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It’s Not Always About the Money

Jack Waters in Jason and Shirley

There’s been a great deal of talk recently in our film community about the concept of sustainability. There hasn’t, however, been a great deal of precision.

Take the word itself — “sustainable.” It’s most often defined by its absence. But by the time we ask, “What is a sustainable career?” the answer comes back, and it’s usually simply: “Not this.”

We’ve adopted the idea of sustainability from the environmental movement, where it describes the quest to make an ecosystem stable and long-lasting. Sustainability’s myriad definitions range from the utopian (“all systems in dynamic balance”) to the terse, harsh pragmatism of its Latin root, sustere: “to endure.” As artists, we can probably all agree that an “endurable” life might not be our best goal. “Dynamic balance” has potential, but it does raise the question: What needs to be in balance to make our film lives sustainable?

Money is the obvious answer, but, as a community, most of our rewards don’t actually arrive with dollar signs in front of them. Sure, if we could just make a living wage doing the work we love doing, our lives would be more sustainable. Nobody’s arguing with that proposition — we just don’t have those answers yet.

So, while we continue to figure out how to rebuild the economics of our industry, we must also focus attention on all the non-monetary aspects of sustainability. We need to make sure that we’re fostering and effectively utilizing those aspects in our individual careers and that we’re helping embed them in our industry as a whole.

What are those other elements of sustainability? What are the things we reach for when the money vanishes, or has yet to appear?

In thinking through this issue, I reached out to about 30 individuals across the filmmaking spectrum with a simple request: “Send me an example of a place in your filmmaking life where something other than money made it possible to get your film done and/or for you to keep going forward making work…”

The answers were amazing and wide ranging (and some will probably appear online at Filmmaker in the coming months). But broadly speaking they fell into a few simple categories I’ll expand on below.

Purpose

Why you? Why this film? Why right now? Time and again, filmmakers referenced an external sense of purpose about why they had to make a film. Sometimes it was aesthetic, sometimes political, sometimes personal. Many times all three. But it must always be there.

Or as producer Diana Williams (Our Song, Another First Step, Lucasfilm) puts it, “For me, not coming from money, not coming from a family that was in film, coming from New Jersey, not studying film in school, not white, not male, every damn day I just had to say, ‘Why the hell am I getting out of bed?’ And then I would think, ‘Challenge accepted,’ and I just got out of bed.”

As the responses I received testified, when hardships entered the filmmaking mix — like when money dries up — the people with the clearest sense of purpose persevered.

When independent producer, director and writer Stephen Winter went to direct his recent film, Jason and Shirley, a fictionalized account of the making of Shirley Clarke’s film Portrait of Jason, he chose colleagues of long-standing who shared his political and artistic goals. “Ned Stresen-Reuter (cameraman/editor) and I came from queer culture,” he wrote, “and had been friends for 16 years. We shared a specific ethos, a vision of what is possible.” At the start of the edit, when the film ran out of money, Stresen-Reuter suggested that the two take day jobs and edit one day or night a week. It slowed the process down to an epic nine months, which was hard on all parties, but the additional commitment — a product of a shared sense of purpose — ended up allowing the team to make bolder narrative choices without knuckling under to the usual time constraints. As Winter said, “Nobody cares about your film, nobody wants your film, but if you are doing it for the right reasons and with the right people, you can be clear that people need your film.”

Validation

But it wasn’t just that Winter’s sense of purpose was strong: his sense of purpose was also shared. This external shared purpose helped reinforce the conviction that the path was worth traveling. It also meant that the burden of believing in the project wasn’t Winter’s alone.

Finding ways to combat isolation is vital. Validation is the proof of purpose. And since we don’t work in an office where we get monthly or annual performance evaluations — but we do get regular grant and festival rejections — we need to intentionally build into our working lives ways to get feedback that can bolster our sense that we are on the right path.

What does this look like in practical terms?

At its most basic, individuals who believe in your work and whose support reminds you that you aren’t alone are key, especially if you are trying to break new ground artistically. Almost every filmmaker shared a story of someone who helped remind them that their work was worth supporting. From famous mentors lending their name to colleagues and critics who took time out to remind us that our talent moved them, validation mattered a great deal to filmmakers, time and again.

Director Roddy Bogawa remembers the period after premiering his first feature, Some Divine Wind, in Dramatic Competition at Sundance. He decided to follow this personal film with a low-budget science-fiction movie. But, he says, “No one got the script, and I spent quite a while wallowing in doubt. An old friend, writer and critic Daryl Chin, who had been an early supporter of my films and whom had read the script, got together with me and told me how much he thought I absolutely should make the film. I remember having conversations with him about Chantal Akerman’s News from Home, Tarkovsky’s Stalker and Andy Warhol’s films, and he offered to go in on buying a 16mm sync sound camera with me, which allowed me to eventually make the film, Junk. This gesture was also an emotional vote of confidence that made me feel that all the compromises I was making in my life were worth it, if one more film would come out of it all.”

