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Still on the Job: Filmmakers on Their Second Jobs

Utopia in Four Movements

Here’s the funny thing about an article on second jobs in filmmaking: It’s always relevant. The last piece I wrote for Filmmaker on this topic is still referenced: people continue to call me up to talk about it, and nearly as often as they did when it first appeared. But it’s been five years since I wrote it. So, as part of our ongoing look at the financial lives of artists, we thought it would be a good idea to revisit some of the filmmakers we interviewed in 2009 and see how their relationships with their second jobs have evolved since then.

In our original article, the filmmakers we interviewed about the role of outside employment in their creative careers centered their responses around four main themes: cash, flexibility, opportunities and balance. These factors — in different proportions and by various means — were what these jobs enabled for our filmmakers. But five years later, would these filmmakers still have the same relationship to their non-film careers? Or would changing economic times, career-track shifts or even the arrival of children have brought new perspectives?

After a series of calls and emails, we quickly learned that there remains no one-size-fits-all solution to the problem of balancing a career in independent film with the need to generate an income. Just as there are multiple ways to make a film, each interviewee’s economic life remains as distinct as their cinematic voice. Both new and traditional strategies make appearances, with the filmmakers still showing aptitude for bravery, risk, inventiveness and adaptation.

Many of the filmmakers’ choices have changed as radically as their lives: moves east, moves west, staying put, having kids, creating new forms of cinema, graduating to higher budgets, even winning a MacArthur “Genius Grant” were some of the sea changes our cohort weathered.

Not surprisingly, each person’s income stream was as idiosyncratic as the next. Some fell into familiar categories: traditional wage-earning jobs such as teaching and writing/directing/shooting-for-hire were all prominent. But some new income sources have shown up in the mix: VOD, direct sales and good old-fashioned theater(!).

For many of the folks we talked to, the old “day job vs. creative work” dichotomy just didn’t apply anymore. Their approach is no longer as much about second jobs as it is about weaving multiple income streams — some directly film-derived, others indirectly — into a single support system enabling both creative output and personal and family stability.

Right after our last article, documentary filmmaker Sam Green (the Oscar-nominated The Weather Underground) moved to New York from San Francisco. Upending the income mix of paid teaching gigs and for-hire reality TV editing that enabled him to make his feature doc, he took a calculated risk and debuted a “live documentary,” Utopia in Four Movements, at the Sundance Film Festival in 2010. Soon after, he took his show — which featured film projection, live music and Green’s live narration — on the road to film festivals, music venues and theaters.

His emailed summary of this experience after a year of touring: “Oh, my god, you can make a living touring live documentaries! That’s the weirdest thing in the world.” Green discovered that while independent film distribution may be in the doldrums, the music/theater world still has a functioning economy for touring shows. Both he and the musicians who played with him have been able to secure fees that, while not particularly large, are greater than what he would have seen from a typical documentary distribution advance. He also realized that touring the show to music and theatrical venues not only broadened his audiences but changed his notion of the types of spaces where his films could show.

Since then, Green has gone on to make four new, live documentaries, each capitalizing on the relationships and bookings generated by the previous one, creating both a tour circuit and a steady source of income. Another surprise effect: community. Creating a show and touring with a band helped Green build a community of people who continue to support him both in making and presenting these innovative works.

The ability to adapt was another cherished value that emerged in each interview. Nowhere was this clearer than in the way director Joe Swanberg has structured his work life — both in how his income streams have changed (Hello, long tail!) and how his response to the arrival of a new baby ultimately improved his finances. (For a detailed look, read the complete interview with Swanberg online.)

In terms of revenue, Swanberg notes that he now has a small, but surprisingly steady, income stream from his back catalog. “A lot of the movies have been out there long enough now that they’ve reached their second life,” he says. “There are all these tiny accumulations — every six months, I get a check for a few thousand dollars. That income didn’t exist when we last talked.” Still, Swanberg, who has 14 completed feature directing credits, offers his own reality check: “They’re not each bringing in a few thousand dollars; it’s a few thousand dollars total. And there are seven films out there that actually have distribution and that are [still] recouping.”

