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How Can Middle-Class Filmmakers Make a Living?

How Can Middle-Class Filmmakers Make a Living?

The income disparity in this country, which is the worst it’s been since 1928, mirrors the current budget disparity between studio films and independent films. While the former has been recognized publicly as an epidemic, the latter has reached epidemic proportions; however, it’s an issue that has been largely, if not entirely, ignored by those inside and outside of Hollywood. While the middle class in our society has disappeared, so has the middle class in the world of filmmaking.

READ MORE: 15 Tips On Making Your First Micro-Budget Feature

There have been those who have alluded to the effect of such a disparity. Dustin Hoffman recently said in an interview that “It’s the worst that film has ever been—in the 50 years that I’ve been doing it, it’s the worst.” Oddly, though, he was largely dismissed, critics suggesting his complaint was more about not getting the same roles he used to get. He’s older, of course, and won’t be getting offers to play the lead in whatever the next “Graduate”-esque film will be.

I have to believe Hoffman is fully aware of his age and where, as an actor, he fits into a movie’s milieu. When he refers to film being the worst it’s ever been, he’s referring to it as a business; specifically, a business that’s eclipsing the art, originality and storytelling that used to be (and should be) the core of what movies are.

In a no-nonsense interview with MSNBC’s Lawrence O’Donnell, Variety’s editor Peter Bart said, “It’s impossible to get an independent picture made at a major studio. The major studios want tentpole pictures that appeal to an international box office. 70 percent of that audience is overseas.” Furthermore, his advice for indie filmmakers: “Find yourself a billionaire who would prefer to own a movie rather than owning a politician, because it’s come to that.”

The sheer fact of it is: if you’re a member of the middle class of filmmaking, it’s nearly impossible to make a living. At least, currently. So, where’s the voice, or voices, of our collective struggle, fighting for our rights to make a living? Where’s our industry’s Bernie Sanders? There is no one because the one percent of Hollywood is making far too much money producing a limited amount of products that sell to the broadest spectrum of people.

Lawrence O’Donnell said, “The success of ‘Jurassic World’ may mean that movie studios have never valued original material less as they do now.” Why would they, when box office numbers are that good? In the 1970’s, their mindset was altogether different. Sequels were considered creative cesspools. Screenwriter William Goldman referred to sequels as “whores’ movies.” Now, sequels are the status quo—they’re the norm—while original movies have become anomalies. The money is in franchises, which is, perhaps, why TV is thriving. Television shows are mini-franchises. They provide a seemingly endless well of material from which to bucket into viewers’ homes season after season.

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

While the industry’s current rubric may be financially successful, we must ask ourselves, what’s the cost in the long run? Paintings are bought and preserved in museums, literature is awarded the Nobel Prize, and landmark buildings are protected by law and often renovated with taxpayer dollars. What’s protecting the integrity of movies, if the system from which they’re being produced values financial reward above all else? Are movies simply a pop cultural fad? Are they simply a product? I don’t think so, and if you’ve ever been affected by a movie, you don’t think so either. We quote movies, we reenact movies, and compare movies to our own lives on a regular basis—much more often than we compare our lives to paintings, literature or architecture. Movies are weaved into the fabric of our cultural landscape so intricately, that to remove its thread threatens to unravel our entire culture.

America is a country that prides itself on industry and innovation in industry. While Hollywood remains one of the country’s biggest industries, it has ceased to be a leader in innovation. In fact, the current business model is one that stymies innovation, and innovation in this business is originality; it’s storytelling, not special effects or computer-generated spectacles. The bells and whistles that mask as innovation are only as innovative as the stories themselves. Everything must serve the story; it’s that plain, it’s that simple. The problem is, there’s a dollar and a cent to be made by telling the same story, in the same way, again and again—all Hollywood has to do is switch up the actors and wrap it in a nice, new shiny package.

Martin Scorsese, arguably the closest thing to a populist leader in the film world, has said: “We can’t afford to let ourselves be guided by contemporary cultural standards—particularly now. There was a time when the average person wasn’t even aware of box office grosses. But since the 1980s, it’s become a kind of sport—and really, a form of judgment. It culturally trivializes film.” The cost to the public seems obvious: we’re being deprived of good, unique and meaningful visual storytelling. But what’s the cost to the industry itself?
If there’s no middle ground in the business—if it’s just movies made for hundreds of millions and movies made for hundreds of dollars—how do filmmakers grow in the industry? While I am not privy to the behind-the-scenes details of the latest “Fantastic Four” movie, there was a very public kerfuffle between filmmaker, Josh Trank, and studio [20th Century fox], which may have led to the filmmaker’s removal from a future “Star Wars” franchise film. Prior to helming these multimillion-dollar epics, he made a relatively small movie called “Chronicle.”

