Here is how many in my parent’s generation spent their careers and made their money:
They got paid by one company, and there was an assumption that the company would take care of them, providing health care, a retirement plan, and eventually, some sort of tacky gift to celebrate their 30 years of service.
But this isn’t the case for my generation; I don’t know anyone my age who’s going to work for one company for 30 years. Times have changed and no (large) corporation is going to take care of anyone, except maybe its executives. Indefensible golden parachutes. Fading pension plans. Growing income inequality. The writing is on the wall: it is up to us as individuals to take care of ourselves and forge independent careers.
Now imagine the pie chart above represents ownership. For filmmakers, if we’re getting all of our money on a project from a single source, it’s likely that whoever’s paying us actually owns the intellectual property, at least for a certain number of years. So the question then becomes, as creators, how can we derive monetary value from our content, without relying on financing from a corporate entity whose commercial interests are often opposed to our own artistic vision?
Here is a hypothetical example of a way we can support ourselves as independent creators in the new digital economy, while retaining ownership of our intellectual property:
Yes, dividing the pie dozens of ways is not very exciting. A lot of the above revenue streams probably aren’t appealing to you. But one of the goals of NoFilmSchool is to find out which methods work and which don’t. When it’s difficult to predict which methods will succeed and which won’t, we have to diversify.
This is only possible because movies are now digital goods. The entire equation changes when a film can be seen without the need to make 35mm prints and without having to manufacture and ship thousands of DVDs to brick-and-mortar stores all across the country (and the world); physical media like DVD and Blu-ray are on their way out.1 More and more viewers are watching films via streaming and download-to-own, and this is empowering for the independent content creator. Yes, there are still barriers to selling through many digital stores, but non-exclusive, inexpensive ushers like Distribber are making this less of an issue every day. Not to mention the advent of online banking and direct deposit to handle all of these revenue streams.
It’s one thing to talk about all of this hypothetically, and while I wish I currently had a film out there with which to prove this point, give me a couple of months and I’ll have something to show. Still, one of the revenue slices in the above pie chart is “Ads on Blog,” and thus: starting today I’m premiering a wonderful new feature on this site: ads! Okay, maybe it’s not so wonderful, but the dirty not-so-secret to internet advertising is that it pays very little, and thus in terms of hourly wages, I don’t ever expect NoFilmSchool to be a good “job.” However, I do think it will be a valuable experience to develop real-world expectations regarding internet ads, and I will share whatever I learn in the process here.
The inconstant gardener
One of the main points about the second pie chart is this: a lot of those revenue streams go on without us. At a day job we have to show up every day and do someone else’s bidding in order to support ourselves. But as an independent creator, by taking advantage of some of the above revenue streams, we can be off on a beach somewhere surfing — or writing a screenplay — and still be getting paid by our creations. The garden doesn’t require constant tending. And that’s just for one project; many of those revenue streams continue on while we’re working on our next project, and indeed can help fund the sucessor.
NoFilmSchool is not just about revenue streams and cutting out the gatekeepers and middlemen, however. More importantly, it’s about the creative control that comes with owning our intellectual property, which is what will sustain our independent careers in the long run. We can make what we want, and find our own audience, instead of making what they want (meanwhile pulling our hair out because their desires aren’t the same as our intentions).
I’m not saying this will work for everyone or that James Cameron and Tom Cruise should drop everything and switch to DIY methods, but everyone’s talking about how the sky has fallen on independent film, when what they really mean is: the sky has fallen on companies that make money off independent filmmakers. The power is less in the hands of distributors and middlemen and more in our hands as independent creators.
Terminating the studio model
Actually, you know what? Let’s take the example of James Cameron. What if he made the first Terminator movie today? The Terminator was the progenitor of an entire storyworld, and as a result the Terminator universe has been exploited across all manner of franchises: movie sequels, TV shows, theme park rides, video games, novels, comic books, etc. The franchise cannot be, uh, terminated.
The Terminator’s 1984 production budget of $6.4 million is $13.5 million in today’s dollars. If Cameron were in the same career position he was in back then — that is, this would be his first feature — he’d still need a studio to foot the cost for such an expensive movie, right? Well, what if he shot it digitally (not an option back then), outsourced the CGI overseas (the original Terminator, you’ll recall, didn’t have nearly the effects demands of later entries), paid the actors and crew $100/day in exchange for points on the back-end (except maybe Ahnold… although at that point he’d only been in Conan), and did a massive campaign through Kickstarter or IndieGoGo? Even better, what if he used a micro-investment scheme, as the producers of The Age of Stupid did so successfully? Through a combination of reduced production costs (thanks to cheaper digital tools, both for production and post-production), guerilla tactics, and a entirely different funding model, Cameron could shoot The Terminator today digitally for far less money than he did in 1984, without a studio — and he could own the rights to the storyworld going forward. As it is today, Cameron doesn’t own the rights to the Terminator franchise, and he has no say in where the world goes. This is because, in order to direct the first film, he reportedly sold the rights for a dollar. This is how studios work: they put up the money, and in exchange they own the rights to your baby, even if that baby grows up to be a star.
