Indievelopment: Scary Times in Independent Filmmaking

Happy New Year! Wish I had cheerier news… I’ll preface this by saying it’s just my opinion, and it’s anecdotal. I haven’t done any mass survey or a comprehensive examination of the dollars and cents. But, from where I stand (and not just me), storm clouds are overhead. If it’s sunshine where you are, then awesome (and let me know; I might swing by!)

1280px-Typhoon_in_Hong_KongSo, on with the story.

Have you heard of Ted Hope? He’s an independent producer; he’s won awards, been nominated for lots more, and he’s produced 67 films to date. You’ve probably heard of some of them: 21 Grams, Martha Marcy May Marlene, In the Bedroom, American Splendor, Happiness.

Yeah, he’s not going to be producing films for a living anymore.

When Ted Hope says he can’t make a living as an independent producer, you listen. And you question.

There has never been a better time to be a filmmaker. Cameras are cheap. Smartphones are good enough that you can actually shoot certain types of films on them. Crowdfunding gives you production support and fans, social media lets you reach more fans, and you can release on YouTube for free. You can edit your film on a home computer, and even on your smart phone. There’s never been a better time to be in independent film.

And, in some ways, there has never been a worse time to try to make a living in independent film. Yes, I’m going to be crass and talk about money. Dollars and cents, paying the rent, all that tacky stuff.

It wasn’t unusual to be paid five figures for a rewrite. One rewrite. In indie, not a studio picture. Now, times have changed. I saw a post looking for a writer to develop the producer’s outline into a feature film. I inquired, including my CV, and was told they were selecting from a group, and could I submit writing samples, and by the way, they were offering zero dollars.

Zero. And they were getting enough interest that they needed writing samples!

Are the writers any good? Probably not; very few good writers will write a feature film to spec for no money. But… it’s hard to make any money when people will take on a multi-month, sometimes multi-year task for nothing. I work outside of the Hollywood system, and I know indie producers don’t have six-figure development budgets. But now? Most of them give themselves no budget at all.

The thing is, production and post-production costs have dropped in indie. There’s rarely film stock and processing costs, and smaller lighter cameras often mean smaller lighter gear and therefore smaller crews. VFX can be done on home computers instead of massive server farms. Composers can get near-orchestral sounds from their laptop. Editing is often done at home for free, instead of in a lab where you hear terms like “one light” and “work print.”

But writing? Writing hasn’t changed; if anything, it’s become more expensive as cost of living has increased. However, producers haven’t kept up with the times. If it costs $2M to shoot a film, you don’t mind paying the writer $25K or maybe even $50K. But if you plan to shoot a feature for $25K… what do you pay the writer? Do you even pay the writer at all? Most of the time, no. They either pay nothing, or they write it themselves. The end result is the same: vastly less money for writers. These people are not producers in the business sense. They produce for art, for fun, for vanity, but whatever the reason, they have no business plan; they’re approaching this as a hobby, so if you want to work with them, it better be a hobby for you too.

With web series, crowdfunding, and all the rest, we have seen an unprecedented rise in hobbyist filmmaking. And for all those people with day jobs (or independent wealth), who simply want to get an audience to see their story and aren’t really concerned with paying the rent from that story, it is an incredible time. But for those who work full-time in the industry, but not in the studio system or in service production, it’s scary. There’s not a lot of money (and there’s not as much IN the studio system as there used to be either, in many cases). There’s so little money out there that Ted Hope, one of the champions of independent producing, has openly thrown up the white flag. He’ll still make movies, but not for a living. And if the producer isn’t making a living, how do you?

So… what do we do? Is it over? Time to give up on independent feature writing as a career?

Yes and no. There are still people paying for feature writing, but they’re getting harder to find. You need to cast your net wider, get more active in networking (which sadly steals time from writing), and you therefore have to get your B.S. detector working better than ever. The times, they are a-changing, and you need to change with them.

And so do I. I haven’t given up on indie, not entirely, but I am bowing to the reality of it, and I’m starting to write for Hollywood as well. (Don’t get me wrong; I’m not assuming THAT wall will be easy to scale; I’m just accepting that making a living as a professional writer will entail scaling it at some point.) I just finished my latest spec, Needing Time, and it is my first script where I haven’t thought of the target budget. Even when I’ve written the more expensive genres in the past, I was always very conscious of cost, since I knew who I might try to get to buy the script. Now? I’ve got helicopters, car chases, a football stadium… and I love it. It’s been very freeing. I’m not being crazy; it’s still conscious of budget. But there’s more headroom, so when the script demands a helicopter, then I bloody well throw in a helicopter, rather than changing the plot so I don’t need one.

So if you haven’t tried writing for Hollywood, maybe give it a shot. Just bring your A+++ game.

And don’t write a feature for free.