The current model of professional filmmaking no longer provides a bridge from microbudgets to megabudgets; there is no longer a training ground for filmmakers to cut their teeth. To direct a studio film, you either have to already be among the A-List go-to directors who have made those films, or direct a microbudget film, like Colin Trevorrow’s “Safety Not Guaranteed” for $750,000, and as a direct result, get the offer to direct “Jurassic World” for $150,000,000. Statistically, the latter is akin to winning the lottery, and what would have happened to Colin Trevorrow if “Jurassic World” had bombed?

Other major industries in this country—law, finance, technology—value such bridges, because such bridges strengthen the professionals inside them, which in turn, strengthen the professions. Hollywood may be in the black now, but all it takes is a handful of megabudgets to flop to collapse a studio. Would the top five law firms in the country entrust their highest-paying clients to their junior associates? An industry that cares about itself—both its product and its legacy—must look to the future and nurture their professionals to ensure the brightness of that future. 

Hollywood leads the pack with respect to the film industry, yet other countries have taken the lead protecting cinema and funding the art form through government programs and grants. In 1984, France declared Henri-Georges Clouzot’s film “The Mystery of Picasso” a national treasure, and David Cronenberg’s films have routinely benefited from Canadian government funding—and David Cronenberg is not a mainstream filmmaker. Movies have, arguably, informed the American culture more than any other culture on the face of the planet, but are not held in as high esteem as other cultures. To quote one of my favorite professionals in this business, John Carpenter: “In France, I’m an auteur; in Germany, a filmmaker; in Britain, a genre film director; and, in the USA, a bum.”
For this business of movies to be successful both financially, and culturally, it must aspire to be 50 percent commerce and 50 percent art. Right now, the commercial side is severely outweighing the artistic side, and it’s doing long-term damage.

When movies are made in boardrooms on the basis of demographics, the studios alienate those people to whom movies are more than just a product. Instead of making a variety of films that target different, more niche markets, they make one movie for the price of a dozen and bet it all. This model leaves little room for experimentation or artistic risks; the innovation I mention above.

As a filmmaker, that’s stifling. Additionally, by eliminating the middle class space of filmmaking, there’s no viable way for filmmakers to practice their craft—unlike painting and literature, it takes a lot of money and a good deal of resources to make a movie, at least ones with competitive production value. For filmmakers, making movies is a privilege; for the world, it’s an art form that’s necessary. All we need to do is figure out a way to provide filmmakers with the adequate resources to tell those stories that absolutely need to be told, and allow them to make a living doing it. There must be a balance between art and commerce. If commerce overshadows the art, then the product is doomed from the start.

William Dickerson is a writer and director whose debut feature film, “Detour,” was hailed as an “Underground Hit” by The Village Voice, an “emotional and psychological roller-coaster ride” by The Examiner and “authentic” by The New York Times. He self-released his metafictional satire, “The Mirror,” which opened YoFi Fest’s inaugural film festival in 2013. He recently completed his third feature, “Don’t Look Back.” His first book, “No Alternative,” was declared, “a sympathetic coming-of-age story deeply embedded in ’90s music” by Kirkus Reviews. His latest book, “DETOUR: Hollywood: How To Direct a Microbudget Film (or any film, for that matter),” is available now on Amazon. You can follow him on Twitter @WDFilmmaker and visit his website.

READ MORE: This Exclusive Book Excerpt Shares Microbudget Film Tips

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There is so much weirdness in this article, it’s difficult to know where to begin. Mainly there’s a sense of entitlement – that the only accepted way to make a living in filmmaking is by making features (not to mention that there’s a current running through the article that sees equates directing with filmmaking, without taking into account that DP’s, writers, editors, producers, etc are also filmmakers). Spike Lee, Errol Morris, Martin Scorcese have all done commercial work to supplement their income. There is a generation of directors that cut their teeth on music videos and directors as they honed their skills. One can make a decent living as a filmmaker, as long as one accepts that, in addition to producing (usually modestly budgeted independent) features, one will also have to do commercial work to pay the bills. It’s eminently doable, and in fact, where I live – NYC – it’s common for independent filmmakers to do precisely that. Let’s get real – making a living solely by doing features is a very rare thing. It’s akin to making a living as a painter or sculptor. It’s a rarified field. It’s the height of entitlement to think that unless that’s solely how one makes his/her living, that the industry is at fault. Make do – put together a feature, hopefully sell it. Then make another one. In between, pay the bills with car commercials or cheap non-fiction TV. Just keep making films. The one thing I would add is that, if you want to make a living as a filmmaker, move to LA or NYC. You gotta go where the paying work is.