My point is not that Cameron is now a starving artist cracked out in Skid Row who could’ve made it big if he’d done things differently — he’s doing just fine — but rather that the game has changed. You can make something small with the hopes that a studio will swoop in and give you a bunch of cash to make something big, but it is not a good gamble — I know, because that was the bet I took in making The West Side, which was absolutely the embodiment of a nights-and-weekends DIY production. Zack and I won the Webby Award for Best Drama Series, got an agent, wrote a hugely ambitious interactive script that garnered us meetings with 20+ studios2 — so far so good — and then learned the hard way the realities of the business. One of these realities: when you’re dealing with studios, it can take forever to get a movie made. According to some, five years on average.
Social media and the curmudgeons
I don’t have five years to wait around for someone else to pull the trigger, and I bet you don’t either. Not when we can reach our audience directly using social media, not when we can shoot a feature cheaply on a DSLR, not when we can raise money using crowdfunding, and not when we don’t need to print and ship hundreds of costly 35mm film prints (if we even go the theatrical route). I spent most of 2009 dealing with studios, and here’s what it amounted to: one long lesson learned. One I certainly hope to help others avoid!
I’m not saying the future is bright and every filmmaker is going to be huge success thanks to social media. For independent filmmakers, it still comes down to making something personal and original and of high quality, and even if we achieve that it might still be hard to turn a profit. I don’t want all of this to come off as utterly utopian. But hell with that, this is an unprecedented time in moviemaking history! Screw the curmudgeons! It’s precisely these DIY techniques that will allow independent creators to break out of the staid corporate system that prevents many works from being original and good. If you’re not beholden to the money men then you are far more likely to be able to create something sui generis. And, yes, I hear people saying that if we’re watching our own bottom line, then we’ll be tempted to sell out and make whatever’s going to be the most profitable. Really, though? I chose independent filmmaking because I’m concerned with the bottom line? Who in their right mind would choose this career if their chief concern was money?
Over the years I’ve heard so many filmmakers comment on their work with, “X company was being acquired by Y company at the time, and as a result they accidentally left us alone to make our movie” (Being John Malkovich) or “we were shooting in a far away country and the studio was too worried about their bigger-budget film, so we were able to get away with this” (Apocalypse Now). Basically: in order for the director to be in a situation where they had more creative control than the norm, the planets had to align. I’m no astrophysicist, but… that’s rare, right? So we can either hope for the right circumstances by relying on others, or we can make the right circumstances by retaining control and going the DIY route. Which I did originally, and now I’m going back to it.
On this site I spend a lot of time talking about the technical side of being an independent creative — digital cinematography, social web services, Mac applications, web design — because technical know-how is exactly what empowers creatives to do it ourselves. Computers are now our paintbrushes.
At no time in history has it been this cheap to make a movie. And while that comes with both benefits and drawbacks, ultimately digital tools also allow the good stuff to rise to the top of the heap (which, as a result, is an admittedly larger heap). My goal for NoFilmSchool is to be as transparent as possible: to share the technical knowledge and techniques I learn along the way, and also to share which monetization strategies have worked and which haven’t. Even the most independent of filmmakers frequently say, “I’ve been told not to talk about the budget,” and so I’m going to try to be open with that kind of information as well (which will be more possible on a DIY production than if I end up making Transformers IX). With this site covering the technical and monetization aspects of filmmaking, then, ideally the art of my filmmaking will come out not through this blog but… through the art itself.
Talk is cheap
I’m putting my (lack of) money where my mouth is: I moved out of my apartment in August 2009 and have been living out of a suitcase since. When I was a Senior Designer at MTV, living by myself in Manhattan was tenable; now that I’m bootstrapping a DIY filmmaking career and throwing everything I have into making my first feature, this is most definitely no longer the case (I only have two recurring bills right now: my cell phone, and COBRA for health insurance). I took the money I saved by living rent-free (while doing freelance gigs) and invested it in a camera package, which I’m going to use in the coming months to shoot a wide-ranging series of crowdfunding videos in support of a feature. I will share here whatever I learn along the way, and I hope it will be helpful to other filmmakers and independent creatives; the best example of this to date is The DSLR Cinematography Guide.
As I set out on this journey, I’m fully aware that many people who see themselves as motivational figures tend to come off as douchebags. “Buck the system, I’m doing it and you can toooo!” they say, adding, “in just three easy payments of $39.99…” I’m going to try my damnedest not to come off as an ass, but by all means, if somewhere along the way I slip up, let me know.
I’m sure some people are going to read the above treatise and comment, “you’re only going the DIY route because you can’t make it in Hollywood!” My goal with NoFilmSchool is to prove them wrong.
And you can toooo!
- I say this as an owner of a Blu-ray player, which I enjoy, but… Blu-ray will never be as popular as DVD, and with the advent of HD streaming, many people use their Blu-ray player primarily as a streaming device. In the same way that people listen to MP3s over CDs, convenience wins out over quality. [↩]
- The studios we met with: Warner Brothers (Warner Horizon/TheWB.com, Warner Premiere, Smoke House), CBS Interactive, Fox TV, Fox Digital, Sony Pictures Digital/Crackle.com, Sony Pictures International, Lionsgate, Berman/Braun, 60Frames (now defunct), Vuguru, NBC Universal, Paramount Digital, Overture Films, Miramax, HBO, MTV, AMC, IFC, and Microsoft. [↩]