The Microbudget Conversation

We're Only Talking a Few Thousand Dollars by John Yost

The Microbudget Conversation: The Success Of Failure

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Well after a great holiday, and another Sundance, we are back for a new season of the conversation. This year we’re going to try and expand the definition of micro and see it as more of a state of mind and community, as oppose to a budget. I’m looking to hear from more filmmakers, see how they are expanding the limitations of technology, and see how the new model is effecting the old. We are also working on a project you’ll be hearing more about as the months roll on. Our hopes is that it will be some of the first steps in sustaining a career in micro, and expanding a community of professionals…stay tuned.

Winter can  be a season of rejection and failure in the film community. Many of us didn’t get into Sundance, but watched from the sidelines, and even more of us just got rejection letters from SXSW. However, failure is an essential part of the creative process and this week Mike Newman urges us to embrace it. – JY


For eighteen years I was a prisoner. I wasn’t physically locked up behind bars, rather my mind was trapped behind the confines of institutionalized schooling. I swear this ties in to filmmaking, just bear with me. We’re told that we go to school to receive an education, but I beg to differ. Indoctrination is really the point. I can’t really remember much of what I was taught in all those years, except that we should play it safe, follow the rules, listen to authority, and fit in with the crowd. This is not a recipe for success and definitely not a blueprint to reach our fullest potential. It’s a road-map to mediocrity.

The irony of it all is that the best lecture I got wasn’t in any classroom; it was on my college graduation day in June of 2004. It was a simple lesson. I don’t remember much of what was said during the ceremony except one distinct part of it that has been imprinted on my brain for eternity. My commencement speaker told us bright-eyed graduates that from that day forward we were going to have to embrace failure and learn from it because it was an inevitable part of life. This was a shock to say the least. WTF? Not once in all my years of sitting in a boring ass class was I ever told to embrace failure. Failure meant you were a loser. Failure meant you would spend the rest of your life asking people if they want fries with their order. We were taught to avoid it like it was an STD.

If school were really about preparing us for the real world, then learning how to deal with failure would be a lesson from day one. Sadly, the stigma surrounding failure in our society is so strong that we can’t see the value in it and therefore treat it as taboo as masturbating in public. We’re not supposed to talk about it, we’re not supposed to acknowledge it’s existence, and we’re definitely not supposed to treat it with respect.

It’s taken me a while to overcome the many years of indoctrination and accept failure, but now that I have I feel liberated and empowered. I no longer feel ashamed to talk about it. If I could I would talk about it every day, but I don’t because it’s still a powerful force lurking deep within everyone’s mind and they’d rather not acknowledge its existence. If this is forcing you to relive any horrible moments of rejection or failure, then get over it; it’s not the end of the world.

When it comes to filmmaking, I could be the poster child for failure. I say this as a matter of fact, not as a matter of gaining sympathy. I should have a PhD in failure. I’ve lived with it ever since I began my filmmaking journey. It is an annoying little dickface stalking me. I’ve been met with it around each corner I’ve turned and behind every door I’ve entered. Besides a few minor accomplishments that I don’t care to mention, I’ve failed to get any respectable recognition or validation for my filmmaking efforts. I’ve been rejected from every film festival I’ve submitted to and every indie film gatekeeper/tastemaker has ignored me. My first attempt at crowdfunding was a complete disaster. Any sane person in my shoes would’ve given up a long time ago. After ten arduous years of patience, practice and perseverance, I’ve failed to support myself through my art form. The “10 year rule” clearly doesn’t apply to me. The one thing I truly wonder about is how much of this failure of mine is justified and how much of it is the result of the subjective/competitive/unfair nature of this business.

Now, on a creative level, I’ve been very successful. I’ve made too many shorts to count and four features. Some of it is good shit, a lot of it is bad shit, but as Buddha once said, you have to walk through the poop to get to the platinum. Okay, so he didn’t use those exact words, but the point is that failure is a prerequisite for success. Besides one-hit wonders and trust fund babies, every successful person in the world had to fail before they reached the top of their game. I’m hoping one of my current projects will take me to the top of my game.

I didn’t realize this until recently, but a lot of my work has dealt with failure in some way, shape, or form. One of my current work-in-progress documentary features and most ambitious project to date, The Elephant on Campus, is an investigative and meditative look at the failure of our higher education system here in America. There’s a pervasive myth in this country that the best path to success is to study hard, get good grades, go to college, and get your degree. This might have been true 20-30 years ago, but not any more. The ivory tower that once loomed high above our nation is slowly crumbling. College isn’t the sacred cow that it used to be and it’s affecting our country in ways few people understand. Until people acknowledge this failure, there will be no way to learn from it and ultimately fix the horrendous problems it has created such as burying an entire generation of young people under insurmountable student loan debt.