    Joe Orlandino

    Vin, Spot on. Well said. I’m in agreement with you.

Nick Felice

I made a "no-budget" movie titled ‘Getting Out’ which has won numerous awards on the festival circuit and went on to be released on a dozen VOD and cable platforms. Since its release it has gained quite the bit of attention given the little movie that it is. No "name" actors are in the picture.

I wrote, directed and financed the movie from shooting to post-production to the festival submissions and distribution as well. I plan on shooting my second feature ‘Desperate Cowboys’ in the same fashion since I’m unable to get and funding for my projects as of yet.

I’ve been pursuing filmmaking for nearly 20 years before finally making my first feature and after what I accomplished with ‘Getting Out’ with the awards and recognition and distribution, I plan on forging ahead with my film career despite the odds.


New filmmakers have to be willing to make almost nothing in film. Whether they take the vow of perpetual poverty or are rich kids, is pretty much the same thing.

Cody Mitchell

You can start by abolishing the monopolies held by the Screen Union cartels, which only exist to ensure cinema stats an exclusive club that protects the "spots" of pre-established celebrities who lack the actual talent or ability to openly compete.

You can also shut off the MSNBS, and stop deluding yourself that you’re "helping" anybody but Big Brother by jacking up everybody’s taxes and making the Government into an unquestionable pseudo-deity.


Is it not possible for cult-following filmmakers like ‘Tarantino’ or ‘Cronenberg’ to help promote micro-budget filmmaking and draw an audience to it?
Perhaps a series of microbudget films where they or their selected director produces a microbudget films as a series of niche titles that draw attention to movies aimed not to return 6 times it’s budget but at least the original budget back? Chris Nolan is always ‘banging’ on about keeping 35mm film alive, perhaps he can jump in too.


Cream rises to the top.
Quality films, culturally significant films will get seen. They will also create opportunities for the filmmakers responsible. Giving money to people who haven’t proven themselves worthy is usually going to be a bad investment.
Quality doesn’t have to be expensive. Look at Shane Caruth’s "Primer." Early Kevin Smith. (Maybe only Clerks)
Quality work can do wonders for a career. Sometimes self financing an excellent idea is a worthy risk.

Dorne Pentes

This article is spot-on, except that it’s about 15 years late. I left indie filmmaking for exactly the reasons described here. I now direct commercials and make little arty shorts and other epehemra to satisfy my creative side. In other words, I totally switched careers. And I couldn’t be happier or more satisfied.


There is a bridge and its called television. In the last 15 years TV has come to fill the void left by the disappearance of independent film distribution. Its where indie filmmakers can have a voice, though one with heavy oversight from its financiers, which is not altogether a bad thing. TV, especially premium and basic cable, allow for character based storytelling of stories both domestic and international. Sorry, I love movies, but they do not have cultural currency anymore. We can mourn what was lost or do the best to take advantage of the new world that exists.


I agree with almost everything said in this article… But I also agreed with it when Soderbergh and Spielberg said all the same things a few years ago, and more eloquently.

The only original idea worth teasing out here is your throwaway joke about "the Bernie Sanders of the industry". Who could that figure be? Come back to us when you have an article. This is blogging at it’s most quintessentially mediocre.

Mariah Lichtenstern

Thank you for sharing. These are the issues we are addressing at CINESHARES. There are many legal, technological, and business changes underway to open new doors in Hollywood.

Carol Bond

I’ve read your article with trepidation, What’s happening in movies is also happening in literature. Cream is not rising to the top. Repeating the same story line is the norm AKA romance writing. Radically creative work is ignored if the writer does not have deep pockets.
Catfish Joe & Double, Double, Toil & Trouble


@Dave Oh snap!


Oh, give the guy a break. "Artists" starve all over, but France has dozens of internationally respected directors working outside commercial norms and who work enough to develop their abilities. The U.S doesn’t and the reason is obvious: unless you can make a masterpiece for nothing (and who has, in world cinema?), you’re beholden to commercial finance and the moral cant of places like Sundance. The sorry result is American independent film.


@Grant – Anything less than $1.6m IS microbudget per IATSE tier lists. $750,000 is not a lot of money for a feature.


I think most of your ire is directed at The Playlist, which is a BLOG of the IW family, not Indiewire proper.