Swanberg was forced to take his finances more seriously when he and his wife, Kris Swanberg, learned they were expecting a baby. Swanberg responded by deciding to shoot six features before his parenting duties kicked in. He figured he could edit the films once the baby arrived and he wasn’t able to travel or work as much. “[The year] 2011 was crazy because I was trying to put those six movies out into the world,” Swanberg says. “But the thing that happened was that I sold Uncle Kent and this movie called Autoerotic to IFC, and it was the first time in the 10 years since Kris and I have been out of film school that we have had any money. Usually we would sell a movie and either put the proceeds back into the next movie or live off it until I could get the next thing going. Selling two of them in the same year meant that we were able to live off one of them and then, from the other, put a down payment on a house.”

Buying a house felt good, says Swanberg, because “it’s not like credit card debt, which is just a monthly expense that evaporates into the ether. The house feels like something that is for our family and that we can build upon.”

Underscoring the idea that money isn’t a cure-all, Natalia Almada won the art-world lottery in 2012, securing a coveted MacArthur Fellowship, but found her daily reality unchanged. “The MacArthur for me was beyond my wildest dreams, like winning the lottery without having bought a ticket,” she says. “You think, ‘This is going to change everything!’ But it doesn’t change everything — you still have to bust your ass trying to get that next film made, and it still feels like no one believes you can do it. You still have all the insecurities you had while making your first film.”

The original construct of “cash, opportunities, flexibility and balance” were all hedges against different forms of insecurity. Several of the filmmakers we spoke to say balancing jobs with creative work is still a challenge, years later. Yet the bigger challenge, more than economically surviving, is surviving the tyranny of the wait — the glacial pace of film financing and development. Here, filmmakers have found novel ways to leverage second jobs to the benefits of their mental and professional health.

“My first two features were four years apart, and that’s the norm — or even a bit faster than the norm,” says director Tze Chun, who finished the Bryan Cranston thriller Cold Comes the Night since the last article. Worried that his writing would suffer if he could only make 90 minutes of content over four years, Chun realized, “There is very little to do except wait, so why not be writing in between?” This thought, coupled with the impending birth of his first child and the recent TV renaissance, made TV writing something worth exploring.

It took three years and meant moving his family to Los Angeles, but it’s now an engine that runs. Chun says, “I still have films in play, but while I wait, I’m on a show writing 22 episodes over the course of nine months… I’m very excited to be creating that much story over such a short period of time.” But he notes that his approach works because he’s a director who loves writing. “This isn’t the right choice if you want to be directing more than writing.”

For director Liza Johnson, career fulfillment also means teaching. Five years on, she’s still a tenured professor at Williams College (an establishment that in our previous article we noted also graciously provides her with a cemetery plot!) even as she has since directed two features, 2010’s Return and 2013’s Hateship, Loveship.

“The value of a job like this is it is intended to sustain long-term intellectual inquiries,” Johnson says. “You can really devote your life to a kind of artistic project.” Williams is committed to her career and says she sees her films as academic research. The college allows her leaves of absence (some paid, some not) to make and finish her films. The tenured position has also allowed her to take greater professional risks. “My pain threshold is dependent on my super-stable job,” she says. “On [Hateship], we didn’t know for sure if the financing would be complete until, like, the 17th day of production. So I feel like the level of risk I’m able to tolerate for myself is mitigated by the fact that I have a permanent job and am essentially a permanent member of the middle class.”

Johnson notes that, while waiting for the financing to be confirmed, “I talked to my dean every couple of weeks. He would want to know how my casting was going, and he would listen to the melodramas of film development, which he found very amusing. There came a point sometime in August where […] we just determined that I should try and make the movie, and if it didn’t work, I could come back the next semester. I felt really grateful for that situation and for the institution’s commitment.”

But Johnson emphasizes that a tenure track position is utterly different from an adjunct position. Many filmmakers would love to add teaching to the mix but can only land adjunct-level jobs where the pay is much lower, the upward mobility questionable and flexible schedules or leaves nonexistent.

E-Team

E-Team

For some however, the adjunct’s low pay and lack of flexibility are worth living with for the security of a regular payday. “It lessens the bumps,” says doc filmmaker Ross Kauffman (E-Team), a new hire at both Rutgers University and the School of Visual Arts. Still, he says it’s very hard to juggle the need for a consistent paycheck with the documentarian’s very real imperative to uproot and film at whim. “I’m still evaluating if it’s going to work,” he says.

