Click to Skip Ad
Closing in...
Celebrating 17 Years of Film.Biz.Fans.
by Devon Narine-Singh
April 29, 2014 10:02 AM
4 Comments
  • |

3 Reasons Why It Sucks to Be a Teenage Filmmaker

Scotty Curcie and Jessica Murphy in "Of Darkness and Light"

In an industry that values youth, you'd think that being a young filmmaker would be an asset, but when "young" means under 18, that's not necessarily a good thing. In fact, sometimes age can get in the way of filmmaking. Below, 16-year-old Long Island, New York-based filmmaker Devon Narine-Singh, who recently completed work on his short film "Of Darkness and Light,"  highlights the 3 downsides to being a teenage filmmaker:

1. SAG-AFTRA is Not Designed for Filmmakers Under 18

If you want to work with someone who is a member of SAG-AFTRA on your project (the teen filmmaker's project would be considered a “non-union” project), you have to fill out paperwork and get permission from SAG-AFTRA to use one of its members. Yolonda Ross ("Go For Sisters,") a member of SAG-AFTRA, signed onto the film shortly before Christmas break. 

I had wanted to make a feature film, however due to SAG-AFTRA's rule about having payroll for feature films, I could not do it since I do not have a company or a payroll. SAG-AFTRA does not require a payroll for their short film agreement, so I decided to scale the film back to a short. Once I contacted SAG-AFTRA and explained that I was making a short, I was sent the necessary paperwork. However, I ran into a roadblock: since this is an official document, I could not sign it since I was a minor. I asked my SAG-AFTRA rep if my mother could sign on my behalf.  He said he would have to get permission to do this. In the end everything worked out and SAG-AFTRA made a "special exception" and allowed my mother to sign on my behalf.

The real question here is, how will SAG-AFTRA deal with other teen filmmakers? If you are reading this article, you might say that this is a one time situation in which a teen filmmaker was able to get a well known member of the indie film community to star in his film. Maybe it is. 

But SAG-AFTRA is not only for famous, established actors. Many unknown and up and coming actors are members of SAG-AFTRA. With the right resources, a teen filmmaker could cast one of these actors or even someone more prominent in their film and SAG-AFTRA will have to deal with them. 

Teen filmmakers, on a professional or at least semi-professional level, will be appearing more and more in the upcoming years due to the democratization of filmmaking technology. SAG-AFTRA needs to implement rules that will allow teen filmmakers to utilize members of SAG-AFTRA without extreme hassle. If the current system remains in place, it will be a struggle for teen filmmakers to have SAG-AFTRA actors/actresses in their film.

"The real question here is, how will SAG-AFTRA deal with other teen filmmakers?"

2. Most of Your Actors are Teenagers

Let me say upfront that I love all of the actors that have worked in my films. The majority of actors in my cast have been teens that I am going to high school with or I know through a friend. They are my age and they are the average American teenagers. They are all extremely talented and give wonderful performances. However, that does not mean working with them is easy.

Most likely a teen filmmaker will not be paying his/her actors. Their actors may not even be "actors" in the traditional sense and may their be friends. Because their film is not a "professional film," it does not always take priority in the actors' lives. Some of them want to hang out with friends rather than make the movie. 

Scheduling conflicts emerge on all film sets, however, in the films of teenage filmmakers working with teenage actors, they are even more of a problem. Teenagers, by nature, are already heavily scheduled. Since teenagers are the majority of the actors a teen filmmaker can use, teen filmmakers have to work the filming around the actor's schedule. The teen filmmaker's film will most likely be the last priority for the (non-professional) teen actor. The teen actor would rather focus on the school musical, sports,etc. The teen filmmaker's little film may never get anywhere.

This is how many teen actors think of teen filmmakers -  as that kid that likes making movies. The key word is kid. Sometimes a teen actor will be professional and serious. But then sometimes they don't treat the teen filmmaker or their film as something extremely serious. 

On top of these issues, as a teen filmmaker, you have few actors to work with and, therefore, you have to shape your film around their needs. For example, the actors might not be  comfortable doing that epic makeout scene you have in your head. And you need to compromise. Depending on what you have to change or tone down, it may be artistically frustrating for you, but this is the reality of being a teen filmmaker.

3. No One Takes you Seriously

My first experience with a group of members of the Industry was a regional Art House Convergence. At the convergence, various theater owners and film distributors were present. I was pitching my film "Single Souls, Two Bodies." Some theater owners took the screeners, but never got back to me. As for the film distributors, a lot of them gave me a nice little pat on the back. One began to chuckle when I told him I was in high school. One distributor did take me seriously, and when I completed "Of Darkness and Light" even took a screener of that movie. That distributor was the exception and not the rule. Some theater owners turned me down point blank saying they wouldn't program the film.