I wish I lived in a society that valued creative ambition and hard work for the sake of it, but no one gives a shit about my high level of creative output because I’m a nobody. If I was a somebody or knew the right people, then it would be a different story. The only measure of success in our society and in filmmaking specifically that anyone cares about is profit, awards, film festival recognition, and/or critical acclaim. I have none of these, nor do I have nepotism on my side and therefore the industry sees me as an abject failure. Nobody of any importance will even give me the courtesy of looking at my work because I don’t have the necessary measures of success next to my name. That wouldn’t matter if I was born into the lucky sperm club, but I digress. In the industry’s eyes I am on the same level as a fly hovering above a freshly minted pile of dogshit. And the funny thing is that I don’t care.

I used to care a lot about the powers that be not giving a shit about me, but then something strange happened. In a moment of transcendent clarity I realized that their opinion doesn’t mean anything. Sure, within the indie film establishment it means a lot, but to the outside world it means nothing. In the grand scheme of things it’s the outside world that matters to me, not the elite little indie film club that subjectively decides who can and cannot be in their club. I want to make my work for the former, not the latter. Unfortunately, I’ve wasted a lot of time trying to find success by pleasing the establishment and I’m done with that exercise in futility.

I know it’s perfectly normal for us to seek approval from the people that guard the gates and tell us what they consider good, but there comes a point where you must stop letting these gatekeepers and tastemakers define your measure of success and ultimately, failure. In the old world they mattered tremendously, but with modern technology there is no longer the need to please the gatekeepers and tastemakers. Sure, it makes things a lot easier to get your film into a nice festival or written about in a major publication, but their influence is diminishing with each passing day. We no longer need their permission to access our potential audience. We now can be like He-Man, the masters of our own universe. We have the power!

Many problems in all aspects of life could be solved if more people would learn to embrace failure and take power into their own hands. I think it would do the entire film community a great service to embrace failure on all levels and give it equal importance as success. I understand that filmmakers are a sensitive and secretive bunch, but it does the community no good to hide the stories of rejection and failure or pretend they aren’t worth talking about. The documentary Official Rejection is a great of example of the power of embracing rejection, openly discussing it, and turning it into a positive.

In particular, I would love to hear about the unsuccessful crowdfunding stories by notable filmmakers. They remain elusive like Sasquatch, but I know they exist. I randomly stumbled across one not too long ago and it was quite a shock. It was a campaign for Cam Archer’s newest movie. From all the success stories I’ve heard about I was under the impression that filmmakers with the clout and connections like him, crowdfunding success was inevitable. But clearly it is not. Why didn’t Cam succeed? What did he do wrong? What can we learn from his mistakes? By only telling the success stories we not only skew the truth, we miss out on valuable lessons to learn. If there’s anything I’ve learned since embracing failure it’s that asking the tough questions leads to the most insightful answers and until we start talking about failure we will only get half the story.

I’ve been a failure up to this point, but my lack of past success doesn’t guarantee future failure. As long as I don’t ever quit I know one day I will find the type of success that our society values. It might not be until I’m old and wearing diapers, but I’d rather be known as a lifelong failure than someone that was too afraid to risk rejection. The fear of failure is overrated and it’s not as bad as we’ve been taught to believe. It builds character and makes us stronger. It also kicks the shit out of your ego and makes it cry like a little baby, which is always a good thing.

Success, much like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder. If it means I don’t find those certain societal measures of success until I’m no longer able to control my bowel movements, then sobeit. For now, as long as I’m learning and being creatively productive, I’m content with being a failure because as my commencement speaker said in concluding her speech, sometimes failure can be success in disguise. The more I create the better chance I have at removing this façade. – Mike Newman

I think Mike makes a very valid point and in this season of failure I also watched Official Rejection; it was inspiring. A tale of someone’s failure made me feel closer to my community and got me fired up to tackle the next project. My hope is that Mike’s example of being honest about failure will open the forum up for other filmmakers to be brave and share their stories on this blog. Learning from our own mistakes is paramount, but teaching each other how to be better is the true sign of a community.

Mike has been a guerrilla filmmaker for almost 11 years. He’s currently in various stages of production on three feature DIY documentaries and is developing four more. You can see samples of his work at http://www.mindtwinmedia.com and http://www.elephantoncampus.com. When he isn’t making movies, which is rare, he is either training to be a wizard, reading a book, or practicing guitar.

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