Editor's note: Writer-director William Dickerson is an Indiewire contributor who writes about the challenges facing non-blockbuster filmmakers and the decline of middle-class movies in American film.
READ MORE: How Can Middle-Class Filmmakers Make a Living?
The current state of the movie business isn’t a surprise. I’m not the first one to point out its trajectory toward an untenable working environment. In 2013, producer Ted Hope said, "Filmmaking is not currently a sustainable occupation for any but the very rare. It is not enough to be very good at what you do if you want to survive by doing what you love."
In the past two years since this statement, the middle space of the profession of filmmaking has been steadily shrinking.
Filmmaking is a business, but it’s also an art, and if those two elements are not equal to each other, this business of art is not operating at its most profitable — from both a financial and cultural standpoint. The industry itself has lost sight of the importance of the cultural aspect, and it’s high time we put it on notice. Hollywood leads the pack with respect to its product — the whole world wants it — yet other countries have taken the lead with respect to protecting the art of filmmaking and funding films through government programs.
Here’s the reality in Hollywood: In terms of compensating filmmakers and other movie professionals, the current market reflects an overabundance of talented people willing to work for, in many cases, little-to-nothing. I’m aware of recent instances when production companies have lowballed their directors with compensation that wouldn’t cover a month’s rent. The justification that is given: "I’m giving you the opportunity to direct a feature film."
It’s as though it’s not considered work; I don’t know about you other directors, but how was that dream vacation you called your last gig? How much sleep did you get and how many months did it last? However, the fact is that there are plenty of directors willing to take the opportunity — it’s a shot, it’s a break, and there’s no shame in opening that door and walking through it. That the one percent takes advantage of this wealth of cheap talent is neither surprising, nor morally corrupt. It just is.
The real question is: Does this mean we should all just accept this as the status quo?
My answer: No, no, we shouldn’t.
During Franklin D. Roosevelt’s tenure, America’s Work Projects Administration [WPA] poured money and resources into the theatre, music, writing, painting and historical records. It was the most comprehensive of the New Deal agencies, and after one year it employed over 40,000 artists. It was the program that Kevin Spacey’s character in "House of Cards," Frank Underwood, used to model his AmWorks program after in the show’s last season.
Roosevelt wanted to ensure federal support for cultural initiatives, instead of awarding a limited number of grants to private institutions. Cedric Larson, a member of the Library of Congress, wrote: "The impact made by the five major cultural projects of the WPA upon the national consciousness is probably greater in toto than anyone readily realizes. As channels of communication between the administration and the country at large, both directly and indirectly, the importance of these projects cannot be overestimated, for they all carry a tremendous appeal to the eye, the ear, or the intellect — or all three."
A few of the directors who came out of the program were Orson Welles, Nicholas Ray and Sidney Lumet.
As World War II arrived, Roosevelt ordered an abrupt end to the WPA. Millions of men enlisted in the service, and military contracts with American companies created thousands of new jobs for the unemployed.
It is commonplace for countries outside of our own to fund its films and support its filmmakers. In the past several years, the British Film Institute [BFI] funded approximately 10 percent of all feature films using government funding and proceeds from national lotteries. Before the BFI took over the program, the UK Film Council [UKFC] was in charge of allocating government monies into films.
When the prospect of the UKFC being abolished went public in 2010, the decision was met with such an uproar that director Mike Leigh likened it to abolishing the National Health Service, England’s publically funded healthcare system. Clint Eastwood, an American citizen and active member of the Republican Party, wrote in a letter to the British government at the time: "I cannot stress how important the Film Council is to me. The prospect of losing such a valuable resource is of great concern as we contemplate future projects."
Government funding for film is commonplace in numerous other countries. Most Canadian films are made with a portion of government funding and incentives, and more indie fare is shepherded into production with the help of government arts councils and film collectives. 25 to 30 percent of feature films that Australia produces are funded through government resources.
Is government funding for films in America that impossible to imagine? Surely, if Clint Eastwood is in favor of the government funding films in Great Britain, he is in favor of the government funding films in the America he captured so beautifully in many of his own movies. I think it’s a question that deserves to be asked and an answer deserves to be discussed — if the separate art forms of theatre, music, writing and painting were once given support, what about that quintessential art form that combines them all? Movies are weaved into the fabric of American culture — cinema is arguably one of the most potent and comprehensive forms of art, and Hollywood is the center of it all.
It is indeed discouraging to see the movie industry trivializing its medium by reducing it to what has essentially become a game of box office grosses. What’s protecting the integrity of the art form, if the industry that produces it values financial reward above all else?
For some people, the movie business might not seem as important as other businesses. Perhaps for those people, it’s not important enough to be nurtured from the outside and regulated from within. Perhaps it’s not important enough to warrant the ACLU’s recent investigation into Hollywood’s hiring practices and gender bias against female directors. Perhaps it’s not important enough to warrant unions — if filmmaking is a flight of fancy, and not a legitimate occupation, why should there be organizations protecting workers’ rights in the first place?
Hollywood is a 10 billion dollar a year industry — its box office earnings are more than double of China’s. There are approximately 141,000,000 jobs in the United States; approximately 100,000 of them are film-directing jobs. Working directors make up about .0709 percent of the workforce. The number of studio films made this past year has shrunk by nearly half, while the amount of microbudget films has nearly doubled.
The studios are making fewer movies and putting much more money into them. They’re taking huge gambles financially, and the way to offset that gamble is to ensure that the entertainment they’re selling appeals to as many people as possible. The smaller niche films are smaller than they’ve ever been, and if the budgets are micro, that director’s salary is accordingly micro — if they have a salary at all. The potential payoff rests on the distribution of the film, but getting your indie distributed through conventional channels may not lead to much of a payoff for the filmmaker.
There will always be new blood willing to take the low, or no, budget job, but the blood inevitably flows to other parts of their bodies. After they’ve grown as professionals, and their rent increases, they start families, maybe buy a house and then they’re cut out of the filmmaking business entirely, because studios and production companies opt for cheaper labor. They are replaced; time and time again.
This model, while seemingly profitable in the short term, spells disaster for the long term. It does not allow for careers, therefore no one grows, or gets better at their craft — the art of filmmaking ceases to advance. This model promotes stagnancy, it promotes fear; it encourages the envelope not to be pushed, and cinema is the ultimate casualty.
Can the major studios afford to make smaller, more character-driven films, and rebuild the middle space of filmmaking? Yes. Is there an audience for these smaller, more character-driven films? Yes. Will the studios make these films? Probably not; at least not until their megabudget model backfires.
My point is this: The industry’s current mindset, while profitable, is inherently risky as a business and it’s endangering cinema’s role in our culture, a role that I feel is instrumental, valuable and absolutely necessary. There are those of you who feel its role may not be necessary, but I know plenty who feel it is.