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A “Career” In Indie Film? Better Have That Second Job Lined Up…

A "Career" In Indie Film? Better Have That Second Job Lined Up...

I don’t want to discourage anyone to not pursue their dreams. I just want to encourage people to do it in a realistic manner. On the other hand, I also don’t think anyone should live their life dedicated to being safe and secure. We do need to pursue and push for better things. But then again, I also don’t think anyone should be reckless in that pursuit. Cracking the code about trying the impossible (aka a life in the arts) is a back and forth proposition, and success is often based on good timing as much as merit.

If you ask me, pursuing a career in Indie Film these days requires one to have an alternative money stream to pay the bills, and there lies the rub.

Last week I tried to explain to a multi-hyphenate that I admire why I recently found it so hard to read scripts. The fear of falling in love with a new project haunts me. Such passion would lead to reckless behavior if I actually like what I read. To commit to another film means that I will be investing my labor for little financial return (and none for the three years or so it takes to get it up and running). Granted I profit from the films I make, but generally speaking my profit is more spiritual and cultural than the sort that allows me to keep my apartment and not surrender my home to the banks. It’s hard to generate new work when I know what the rewards will be (very low in terms of money). I guess that means I am certified insane — probably just like you — because I can’t help but keep doing it despite knowing that I will get the same return that I have on the other 65+ films that I have produced, and — comparable to the way our world rewards other endeavors — that ain’t much.

Last week, after that discussion, I tweeted: “Frustrating: creating ambitious stories on reasonable budgets that generate wealth for others no longer a viable occupation.” It’s a sad song, perhaps best followed by a round of shots for all around (whiskey that is, not the sorts reserved for enemies). But it is a song that can be sung for a lifetime, even a satisfying one despite the sorrow, and particularly pleasing if we move forward with open eyes. The opportunity to use your labor in service to art that enriches culture and inspires others is a tremendous privilege, even if the price tag is minimal, or even non-existant.

So do film schools teach this? I think we would have more directors, producers, and writers creating more wonderful work, if we understood better how to earn a living doing one thing while we give our heart and mind to something else entirely. What are the jobs that lend themselves to a second profession on the side? How do people gain the skills that allow them to juggle to careers? What would such a practical curriculum look like? Does anyone know of one that has been established? New and old both certainly need it.

Thinking of all the assistants out there now, with dreams of writing, directing, and even producing, I wonder what will happen to them when they start to approach 30 years old. If this is the trade they’ve learned and they have done it for so long, nothing else is any longer an option, they are fucked as their skills and habits don’t readily apply to other endeavors. I will never forget how when we wrapped Hal Hartley’s AMATEUR, a long time friend and co-conspirator of mine came up to me and let me know he had gotten into law school. It totally took me by surprise. He had recently started gaffing and it seemed to me his filmmaking career was taking hold. He replied that indie film is only for the young, and as he was turning 30 and in love, he wanted to have a family, and indie film just wouldn’t support it. He was right.

When one has to choose between their art and having a family, it is clear that art is not a career. When one has spent 25 years quite “successfully” producing indie movies and yet finds the industry more volatile and treacherous than ever before, it is clear that indie film is not a career.

Yet the effort to create ambitious work, to inspire others, and bring people together, to change the world through one’s creations, to challenge the form and the apparatus with ones dreams and actions — what could ever be more crucial or satisfying?

If one can’t support oneself, but one must create, and create challenging and ground breaking work, how can they ever go hand in hand. It goes back to indie film now being a hobby (and not a profession): if you want to create, you best plan on finding a job that will pay the bills first. If only I had…

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Audrey Ewell

It occurs to me that only the rich kids, those who have ridiculous connections, and the warriors will survive. The world is becoming more stratified every day; why should film be any different? As the middle class disappears in the larger economy and society, so too shall it disappear from film. My partner and I struggle every day with the poverty that our decision to be active participants in our culture has brought us.

