The Cost of Filmmaking

I talk about the industrial aspect of filmmaking a lot in this space, and I thought it might be worthwhile to share a real-life, first-person example of how the economics work, or don’t.

I noticed recently that it’s been a long time since I made a classical narrative film – which is really what I was trained to do, at USC, and how I continued to work through most of my 20s. I teach things like storyboarding to my students, and since my last “traditional” narrative effort was probably in 2006, I was concerned that I was getting rusty, and also that those decade-old work samples maybe aren’t as impressive as they once were on grant applications.

So, along with my longtime producing partner Dain, I set out to make the simplest possible narrative film – the simplest thing I could conceive of that would still be visually interesting and dramatically compelling. What I came up with was a five page script with minimal dialogue, only four characters, that takes place in only two, isolated, controlled locations (no bar scenes or public parks).

We were able to get our hands on both a nice camera and a substantial lighting package for free, and we planned to shoot in three days, paying everyone on the tiny crew (except ourselves) an extremely modest $100/day. To give you a little context, a very-cheap independent feature film often shoots six pages per day (a 100-page screenplay in 18 days, roughly), whereas a large studio action film might budget for a page per day to take into account complex scenes with lots of shots, lots of extras or effects. Perhaps we could have done the whole thing in a day or two, but we wanted to leave a little time for actual creativity and art-making to take place, rather than merely rushing through and checking shots off a list.

Since these are all professionals – actors as well as crew people – I didn’t feel comfortable asking them to work for free, as I may have in my early 20s. $100 for an eight-hour day, before taxes, is only a little bit more than minimum wage, for highly skilled and specialized labor. The tiny crew included two people working with lights, somebody recording sound, somebody helping out with props and costumes – nothing extravagant at all. And there would be some money for insurance, and to feed everyone.

All of this very quickly added up, to my surprise, to a number approaching $5000. I’m pretty responsible with my income but I don’t make a lot, as an artist, videographer, and grad student. And $5000, while cheap for a movie budget, is also a sum that is approaching a semester’s tuition at the U, or a nice used car, or more than six months of my mortgage (I have a cheap house).

It took me back to my teenage years, seeing Clerks in the theater and hearing the heroic story of how they paid for the movie by maxing out a few credit cards. How horrifying, in my mid-thirties, to imagine this scenario, and think about the thousands of filmmakers who followed this model and weren’t romantically rescued by Miramax for a happy ending.

I’ve written a lot about sustainable cinema over the years, and this experience really drove home, for me, the fact that independent filmmaking, in the traditional, classical, professional model, simply isn’t today, and never really was, a sustainable practice.

Because no matter how good it is, you can’t sell a short film, and you really can’t sell a feature, either, for that matter. Whether it’s $5000 or half a million, that money isn’t coming back, certainly not via Netflix and Amazon Prime. The main reason to make an independent film is to prove that you can, to show your chops, to get noticed at film festivals, to get written about, to get an agent. The film will maybe get you hired to make a commercial or direct an episode of a tv show. It may be possible to parlay into some development money for another project, with private investors or for a studio. But it absolutely seems to be a sunk cost, resources expended to “get some skin in the game,” so to speak.

Even directly after film school, in 2002, in LA, peers of mine were spending $25,000, or $50,000, or maybe more, on a slick short film that would get them in the doors of agencies to have conversations about the future. I don’t know where that money came from – a lot of it was probably debt – but it’s not like this is a new quirk of the system or something. It acts as a sort of entry fee (and of course you have to be talented as well) – “can you direct?” is one question, but “can you muster the resources?” is an equally important question, if not moreso: “how serious are you?”

And if that’s the question, my personal answer is, apparently: “not serious enough.” Which is maybe reason enough for the people asking that kind of question to dismiss me, and what I have to say on the subject. So be it. Apparently I don’t want badly enough to find my way into that system, to prove myself, to cross that particular threshold.

When I think about $5000, I think about five different projects that I can make, over the course of the next 3-5 years, each of which will be satisfying and beautiful in its own way, with the added advantage of being something I can actually afford, with my current lifestyle, on my current schedule, which includes many hours spent in coffeeshops thinking, reading, writing and discussing ideas. Perhaps a $5000 one-time investment would leverage me up to bigger projects, people willing to “invest” in my work, and things would grow and accelerate, and I would become a professional independent filmmaker – whatever that is. More likely, best-case scenario, I would be invited to take on some directing gigs – my employment situation would shift somewhat, from video producer toward commercial director, for example. But work would still be work, and art would still be art. People tend to want their art to pay their bills, without the corresponding concern that making art might start to feel like work.

But it seems that I’m not a believer in that particular faith, anyway. Perhaps I would buy in if I could cite examples of that approach working without ever larger risks and stresses, ever greater hustle and greater hustlers… but I can’t. When I look at the people I know who are making it in the system – and I do know some – their particular grind seems exhausting to me – exhausting in the sense of “to use up completely, until there is none left.” It’s one thing to be creative, and another to be persuasively, charmingly creative on cue, 70 hours per week.

I decided to put off the $5000 project, to see if I can get a grant to make that film, so that I can pay everyone involved better, and our collective professional efforts can be underwritten by a major foundation. The Jerome Foundation has been good to me in the past, named for Jerome Hill, son of James J. Hill, railroad tycoon. Some tiny fraction of the interest on his accumulated fortune goes toward art and artists, for which I’m deeply grateful. But that funding did not come from the making and selling of art – heavens no. That’s railroad money.

If I wanted to be in business, I’d turn my attention towards steel, or railroads, or apps, or whatever people are buying and selling by the millions these days. The business of mainstream movies perhaps still makes sense on a global scale, with millions of people lining up to see superheroes vanquish evil. But alas, I’m interested in art, and there’s really no money in it, as far as I can tell. Good thing I can make something that I think is meaningful and beautiful for $1000 (or less) – otherwise I’d be awfully frustrated.

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