November 21, 2016
DOC NYC

5 Strategies to Sustain Your Indie Career

Joan Rivers: A piece of work
Making a living in indie film is not impossible—that is, if you're willing to follow this advice.

“You guys are screwed,” Carrie Lozano joked at a DOC NYC panel on film career sustainability. She was referring to the fact that even the foremost practitioners of the documentary craft today—several of whom were on stage with her—still struggle to stay in business. So what can an aspiring or emerging filmmaker do to make a living in this field?

A lot, it turns out.

The panelists shared strategies for making career choices that prepare you for success. Participants included Jenni Wolfson (Chicken & Egg Pictures), Ricki Stern and Annie Sundberg (Marathon: The Patriots Day Bombing), Yoruba Richen (The New Black), and Carrie Lozano (The Ballad of Fred Hersch). 

"You have to learn to be uncomfortable because a lot of what we do is really uncomfortable."

As moderator Esther Robinson (Cinema Eye Honors) pointed out, "when you have a full career, you usually have a signature film, and oftentimes those films are what people are most known for, but made the least money." Make your passion project, but take some practical steps like those suggested below to support yourself, too. (Though the panelists are all currently working in the documentary space, these tips apply to any indie filmmaker.)

Marathon: The Patriots Day Bombing
Ricki Stern and Annie Sundberg's 'Marathon: The Patriots Day Bombing'

1. Use your skills to pay the bills

Especially early in your career, independent filmmaking is unlikely to be your only source of income. Some directors make a conscious choice to have a day job entirely outside of the industry, but working inside it can be an enormously useful way to build your production skill set and network.

Sundberg strongly suggested that you hone a specific skill for this purpose. "People always need editors," she said. "They don’t always need first-time directors and producers." She also recommended looking into jobs in reality TV, where chances are you will get your hands on lots of equipment. Plus, the fast pace of production will force you to learn fast. 

 “I would ask people, ‘What’s the shittiest job you’ve ever had?’ and I wouldn't hire them if they hadn’t had one.”

Once your reputation and experience grows, of course, so do your options. You can explore the world of branded content, which, Wolfson pointed out, "doesn’t have to be a sellout." You can make choices about which brands youto represent, and then use the opportunity as a creative challenge that increases your own visibility—and pays some bills.

Richen has created branded content for the likes of McDonald’s, but her steady income comes from academia. After the economy crashed in 2008, funding for her unfinished documentary dried up. She began teaching at the CUNY Journalism school and has gone on to start their documentary department—directing her own films all the while.

Can you shoot? Edit? Teach? Start thinking strategically about your day job in terms of skills and strengths you already have, or those you would like to strengthen. Sundberg found that taking short-term production jobs is one of the best ways to sustain an indie career because it leaves you with some open windows of time to do your personal work.

The skills you develop in production can also make you a great asset in other settings. "I run an entire nonprofit outside of documentary," said Robinson, "and all of my producing skills make an excellent Executive Director."

The New Black
Yoruba Richen's 'The New Black'Credit: Jen Lemen

2. Do things other people don’t want to do

“For me as a sustainable artist, I do a lot of things other people don’t want to do,” explained Lozano. For example, she will write treatments for other projects. Do you have a specific talent, like grant-writing, that is valuable to others, but people tend to find challenging? Capitalize on it.

There are other reasons besides making some dough that might motivate you to put in your time in a less desirable role. When Lozano was an Executive Producer at Al Jazeera, she said, “I would ask people, ‘What’s the shittiest job you’ve ever had?’ and I wouldn't hire them if they hadn’t had one.” Her own first job was cleaning tools at a dentist's office. Wolfson admitted that one of her worst jobs was “taking tourists to Disneyland Paris over and over again.”

These jobs teach you something essential in the topsy-turvy world of independent filmmaking: humility.

3. Include networking in your skill set

You may have noticed a theme here about building and utilizing skills. For Sandberg, it's important to include meeting people in your skill set, “because it’s the first step to asking for money.”

