on set, holding on to every opportunity. I also assisted friends and peers on their film projects and volunteered for film festivals. These always helped me build networks and get gigs."

In case you're still not convinced that freelance production work is something for you, Cheng gave some direct advice for aspiring filmmakers out there: 

"Try to do as much freelancing as possible, just don't burn yourself out. Otherwise, these can be wonderful opportunities." 

Huan Cheng filmmaker

A still frame from Cheng's short film 'Danny, Danny.'

Now, as for what you'll actually be doing on these assignments, that can vary quite a bit. Don't expect to be running the show right out of the gate. 

Production usually has a very hierarchical structure. The director and the producers are at the top, making key decisions, while other crew members have varying levels of responsibility and creative input.

Why is this important? Because if you don't already have an impressive resume of different professional productions that you've worked on in the past, then you probably won't get hired as a freelance director. 

Instead, you'll most likely be taking jobs as a camera operator, boom operator, or production assistant. 

But that's not a bad thing! Every filmmaker should have a deep and comprehensive understanding of what it takes to create high-quality footage. 

Rather than seeing freelance jobs like these as beneath your skill level, try to recognize the benefits of working in different roles and getting to know other production professionals. 

For some, freelance work can even lead to a consistent career of its own. 

It's important to stay open to the possibilities and give yourself time to do as much networking as possible. 

Don't forget to create an online portfolio that you can share with potential collaborators so that they know what you're capable of. 

Accept donations for work you've already completed 

In a lot of different ways, the internet era has been kind to independent filmmakers. 

Yes, it can be difficult to promote your work online when there are so many other people and products vying for people's attention, but even with a small following, you can earn money as an independent filmmaker from the work you've already done. 

Hopefully even if you're just getting started at the professional level you've already completed some student films and other short-form work that you're proud of. 

(If you haven't, we highly recommend producing some short films that give a sample of the kind of work you'd like to do in the future.) 

Chances are these films weren't shown in theaters, but even if you've posted these films online for free, you can very easily make some money from them by including a donation link on the same webpage as each one. 

It's very easy to set up a personalized donation link through an established virtual payment service such as Venmo or PayPal. 

The best part of this option is that you're not gating off your content behind a paywall or specifically asking people to give you money. 

How to Make Money as an Independent Filmmaker

Instead, you're just giving the option for people who enjoy your work to show their support through a donation. 

This may not bring in loads of cash, but any donations will be appreciated by your bank account, and more than that, each donation will give you more confidence by showing you that people want to see your work. 

When you're an independent artist, it's important to take encouragement anywhere you can get it.  

Work for a small production company 

Our final suggestion for ways that indie filmmakers can earn money is to work for a small production company. 

Even if you don't live in Los Angeles or New York, once you do some looking, you'll probably be surprised at just how many production companies are out there. 

Some of these companies might handle local commercials or television events. A few might even be satellite studios of large, influential production companies that have ties to major television shows or music videos. 

Please note that we're recommending working for a small production company. Working for a larger company can be beneficial as well, but the major advantage of a smaller group is that it's easier to stand out and be promoted. 

In fact, if you play your cards right and prove that you're reliable and a hard worker, you could very easily find yourself in a development role, and you may even be asked to direct a small project. 

It may not feel like a dream job, but believe us: this can be an excellent way to work a consistent job and pursue your career goals at the same time. 

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