I ran a post awhile back questioning whether Indie Filmmaking best be thought of as a hobby culture now. It stimulated an interesting conversation. Among those to respond was filmmaker Mark Savage and I asked if he'd be interested in expanding his thoughts into a guest post. Mark knows what it takes to make things happen. He has heard the calling. Priesthood is often described as a vocation. It’s more than just a job. It’s a commitment to a lifestyle and all that that entails. Men and women of the cloth answer a calling to become a Soldier of Christ. They dedicate themselves to this calling.
True filmmakers – writers, directors, producers – have a lot in common with priests. They, too, have responded to a calling, a creative one.
After a short life in which I lived and learned and sucked in a million influences, I was ready to synthesize it all onto film – it was Super-8 film in my case, and I had stories to tell that were mine.
The desire to make these films was equal to murderous passion, and I responded to that passion with action. My weekends were filled with filmmaking, and nothing else equaled the giddy joy of the process. I became a filmmaker because I was making films regularly. That’s the thermometer of authenticity.
If I’d picked up a golf club all those years ago and were still swinging it today, I’d be happy to call myself a golfer. But if I suddenly found myself watching Greg Norman’s golf videos all day instead of swinging that two iron or chipping balls onto a green, I wouldn’t call myself a golfer anymore. If I did, who would I really be kidding? There’s a lot of noise around filmmaking that has nothing to do with making films. Some of this Noise is helpful (Ted Hope’s website, for example), but much of it is distracting because it feeds a fear that pure filmmaking is not possible on your resources, and it distracts you from the original creative call.
Most of us are forced to become adults at some stage – yes, even filmmakers! With adulthood comes responsibility, and at the core of most responsibility is the need to generate income. For the filmmaker who got the creative call before adulthood (I’m one of them), there are some matters to reconcile.
I financed my early Super-8 movies by squirting special sauce onto Big Macs and collecting and selling the empty beer bottles of neighborhood alcoholics. My McDonald’s income and beer money enabled my filmmaking. From day one, I was pragmatic about the process, despite pragmatism not often being associated with creativity. It was clear to me that filmmaking didn’t run on ideas alone. It also ran on resources. Hell, without resources, the train wasn’t leaving the station. What I knew for sure in those days, and still know, is that nothing would stop me from making films. Nothing would derail my passion. Well, nothing except one thing. Me.
Ted Hope wrote a fascinating blog recently in which he threw an idea out there that indie filmmaking might be best approached as a hobby. With returns on investment in the doldrums (for the majority of movies) and money hard to squeeze out of shell-shocked investors, it was a fair question. It also made me consider the positive connotation of hobbies. Are they not passions?
When a kid filmmaker (a creative hobbyist) crosses over into adulthood, he (or she) brings the hobby with them. What needs to be reconciled is the hobby and the need to generate income. The two don’t go hand in hand. If you’ve been called by the creative gods, you’ll find yourself being pulled in two or more directions at this juncture. You want to spend all your time making movies, but how can you do that when mom and dad aren’t financing your food and pillows anymore? Eight hours a week at McDoodle’s ain’t gonna cut checks in the real world.
And there’s the rub. You’re now in the real world. Lip to lip with reality. And you know what – it’s breath stinks. It stinks for a long time because it takes a lot of getting used to. It doesn’t give a crap about you or your movies or your dreams. Why should it? Like you, it has its own set of problems. It’s not lacking for immediate concerns. It’s already juggling a shitload. And its first concern is getting you out of its friggin’ face.
When you’ve landed on your butt after reality shoves you and you’re alone again, it should become obvious that nobody cares as much about your vocation as you. You got the calling. You’re carrying the creative uranium. You’re the engine driver.
Block out the Noise first. Ignore the shrill voice that insists on telling you that there is an established way to make movies and distribute them. Find the adult equivalent of a McDonald’s weekend job and call that your Financier. Or “Sir”. Write a script that can be produced for the meager money that you have. Pick locations that instantly add production value by virtue of their dynamic nature. Cast by strenuously auditioning until you’re satisfied you have the right actor for the role. Cast actors you connect with creatively. Treasure actors who take your characters into places even you haven’t gone yet. Best to go with non-union at this stage because you can’t afford union. Negotiate fair compensation in cash, food, rare trinkets, or soft sexual favors. Treat these actors like gold. Understand that the better the role you give them, the better they make you look, and the better it is for their careers. They’ve gotten the calling, too, remember?
