First, some good news! Found In Time has been selected to screen at the upcoming GenCon Indy Festival! That’s right, the oldest and largest gaming convention in the world also runs an independent film festival, and has selected us to screen there. Some details:
WHERE: GenCon Indy Festival, Indianapolis, IN
WHEN: Thursday, August 15- Sunday, August 18th (screening times to be announced)
MORE INFO/TICKETS: www.gencon.com
I’ve been promising an article on rolling your own DCP package for a while now, but the first draft came in at a whopping 6000 words, so obviously I need to do some trimming or I’m going to bore everyone to death. In the meantime, I’ve been preparing an English dialog list for the film (and writing an article on that as well), updating all the promotional material, and working on a secret new project.
So in the meantime, I figured I’d write about something I’ve been thinking a lot about lately – sustainability. Specifically, sustaining a career as an independent writer/director/producer-type in this environment.
A couple of years ago, it seemed like the bitchfest would never stop – every panel, interview, article, and workshop I went to/read about focused on how much the independent film world sucked to make a living in. To some extent it’s never been easy, but with rising staples prices (housing, food, gas), wages that have been frozen in time for the last 15-20 years, lower budgets, the quest for “stars” that would eat up what budget was left, and the increasing crappiness of distribution deals, it seemed like a hopeless cause.
But in the last two years, while we were posting Found In Time and then sending it out, something happened. More avenues of cheap direct distribution have come along – Tugg.com (for limited theatrical), Amazon direct (for digital), smaller-scale aggregators, the Film Collaborative (digital and VOD). If you make it cheaply enough, you might be able to make ends meet, or at least not go completely broke. Even Ted Hope sounds positive – which is saying a lot (love you Ted, don’t ever change).
The problem is how to get past this stage of Ramen noodle filmmaking to where you can pay your rent with it. How many first films can you make? I’ve made two so far, for approximately the same budget. I can make another one in a few years, if I’m lucky. But that’s not a career – that’s a very expensive crack habit. Here are some solutions I’ve been thinking about, talking about, and reading up on. Thank you to Ted Hope, Steven Soderbergh, the Filmmakers Collaborative, Stacey Parks, Jon Reiss, Francis Ford Coppola, Filmmaker Magazine, and as always my friends and collaborators Bob Seigel, Ben Wolf, Adam Nadler, Dan Loewenthal, Quentin Chiappetta, and others who’ve listened and offered suggestions on this).
Make Films Cheaper
With production costs going down, one strategy is to keep making films cheaper, and make them more often. This is the turtle method – lay a thousand eggs, and hope that a few won’t get eaten by predators. If you produce enough films, you can get some paying work. The Mumblecore folks embraced this method, and while I can’t say I enjoyed most of their early efforts, by the time they got to Cyrus the Duplass Brothers definitely knew how to direct, simply because they’d done it so often.
Make One Bigger Film
The other method is to carefully nurture the $1 Million film, package it, and find the money. This can take a lot longer, and you’ll have to play it safe a little bit, but it’s still doable. This is the method advocated by Stacey Parks at Film Specific, and it’s closer to the mammalian model – have fewer kids and take better care of them. You can get most of your expenses covered and even take home a small salary, so you don’t have to try and work a day job while making your film.
But in both cases, how do you pay the bills while you’re developing these films? Well, theres…
Work On Other Films
I did this (and still do, to a limited extent). I worked on a line producer on many first features. It was great fun, even when I thought I was going to have an aneurysm. I learned a LOT about filmmaking that I wouldn’t have otherwise. The only problem is that it’s insanely difficult to develop your own projects while working on others’, unless you’re working on a really low rung. So perhaps you should…
Find some folks who want to work on films also. Then you all make films together. With everyone taking turns supporting each other, at least one project will take off. This makes a lot of sense, and a lot of successful production companies have started this way. The danger here is getting through the first film to the second, without going through all your cash/favors/patience. I’ve seen a lot of partnerships go down in flames because everyone burned through their resources, contacts, friendships, and favors on the first film, leaving nothing left for number 2.
When things were slow on the line producing front, I worked as a payroll accountant. I’ve also worked as a web production coordinator at a festival, as a post supervisor, and as a production manager on music videos, shorts, and other projects. I’ve gone back to computer programming a few times. I wrote the nonfiction book. I teach. I write spec scripts. Most of my artist friends do multiple jobs, some of them related to their field, others less so. If you take the right attitude, none of these is a waste of time (though some days it’s really, really hard not to feel like your life essence is draining into a puddle at the bottom of your cubicle).
The Present and Future
We may have to come to grips with the idea that television (either online or over cable) has eclipsed independent film as a medium in terms of diversity, depth and flexibility. What really exciting, well-written, character-driven stories have I been watching? They’ve been produced by NetFlix, Amazon, HBO, AMC, or other cable companies. They’ve decided that owning the whole pipe – from creation through distribution – is the way to go. They then hire us filmmakers to work on their projects.
So should we all start making web series as a calling card intro? I’m not sure about that either, but compared to creating a feature the costs are lower (somewhat), and the emphasis is not on production value so much as on good writing and acting. It may not be a way to make a living but it’s possible to put together a good web series without breaking your bank, and having it actually reach a sizable audience. And you get practice, which is very important.
I don’t have an answer, and there probably isn’t a single one. You’ll probably have to combine all these techniques to make it work. I do know that if you’re starting your professional life in film, you have to think about how you’re going to sustain it in the long-term. Sounds like a big duh, but it does require a large headset adjustment.
Here’s a picture of my cat to cheer you up. Good luck!