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With an annual production budget that exceeds $3 billion, independent movies rival the major studios’ spend on filmmaking, even as indies vastly outstrip the studios in sheer volume.

That’s a key finding of our exploration of Sundance by the numbers, which we’ve rendered in our 2014 Sundance Infographic below. There are seven major movie studios: Warner Bros., Disney, Universal, Sony/Columbia, Lionsgate, 20th Century Fox, and Paramount. Can we now reasonably call independent filmmakers the Eighth Studio, because their aggregate production expenses clearly put them in the major studio league?

I don’t believe anyone has ever attempted to quantify the amount of money spent on independent films before. To do this, we decided to use Sundance as a bellwether of the entire independent film sector; with more than 4,000 feature-length films submitted each year, Sundance certainly represents a healthy sample of the industry. While absolutely every indie movie isn’t submitted to Sundance, the highest-profile ones generally are. So the Sundance submission numbers represent a good statistical estimate of the most viable indie movies produced each year.

Then we needed to make an estimate of how much money had been spent on each film. After speaking to a dozen producers, sales agents and indie financiers, we settled on $750,000 per movie, as a blended average number. A few people urged us to estimate a higher number. Even though some movies are made for less, many are made for far, far more, which would put the average cost over $1 million. We decided to keep our estimate at $750,000 to stay on the conservative side.

We also estimate that more than 400,000 people work on indie movies each year, assuming that an average of 100 people work on each film, through all phases of production and post-production.

Opening Night Curse?

In other findings, we took a look at what many distributors call the “Sundance opening night curse”–their belief that if a movie is chosen for Sundance’s opening night, it won’t do well at the box office. Here we found mixed results, which means the “curse” is often true, but not always. Since 2010, 10 films have screened on opening night. Two of them, Twenty Feet From Stardom and Searching for Sugar Man were indie box office success stories; the rest were not.

We also discovered:

Distribution: 2011 was the pivot year; since that year, more than half the films screened at Sundance have achieved distribution deals. That’s because of the explosion of streaming and digital delivery systems. Of course, many of those deals are non-theatrical, and some are for acquisition prices as low as nothing (or nearly nothing–$25,000), which means that most independent financiers won’t recoup their investments.

Biggest sales: Since 2010, the movies that are sold for the most money usually have not been worth it. The winner of this game are Fox Searchlight and Focus Features, which bought well and had theatrical success with The Way Way Back and The Kids Are All Right.

The 8th Studio’s Balance Sheet

Still, the overall picture is far from pretty, and if we were to do a balance sheet for the Eighth Studio, the indie film industry, it would be bleeding more red than a Nicolas Winding Refn movie. In that way, the Sundance Infographic is also a cautionary tale. Fewer than 2% of the fully-finished, feature-length films submitted to the Festival will get any kind of distribution whatsoever. Of the more than $3 billion invested annually, less than 2% will ever be recouped.

Does that mean investors shouldn’t bankroll indie movies, and filmmakers should stop making them? Of course not. But I do wish financiers would invest more wisely, with seasoned guidance and a clear plan for distribution beforehand, and that filmmakers would concentrate on crafting far better movies. Creators and audiences alike would be better served with higher quality and lower quantity. The numbers make that abundantly clear.

Sundance Infographic 2014: The Festival by the Numbers

Click on infographic to enlarge.

Sundance 2014 Infographic produced by Entertainment Media Partners and Cultural Weekly.

Sundance 2014 Infographic produced by Entertainment Media Partners and Cultural Weekly.

Update: Since this infographic was prepared, Sundance added 2 additional films; 121 films will now be screened this year.

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About the author

Adam Leipzig

Adam Leipzig

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Adam Leipzig, Cultural Weekly’s publisher, is the Chief Operating Officer of CreativeFuture, a non-profit organization that advocates for the creative community. He is also CEO of Entertainment Media Partners, a company that navigates creative entrepreneurs through the Hollywood system and beyond, and a keynote speaker. He is the former president of National Geographic Films and senior Disney executive, and has been a producer, distributor, financier and executive on more than 30 films, including 'March of the Penguins,' 'Honey, I Shrunk the Kids,' 'Dead Poets Society,' and 'Titus.' Adam is the author of ‘Inside Track for Independent Filmmakers ’ and co-author of the all-in-one resource for college students and emerging filmmakers 'Filmmaking in Action: Your Guide to the Skills and Craft' (Macmillan). Adam teaches at UC Berkeley's Haas School of Business, at Chapman University's Dodge College of Film and Media Arts, and in UCLA's Professional Producing Program.

  • Nancy Nigrosh

    Thanks for the sad-but-true wake up call. Infographics don’t lie.

    • Adam_Leipzig

      Thank you, Nancy! To be fair, I suppose that some infographics do lie… but not this one. We spent a lot of time verifying the numbers and testing our assumptions with top indie film producers and sales agents.

    • Brian Clark

      Actually, infographics can indeed lie. While this analysis is interesting, it makes two huge assumptions that it admits aren’t supported by any data: that the average production cost of the features submitted to Sundance was $750,000 (even though half of them weren’t produced in the US) and that the average film had 100 people working on it with no overlap across the whole sample (so no one worked on two films that submitted to Sundance in the same year.) Those are some essential assumptions that underpin everything underneath it.

      • Adam_Leipzig

        Thanks, Brian. You are right that we don’t have big data for either of those assumptions. But we do have a lot of discussions with people who make these movies to back them up.

        In both cases–production budget and number of people who work on a movie–we are probably low. In terms of the budget, while some movies may be made for $50K, there are also others that are made for $5M, $10M, and $12 million. You can see how quickly a small percentage of higher-budget films will bring the average film cost to $750,000 or above.

        In terms of people who work on a film, we included everyone: actors, grips, camera people, costumers, hair, makeup, producers, director, craft service, editors, composers, people who do the DI, etc. I think the number exceeds 100 on most films.

        Nonetheless, i am grateful for your skepticism and critical thinking. One of the problems with the indie film business is that it has no trade association (like the MPAA) to aggregate numbers and collect data. I welcome a discussion and further data to test the assumptions we made. If we can get better data, we will publish it.

        • Brian Clark

          More data is always better, but I think your general thesis still stands. I suspect your averages, though, represent a good estimation of the films that get into Sundance, but not necessarily of the films that are submitted. Conversely, the films submitted to Sundance represent a little less than 25% of the total films submitted to festivals each year, so you might even be underestimating the investment pool industry wide.

  • Grateful Regardless

    This, taken with Manohla’s essay in the NY Times, paint a rough picture of hope trumping smarts when it comes to capital deployment in independent film production. I do wish, though, that there were a way to get a handle on post- or non-theatrical revenue; without that, the picture is certainly less accurate than it might be.


    (I’m sorry about the log-in name, I can’t easily change it, and I hope to see you in Park City, Adam.)

    • Adam_Leipzig

      Your comment about non-theatrical revenue is a good one. Liesl Copland gave this great speech at TIFF this year where she said “show us the numbers!” Here is a link to her speech:
      I hope we get this kind of transparency soon.
      And yes… will see you in Park City!

  • Izidore

    Thank you Adam! Great study and quite informative!