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Cash Poor, Creativity Rich: The No-Money Manifesto

These days, anybody with a film production blog is calling for a revolution. The call to arms takes many forms. Some strident, some prescriptive. All are calling for big, big change.

But to my mind, a revolution can be pretty simple. It can start with just a simple change of perspective — or even a mantra. Here’s mine:

There’s No Money.

I know, I know, this is not news. Thanks to blogs, Twitter feeds, and other social media, we’re inundated with musings about the independent film apocalypse and the poverty of our filmmaking class.

But clearly, the individual’s lack of pay doesn’t spell the end of an industry.

In fact, the current (awful-to-nonexistent) rate of pay mostly stems from the fact that there’s a supply-side market glut. There is a productive film industry, and we are part of it. And while we as filmmakers are sure delivering the goods, we aren’t thriving. In fact, we’re broke, we’re toiling, and we’re giving it away for too little, over and over again.

Yes, there is “profit” in the indie-world, but that profit is reaped by others and is derived from our hard work and the low wages associated with it. We are art-serfs, working hard, indebted and giving our precious potatoes to the distributors-du-jour.

It strikes me, then, that until we get the wage piece solved or the supply side curtailed, the first line of business is to just get real. Because we’re going to keep doing this, right? We know it’s insane to make films … yet over and over we step back up to the madness and sign on. We can’t stop; it’s what we do. But if we’re going to keep making work within the current economic realities, we need to clearly understand the attendant risks and rewards.

And to get to that reality we first need to bust through some deeply problematic herd thinking and industry misconceptions. We have to own up to the lies we tell ourselves and stop telling them.

Here are the Top 5 filmmaker security blankets — the myths we need to kill.

Myth One
The Big Deal is Coming.
Why does everyone think this will happen? At any damn filmmaker party (doc or narrative), at any random coffee shop, there’s always someone deliriously confident that a distributor is going to become his or her rainmaker with an offer that includes an advance that will recoup investors, cover deferments, pay for deliverables, and maybe even provide some back-end. Fact is, even high-profile films are winding up with pretty crappy deals these days. (Let’s hear it for the “no advance and X percentage of the nonexistent back-end” deal. Or what about the “$30,000 advance for all rights in all territories for perpetuity deal?”) Even with a prestigious distributor on board, filmmakers can be left tapping out credit cards to simply cover delivery costs.

Myth Two
Talent Always Wins Out/Experience Leads to Pay.
This is the year award-winning, critically acclaimed director John Sayles says in a major publication that he’s making less money than he ever has, and his day job (spec screenwriting) will likely be how he finances his work going forward. And the year award-winning producer Ted Hope announced that he’s producing “for love,” not money, while he takes a job heading up digital streaming service Fandor.

When so many folks with chops as good or better than yours are competing for a slice of the same pie, either the slices get smaller, or some people go without pie. And if talent and experience no longer ensure a living wage, your best hedge against risk is a diversified income (something John and Ted are both doing).

Myth Three.
The Money Savior is Coming
There are two potential saviors in this myth: the individual and the grant. Neither lives up to the easy money fairy tale.

Any individual willing to give you big cash generally wants something big in return. That’s OK if the deal you’ve offered them includes a healthy salary for you and your collaborators. But too many filmmakers agree to work for free while giving investors first dollar and the majority of the profits. So this warning isn’t to recommend avoiding investment; it’s just to say that, unless you’re smart about it, that investment may rescue your film but it probably won’t rescue you — or even give you the smidgen of financial security you need to embark on your next project.

As for being saved by a grant…If you’ve diligently researched grants, and you’ve run out of leads, chances are you found them all. There’s no leprechaun hoard of secret money out there; most grants for film are pretty straightforward to locate. Of those grants, most won’t be right for what you’re doing. And the odds of scoring one of the few that do match your project? Those odds are tough and the money, once won, is smaller than is generally helpful. At best, they’re a random assortment of helpful mini-patches to plug your movie’s cash production budget — but rarely are they big enough to include your salary.

Myth Four.
Working for Yourself or the Industry is A Smart Plan.
Sometimes this is true. Working for yourself can mean flexibility and staying true to a singular vision. And you can learn a lot in an industry job; climbing the ladder can teach you more than film school. But other times both routes can become giant traps, like when you’re your own assistant, and your assistant is unpaid. Or when that industry job pays poorly and leaves zero time to make your own work, and you’re learning nothing that helps your work. In both cases, a better-paying or more time-flexible unrelated day job might be a better choice, so you can own the time to keep working.

