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How long does a film take to recoup?

Article by Stephen Follows

The average recoupment period for movies

Films that spawn other products that live on, such as popular video games, live shows, albums, etc.Council).  By piecing together the annual accounts we are able to get a picture of when money flowed back to the BFI.

Over this fifteen-year period, just over a third of all the money came in during the first year of recoupment, with 89% being received within the first four years.

Examples of recoupment schedules

Each film will have a slightly different recoupment pattern.  For example

  • Slow burns – An independent film can take time to get noticed and to gain worldwide income.  For example, The King’s Speech was unusual in that it took a couple of years to hit its peak as it was released internationally and eventually went on to win the Best Picture Oscar.

  • Up-front deals – A distribution deal could include a Minimum Guarantee (MG) which is deducted from future income.  This can result in no income for a number of years while that MG is repaid.  Most films never repay their MG but those that do will see a small trickle of income after that period.  For example, 28 Days Later saw a large income in years 1 and 2, then nothing for a further five years, after which time money started coming in again.

Below are four examples from the BFI dataset.  In each case, we’re only seeing the BFI’s share of income so sadly we cannot use them to calculate the total income each film received.  That said, with the BFI earning over nine times its original investment on The King’s Speech, we’re able to conclude that the other investors must be pretty happy right now!

What this means for filmmakers and investors

In a 2004 Wired article entitled The Long Tail, Chris Anderson described a scenario whereby companies can make more money from selling a large number of low-volume products than by just stocking a few high-demand items.  I have heard many new or inexperienced filmmakers refer to ‘the long tail’ as a key part of their recoupment plan.  They envisage a world wherein even if their film does not make much in its first few years, it will go on to succeed by selling for a number of years.

As we have seen above, sadly this is extremely rare for film recoupment. In almost all cases, the money you generate in the first few years will represent the vast majority of lifetime income.

The exceptions to this rule are:

  • Films which spawn other products which live on, such as popular video games, live shows, albums etc.

  • The value generated from remakes, sequels, spin-offs etc.

  • If the topic or star gains greater fame or relevance long after the film’s initial release (a case in point is any movie which featured pandemics right now!)

Films which spawn other products which live on, such as popular video games, live shows, albums, etc.

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