*Originally written by Micah for freelancers in the Film Industry, this post is particularly helpful for any freelancers looking to expand their passive income*
Full Disclosure: I am writing this 100% for free, on my own accord and without any sponsorship / partnerships or agreements. I am passionate about educating other filmmakers and equipping them to work better and live better lives. I do, however, have a handful of affiliate links to some of the programs and tools I use. If you are genuinely interested in any of the tools I mentioned, signing up with my affiliate link would help me a lot, but no pressure to do so!
Like many in the film industry, I work mostly freelance. Anyone in the Freelancing world knows the ups & downs of gig-based work. Some weeks you are over your head jumping from set to set. Other weeks, however, can be less than eventful. Every freelancer also knows the highs and lows of getting paid as a freelancer, and everyone has had their share of financial scares, empty bank accounts, and ramen for dinner.
I moved out to Los Angeles in 2014 and quickly learned the reality of balancing a paycheck on the freelancer’s income. Without a steady income, it’s really difficult. I would never trade the flexibility and excitement of freelance work for a 9-5 job, but boy is the idea of consistent income tempting.
I began to wonder if there was a way to maintain a steady income while still enjoying the freedom of gig-based work. A pipedream, sure. You can’t be working two places at once, and even a part-time job can interfere with the ability to work on last-minute shoots and hinder further opportunity.
Instead of looking for another job, however, I decided: Why not work for myself? Or, better yet, let my money work for itself. In today’s online-dominated market, it’s so much easier than it has ever been. Particularly, for filmmakers, as a community who’s number one hurdle is often financing, this can be an absolute gamechanger.
Passive income has provided me the freedom to not live gig-by-gig. I-more-or-less can cover my cost of living through passive income, which is saying something in particular for the cost of living in a city like Los Angeles. This means, if I ever have a slow week in my work, I have the freedom to take more risks, network more, and work on personal projects, all without freaking out about where my rent is coming from.
I’m going to outline my seven sources of passive income, and a few more I haven’t tried but want to. Treat this as a conversation over coffee, rather than an intensive online course. Do your own research and find communities that can push you forward, but let me get you started by showing you what has worked well for me.
Note: This might be a long read, so do yourself a favor and bookmark this for when you have time to sit down and assess each option.
Merch By Amazon is a new, application-based program Amazon has launched. Don’t let that scare you, however, as this is probably the easiest way to start and see and immediate return.
Basically, you design t-shirts, sweatshirts, and even popsockets, and Amazon lists them on their platform for free, you collect a royalty whenever it makes a sale. There’s $0 startup cost, and having the advantage of listing on Amazon is incredible. 200 million people visit it a month.
Not a designer? Do text-based only shirts (they sell quite well). Hire a designer for cheap on fiverr or Upwork. Teach yourself Amazon SEO on a slow day. There are tons of guides and tools out there. Check out MerchInformer for one of the best and most intuitive tools and training websites. They have everything you need to learn the ropes, and also have the tools for analytics and design.
In about a year I went from nothing to bringing in an average of $500 – $800 /mo, just from this platform. 2
Fulfillment by Amazon is the big brother of Merch By Amazon. They’re both Amazon-based seller platforms, but FBA has been around for a lot longer and services any and all types of product. Without realizing it, chances are 80% of the time you shop on Amazon, you’re actually buying from an FBA seller who’s running a microbrand or micro-business selling product.
This is significantly more of a learning curve and up-front investment compared to Merch By Amazon, but requires no skill other than an ability to learn and study metrics, and a little bit of creativity.
There is a service called Noviland (noviland.com) that I use which makes this process SO much easier. They will take care of full-service manufacturing and quality control for product from China, and take care of all shipping and customs to your Amazon warehouse. This eliminates an astronomical amount of risk (shady manufacturers on Alibaba, products getting caught in Customs, etc). They’re free to use, too. If you sign-up, please use my affiliate code MICAHM — it will give me a small credit as a way to say thanks. 🙂
Lastly, check out Rainmakers Academy for a full-intensive training on how to launch an FBA product. Rainmakers was started by my buddy Stephen (also a filmmaker!), and he absolutely kicks my butt in his passive income through FBA.
Expect $2000 – $4000 in initial startup cost. Go with a product with a cheaper manufacturing cost to start. Expect several months to repay your investment cost, and everything beyond that will be passive, just keep an eye on your inventory and product page as needed. If you hustle well enough, it’s not crazy to make thousands per month from several product launches. My first product made over $1000 in net profit in its first month. Just learn how to play the game well.