But what should I do instead? Sacrifice my soul to go work at some awful job? If I even could: Corporate mills want me as much as I want them. I used to work in the music industry. When that ended, I took the time to distribute my film internationally. I’ve been job-hunting for a while, and I was not getting any responses. Then I tried a little experiment. I removed all mention of being an award-winning filmmaker from my resume; I redacted any mention of my film work, of the skills and recognition I have, of the opportunities I’ve created for myself, and pretended that I’d just been doing work for other people. And I started to get calls. Interesting lesson about where we as filmmakers fit into our economy. Or don’t.

So what to do? I think, as you say, we have to develop skills that are in demand, to get jobs that don’t force us to sacrifice our values, but which can allow us to exist as a whole human being who can both pay the bills and make films. If we’re not rich we have to be warriors. We have to fight for what we believe in, and if making great films is what we believe in, then we have to be willing to make horrible, awful sacrifices, and to acknowledge that what we’re making is probably not something that the marketplace or our culture will reward.

We have to accept that we probably will not become rich or successful and that each film will be harder than the last, if we get to make them at all – and most of us won’t. Only the rich and the warriors will survive in film. So if you’re not rich, you have to be a warrior. And you’d better believe in your heart and soul that what you’re doing matters, because you’ll have precious little else to sustain you. If this sounds romantic, forget it. It’s not romantic. It’s horrible, stressful, crushing. It will put us in early graves.

I love this post Ted. It’s a reality that is seldom spoken to.

Jim p

Wow, Ted! You hit the nail on the head with this one.
This is exactly what I’ve been struggling with.
Looking down the barrel of an existence where you won’t be able to provide for you family in a way you’d like, in a way you could easily accomplish in many other less-challenging careers, is a tough pill to swallow.
Not blaming anyone – this was/is my choice – but when I was in film school not one professor ever shared this harsh reality with me. In retrospect, that seems like a serious disservice. Then again, even if they had, I don’t know that it would have made a difference for me.

Mark Abel

Rich kids and warriors may well be the only survivors, but that’s pretty much the end of the medium as a source of knowledge or delight. This state of affairs already goes a long way to explain why we are where we are. Filmmakers with nothing new to tell the world will predominate. They may be rich or they may be ambitious. They’ll only rarely be anything more.

It’s also astonishing to hear Ted say he lives in fear of great screenplays. Find an indie or two of the last 20 years that’s actually “written”, meaning a dense and reverberant text, but not based on a novel or “real events”, and there’s $5 prize.

Shola Lynch

Rather than rant I’ll just exclaim: Preach the gospel, brother!

Bruce Weiss

Ted, you are so right. I remember many years ago when we took Hal Hartley’s fisrt film THE UNBELIEVABLE TRUTH to Sundance……….Johnathan Dana said great words of wdsdom to me that I have alwyas passed down to others. He said “Being an independant film producer is a wonderful career………… long as you don’t have to make a living out of it”

Jonathan Brind

It’s always been tough to be a film maker. Live with it. Truth is that there are now more opportunities to make money in this business than ever before. And the great thing is that the gate keepers who used to insist on old school ties are losing power as the traditional media shrink. Of course luck (being there at the right time) plays a huge part. It always has. But there used to be a time when if you were seeking experience you had to be some kind of industrial slave (if you were lucky). Now equipment is easily accessible and you can just do it.

Jobless McGee

“What are the jobs that lend themselves to a second profession on the side? How do people gain the skills that allow them to juggle to careers? What would such a practical curriculum look like? Does anyone know of one that has been established?”

Will your next post answer your questions? I’d go back into my brain if I wanted to spend more time with these questions. Your words are always appreciated, but they could take a bold and appreciated stab at an answer now and then…

Red Road Films

I’m making an indy film this summer. And then I’ll make another one after that. That’s all I have to say. I guess I’m a warrior, cuz I sure as hell ain’t a rich kid:)

Matthew Brotchie

This might be the idea that changes this problem

Please write a post about this. It might change everything.

Kevin K. Shah

One interesting thing is that even with a second job, the money earned generally goes toward the primary passion — which still leaves Indie Producers with little in their pocket. We still need to ‘take time off’ to make the film, and then more time & money to produce them, and lastly even more time to push them out there. So I’m not sure these two (indie filmmaking and a second job) can complement each other AND put money into savings. In terms of survival, for most of the time, I think we have to pick one or the other — or go back and forth from periods of work to periods of self-reinvestment. I for one would like to pass onto my children more than a handful of beautiful artist films, but alas, that’s all I have for now as I seek out new opportunities and pen the next.