And that’s another thing threaded throughout all the interviews: The constant need for recalibration. Balance becomes a verb, not a destination.

Chun notes that, as a dual freelance household, he and his wife need to reevaluate their working balance every few months. Chun, Swanberg and Kauffman all added children to their families since 2009, making such recalibration strategies a necessity, not an option. In fact, both Chun and Swanberg pointed out the need to equally invest in their wives’ careers as a hedge against dips in their own momentum or popularity, a lesson underscored by the stability their spouses’ salaries have brought to family economics during lean times thus far. (Such a strategy can also be simply recommended as the key to a successful marriage!)

Another take on recalibration came from Kauffman, who during our interview said that the collaboration he’d built with director Katy Chevigny, producer Marilyn Ness and shooter Rachel Beth Anderson meant shooting on the Sundance award-winning vérité doc E-Team wasn’t wholly reliant on him — a necessary development, since the recent birth of his son curtailed his ability to jump on a plane and go to Syria on a moment’s notice.

Which takes us to our final theme: time. While the upside of all these crazy strategies can be flexibility, “I think we’re lucky to have freedom in our day-to-day lives and not be tied down with a more normal ‘nine-to-five job,’” Almada says. “Sure, with it comes some uncertainty about where the next paycheck might come, but really no more than another person might have worrying about losing their job, or their crop being eaten by locusts.”

But there is an obvious downside to juggling the unpredictabilities of freelance work, which arrives on its own timetable. When asked if work-for-hire has taken a toll, Kauffman says, “I’ve missed the last three family vacations. You always feel like you need to take the next thing.” Director Barry Jenkins, included in the last article after his 2008 feature, Medicine for Melancholy, furthers this idea. He’s balancing feature development with working at his own branded content company, Strike Anywhere. “Wedding passion and employment in a way that’s balanced is the key,” he says. “Together with my friends, I started Strike Anywhere because I couldn’t afford to pay my rent. Literally. But in order to pay my rent, I had to treat the business of the company as a full-time job. It’s a catch-22: you can focus exclusively on personal writing but you’ll need to sleep on couches. I’ve learned a lot being in this company, but five years on I’m taking a drastically reduced role to focus on my career [making films].”

Each director I followed up with for this article has a prodigious — one might even say super-human — output. The year his wife got pregnant, Swanberg shot six films. When Chun decided to teach himself TV writing, he set a goal of three TV pilots in six months. Green is shooting his new documentary while touring to a new country almost every month. Perhaps the question beginning filmmakers setting out for a journey in independent film need to ask themselves is not, “What’s my pain threshold?” but, “How hard can I work?”

But working all the time, whether it’s for-hire or for your own projects, isn’t a real measure of success. Each filmmaker emphasized their efforts to create an integrated life. When asked if he had any advice for his younger self, Jenkins said, “Your job and your career are sometimes two different things. Merging them is ideal, but you may not have that luxury. The important thing is to be fulfilled by the work you do. Whether your piece is two minutes or two hours, a film or an oak table: be fulfilled.”

And fulfillment, dear reader, may indeed be the hardest work you ever do. In the five years since that previous article, the filmmakers we interviewed again have built strong film careers, with visible successes — major distribution deals, Cannes premieres, big deals at Sundance, a Mac-Arthur grant — and yet each person’s life was still hard work. Film success alone hasn’t been enough to live off; for them, independent film is still risky to the point where other forms of income can be a necessity. The key to weathering the mix? Understanding that life isn’t just measured by the work or the accolades alone — you need to find other rewards that make all the hard work worth it.

“You just have to do what you love, and then you’ll find a way to do it,” sums up Almada. “If you don’t love it enough, you’ll quit. The road is too hard. If you love it enough, nothing can really stop you. But I wish we could all just worry less about being productive all the time and using that as the sole measure of our lives. We need to enjoy life more, you know? Have fun, see friends, eat a good meal with family.”

So perhaps the true revelation from this article is not the filmmaking success these filmmakers have had, but the strategies they’ve used to create a fulfilling mix: buying a home, touring with friends, having kids and building a community of true artistic partners. Has this been easy? No. Meaningful and worth doing? Yes. So if you, too, are coming up on your five-year reevaluation moment, remember that while things are not likely to get easier, with inventiveness and creativity investing the hard work now can make both your life and your life’s work better and better.

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