Don’t ever put all your eggs in one basket. Some basic financial advice that my parents, mentors, and friends have given me: find ways to make money through multiple streams of income like your job, passive income, your side hustle, etc.

Just like with our personal finances, it’s essential to have multiple streams of income for our films. Too many filmmakers still think a valid distribution plan is to go to the best festival you can get into (or as many festivals that will accept you) then make a deal with a distributor, ideally a streamer. Relying on this oversimplified, single avenue to distribution and putting money in your pocket isn’t going to happen.

I made over $1.5 million for my film Age of Champions over the course of my two-year distribution campaign. The reality was that even though I made a global streaming deal with Netflix and worked with Kanopy and educational distributors, less than $65,000 of our total $1.5 million in revenue (about 4%) came from all of our distributor revenue and our streaming deals. It was a very small part of what we were doing.

chart showing breakdown of Age of Champions income. Only 4% came from streamer deals.

A big part of my success was that I was not relying on making one big deal. I was experimenting and trying to sell my film in a number of ways. During our multi-year distribution, I accumulated 14 sources of income for Age of Champions (see the breakdown below). Some ways fell short–and others surpassed my expectations. I didn’t set out to make money in a bunch of ways, I was just looking for ways to connect with my fans and make a living. 

The main chunk of the $1.5 million that we made with Age of Champions was from revenue streams including PBS sponsors, paid speaking events, and educational sales. Over $700,000 came from these three streams, which was 47% of total revenue we made. One of our most important ways to work with partners was selling PBS underwriting sponsorships, which led to $235,000. We also made a significant amount of revenue from speaking engagements from live and virtual events. I did almost 150 paid speaking events, which led to another $294,000. Another very large part of our revenue was sales through our online store. We sold DVDs and downloads, educational toolkits, and had price points for different audiences like senior centers, universities, and libraries. This brought in $353,000 during our two-year distribution, and sales were still coming in months after I was wrapped.

The importance of multiple revenue streams goes beyond the release of my film. For all of the filmmakers that I've worked with that made over $500,000 during distribution, every single one had success with multiple streams of income. They weren't just selling their film in one way. They were experimenting with multiple strategies. Every film had a different mix of revenue streams reflecting their unique audiences, impact goals, and skills of the film team.

As you consider the possibilities for multiple revenue streams for your film, I’d like to share a few key thoughts:
  • Do not over-rely on one or two ways to make money
  • Be flexible & creative with how you offer your film to your audience
  • When you experience disappointment, try to pull a lesson to inform your next steps
  • Understand who your audience is and why they value your film 
  • Engage your audience the way they want and need your film
  • Keep it simple–monetize your distribution in the simplest way you can
  • Keep in mind there are opportunities at various run times–a feature-length film is often the least useful length for most partners
  • Working with PBS and even some streamers like HBO won’t limit your options
  • Consider opportunities to sell your last film

Some films are great for corporate sponsors, others are a fit for paid speaking engagements, while others really appeal to universities. Consider live events, virtual events or a hybrid combination of the two. With your film, look at all your options and be real with yourself. If you try to go after corporate sponsors for a little while and you're not getting any bites, maybe your film isn't the right path for corporate partners–try foundations and philanthropies. Or try reaching out to conference organizers or universities. Just try different things. Explore different streams of revenue. Some strategies will fall flat and others will go better than you thought. It’s so hard to predict what will happen but I can say this: if you don’t try different things, you won’t stumble into what could be a surprisingly successful strategy to release your film and make money with it. 

As filmmakers we need to be flexible and creative in how we diversify the ways we release our films. We need to experiment and not rely on one or two ways to make money. If we start engaging with our audiences in different ways, we’ll get a better sense of what our audiences really want and hopefully, be on a better footing to build a sustainable career as a filmmaker.

Watch our webinar on Multiple Revenue Streams co hosted with Chris Temple

Chris Temple is co-founder of Optimist Films. Chris and his co-founder, Zach, have created more than 15 films and series that have raised $90+ million dollars for the films’ causes. Their films have been released globally by Netflix, Amazon, HBO, National Geographic, and The Atlantic.