Shooting with John: The Occupation of Indie Film
If independent film is going to prosper well into the 21st century, many would agree that there must be some sort of interdependence between filmmakers, a collective effort that will help everyone to communicate and share resources. Thankfully, there is already a driven group of Americans who are doing exactly that, providing a template that indie film can examine and emulate.
It’s the Occupy movement.
No matter how you feel about their politics, Occupy has utilized new technology and social media better than many organizations and affinity groups in the United States. And if you look closely at how they use those tools, you can begin to piece together ways that independent filmmakers can utilize them, too. I’ve gone to Occupy Hartford and Occupy New Haven events (held in those Connecticut cities), but my first true exposure to the workings of Occupy was at their National Gathering over the July 4th holiday in Philadelphia. Even though it was their first truly national event, the percentage of the country represented was shocking. There were “chapters” from coast to coast in Philly, all comparing ideas and methods, trying to figure out how best to grow and evolve. Could you imagine what might come out of a national independent film gathering? I’m not talking about a sponsored event by this magazine or that film festival; I’m talking about filmmakers from across the country, meeting together as peers, comparing notes on how to finance, produce and distribute their work, in a supportive environment. True, we wouldn’t be able to rent out the Marriott, but consider this: the vast majority of National Gathering participants slept outside in tents for four days. Their passion helped alleviate their expenses. So could it be with us.
While Occupy was impressive in their ability to put together a national-level event, one of their other strengths has been their success with deep structure. While protests and civil disobedience are the attention-getting facets of Occupy, it’s the general assemblies, (city-level, multi-weekly meetings to discuss future activities and direction) working groups, (committee-type groups that plan and carry out events within a particular area, like protests or finance) and discussions that give the movement momentum. Some Occupy chapters don’t even have general assemblies anymore, but their working groups still remain lively and active.
Indie filmmakers can take something from this; while festivals and other NYC/LA events are the attention-getting events, forming local groups and alliances can help create regional and, hopefully one day, national associations. Three years ago, indie filmmakers in the New London, Connecticut, area formed the Southeastern Connecticut Filmmakers (SECTFilm). They meet monthly for educational events and reviewing members’ work. (which they lovingly call “screen and bash”). They also shoot short films year round, and have a yearly showcase at an indie theater in Mystic, Connecticut. They sell out multiple nights every year. Groups like this could easily be put together nationwide, which would create a similar structure as Occupy. And who knows? One day we could have our own national event. Maybe in San Francisco, the intersection of film and Silicon Valley?
Another system to study is the increasingly real-time way Occupy chapters across the country communicate with each other. The movement is building a nationwide text network called TextOccupy, linked to a Twitter feed, and text-to-screen, to broadcast real-time news about events in the movement. They also have created InterOccupy, an online communications depot for the movement, complete with a news-wire, newsletter, and a list of hubs, working on Occupy-related projects nationwide. While real-time communication isn’t as directly necessary to the indie film movement, (we’re not frequently launching multiple protest events in multiple cities at the same time) working to create a centralized information source will be key in creating a national presence. True, news sources like Filmmaker magazine and Indiewire exist to cover major events in the film scene, but a filmmaker-run communications center could help to aggregate films currently shooting nationwide, (and could help film schools and film organizations find job opportunities) as well as information on movie theaters who are open to screening indie films. This could help build a national database filmmakers that would be use to put together regional or national DIY theatrical runs.
Despite their deep structure and communications infrastructure, Occupy is a leaderless movement. There is no “president” of Occupy, nor any “mayor” of Occupy in any city, but rather a group of people committed to ideals the movement supports. And even those ideals are myriad; Occupy created a ”visioning statement” at the National Gathering that produced a list of items that all of their members saw as “part of a democratic future.” Ignoring no participant’s ideas, this document is a long list of ideas, policy positions, and worldviews representing the current thoughts of the movement. It goes without saying there are as many opinions as there are filmmakers, but creating a “vision statement” can help filmmakers discover what the most common beliefs are in our world, and what goals we can work toward first, with the largest pool of believers. Think of it as the nationally created list of hopes and dreams of indie filmmakers, where everyone gets to have their say.
One of the biggest takeaways from the Occupy National Gathering was a commitment to partner with community leaders to bring more people into their movement. Many members talked about the importance of connecting with local leaders to help bring legitimacy to Occupy, due to their influence in the community, and to help attract followers to the movement. This is something every indie filmmaker should do; creating a local audience, from any number of local institutions, film and non-film. Not only will it create a base for the filmmaker to grow the audience wider, it will also allow filmmakers to find audiences to “trade” with. If a horror filmmaker teams up with another horror filmmaker, each with audiences in different areas, both then find twice the people watching their work. And as those audiences grow from the local to the regional, filmmakers may find themselves with large followings due to their community building.
Finally, Occupy has found a way to affect our political world, working from the ground up to facilitate legislation that benefits their members. Since Occupy began last year, New York City, Los Angeles, Oakland, Albany, and Boulder city councils have passed resolutions against corporate person-hood, due in part to Occupy pressure. This coordinated pressure can easily be applied by filmmakers, state-by-state, to advance their interests. Take film tax credits: filmmakers can pressure their state governments to institute film tax credits, or to modify those already on the books. The indie film community in Connecticut, due to intense lobbying of state legislators, was able to institute a minimum spend of $50,000 in its film tax credit upon creation in 2006, and was able to keep the credit alive when legislators threatened to eliminate it in 2009. Filmmakers don’t often know the political power they can wield when they join together. It’s a power worth using.
Former Secretary of Labor Robert Reich said, “Your most precious possession is not your financial assets. Your most precious possession is the people you have working there, and what they carry around in their heads, and their ability to work together.” The Occupy movement knows this, and its has bloomed since its birth last year. Where could an independent film movement go once we embrace this as well?
Marty Lang is the writer/director of Rising Star, which won Best Premiere at the Seattle True Independent Film Festival in May 2012. He is the creator and Assistant Director of the Connecticut Film Industry Training Program. He loves UConn basketball and pugs. Follow him on Twitter @marty_lang and at www.risingstarmovie.com.
“Shooting with John” is a new column and web-series by the folks who brought you “The Microbudget Conversation.” We are in production right now on a new feature film; White Creek. Please feel free to contact us with ideas, suggestions, and possible guests: firstname.lastname@example.org