I will name two people at the conference that did, and always have, taken me seriously---Dylan Skolnick and Charlotte Sky. The event was held at their theater, the Cinema Arts Centre in Long Island. Dylan and Charlotte have always treated me as an adult, not as a kid. It means so much to me that when they watch my films they take them seriously. I held the first screening of "Single Souls, Two Bodies" at the Cinema Arts Centre and words cannot describe how awesome it was to finally share my work with the general public. 

I will say that my encounters with filmmakers have been generally positive. I have worked with filmmakers such as Alexia Anastasio and Glenn Andreiev, two major players in the Long Island film community. For the most part, filmmakers will treat the teen filmmaker with respect, while theater owners/film distributors will look down on the teen filmmakers.

So my parting piece of advice to teen filmmakers--- is to find your Dylan, your Charlotte, your Glenn, your Alexia. It may be hard at first and you may have just one person to believe in you, but that one person will support you and help you grow as an artist.

Devon Narine-Singh is a 16-year-old filmmaker based in Long Island, New York. He began his journey into film under the mentorship of filmmaker Alexia Anastasio. He recently completed work on his short film "Of Darkness and Light" starring Independent Spirit Award Nominee Yolonda Ross ("Go For Sisters.")

4 Comments

  • Rob Savage | April 30, 2014 8:41 AMReply

    I made my feature film Strings aged 17 and found a lot of this to be true, though in a way some of what is discussed in this article ended up benefiting our film, which became a talking point because of the fact that we'd pulled it together with a cast and crew of first time teenage filmmakers. Nobody took us seriously when we were making it, but that made for a great against-the-odds story that led to us being picked up for distribution and winning a number of awards including the British Independent Film Award for independent spirit. It takes a long time for people to take notice, but only takes one accolade or festival screening to get the ball rolling, though I'm sure that's true at any age.

  • Alexandra Martinez | April 29, 2014 7:37 PMReply

    Devon, it is lovely to know a teenager who is so ambitious, knowledgable, and talented! Keep doing what you are doing because you are doing amazing things!

  • Ryan Strandjord | April 29, 2014 2:33 PMReply

    A few reactions to the author's 3 Reasons:

    1. Just because film/video technology is more available doesn't mean teen filmmakers will inherently become "professionals" or "semi-professionals" at a much higher rate. They still need to learn how to write stories, to construct a film, and to effectively promote it. The argument you make about SAG-AFTRA being a "hassle" to work with is pretty weak. You couldn't do a feature because you don't have a company, so create one. They wouldn't allow you to sign the contracts because you're a minor, so your mom did. Where's the big struggle in all that?

    2. Isn't this really your own doing? If you want to work with actors who aren't teens then look outside your circle of friends. This really isn't a problem confined to teenagers either, TONS of filmmakers cast their friends and those close to them. Furthermore, working around an actor's schedule is difficult regardless of their age. Sure, I get that teens are "heavily scheduled," but who isn't these days? It seems everyone I know is up to their ears with commitments. None of these are problems that will go away once you get a bit older.

    3. Get in line. You have to fall down a lot before anyone will take you seriously. Also, are you taking into account that your work history is sparse and these theater owners/distributors have no idea who you are? This business is almost as much about who you know as it is about what you know. It takes time to build relationships, and you need to prove to people that your committed to making this work.

  • Glenn Andreiev | April 29, 2014 12:10 PMReply

    Hi, Devon-
    Good article. But to add to all points- SAG/AFTRA is working to loosen up their rules and get actors working even on no-pay/deferred jobs. But, you are right, their uber-complex requirements to use their actors looks like the ingredients for the atomic bomb. When I made films as a Northport High student, most of my actors were teens, but I did two things to keep my Super 8mm films well cast. First, I hired other film-makers to act in my films. Their "salary" was that I would return the favor, and act in their films, or help out as crew. The other thing is, keep their on-set involvement brief. Tell them they are needed for a minimal amount of time. "I could use you as an actor in this scene, and I'll be done in a hour..." By all means, by sincere. If you know if you can finish in an hour, say so. The "I'll tell them one hour, but it'll go one for four- " trick, only gets you a bad rep. Also, consider how your actor can get to your set. If they have a drivers license and access to a car- that's all the better. The same on my current films- at the interview I ask about how the actor can transport themselves. If I hear "By train, or car" it's a plus. If they live in Westchester and they have to come to Long Island and it's complex for them, I probably won't hire them.
    Yeah, at festivals, most people are more interested in what Fox Searchlight or James Franco has to offer. That's the nature of the business. It's good to share contact info at these festivals. Use this time as a teenager to fine tune yourself as a film-maker. People will take that persistence and dedication very seriously. They'll be saying "Oh no, this isn't some kid who attaches a Go-Pro to a skateboard and calls himself a film-maker- this guy's serious!" My teenaged films tended towards gimmicky at times, but I was able to work that out of my system.