The Formula By Which Movies Are Made



Have you ever suspected that a movie’s creative value has no bearing on how or why Hollywood actually greenlights movies?  Naturally, that’s an oversimplification…  but there is a very real, very precise formula by which movies are greenlit and produced. Bear in mind that I’m not talking about the obvious cases where a fantasy author or comic book publisher sells 500,000 million copies, and a film is subsequently made to meet the demand.  What I’m talking about here is the actual, very specific mathematical connection between building a cast and finding financing, and it all revolves around the process of foreign pre-sales.

Pre-sales are very, very important for independent filmmakers to be aware of because most people breaking into the industry understand only one or two aspects of the process, and assume that making concessions to Hollywood’s “recipe” for a successful film will have an impact on financing and distribution.  Plenty of important decisions are made by independent filmmakers on this basis, and the benefits of those creative compromises are often minimal.

Check out (from Quantum Theory) America Young‘s

Film Courage article

Every Short Film is Too Long

There is a big difference, ladies and gentlemen, between a “recipe” and a “formula.”  If you substitute ingredients while making brownies, there’s a chance you could even improve the taste.  If you substitute ingredients while making nitroglycerine, the best possible outcome is that your would-be TNT will wind up chemically inert and impossible to use.  If you are lucky.

Of course, there’s a good chance you’ll just blow yourself up.

My name is Tennyson E. Stead, and I’m a filmmaker with twenty years of storytelling experience on stage and screen.  At the same time, my work in Los Angeles began with a career in film finance that lasted 10 years.  Film finance is a process I have gotten to know through experience, trial, and error.  Every article I have written for Film Courage, on some level, has been about my conviction that there are no shortcuts when it comes to making and marketing great movies.  Demystifying the development process, to me, drives home the point that there is no value in sacrificing a clear and effective creative vision to the “rules of the game.”

When it comes to the money a foreign distributor will pay for the exclusive rights to a movie, there are only six factors that determine the licensing fee a foreign ditributor will pay to a filmmaker.  These factors are:

1. the four top-billed actors,
2. the genre,
3. and the budget.

Paying you this money buys the distributor the right to show your film in their territory.  Someone might pay you, for example, $300,000 for the right to screen your movie in England.  If they do, they arrived at that decision simply by knowing the budget of you movie, the genre, and who the top four actors are.  That’s it.  Literally, it is a mathematical decision for them.

A very good foreign sales agent can tell you within a 20% (ish) margin of error what each and every country will pay you for the right to distribute your movie, once these six factors are a given.

As long as you know how much money your cast commands from overseas distributors, you can go and get commitments from those distributors before your movie is even made.  Those distributors won’t give you cash before you deliver a movie… but they will promise to pay you the cash once the movie is delivered.  What a development producer does is get those actors attached, get those promises from foreign distributors, and then take everything to a bank for a loan.

So long as the distributors keep their word, the movie has already made its money back.  Say the bank gives you your loan.  Everyone on the film gets paid a salary, the film gets made, and the distributors pay up once the movie is complete.  That money goes to pay off the bank loan, and everyone is happy.  Anything the film makes in American theaters, if it is even distributed here, is cake.


Obviously, this will only work if your film is expensive enough to afford the stars that foreign distributors need to see.  This is a big part of why movie stars are always working.

Do not assume that someone who is “kind-of famous” will accomplish the same thing to a lesser degree.  Foreign distributors will only pay up front for very specific actors, and they only pay very specific amounts of money when they see those actors attached.

If you do not know who those actors are and what they are worth in pre-sales, then what you need is a studio-level casting director and a studio-level foreign sales rep working with you.  If you are not working inside the studio system, these are people you probably do not have access to.

As a general rule of thumb, actors from American television have no value in foreign pre-sales.  Supporting actors from film also, generally, have no value in foreign pre-sales.  What you need, really, is George Clooney, Matt Damon, Meryl Streep and Julia Roberts.

Which you can not afford.  So how do you take advantage of this system?

You don’t.  This is a system designed to keep people with developing track records away from the money, and to mitigate risk.  Unless you have five million dollars in development cash to get your movie rolling (or enough relationships with huge movie stars to get the same result without paying for it), there is no way you to wiggle into the pre-sales market.

My point here is that the pre-sales market is the number one reason that having big movie stars in your film eliminates the risk of spending money on your movie.  Without those pre-sales monies coming in, you need to stop thinking about easy ways to make that risk go away.  There aren’t any, outside of the traditional Hollywood system.

Instead, filmmakers like us should be thinking about how we can make our risks work for us.  Truly independent films succeed or fail based on two just factors – the excellence of our craftsmanship, and the efforts undertaken to communicate that excellence to the audience.

Does casting impact your film’s success?  Absolutely.  At the same time, there is only way that casting will actually “do the work for you”.  There is no way to tweak the formula.  Before compromising your budget or your film’s creative integrity to accommodate the casting advice of your peers or advisors, be very clear and specific about what that casting choice will get you!

If you’d like to find out more about me, my ensemble, and my stories, we welcome you to our online community at and please, please support our upcoming feature, Quantum Theory.  Quantum Theory is the story of two brilliant, goofy, passionate women of science who invent a technological means to alter and shape the very universe itself…and we are currently running an Indiegogo campaign in support of a webseries that will bring these characters to life! Please support our show and follow Quantum Theory’s development at here and at


Tennyson E. Stead is a writer, director, and producer of film and transmedia.  In his childhood, he spent all his time building cardboard spaceships and rescuing his sister in them. These days he does basically the same thing.

For any production to realize its full creative and financial potential, every creative element must reflect the overall goals of the project. Every great collaborative work was produced by a team of talented people, united by a common intent.

8 Sided Films
and the 8 Sided Forum represent our collective stewardship over the stories born from intent too multifaceted, specific, or unique for studio production, and our commitment to honoring that intent as the foundation for a more personal relationship with our audience.

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Check out Tennyson’s prior Film Courage articles:

Find Your Built-In Audience

Why Nothing In Film Has Changed in 1,000 Years & Why Anyone Who Say Different is Trying to Sell You Something.’

A Screenwriter Prepares

Ten Things They Don’t Teach You About Actors in Film School

‘Never Ask For Money’