Perhaps Indiewire should work tirelessly and harder to solely focus on the indie, micro budget spectrum rather than feature a biggie every now and then or pictures of the latest superhero movies or related news, such as the Jared Leto Joker thing. There are enough sites out there dedicated to devote time and attention on that and if indiewire started doing that too then what do you think the average visitor to your site is going to pay attention to, Jared Leto Joker or the obscure indie movie very few people are going to care or watch. Indiewire should start the trend of being the only website that solely tirelessly dedicated to focusing on the no name films that deserve attention rather than featuring articles on some obscure political gender or race related topic and less of Walking Dead or superhero related stuff, maybe then people will start paying more attention to those indie micro budget films that deserve attention and a look. But we all need to pay our bills so one can’t blame Indiewire for selling out every now and then.


A big shot producer once said "Never make a movie on spec" only do a presale.


You can all call out indiewire for not covering indies, but would any of you even read those articles? Would you watch the movies? Hell to the no. That is the dirty secret.


The dirty secret is that Hollywood is as Republican as it gets.


I disagree with part of the original premise. I think we could wipe films off the face of the earth and our ‘culture’ would not be adversely affected one whit. What’s this guy’s problem? It seems he want’s to make a decent living making films. Why not just get some B+ list actors to work for free (you can find them in any town). Get crew to also work for free. Get a good story and make a film. Put it on the web. Let us see it. Then we will say whether it was a waste of our time as well as yours. If it’s any good maybe those who participated can parlay it into something. You ask, "At least, currently. So, where’s the voice, or voices, of our collective struggle, fighting for our rights to make a living? " What are you smoking? You have no ‘RIGHT’ to make a living making films … were you educated in American schools? Is this where these cockeyed ideas come from?


The audience gets the movies they demand, otherwise known as the market. What would be nice is an American Film Commision like every country from Albania to the UK has, whose function is to promote culture by promoting, including funding, American cinema. It will never happen, unless it is privately funded and organized, because the government, which reflects most of the country, does not value culture. Where is the billionaire to endow it who does?


It’d be lovely if film was 100% art. In fact, we would probably agree that the strong majority of Hollywood’s output is garbage. That said, unlike other art forms, films are extremely (and prohibitively) expensive to make. While the glut of content created by 100,000 filmmakers would be impossible to sift through, it’d also be nice if there were a way for filmmakers who did make something artistically valuable to be able to live and make another film. We probably wouldn’t have gotten Bergman or Fellini if they had to work 70 hour/week jobs in America while tending to filmmaking on the side.


Let it be clear regarding the John Carpenter quote that non-recognized filmmakers in France are no more financially stable and probably as broke as anywhere else. US filmmakers often think of France as some paradise to filmmakers but it’s not and is probably even tougher to enter the "private club" of the film industry.
One who has experienced both sides of the Atlantic…


What the hell is this guy complaining about? That every film school grad or self-appointed filmmaker in the country can’t make any film they want and be paid for it by some studio? What if there are 100,000 filmmakers just like him who think Hollywood owes them a living (and distribution)…should we really have 2,000 films opening every week? Who says films should be 50% art and 50% commerce? Why not 100% art? Why should we sacrifice half of human capacity for intelligence and creativity for a dumb industry? If you have something to say as a filmmaker, say it…if it catches on and grows great, maybe it won’t…but don’t confuse the art of cinema with your fantasy of advancing up the ladder in Hollywood…those are two different worlds, those who insist they should work hand in hand do so at their own peril.


This article is the equivelent of a child banging their fists and screaming "It’s not fair!"


And it also has spoiled the average viewers viewing habits to a point where a lot only care for superhero movies and that’s it. But media outlets need to start giving this micro budget filmmaking culture more attention to the public.


Its kinda like articles in a trade rag that are really adverts for the "writer". A sorry state of affairs!


Agree with pretty much everything in the article, except for the idea that Safety Not Guaranteed is a "microbudget" film. $750,000 is not "micro," and with the talent attached, it was destined for a successful festival run at least. Regarding Indiewire, outlets like this *should* promote indie film, but now you have to wade through identity politics blogging and pictures of Jared Leto as the Joker.

Chad Thackston

Isn’t getting the word out what sites like IndieWire are for? There’s an entire microbudet film making culture that gets, largely, ignored by media outlets that claim to support the "Indie" film making world. Sure, that means there’s a lot of bad stuff being made but that same can be said for low and big budget faire. So why isn’t there more support for the lower budget projects? The public doesn’t know unless they’re told.

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