These may be the best of times and the worst of times for independent filmmakers, many of whom are amassed right now in Park City for the Sundance Film Festival. With all the new forms of distribution, digital and otherwise, there are now more outlets for their work than ever before. Getting paid, however, is another matter.
A new survey by the WGA East of 100 active indie filmmakers found that more than 60% of them reported they’ve had problems receiving initial compensation and/or backend payments for their movies. This is especially true of indie films released digitally. In its 2015 Independent Film Survey, the guild found that “Half of respondents reported having entered into a ‘bad’ distribution deal, while two thirds of those surveyed have had a project released on a digital platform. The growth of experimental digital distribution deals based on complicated formulas for backend resulted in writers recouping very little — if any — income once the project is released across multiple platforms and into numerous territories.
Many filmmakers noted that they signed a 50/50 distribution deal, minus expenses, but the “expenses” never seem to end and distributors would not provide reports explaining those costs.
The report also found that nearly 60% of those surveyed had a producer credit on at least one of their own productions, and yet less than a third paid themselves any sort of compensation. This, the report found, contributes to the notion that payment for filmmakers is not a “normal” expense in an independent film’s budget. As one filmmaker noted, “We need to understand our worth. In our efforts to get into the game, we’re willing to bring the bat, the ball, the glove, the field and the hotdogs, but then we allow others to keep all the profits from ticket sales.”
“Writers craft great stories and draft great scripts, which make it possible to attract financing and talent and get the movie made and distributed,” said Lowell Peterson, the guild’s executive director. “Yet writers are often called upon to sacrifice their compensation. The desire to get a film made and released should not be an excuse for being treated unfairly.”
To address the concerns raised in the survey, the WGAE is urging indie filmmakers to use its Low Budget Agreement. Introduced last year, the contract is tailored for those working outside the studio system on feature or documentary films budgeted at $1.2 million and below. The agreement offers writers options for reduced upfront payments or newly defined fee deferments — often required to make micro-budgeted films. And it assures filmmakers they will get paid at least something.
The WGA East did not provide data for how many companies have signed its LBA, saying the contract is still in the nascent stages of being introduced.