Of course, now, going to law school would be an even dumber way to play it safe.


Another harsh reality:

In the ‘old’ days, audiences paid to see independent films because it was the only way one could experience an alternative to the Big 3 networks and Big Studio products.

Today, between the hundreds of TV channels available, the proliferation of cheap, HD Big Screen monitors, and the billions of choices from the web, the audience willing to shell out $10+ per ticket, plus the gas, concessions, hassles, etc to see a mediocre ‘independent’ film in an actual theater (and, let’s face it, most are mediocre,) barely exists anymore, and it’s shrinking rapidly.

Indy film-making was fun while it lasted… but nothing lasts forever…

Hank Blumenthal

Fine post Ted. Please write part 2. You can’t do independent film part time – not with all the distractions in the world now. It takes too much effort and creative labor. So what are the options? Looking around at my friends in NY and LA it has been a daunting profession even for the ones who have worked consistently. I love Bruce’s Dana quote but this a double bind and its up to Hope for Film to find a meta-answer.

Michael Walker

I’m not really sure where this post is coming from. I’m hitting forty and plenty of my friends – the ones whose dreams maybe didn’t quite work out – have all found work using their skills for paid work. They work for Hollywood, or television, or commercials, or even for internet companies making video content. I would say that the job market for creative, experienced film people is bigger now than it was in 1989 when I graduated.

The other part of this equation that is easy to overlook is the part about how much money you need to live. There’s millions of people in this world who raise families with less money than anyone who’s reading this blog. So, you don’t get a pool or a house in the country. You don’t get the three floor duplex. You have to live small.

Look at some of the things that people in our society feel are necessary expenses: things like health insurance (the biggest “must-have” expense along with cable TV and internet connection – you know, the one that bankrupts you so that you don’t get bankrupt if you hurt yourself.) Most people don’t have it – as W. said, we have health insurance already, go to the ER. It’s not fun being poor, but it’s more fun doing what you love and making less money than it is working a soul-less job that you can’t stand and making anything.

Jason Brubaker


I know a guy who directed over 20 features and invested his money in real estate – He now owns several properties. This is how he sustains himself between projects.

Many of my other filmmaking friends work within the industry – and later dump the money into their own indie projects. I don’t think this is a bad way to go, as it means you can still pay your bills – and you can still create the projects you want to create.

From my POV, some people start small businesses. Some people buy dune buggies. And some people make movies.

Jason Brubaker


Yes it’s hard, we’ve all heard this before. So let’s talk about solutions!

Who’s making it work? How have they done it? What day job can I actually do that wont use up all my time, energy and soul so that I may be able to make my films on the side?

Why don’t these film organizations who proclaim to support independent filmmakers create solutions to help film artists make a living while continuing to create?

I think we should try to sell the President on a National Film Program which will invest in a slate of films with real budgets made only by independent filmmakers. Then they could give tax breaks to theaters who make a place for them. It could be another income stream to help our deficit! Or not…

Marty Lang

I love this post, Ted. So much, in fact, I dedicated my first feature film to exactly this question: do you live to work, or work to live? Is there a balance? Since I’ve gotten out of film school, I’ve found that periods of creative work, followed by periods of self-reinvestment, tend to work out well: I produced three indie films over a few years, then got a “real job” producing training videos for an engineering company for two years, and replenished my bank account. Flush with cash, I was promptly laid off, which allowed me to seamlessly transition into making my latest movie.
I think the reality of our current employment situation in this country will lead to more filmmakers utilizing this model. There’s no such thing as a guaranteed full-time job anymore, so more and more people are becoming consultants, freelancers, etc. If you’re lucky enough to find a job for a block of time, you can hoard the money you make in that time. Then, when the inevitable axe falls and you lose that job (either by layoff, or end of contract), you have the flexibility to get back into filmmaking.
Is this outlook depressing? I could see if someone thought that way. But it’d be more depressing, for me, not being able to make movies. I’m not married (by choice), don’t have kids (by choice), and the only things I buy, outside of rent, insurance and an iPhone, are screenwriting magazines.
I want to make movies. So I’ll make the sacrifices.


It’s nice to hear someone tell the truth for a change instead of all the hype they serve us in this industry. More power to you Ted!

Dan McGuire

I love this post too, Ted. Very heartfelt.

The answer, though, is simple.

Marry money.


James Boyd

Great post, Ted! Thanks for giving the straight skinny on this “profession.” I’ve always felt it’s a calling, more than a career. Now, off to my career at Taco Bell, while I plot my next script on my iPhone.


This was one of the motivations to move toward merging my movie stuff with my software stuff. There’s are more and more opportunities to merge those two things, and I have skills in both. So rather than using software as my day job, I started looking for opportunities to use software in storytelling as well.

Himanshu Vora

I’m going through a similar thing. I can totally relate to this. But as said, only the rich and the warriors will survive. Keep at it.

Great post Ted. I was at a film school abroad, when am from a country and a struggling family, I realized it was a huge step. I am still struggling to get my first indie movie started.

I wrote a book about this. Green Waters and Blue Lands

Steve Lustgarten

After getting screwed by foreign distrib on my second feature I started my own domestic distribution company with the notion of having a channel for my films. 15 years later, the distribution company had thrived and I had yet to make another film. I recently moved from LA to the midwest to cut expenses and give filmmaking another shot where locations are not $2k a day for a house. The first problem I ran into is – guess what – people work here. I mean they get up, have coffee, get in their car and go to a job. In 20 years in LA I didn’t know anyone like that. I get it now. People here make films in their spare time, at nights, on weekends, whenever. So you not only have to find your own time to work on projects, you also have to synchronize with the available time of freebie crew, cast, locations, weather and the like. This isn’t a recipe for great cinema and the vast majority of “films” being made are unwatchable by anyone not intimately involved in their production. So I welcome the time when not being a director is cool. .. First, we kill all the filmmakers.

David Branin


Less than a year ago, at the LAFF (DIY)stribution Symposium, you spoke of the Rise of the Middle Class Filmmaker. In your estimation, are we moving nearer to that reality or further from it?

Karen Worden

Awesome post, Ted! Thank you for sharing it with us. Yes, reality calls on a daily basis, especially when the alarm sounds and we are off to a job that kills us a little more each day. Can we afford not to make films and be creative? Do we spend a life cubicle dwelling and longing for something else, or do we risk spending our precious resources (time, money, self-esteem, energy) on what fulfills us, despite never knowing the pay off? We never know when our number is up. Back-up plans are good. Survivors and winners count on them. In addition to a back-up plan, living a life that fulfills us is even better if we can be at peace with the chance that things may not go as planned and we will still be better for it despite a drained bank account and bruised ego.

I agree with Michael Walker’s response of “It’s not fun being poor, but it’s more fun doing what you love and making less money than it is working a soul-less job that you can’t stand and making anything.” The world would be a better place if we all thought this way.

Thank you again for your wise words.

The Sujewa

“I am in the world only for the purpose of composing.”

– Shubert

The Sujewa

And here’s most of the rest of my thoughts re: this topic:

Indie film, for the most part, is art film people. Anything art will always require financial support from sources other than revenue generated by the selling of the said art (there are some exceptions to this view from time to time, of course).

But, on the other hand, it is only a short walk from art film to entertainment/most Hollywood type filmmaking – so, make a genre film every once in a while, distribute it, & see if u can pay some bills with the $s gained.

Anyway, everyone dies eventually, so might as well spend your time on Earth doing something that you love or at least enjoy a lot. So, if indie filmmaking is your choice for that, then enjoy it, & if you gotta have some day jobs in order to make it happen, then enjoy that part of being an indie filmmaker also.


As far as other kind of work that indie filmmakers may be good at/can perform to earn $s:

1 – selling (selling is a big part of pretty much all modern industries, so, lots of work opportunities there)

2 – anything that requires a lot of work (indie filmmakers are no strangers to hard work)

3 – teaching

4 – writing books (if you have experience writing scripts, then writing a book may not be very difficult for you)

5 – publicity


Other ways to enjoy the life choice you’ve made – to be an indie filmmaker (who might have to work a lot in other types of jobs to make a movie every few years, if u r lucky):

1 – move to NYC, there’s a whole lot going on here, it’ll keep you from getting bored while you get the cash together to make that next movie

– other big cities may work for this purpose also, but
NYC reflects modern indie film so much (by modern i mean post 1984 or so) that walking around here is like
being in a museum for indie film – many things I see here remind me of one indie movie or another.

2 – find a worthwhile cause other than indie filmmaking & make it your rewarding, refreshing hobby – like helping the poor (the real poor, not indie filmmaker poverty :), bringing about peace, etc.

3 – Good relationships, good family life or community life – find people that you connect well with, & hanging out w/ them will probably help you feel better about the life you live.

– Sujewa

Craig Serling

Try editing reality television – its one of the highest post jobs out there and albeit the bottom of the food chain in the “industry” it helps keep your story telling skills in check. Also, you can punch in and out at 4 week intervals to pursue your reckless artistic passions.

Dorian Cole

The distribution model is evolving. No false hope – it’s a difficult business – but the opportunities for market driven streaming movies may be coming of age.

Jeannette Heindel

One of my favorites on the subject:

“Independent film is in my sinews, close to the bones. It doesn’t ease up and ask for a chair, it slaps me in the face and says, ‘I’m here homey. Deal with it.’ And the threat is real. Don’t limp into the arena. There will be no on-set masseuse to work out your knots. It’s the dance partner who kicks you in the shins as you samba against the clock, your reputation hanging in the balance, judges’ hands precariously poised over the ballot called ‘ticket sales.’ And somewhere in this bargain basement pas de duex, you realize you asked for this–prayed, in fact, for the opportunity to be scared, be humbled, be present, be threatened, be alive. Independent film will always be the most relevant because it is the most personal, and fleshing out the artist’s vision continues to be nearest and dearest to my heart.” –Don Cheadle

My personal take on it:

Thinking about it this morning. Pros: going to Railroad Revival last night for free b/c producer is friend, two hour lunch on patio of Shady Grove today, seeing my name in credits of films that make a difference/have an impact, the people, oh my goodness the people, absolute privilege of sharing in creative process, abundance of return on investment (often not in dollars) . . . Cons: inconsistent cash flow. For me, pros far outweigh cons and the money is on its way. I just don’t always get to know from where or when the money will arrive. Today, seems like a small sacrifice.

Jonathan Poritsky

Great points, Ted! I piggybacked on this to explore where film education is headed. You hit it on the head that they should teach students how to survive while maintaining a career in the arts. It’s tough, and it won’t get easier.

The Value of Film Education Today

Pramod Mathur

Well said Ted.
Film making through 60s till the 90s was a profession people chose to be in. It provided opportunity for creativity, self expression and moderate living expenses…even enough to bring up a family. We were all happy with that. Lately, it has become business. Unless one has business acumen…survival is near impossible. That means, one needs to learn to know the value of money. Creativity has taken a back seat…or should I say, it comes after one has secured the money part for survival.

It was possible because back in those days one learnt film making the hard way as an apprentice…learnt the technique and the grammar of cinema with humility. One respected the teacher and the art and took years before claiming he or she is a film maker. It took even longer to be able to earn a decent living through independent film making. It was hard life and we all respected each other and worked even harder to do better each day.

Things have changed however. Since the technology has been simplified anyone who can afford a little camera presumes he or she is a film maker without even learning the basics…hundreds of formal schools have mushroomed exploiting the young vulnerable…without teaching the business part of being an indie.

For me it has been a hard and a very disciplined life to survive as an independent for 40 years. Not easy to bring up a family, send children to decent schools, updating technology every few years and above all dig in to keep the space that I created for myself. It indeed has been very tiring…but I have been an optimist and have tried to change with the time and technology.

As I said, times have changed and the young creative film makers of today need to first financially secure their lives, have a family and then try to find creative expression within this very important ART form.

I firmly believe that commerce can’t kill creativity…it shall survive but the young independent film makers need to evolve with these commercial times and understand the reality with humility.

Pramod Mathur

Jon Jost

A little late – popped up in my blog list of hits today.
So, from an experienced “indie” (the tag has gone thru 4 or 5 mutations in my filmmaking life; it’s like fashion, gotta change every few years – underground/experimental/New American Cinema/Expanded Cinema/American Independent/ etc etc) who began in 1963 I will testify it ain’t no way to make a living. I arrived 4 years ago at 64, virtually empty pockets, no insurance/pension/etc., and my once modest “fame” having exceeded its shelf life, and offered a job I magically became a professor, and after 4 years quit (they wanted me to stay) hopefully having stashed enough savings to last a while in some 3rd world refuge – wouldn’t last 10 yrs in Europe or USA, living as frugal as possible.

I only recommend such a life to those who understand it is not about glamor, striking it rich, or anything like that. It is a need/drive to try to make something like art (which doesn’t include, sorry, almost 80-90% of so-called “indie” film). If you have that practical things like “a living” vanish and you manage, one way or another. The “rich kid” variant seldom have much to say of validity owing to the narrowness of their life experiences coupled with the usual false consciousness of that experience. Lies don’t make good art.

Just a little word from experience.


As an independent filmmaker in what – to most people who will have read this blog, is a foreign country – I can tell you that things in South Africa are much the same as anywhere else in the world. We do have some advantages over other filmmakers here. We generally have a better (read: cheaper) pricing structure, making it reasonably cost effective to shoot a foreign-financed film here. We also have interesting and varied landscape, architecture and population, so we find the lion’s share of our income in the industry is from foreign investors who bring their movies to us to service, despite the fact that the movies are almost universally set back in their home countries. We also have a burgeoning South African film industry, and we are making a name for ourselves with our own home-grown directors – Gavin Hood (heard of him?) and movies – Tsotsi, District 9, etc. Despite the fact that our industry is small and relatively young, we have huge amounts of talent and experience.

Having said all that, where does independent filmmaking come into the equation? I personally have worked on more than 75 productions locally, everything from PSAs, student films and short films, to commercials, television series and movies, and full-length internationally famous features. Recently we shot the World War II short film The Fallen, South Africa’s only finalist in the International One Minute Film Festival. And I was one of a small group of like-minded people who identified a niche in the local film industry that was crying out to be filled. So, as we say here in South Africa, we made a plan. I became one of the founding members of the South African Indie Films filmmaker’s collective, and we have an almost continuous stream of small-scale, zero-to-low budget independent films on the slate. None of us make money off the films, because we do it for the love of film and because we all have stories we want to tell. 99% of the people who work on our films are gifted amateurs with some experience, or are people who work professionally in the industry, but are either “between employments”, working in their spare time, or are looking for portfolio material and experience during the off-season. And we realised that we found a gaping hole in the local film industry into which we seem to have slotted nicely. We’re based in Cape Town, but we have affiliations with like-minded filmmakers in Johannesburg and Port Elizabeth, and even in Namibia. When we started a SAIF Facebook group, we had acquired 150 members within 24 hours. A year later we have 600+ members and more every day. We’ve been approached by people from afar afield as the UK and Europe to read scripts, help find finance for their films, help them get their films made.

So that seems to be a workable solution. Find people who are like-minded, who have the same passion for film, the same drive to create and tell stories, and collaborate with them. Organise collectives and informal groups, meet over the weekends, club together for equipment and transport, utilise student filmmakers and actors who are keen to get involved – there never seems to be a shortage of available actors – and get out there and make films. If nothing else, for the people who have a real passion and want to make this a career, the experience will help in the future. And working with a group of other people on an informal basis helps to share costs and the logistical problems become much easier to deal with as experience increases. The down side is that if you’re not paying someone a salary, it’s hard to hold them to their commitments, but you find in the long haul that the people who are not really committed drop out and you’re left with a central core of people who are prepared to work hard with you to achieve the dream. There’s nothing more inspiring than working on a project with other passionate, creative people. It’s a drug that you’ll find you just can’t get enough of.

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