Sometimes meaningful validation comes in smaller and even more unexpected forms. Says documentary director Jessica Edwards, “I rarely (i.e., never) get grants for my work, so it’s always hard. The past few months have been particularly challenging and getting me down. But then, out of nowhere I get a Facebook message, and it’s a picture of the beautiful DVD cover we made for my first documentary film, Mavis! And the message is from a man in Kuwait — just a fan who not only took the time and money to order the DVD (and pay for shipping!) but also wanted to celebrate it on social media. And with that the sun came out in my heart. It was the most validating thing ever. That someone from a country halfway around the world, which we rarely hear about on the news except in conflict stories, is stoked to get my film and that we share the same sensibilities in music and therefore have a common bond — yes, that was a good day. And the dark clouds of financial troubles rolled away for a while and left me with the feeling that this is all worth it.”

As Stephanie Wang-Breal (award-winning doc director/producer Tough Love, Wo Ai Ni Mommy) recounts, sometimes when you reach out to someone for validation, something else occurs. “During the production of Tough Love, I was seven months pregnant and literally out of money,” she wrote. “Carrie Weprin, an old colleague from another production company, met with me for a coffee and told me I had to launch a Kickstarter campaign. Then she literally ran the entire campaign… Two days after the launch of the campaign, my daughter Kai was born. Every day thereafter Carrie emailed me a list of five essential things I had to do for that day to continue the momentum around our Kickstarter. We raised more than our original goal, and this allowed me to continue the final shooting and traveling for the film. And it cemented my relationship with Carrie. I then asked her to come on as a producer of the film. After Tough Love premiered at film festivals across the country, we decided to form our own production company to continue making films, series, digital videos.”

So keep a list of folks to call when the going gets tough — people who you can count on for the validation you need. But also be that person for someone else. The surest way to have support is to give support. Think about all the great work in your circle of friends and colleagues and make sure to tell people when you are excited or moved by their vision. This practiced dialogue makes everyone better at creating an environment that helps films get made.

A note about external validation: make sure to feel any support that is given. We have a tendency to hear negative criticism more loudly than positive words. In this regard, one of the best ways we can ensure our own sustainability is to learn to receive validation — to actually take in the gift of someone or something supporting our work. When you get an accolade, whether that’s an award, a grant, or simply praise from someone whose opinion you value, take time to really celebrate it. Grab hold of your moment in the sun, and remember to remind your colleagues to do the same.

And if that validation isn’t of the institutional kind — if you don’t get that acceptance letter, grant, award or review — then reach back into your support network and find a different form of validation because the need for external feedback is real. It is also within your own power to find, and hopefully because you’ve been giving it out, it will return to you easily.

And if it doesn’t? Then you need to put in some work on the third resource:

Community

The people you surround yourself with matter. And I don’t mean networking. I mean family, friends, colleagues. People you trust. People you can rely on. People with a shared desire to make the best work possible. People with the shared value to make the best life possible.

I would argue that the majority of indie films that are made happen because the filmmaker has built a community around themselves that can sustain the rigors of actual filmmaking. He or she has a set of relationships that can withstand hardship, honesty and no cash. And this is no easy thing, because it’s sometimes hard to distinguish between people who really support you and people who will only be around when things are good and who disappear when things get tough.

But that distinction is crucial. Sometimes your non-film family matters as much to your filmmaking as your production team. Writes Bassam Tariq (TED Fellow and award-winning director of These Birds Walk), “If it wasn’t for my brother, I would have never been able to make a single film. He encouraged me to pursue film and leave my work in advertising. Culturally, kids leaving the house is frowned upon. In our case, my Pakistani parents are working class folks who have no real retirement plan. Or, well, their retirement plan is me and my brother. We knew this growing up and have proudly committed to taking care of them. The only problem is I’m an independent filmmaker and there isn’t much I can send back. My brother has taken on the brunt of the responsibility, and if it wasn’t for him, I’d never be able to take the risks that I have, let alone leave to NYC.”

And sometimes it is your chosen family that gives you support and honesty. Williams writes, “I cannot say enough about my friends from college who were not involved in film but were the ones who supported me in more ways than one person should be allowed to be so blessed, so fortunate. They were community, they were validation. But they also weren’t delusional. Your tribe is the most important turnkey to any success.”

Similar examples of deep support and real care were in almost all the replies I received — an extraordinary set of testaments to generosity and real emotional investments in filmmaking. They were investments that, to these filmmakers, were more essential than money.

And this gets us to:

Generosity/Gratitude

It is not enough to just pour all your energy and care into your films. You must also invest in all the things (and the people) that keep you making work. You need to be generous with your support of others (both film and non-film people). Remind yourself to be inclusive with your resources and networks; invite people in. Prioritize community over cliquishness in social settings. Be nice, especially to new people, and call out poor manners and resource hoarding in others. Be grateful for the ways people support you. Support, and thank, people more. Put resources into support systems for others so that our own support networks are healthy.

It doesn’t take money to adopt these practices, and they will have a big impact on the quality of our work and careers. Because whether we make a lot of money or a little money, these other sorts of investments will ensure that we will have good lives, lives filled with purpose, validation, community, generosity, gratitude and, yes, film. Because that well-rounded life, even with all of its hardship, is both sustainable and worth having.

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