How to Make a Profitable Award-Winning Indie Film: Part One – The Idea

How to Make a Profitable Award-Winning Indie Film: Part One – The Idea


Big data analytics has been emerging as the leading force in all sorts of business functions and industries. There’s marketing analytics, business analytics, social media analytics, google analytics, supply chain analytics, and on an on… So, now were giving you film analytics. In this series I plan to to outline the ways that an indie filmmaker, or a small studio, can use analytics to make a profitable award-winning film. In fact, I’m going to steal the basic outline for the series from a really smart blog article called The Psychology of Telling Stories.

little girl enjoying magic of reading

The psychology of storytelling

That article offers a cute little way to structure the storytelling process. For our purposes the storytelling process is the process of making and distributing our movie and, as you’ll see, the structure fits perfectly with our needs. As they say in the article, “how do you do this? You READ!” Read stands for Research your target audience, Establish your story, Add details, Distribute. Simple enough right? Trust me, the effort will be well worth it.

Why are we starting with researching our target audience before we even generate the idea for our movie? Let me spin that around and say why would we generate our idea before we even know who we are planning on telling our story to? There are plenty of articles out there on the traditional way of generating ideas and we’re going to cover those here, but what I want to show you is how you can use analytics to help generate a profitable and exciting idea. When you know who you are telling the story for then you can craft a story that is specific, timely, meaningful, and one that your audience will pay to experience.

I’ve wound this thing up enough don’t you think? Let’s dive in. The first thing that we want to do is discover our target audience. To do that you need to determine four things: your interests, current trends, profitable niche groups by size, and your ability to reach that niche audience.

1. Use your own interests to help you choose your niche audience

I know, I know, you want everyone to see the amazing work you do. And I know, its scary to have to narrow down your choices to a niche, but you’re going to reach groups that the big boys wont even be looking for and you’re much more likely to go on to make bigger films or have a word-of-mouth cult hit working this way than if you try to service everyone at this stage. To find this niche you first want to determine what your interests are.

This can be simple brainstorming. I would imagine, if you’ve been making films or planning on making films for a while that you have a list of story ideas, but do you have a list of interesting hobbies or past-times? Dragons, Fashion, Adoption, Zombies, Samurai, and illegal drug trade are all niche topics that have generated some pretty memorable movies. Just by looking at the links provided you can see that some of these niches are underserved. You may argue that is because people aren’t that interested, but I argue back that the audience that is interested is being underserved because the storytellers ignore them when they craft their movie.

To explain this point a little better I’ll tell a related anecdote. I have a friend, Jason, who I haven’t asked if I could tell his story so I’ll keep it a little vague. Jason likes fantasy. He was at a Blockbuster (that’s where people rented movies before Redbox and Netflix) one night and realized that there weren’t movies like Krull being made anymore. He saw a niche, one that he was interested in, that was underserved.


By Source, Fair use,


Jason was teaching an undergrad filmmaking group at the college we attended. He also ran the film equipment department which gave him access to everything he needed to make a film (unfair advantage, I know). He told his class that if anyone would write a script for a feature length movie that had an attractive girl, elves, and a dragon he would produce it. At the time he was only half-serious. He didn’t think anyone would write the script and he didn’t know how he would produce it if it were written. However, when he got a script he felt obligated to find a way. He did some research and found a niche in an Asian country that displayed a lot of interest in dragon films. With a little more research he found a potential distribution path to this group. Judging on some estimates of purchase price and volume he was able to estimate how much money could be made telling this niche audience a story that they wanted to hear. Using that information Jason had some renderings of major story points made and set up a booth at an LA convention. After talking to multiple potential financiers Jason found one that fronted $50,000. He used that to produce the movie with a heavy portion going to CGI for the dragon. He made a lot of money on that film and found that there were other niche groups that wanted his movie. He now owns a studio that pumps out these fantasy genre films.

Now, Jason’s movies are terrible. The fit right into the realm of Sharknado (I’m not going to argue with you the merits of Sharknado, I just wont). I’m not advocating that you make horrible films. I’m just pointing out the power of picking a niche. After that I hope you have the desire to make it a movie worth watching.

2. Look at what’s trending to find a potential niche that interest you

There a various ways that you can keep up on what’s trending in the news and pop culture. What you want to do is find one that works for you and aggregate that into an excel spreadsheet, I know that sounds un-fun, non-creative, and way too much work, but this is how analytics work. You have to aggregate data in order to analyze it. Here are some methods to do that:

Whats Trending aggregates trending topics from Social Media.

Google Trends

Google Trends is a great way to see what the top search items are.

60+ niche social markets

A google search for a list of niche interests will get you a strong start. The above picture (with link) can point you to some links of social media niche groups. The post is a few years old and I can’t confirm the links within, but the idea is solid. The best thing about finding hobby groups and social networks (like Facebook groups) is that you can gauge the size of interest and potential revenues.

3. Mine for profitable niches

Razvan Garvrilas lays out a great template on mining for niches. I want you to go through this step with three criteria in mind: 1) is the niche large enough (is there enough search volume), 2) can you reach (distribute to) them, and 3) will you be able to generate enough income to make a good film?


Google AdWords is now a sign-up service, but its worth it. After setting up your account you can use it free (unless you start a pay-per-click campaign, but the tools are still free). Google AdWords can help you find out the online size of your niche audiences.

4. Estimate the potential to reach (distribute to) your niche audience

As you use the Google Adwords tool you want to take note of the ideas, keywords, search volumes, and per click costs in the spreadsheet you are keeping. This tool can also help brainstorm other potential niches and distribution channels (ie websites where that target the niche you are looking at).

Google Adwords 2

At this point you analyze your data (film analytics) to determine which niches are most profitable, reachable, and of interest to you. This is where a marketing plan becomes critical. Your marketing plan is simply a plan on how you are going to connect with your audience, discover what it is they really want (that hidden subject is that needs to be brought out by your film), develop a feedback loop, and then deliver to them a film that will wow.

5. Story brainstorming within the constraints of your niche

I promised at the beginning that we would get to the tried and true creative methods of brainstorming for story ideas. Chances are that by this point you have a pretty strong list of potential story ideas, but if not there are three sources you can dip into to generate a great story.

First, start talking to your niche audience. Listen to what they say to each other. Observe. You can use some aggregation tools to help track conversations and sentiment, but realistically the best tool at this point is your engagement with them. You’re probably not going to nail down the story just by talking to your audience. If they really knew what they wanted they wouldn’t need you to create it. What you’re looking for is a direction to move in (a Netflix mantra when using big data to choose story ideas).

Second, you can look up trending stories in film, tv, or literature. Lots of movies rework strong storylines with a new twist or in a new genre or with a niche topic. While I’m not advocating copywrite infringement, I am saying that a good story structure is a good story structure. I’m not for reinventing the wheel, but rather for finding the right wheel to carry the truth to its proper destination. You could even consider outsourcing to scriptwriters or English majors for great story ideas.

Finally, good old fashioned brainstorming. I could continue to rant on about this, but there are lots of great articles on brainstorming for good story ideas. IndieWire produced a 19 Great Ways to Brainstorm article meant for “short films” but the concepts work for longer form film as well.

I think we need a deeper dive into analytics tools and practices to mine for niches, track trends, and size opportunities. I also think that it would be exciting to research analytics tools and methods to generate great story structures. I’m going to put it on the calendar.

What are  some of the tools or methods you have used to find your niche or settle on your story?

brainstorm for films

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *