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How Do You Make a Living as an Independent Filmmaker? It’s Not Easy

How Do You Make a Living as an Independent Filmmaker? It's Not Easy

Thanks to the relative affordability of filmmaking technology and the ability to raise funds via crowdfunding and other platforms, it may be easier than ever to make a movie, but is it harder to make money at it? Indiewire reached out to independent filmmakers to ask: is it possible to make a sustainable career as an independent filmmaker in the current economic and artistic climate?

We’ve compiled some of their responses below:

Josephine Decker, actress/editor/director (“Thou Wast Mild and Lovely,” “Butter on the Latch”):

It is a very exciting time to be a filmmaker because we have this endless possibility at our fingertips. A person can make pigs fly very cheaply these days….

Being an independent filmmaker was never a great way to make a living, and that hasn’t changed, but the skills that you gain from pursuing your own vision can lead to a lot of opportunities. Because of my two features, which may or may not make me money, I learned in a profound way how to see a story through from beginning to end, how to tell a gripping story, how to edit, how to oversee a crew, how to work with actors and how to spread the word about a project. Currently, I am prepping a big media campaign with a national non-profit, am pitching a web series, just got a Kickstarter funded to make a dream film and am pursuing my next feature with a lot more ammunition in my giant balloon playpen. So — I would say: Do I have a lot of money right now? No. But — if it’s possible to balance your own projects with some paid work (and technical skills of filmmaking are something people will pay for), then making your own features is a great way to invest in a future in which you DO get paid to do cool shit.

And also, honestly, I love making films for no money. We live in a culture of film as a business. I don’t know if transcendent artists generally emerge from a commercial model. To be a great artist, you have to be willing to take risks and to do things that no one would ever pay you for — at first. I am happy to be living a spiritually rich life in which filmmaking is a gigantic pleasure. And of course, this pleasure would be more pleasurable and less stressful with money at the table, but maybe writing all this is making me realize I am a little bit terrified of having actual money invested in my projects because I worry it will distort my vision and the very deep thing I am aiming for when I get actors in a room and start improvising.

READ MORE: Who Needs Theatrical? Here’s Why Hal Hartley is Distributing “Ned Rifle” Via Vimeo On Demand

Chip Hourihan, producer/director (“Mind the Gap,” “Frozen River,” “Amateur”):

I mentor a lot of filmmakers and for their first project, everybody has all their friends who want to make a name for themselves work for free for long hours and bad food. Some of those films turn out to be great and some of them turn out to be terrible. Some of them are plagued by technical problems because they didn’t have the expertise. The trouble is with the second film – there isn’t this simple source of funding. Back in the day, you could make your indie film, it would do well at Sundance and you’d be offered a $3 million picture by a distributor. They’d acquire your film and they’d make your next film. If it did better than $9 million, you’d be given a $10 million. There was this idea that there was a system at the time and now there isn’t a system. Everyone seems to be scrambling.

Laura Heberton, producer (“Thou Wast Mild and Lovely,” “Gayby”):

I think it has always been hard for artists to support themselves through their work and today is no different than before. What new technologies and new platforms have done is given people access to filmmaking tools and to audiences but how to manage that properly in order to sustain a career remains as daunting as ever. So, no, I don’t think it is any easier now. Almost all directors and writers working in the low-budget sphere actually cannot sustain a career doing nothing but filmmaking. They have to teach (if they are lucky enough to get an adjunct position), wait tables, be a barista, etc. Do you know how many critically-acclaimed filmmakers are truly struggling to get by, and how many have a hard time getting work making commercials–the closet thing to filmmaking as a day job? I would say the majority of them. And that deeply upsets me. It definitely upsets them even more.

Yes, the technology is cheaper and yes we can raise funds those crowdfunding, but what we really need for filmmakers to be able to make this a via career is far great funding for the filmmaking arts. So many of the strongest films to be released this year had support for truly incredible organizations like the San Francisco Film Society, Tribeca Film Society, IFP, Chicken & Egg, the Sloan Foundation as well as non-filmmaking specific organizations like Yaddo and Macdowell to name a number of them. But there are only a few and we all fight each other for these grants and fellowships. I am on a task force of the Provincetown Film Society and we are creating an Institute there to help provide space and time for filmmakers. I believe the sooner we all acknowledge the important contribution the art of filmmaking offers society, the better, and I would call on more organizations to consider ways to help this most vibrant of art forms.

A sustainable career in filmmaking is greatly aided–if not, quite frankly, made possible–by philanthropy. We can have all the new gadgets and new platforms we want–but truly ground-breaking, disruptive art requires at least some form of unfettered aid. Let’s have some advances in film art funding to keep up with all the other breakthroughs and then see what astonishing work hits our screens.

Hal Hartley, director (“Ned Rifle,” “Henry Fool,” “Flirt”):

It’s always going to be challenge. It really comes down to the kind of movies you want to make. It wouldn’t be so challenging if all you wanted to make was mainstream films. My films aren’t mainstream, but they’re also not obscure art films.

I’m shocked to see examples of younger people who are virtually unknown who are able to make money for themselves by making a short and putting it up on YouTube. There are people making money off of making videos, even short little things they put on the internet and charge money for them to see.

The thing about the sustainability of being an art filmmaker. Can you be a filmmaker who is not a mainstream producer/manufacturer of anticipated product for a known marketplace? Can you make a living at it? I’ve been managing for 30 years – which is kind of a shock sometimes to think about it. There are highs and lows. There are good years and there are bad years. At this stage, I’d like something to be a little more consistent.

Robert Machoian, director (“Forty Years from Yesterday,” “American Nobody”):

So how do you have a sustainable career as a filmmaker? Well, you have to think long-term now. Like you need to give yourselves 10 years in the business to see if you can make a profit. I think it’s there, I do. I do think at some point the films I make, and the team I am working with, we will make a profit. But when I look back on so many of the filmmakers like George Lucas, Steven Spielberg, Francis Ford Coppola, Jim Jarmusch, I ask myself ‘could they exist in the world of filmmaking that we have now?’ Like if they were 20 right now, would the grow into who they are now 40 years from now? I have seen some of their short films, and a big part of me says ‘no way in Hell.’

I personally feel like though the technology is here now, what you need to produce as a filmmaker to make it in the industry is a lot higher quality of films. I love “The Brothers McMullen,” I really do, but would that film win Sundance today? I’d bet money on NO. Can you get your film into Sundance today and walk away with no deals and nothing on the table for the next thing you want to make? Yes. 

The landscape has changed, and just like big film sales are becoming more rare at Sundance, so are filmmakers coming out of Sundance and getting attached to huge films. The filmmakers I do see come out of Sundance and strike big deals are already way into the process, and Sundance or another festival just push it along a little more.

I wonder if something like “Clerks” would get the attention it did in today’s climate.

READ MORE: Making a Living as a Documentary Filmmaker is Harder Than Ever. Here’s Why.

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