For those of us working with limited means, this is undoubtedly the best time in the history of American cinema to be making movies. Ideas are being tested and new aesthetics developed by filmmakers with no money using inexpensive equipment. Movies made for a few thousand dollars can be streamed instantly all around the world. Crowdfunding platforms and social media have made building an audience possible without a publicity team or millions of dollars.
But if the Golden Age of cinema has arrived, why do those of us with the most to gain—the newly-equipped army of no-budget independents—spend so much of our time and energy endlessly caterwauling like so many Sad Sacks? When our Kickstarter campaigns don’t reach their goals, we bemoan the Zach Braffs of the world for stealing the money that we feel we so righteously deserve. We whine that our quirky dramedies about navigating the pitfalls of life post-grad school don’t seduce the masses to shill out $4.99 to rent them on iTunes.
The creation of anything—whether a work of art or a child or a product—is a calling, and the responsibility of this calling shouldn’t be taken lightly. The creation of a movie isn’t just a calling but a privilege that only the circumstances of history and chance have given to any filmmaker. Making a movie should be an act of love and the defining characteristic of a filmmaker—even at her most caustic, critical, or pessimistic—should be a generosity of spirit. But instead the defining characteristics of most filmmakers are arrogance and entitlement. Arrogance may be unavoidable (the meek may inherit the earth, but it takes a big head to make movies), but this sense of entitlement is a symptom that must be rooted out and eliminated.
Being as much a part of this problem as anyone, I’ll illustrate with my own example. When Matt Latham asked me to co-write and produce his feature “You Are Your Body / You Are Not Your Body,” we had the same high ambitions and expectations that it takes most filmmakers to get a project off the ground. We had a beautiful cast of enthusiastic actors, better locations than we ever could have anticipated and a story unlike any we’d quite seen before. The approach at every step was more intensely collaborative than I’d ever experienced, lending the production a sense of meaning and purpose that was unique and worth whatever ass-aches it caused along the way. At numerous points throughout shooting we experienced those ecstatic alignments of skill and chance that can make productions feel blessed with a magical significance that’s typically reserved for mystics and manic episodes.
But of course the other shoe eventually had to drop. The entire production was covered out-of-pocket and we went into a fair amount of debt. despite extraordinary stress and effort, a crowdfunding effort after we wrapped was only moderately successful. Post-production took longer than anticipated, money ran out, and the whole endeavor went from being a joy to a burden.
As the cut took its final form, we realized that it wasn’t the type of movie that was going to get into any of the major festivals. Having relatively few credits behind us, we couldn’t expect to have much interest based on our previous work. The movie we’d spent two years making seemed doomed to die without the support of some existing cinematic institution to breathe life into it. We concluded that we would be alone in championing our movie—a realization that can be incredibly lonely and despairing.
Through all of this increasing negativity, though, Matt and I have done our best to remain clear-headed and meet the challenge head-on. We always knew that our movie was strange and that marketing it would be difficult. The biggest challenge has been to flip our own expectations. Why do we—or any independent filmmakers—feel that we deserve an audience?
Filmmaking is difficult, incredibly stressful work, and one can easily feel entitled to being rewarded for that work. Just because we’re clever enough to get a movie made with very limited means doesn’t entitle us to anyone’s interest or support. We forget that, in a sea of superhero movies and franchise reboots, we’re not a magical unicorn destined to save cinema. In reality, most of us are magical unicorns destined to drown in a sea of magical unicorns. We aren’t special, we’re just lucky—lucky that we happen to live in a time when people with no connections or influence can make movies and share them with the world.
We live in a cultural environment of ubiquitous commercialism and Hollywood exists as a source of constant comparison. But this comparison isn’t accurate or fair. Hollywood is a machine designed to create cinematic products for mass consumption. It’s a very good machine and it often makes very entertaining movies. But those of us who aren’t part of that machine are playing an entirely different game. We’re working on an economy of empathy with ambitions of genuine connectivity. We want to give a part of ourselves to the world in the hopes that the world will find it pleasurable or somehow useful. Our movies aren’t designed to appeal to the largest possible audience. Instead, we search ourselves and try to capture something uniquely true and beautiful that couldn’t exist without us. We do this in the good faith (but with no guarantee) that eventually our work will find the right audience to appreciate it.
It’s for these reasons that Matt and I decided to embrace the idea of giving our movies away for free. We’ve re-prioritized and placed the respect and appreciation of our potential audiences at the top of our values. We’ve recently launched a website for our nonprofit production company www.interestingproductions.org where “You Are Your Body / You Are Not Your Body” is currently available, for free, to anyone who would like to take a chance on us by investing the necessary 93 minutes to watch it. We’re also releasing a short documentary, a webseries this summer and two more documentaries before the end of the year. We don’t know where this experiment in good will is going to take us, but if American cinema is entering a Golden Age, we want to embrace it and do our part to help push it forward.
If your aspirations are to succeed as a commercial filmmaker, then by all means pursue a commercial course of action. But if you want to make movies that will connect with people in a more idiosyncratic way, then a greater focus should be placed on fostering a spirit of goodwill and getting your movie seen by as many people as possible. Making your movie available for free shouldn’t be seen as a concession of failure, but a powerful and pragmatic gesture toward the emerging non-commercial modes of creative cultural production and the economy of empathic exchange.
Below is the trailer for “You Are Your Body / You Are Not Your Body”:
Nick Toti earned his MA in English from Truman State University in 2010 and has been making movies in Austin, Texas ever since. His work is available at www.interestingproductions.org.