Lozano acknowledged that asking for money is not easy. "You have to learn to be uncomfortable," she advised, "because a lot of what we do is really uncomfortable." Even though she described herself as an introvert, Lozano had to get out of her comfort zone for The Ballad of Fred Hersch, which played at this year’s DOC NYC. "We straight asked people for money," she said.

Look at all of your assets and try to determine what you have that others might want.

Fortunately, you can use the aforementioned skill-capitalization and "shitty jobs" to this end. As Lozano pointed out, "there are ways to use the skills you have to begin networking." She is a writer, so early in her career she penned the film festival catalog descriptions for three festivals in the Bay Area where she is based, which allowed her to get to know all of the programmers.

But how do you network if you don’t live in a filmmaking hub like New York or Los Angeles? The panelists agreed that there are plenty of ways. For example, you can join online communities like D-Word or this one (No Film School) and get active on the message boards. Get yourself to festivals and conferences. This is possible even without deep pockets. SXSW, for example, has a robust volunteer program. Sundberg told the crowd that she volunteered at Telluride for two weeks a year out of college, and it provided her with long-lasting industry contacts.

But Robinson made an important distinction. "There’s a difference between networking and friendship," she said. As we’ve mentioned several times on the site and on Indie Film Weekly, make sure your networking is organic and friendly; people can tell when you are only talking with them because you want something, and it will backfire.

Among the Believers
Hemal Trivedi's 'Among the Believers' was supported by Chicken & Egg Pictures

4. Consider what you have to barter, rent, or sell

As imperative as it is to make sure your basic needs are met—which often means a side hustle or two or three—Sundberg insisted, "there’s a point where you have to throw in and make your own work. You have to make that decision. But it’s a choice." Part of that choice means being especially resourceful in other areas.

When Sundberg decided to devote herself to making Marathon, she was already an accomplished producer. But she decided to stay with her boyfriend at the time and rented out her apartment via Airbnb. Do you have that option? What about renting out your equipment? Look at all of your assets and try to determine what you have that others might want.

Don’t forget about your expertise as a potential income stream. "If you’ve made several films on the same topic, you can package that," said Wolfson. Combine your film screenings with a lecture or presentation and offer it to universities or special interest groups—for a fee, of course. Richen added that you should make sure to include information on your website about how to book you as a speaker.

"One of yours skill sets is coping with ups and downs. Real perseverance is a key component of what we do."

Another way to review your own offerings is to consider what you have to barter. Wolfson said, "We see a lot of filmmakers doing in-kind and exchange." This is a good place to think outside the box. Wolfson shared the experience of a Chicken & Egg co-founder who approached a local college when she was in post-production on a film. She asked to become their "filmmaker in residence"; in exchange for office space and equipment access, she took an intern, gave some lectures, and made a short film about their program.

A Walk into the Sea: Danny Williams and The Warhol Factory
Esther Robinson's 'A Walk into the Sea: Danny Williams and The Warhol Factory'

5. Take risks and be persistent

"I take a lot of risks," Lozano shared. "I will say yes to things I’ve never done before many times." This is necessary on many levels of career sustainability: from saying yes to jobs where you might have to do some extra learning, to asking potential funders for money, to taking creative risks on your own films that are necessitated by financial constraints.

Persistence will also provide unexpected rewards. Ricki Stern mentioned that HBO came to her and Sundberg to produce their film the Boston Marathon bombing after they had spent a year doing unpaid research for another movie about terrorism, which they didn’t ultimately make. That research was invaluable for the HBO film. The lesson? According to Stern, "Everything you do will help something." So keep at it.

In the end, it all come back to skills. Lozano summed it up: "One of yours skill sets is coping with ups and downs. Real perseverance is a key component of what we do."


See all of our coverage of DOC NYC 2016.

Featured image from 'Joan Rivers: a Piece of Work' by Annie Sundberg and Ricki Stern

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