Making Movies Without Losing Money

A review of a new book on financing independent films by Daniel Harlow

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Filmmaking is an expensive endeavor, and unless you happen to be extremely wealthy or know someone incredibly generous offering to fund your film, your hopes of making a film and launching a career making multiple films are dependent upon your ability to find investors for your project. The problem, however, according to Daniel Harlow, author of Making Movies Without Losing Money, is an alarming trend of budding filmmakers getting investors for their first film only to find themselves having to find new investors for their next film because they weren’t able to generate the revenue to repay the investors behind their earlier film.

And, unfortunately, if you lose money once, you lose credibility with future investors because who would want to give money to someone who has already developed a track record of losing investor money?

If you’re a filmmaker, you’re likely familiar with the concept of the Hero’s Journey, popularized by George Lucas with his 1977 film Star Wars, which borrowed the idea of the Hero’s Journey from Joseph Campbell’s exploration of the universal way stories are structured across cultures throughout history in his book The Hero With A Thousand Faces. The Hero’s Journey focuses on a hero that leaves the comfort of his everyday world in order to go on an adventure that will test and change him so that, ultimately, he can bring something back to help those he cares about at home.

Making Movies Without Losing Money is a new book about the ins and outs of film finance, written to give filmmakers practical tips for getting their films funded and building a successful filmmaking career. Filmmaking books, whether about writing, directing, producing, or the many other aspects involved in making a film, are notoriously written from the perspective of someone merely theorizing about the subject with limited firsthand knowledge. The screenwriting book written by someone who once had a film script optioned but who has never actually had a film produced, for example. They might have some good ideas, but nothing compared to the advice from someone on the front lines of writing multiple produced scripts.

Making Movies Without Losing Money isn’t that kind of book. The book’s author, Daniel Harlow, has structured the book around his own Hero’s Journey to discover how successful small budget independent films are made not only without losing money, but actually earning a profit, which will help the filmmaker gain investors for a second film. Harlow’s background isn’t in film, and he says as much in the early pages of the book, but that didn’t stop this successful tech entrepreneur from diving into the deep end of the film industry by attending UCLA’s Independent Film Producer Program after selling his company. Harlow quickly discovered that there was plenty of advice to go around about how to make films, but no one could tell him how to make money from a film after it was made. So began his journey to discovering the secrets of film finance in an industry where clear and accurate data isn’t readily available.

Harlow begins by outlining the obstacles to making financially successful indie films, the first of which is the lack of financial performance data available to filmmakers. Film industry companies, Harlow reveals, hold their performance data close to the chest, so the book couldn’t be about revealing the data because the data is a closely guarded secret.

So Harlow spent two years interviewing film industry experts — sales agents, directors, producers, investors, etc. — and shares his discoveries throughout the book.

The best time to begin thinking about making money with your film, Harlow reveals, is before the script is even finished. In fact, he writes, “[W]ithout a clear plan for how your film will make money, you’re almost certain to lose money.” After revealing the obstacles, which include the misconception that “a good film” is antithetical to the idea of commercial success, Harlow gives a number of tips for filmmakers to develop this clear plan for making money with their film.

Each chapter is written in a way that is both enlightening and compelling. The chapters are short, void of unnecessary fluff, which was refreshing because I didn’t feel like I was having to wade through a bunch of extra information to get to the meat of Harlow’s argument.

While Harlow gives tips on how to make money from an independent film, he doesn’t sugarcoat the challenge of being successful. At times when I was reading, I was convinced that this was something I could never do because of the sheer difficulty of it.

But because Harlow’s book includes hundreds of quotes by film industry professionals in the trenches, I finished the book thinking I was better equipped to try to make a film than I was before I read it. The book was thought-provoking and informative, and if you’re an independent filmmaker, this book will help you to think through all the most impactful aspects of launching a film career.

Tom Farr is a writer, teacher, and storyteller who believes in crafting lies to tell the truth. When he’s not enjoying the good life with his beautiful wife Lindsey and their three much-adored children, he’s striving to create stories that thrill and inspire and preparing for the day Disney calls him to write a Star Wars story. His work has also appeared on Panel & Frame, Wordhaus, Curiosity Never Killed the Writer, and The Unsplash Book. Check out his fiction writing portfolio on Medium.

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Tom is a writer and high school English teacher. He loves creating and spending time with his wife and children. For freelancing, email tomfarrwriter@gmail.com.

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