Myth Five.
You Have to Work Full Time at Being a Filmmaker or Artist
This is the biggest myth of all. If you make films, you’re a filmmaker. No matter how many hours a day, month, or year you do it. The act of doing it makes it so. For most of us, the “act of doing” means having a side job, or two, or more. You’ll make more work, and be more of a filmmaker by accepting that a lot of the work that supports your career won’t happen behind a camera.

OK, Myths Shattered: What Now?

Second Step.
Make It Original And Make It Count.
It seems obvious. If choosing a career in independent film means not getting paid, you should at least be making great, original, important work that only you can make. But be honest — can you accept that bargain? It’s a hard road. Don’t choose it unless you’re committed to making unique, extraordinary movies that won’t get made any other way — and unless seeing that vision on screen is so important that you’ll keep doing it whether or not it pays.

If all you want is to make movies — any movies — that’s fine. You can save yourself a ton of trouble by just getting a gig in the mainstream system. Frankly you’ll get paid way better — as long as you’re happy delivering the same old messages the same old way. (Hello, white boy mafia movies, romcoms, and poor kid contest docs.)

Otherwise, commit to making amazing work. Commit to taking risks and maybe failing. Part of making great work is to keep failing until it succeeds. The point is to keep working — if the goal is to make something original, then you actually have to practice your craft. The beauty of your position is that financial failure isn’t one of your worries. If you’ve really killed your myths, you aren’t relying on your work for financial success anyway. You’re doing what you need to do to get the work made; the point is for the work to matter.

Often events conspire, schedules and priorities shift, and/or the need for cash intervenes and the output is less than great. So commit to slowing down, changing scope, or even chucking a project if it isn’t great. Just keep working. Even if it takes longer than you wanted, even if the day job takes up more of your life than you want it to, even when your big dreams run head-on into your financial reality.

Which brings us to:

Third Step.
Cheap As Hell.
Your relationship to money is going to be crucial throughout your career. When you are learning your craft or waiting for the world to connect with your originality or even, dare I say it, having a super-successful run but are still broke, you must perfect the act of living cheap as hell.

But it’s also important to remember that there is only so cheap you can get without making your life pretty sucky. So in addition to searching out ways to live cheaply, you must also be equally diligent about generating enough cash to cover your filmmaking habit. This means generate enough cash so that you have savings.

1. Save money so you can afford to do what you love for near-free. How do you do this? See No. 2.

2. Love the day job. Instead of thinking of it as the thing that’s in the way, start thinking of it as the cash cow that makes the work possible. Maybe you’re patching together your income through diversified freelance work. If so, you’re in the vanguard of American workers. So while it feels hard and it will likely be confusing to your parents, it is the future for most people. You’re actually ahead of the game. And being a flexible problem solver who can function on little sleep will only help your filmmaking.

3. Slow down or work intensely but episodically….
Unless your subject really must be captured in real time, your work can benefit from slowing down or working intensely in bursts. You can use the down time to replenish the budget, but you can also use the time to deepen the connection you have to your script or your subjects or the place where you shoot. You can use time as an alternate investment to cash. You know the slow food movement? We could use a slow film movement.

4. Work the home advantage. Move where renting or owning is cheap. Cities across the country — and the globe — have low rents, abundant artists, and cultural output at the highest level: Berlin, New Orleans, Austin, to name a few. Choosing a location wisely allows you keep your cost of living low and still access vital, thriving film communities.

While you are working hard to make all of these near-impossible things fit together, you need to practice Step Four.

Step Four.
Yes, this is hard. Yes, we are working our butts off. But so is most everybody else. Most people work long hours for low pay and that’s it — that’s all they get.

They do this without the extraordinary reward of making work and belonging to a community of makers. And that difference matters. Every time you make a film, every time you engage a community of people to join you to either make or celebrate work, your life is elevated and enviable. It is crucial to start building in the recognition that this life also brings great joy and connection. These rewards are also free. But ultimately they are the most valuable.

A life filled with meaningful work and a community of talented peers. It might not make us rich, but it has a shot at making us happy and fulfilled if it’s built right. So let’s just build it right, starting right now.?

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