Then make your movie.
Applying this less-than-stellar approach, I've made eight little feature films (with three currently in post), several hundred commercials, and financed my vocation with a dozen variations on the McDonald’s weekend jobs and a second career as a doco and reality TV DP. Because I like to know how things function at the grease and ball bearing level, I‘ve also worked for three film distributors -- Orion Pictures, Village Roadshow, and Absurda) – and learned editing, a little about raising finance, and a lot about the reality of the film business.
Do I survive purely on my creative pursuits? Yes. Making feature films? No. Perhaps 0.01 % of all feature film directors in the world survive purely on directing features only.
But it is the ongoing activity of film production that directly expresses the passion and sharpens the craft, and I believe that it is essential for the filmmaker to find ways and means to keep the fires continuously stoked.
If this vocation is a hobby, it is one of the toughest and most rewarding hobbies in the world. It also has its corpses. Like true love, it can bring us enormous pain and take us to untold plateaus of pleasure.
Passion is the element that enables the hobby to take flight when money is scarce or non-existent. It is the passion that gets the script written before financing is sought. It is the passion that drives the project when money is not forthcoming. It is also the passion that is tested when the stinking breath of reality is being burped into our faces.
Filmmakers who have not been through the process of producing and distributing their celluloid child often live in a state of high delusion. They're under the impression that filmmaking will and should sustain them.
Under what law?
I've seen the reality of returns versus costs from a distributor’s point of view – and the sums aren't often pretty. On top of that, we now have a market that is paying substantially less -- if anything at all -- for traditionally made films that are costing more than ever.
Production costs have not dropped to accommodate returns.
This situation has demoralized many in the business, but there is an upside if you face the reality, digest it, and take your mind back to why you answered the creative call in the first place. It was not to make a million bucks.
"Free film" , to me, has many roads out as well as in. The costs of producing films/digital stories well outside the traditional system -- within a "hobby" framework -- have plunged. This change has closed the gap between the financed filmmaker and the door knocker for whom the probability of making the next film often feels less substantial than belly button fluff.
You can buy an exceptionally good digital camera, sound gear, lighting, and edit suite for under $20K. If you work with passionate hobbyists (small crew, actors, editors, composers) whose sole desire is to make good work with the upfront understanding that there will not be substantial money to be had, the possibilities are endless.
How is this achieved?
You work with people who are also deriving income from multiple sources. Working on your feature in a key role is their opportunity to tackle work denied to them by current economic situations and/or a lack of industry credits. You gather a passionate group and they work with you when they can. You deliberately make films with short shooting schedules so the time spent on them doesn't conflict with income-producing work. Most importantly, you treat these folk as the wonderful, generous, exceptional people they are, and may you roast in a pizza oven if you don’t.
Although I have made films with healthy indie budgets, I will die before I let lack of funds stop me from making films.
My solution has been to make three films this way in the past two years while pursuing finance and producing partners for larger projects that I cannot make under a "hobby" structure. The reality is that these three films may never recoup the funds I have spent on them; I accept that and carry on regardless because I love filmmaking.
I make movies because I have no choice.
What I do have a choice in is whether or not I decide to ignore the Noise that tells me there is one way suck filmmaking eggs and that’s the way the Noise does it.
We filmmakers have much in common with the priest. His faith gets tested, and so does ours. His dedication can waver, and so can ours. But because the calling is so strong, our vocation is a deep part of us (for better or worse).
It courses through our blood.
It’s our creative heart.
Answer the call with action. Expect to waver now and then. But don’t listen to the Noise. It doesn’t care about your project. So why care about it?
-- Mark Savage
Mark Savage has been a seriously entrenched indie filmmaker for a couple decades and will die doing the same. He's dug deeper into the business by also working for various distributors (mainstream and alternative) and happily moonlighting as (sometime) DP on his own features and web series, and the docs and reality work of energetic others. He does what he does because he has no choice and thrives in a creative hive with equally passionate collaborators. Mark shares his many passions at http://phantomofpulp.blogspot.com Samples of work at: http://www.youtube.com/savagesinema