If you’re a veteran in the investment and finance world, you already know what Robinhood is. If not, then let me explain. Robinhood is an app that allows you to buy and share stocks with no commission fee. Basically, it is a zero-cost option to buy and sell stocks. Understanding the stock-market definitely goes beyond the scope of this post, but Robinhood is a great way to build passive income whether through slow, safer investments, or more aggressive day-trading. There are tons of guides / YouTubers out there who can help you get started. General stock market trends always go up, and there is no cost to use or transfer money out of Robinhood, so it’s definitely worth a shot!
Acorns is an investment application that, among other things, creates an ETF for you. Consider Acorns as a “smart” savings account that will generate passive income for you through behind the scenes investments. In addition, it also has a feature to round-up your credit card purchases and deposit the change into your account. I have a $10/mo automatic deposit, and the round-up feature enabled, and Acorns is quickly becoming a go-to for my long-term saving and retirement plan. The amount you make on interest depends heavily on how much you have in your account, but even in the <$1000 account balances, it’s definitely worthwhile. If you have large account balances sitting in regular checking and savings accounts, transferring some of that into Acorns may allow some of your money to start making money for you!
Dropshipping is a popular eCommerce strategy that basically has sellers create storefronts and products that get shipped or manufactured as soon as the order is placed. Shopify is an incredibly popular platform for this. I set up an account with Shopify to merge with my Amazon Seller account, and enabled it to list hundreds of products on Amazon for me. Your returns per product will be considerably less than FBA, but once the system is set-up and automated, it’s almost completely hands-off. Think of it as a blend between FBA and Merch By Amazon.
Other POD Platforms
Reference back to #1. Remember those shirts you made for Merch By Amazon? Well, turns out, there are tons of different Print On Demand websites out there where you can list the shirts you already made for Amazon. Check out Teepublic, Redbubble and Etsy, among others. Google guides for each one.
Affiliate / Ad Marketing
Have a platform for your work? Well, with a little strategy, you can make money off of that too. Most filmmakers today have some sort of online-brand or presence, whether it’s an Instagram account, a website, or a Facebook Page. Utilize your skills and connect them to an audience. There are plenty of film companies who will pay you for referring them customers, or give you a small percentage of a product sale if you bring them the customer. If you’re an amazing DP, start promoting your favorite lights and ask the company if they have an affiliate program. Amazon, for example, has a great affiliate program where you will get paid if you refer an Amazon product. Have a film blog or website? Set-up an Ad program to discreetly and gently place some advertising on your website (note: I wouldn’t do this for your “portfolio” website, as it will damage the overall aesthetic of your site. Have a film-review or gear-sharing website? Open the floodgates).
For brownie points, look into strategies to better optimize and grow your social media audience. If you can bring in hundreds of referrals to some of your favorite companies / brands / products, that’s a fantastic way to continue doing what you love, but get paid it.
This flirts on the line with active and passive income, because it is a little of both. Sharegrid allows you to list your film gear for others to rent. Think of it as peer to peer gear rental. You’ll be responsible for prepping gear and pickup, but if you already have that really expensive camera, why not insure it and allow it to pay itself off? I have a number of cinematographer friends who rent out their gear on a semi-regular basis, and usually end up paying off the gear entirely through 6-months to a year of casual gear rental. Best of all, you control the shots on when you rent it out. Have a shoot for two weeks in France? Simply decline any rental request during those times.
Stock photo and video is a bit of a hit-or-miss due to the saturation of that market. I personally have never jumped into it, but I have friends who have done alright. If you already have photography / video that you own the rights to (including release forms for models/actors), and you don’t particularly plan to use it for anything beyond social media / fun, it never hurts to upload content to these sites. There are some crazy stories out there of features, commercials or other big productions who have paid insane amounts of money to get exclusive rights for some clips and photo. Adobe recently launched their own Stock platform, and it is definitely worth checking out.
BONUS: Diane Mulcahy wrote an incredible book for freelance workers called “The Gig Economy”, and I believe it is 100% applicable for workers in the film industry. I’ve recommended this book to my peers and they absolutely love it (it was recommended to me, too!). It covers everything from time-management, income planning, negotiating your worth, and building multiple income streams, including passive income. If I were to recommend 1 book to someone who had questions about finances in the freelance lifestyle, I would send them nowhere else.
That’s it! Give yourself a pat on the back for taking the time to look through those different options. Building passive income does not happen overnight, and anyone who tells you otherwise probably just wants your money. If you were to commit to 3 or 4 of those above 9 ideas over the course of a year, I think you’ll be surprised how easy and exciting growing passive income is. As a filmmaker, there is nothing more valuable than your time and energy, and as my passive income grows, I am excited to be able to allocate more and more of that into the projects and work I care about, without worrying about slow seasons and steady-income. It doesn’t happen overnight, and generally not even in the first few months, but if I were to look back a year ago, my passive income streams are one of the most rewarding things I invested my time into.