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5 thoughts on “Indievelopment: Scary Times in Independent Filmmaking

  1. Jeff RichardsJeff Richards Post author

    You’re welcome, Clive, and no worries. 🙂 I agree, and as someone who has signed just about as many co-production agreements as writing contracts, I certainly agree as to the opportunities available in self-producing. Of course, this inevitably leads to fragmentation; as you ask writers to stop focusing solely on writing and start to learn producing and financing, you’re going to decrease the overall quality of the writing. It’s just inevitable. Plus, what about those who are great writers but have no interest in finance?

    So I think overall we agree; as a director/writer/producer (I started writing just so I’d have something to direct!), I too feel is a great time in terms of getting a film made. However… how many of these creative hydras can actually make a living at it? Not eke out a student existence at forty. Not make a movie on weekends while they’re holding down day jobs. I mean actually make a pay-the-mortgage, put-money-aside-for-retirement, send-your-kids-to-college living?

    1. Clive Davies-FrayneClive Davies-Frayne

      I totally agree. There isn’t a working, pay-the-mortgage, food-on-the-table business model for writers at the moment. What I do believe, is that the pioneering work we do now will eventually create that business model. However, I don’t expect to see that business model emerge for another five or six years… so, I guess, in the meantime, it does mean day-jobs and a lot of falling on our faces, as we try out new development, production and distribution approaches.
      My gut feeling is that the eventual answer will involve communities of like minded film-makers self-distributing under a common banner or brand… and that it will also see a slimed down production aesthetic, that will see either episodic production (three hours of story told in 20 min lumps) or 90 minutes achieved in seven or fewer shooting days.
      Where I think the current models are failing, is that they are trying to emulate Hollywood stories and business models in indie budgets. The last thing an indiefilm needs to look is cheap, because there is zero market for that kind or product.

      1. Jeff RichardsJeff Richards Post author

        (I should preface this by saying that my article was basically written from the point of view of the writer rather than the filmmaker, so our conversation is worthy of a different article and, in reality, a few books, most likely. 🙂 )

        I agree that episodic is a given, although that currently doesn’t have a revenue model (YouTube makes money on web series, not web series creators, and that doesn’t seem to be likely to change). Will it, in a sustaining fashion? Hard to say.

        Call me old-fashioned, but I do hope the 90-minutes-in-7-days option doesn’t come to fruition. 13 pages a day is going to give a very poor result except for some extremely rare combinations of talent and subject matter. Not to mention we’ve probably unemployed most cinematographers at that point as well. How many set ups can one realistically do if you’re getting 1 minute of screen time per hour? I’m reminded of the fast-cheap-good aphorism and how one can only have two. Sounds like we have fast and cheap, so therefore…

        The collectives are a grand idea, but I’m not sure about the motivation for multiple writer-director-producers to band together. There are many blue-sky pros, but just as many if not more cons.

        As for the industry as a whole, the change has been written on the wall for over a decade, of course. Unfortunately, what many saw as a coming Utopia has instead turned into a bit of a barren desert. Vastly more opportunity, but relatively speaking, none that actually pay, and overall a reduction in creative quality in released product. This is partially due to access, as it’s easier to hear about things than before; if you heard of a short film in 1982, it was probably damn good and not just some random YouTube link. But it’s also due to the fact that, when you had to pay for or source stock and processing, you usually polished a script until it shone. Now, however, some writers/filmmakers approach the script the same way they approach shooting with a “10:1 is fine; it’s digital” mindset, resulting in some very poor results, either due to lack of attention in development or too much speed on set.

        There will probably be some sort of professional video creator career path in the future, but I’m not sure if we’ll be able to call them filmmakers in the same way. (And I’m not talking about stock vs. digital terminology either.) And, again, maybe I’m old-fashioned, but I think that’s a shame.

  2. Clive Davies-FrayneClive Davies-Frayne

    There has never been a better time to make a film. Yeap, I agree with that. The technology has opened the door to lots of new people who previously wouldn’t be able to attempt something as costly as making a film. And yes, people who buy a cheap camera, who intend to edit on their laptop, rarely then go out to find budgets to cover wages. On top of this, the collapse of the DVD market and the instability of VOD has pulled a lot of money out of conventional distribution at the very moment there is a glut of product fighting over it.
    The bottom line… more people wanting to produce, less experience of the business, more noise out there when it comes to selling and a distribution market that is in turmoil.
    The real victim in all this is the traditional business model… and, I’ve been arguing for years that writers who expect to be employees in the modern industry are going to be disappointed. This isn’t the era of the writer as employee, if anything this is the era of the writer/producer. All the disadvantages you’ve stated for a writer looking for wage, are advantages for a writer who is prepared to put time into understanding finance and distribution. In a market where producers/writer/directors are competing… the person coming to that fray with the best writing skills is going to win out in the long run.
    It’s not impossible to make a living out there as a writer in the independent sector, the only thing that’s really disappeared is the writer-for-hire business model.
    As for Hollywood. I hope that works out for you… but, the studios make fewer pictures now than they ever have done and very few of them are from specs. That strikes me as being a harder market to crack than the option I’m suggesting.