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SXSW 2016: How Do This Year’s Filmmakers Make a Living?

SXSW 2016: How Do This Year's Filmmakers Make a Living?

READ MORE: The 2016 Indiewire SXSW Bible – Every Review, Interview and News Item Posted During the Festival

Advances in digital technology has made it easier and cheaper for an aspiring filmmaker to create a film that is good enough to play at a festival like SXSW. Meanwhile, the disappearance of the middle-class in the film industry has made it increasingly difficult to maintain a career as a film director. Indiewire checked in with this year’s crop of SXSW directors to find out how they pay the bills when they aren’t making their passion projects.

Joel Potrykus, “The Alchemist Cookbook”: This is a question I asked other filmmakers for years. Such a mystery, and few of us give the same answers. I consider myself lucky. I teach screenwriting at Grand Valley State University and guerrilla filmmaking at Michigan State University. Also, I’ve never stopped selling junk on eBay.
William A. Kirkley, “Orange Sunshine”: When I’m not making documentaries, I’m working as a commercial director. Commercials feel like the nearest thing to a “day job” that a filmmaker can have. So I’m incredibly thankful to be employed most of the time. I constantly get to practice my craft, try new things, meet new challenges and work with truly wonderful people. I am signed with Washington Square Films as a commercial director, and to be with a company that is so supportive of their directors and has a great reputation in both commercials and independent cinema is really exciting for me, as I have one foot in both.

Garrett Zevgetsi, “Best and Most Beautiful Things”: I’m a full-time bartender at a nice hotel. It’s often a hard and humbling job but it has flexible hours, decent money and benefits. I couldn’t have made the film without those things. It’s also been a way to make connections, and some of my regulars even became financial backers.

Sudhanshu Saria, “Loev”: Nothing really. I try to come up with new ideas I can sell, or finish scripts that might get financed or focus on selling new territories or festivals for the films I have made. I’m not really someone that believes in having a back up plan. 

Emma Rozanski, “Papagajka”: I’m a cinema projectionist.

Ti West, “In A Valley of Violence”: I am fortunate enough to make films for a living these days, but during my first three films I worked at Diesel selling jeans. 

Matt Johnson, “Operation Avalanche”: The entire team from both [of my] films are working in Toronto on our first TV series for Viceland. Matt Miller lines up our projects so we all just roll from one thing into another. “Operation Avalanche” ended September 30th and were shooting this show October 5th. 

Jamie Adams, “Black Mountain Poets”: I’m a father of three, so it’s incredibly important for me to keep working, I love to work with the next generation of storytellers so I complete workshops with film and drama students, fortunately as we live in a small town in Wales we’re able to make a living on a relatively low income so I’m able to keep focused on my work. 

Josh Bishop, “The Dwarvenaut”: I’ve been working in the film business in one way or another since I was 18 years old. I started as a PA and worked my way up through the Art Department and eventually became an Art Director. After a while I got into Post-Production and built up quite a reel as an Editor. Fortunately, the past two years I have not had to do anything but direct. 

Clay Liford, “Slash”: I work as a cinematographer and editor of low budget movies. I’m proud to have worked for such inspiring filmmakers as Jonathan Lisecki, the Zellner Brothers and David Lowery. And I teach film production at two Austin colleges. 

Alex Lehmann, “Asperger’s Are Us”: I’m a cinematographer and camera operator by trade. For a while I was just transferring my camera operator paychecks straight into the doc…I have a very supportive and understanding wife. 

Stella Meghie, “Jean of the Joneses”: I’m developing a pilot at Warner Bros. and writing an original movie for VH1 right now. 

Joshua Locy, “Hunter Gatherer”: I production design commercials. 

Marina Zenovich, “Fantastic Lies”: I am fortunate enough to now make a living as a documentary filmmaker. But it isn’t easy! For years I worked for an arts channel making short films about top artists – Schnabel, Baldessari, Robert Wilson, Vanessa Beecroft, Takashi Murakami – almost the perfect job to have while laboring on passion projects like “Roman Polanski: Wanted and Desired.” I did a lot of corporate work for awhile, making films for various corporations that paid the bills. 

Bobby Miller, “The Master Cleanse”: I’ve had a career making digital content for places like Google, MTV, SoulPancake, and BuzzFeed. Both as a writer/director and someone in front of the camera. There were a couple years there where I was a D-list YouTube personality.

Adam Pinney, “The Arbalest”: I’ve worked as a freelance illustrator and graphic designer for about 12 years now, as well as holding various on-set positions on productions. I most recently illustrated an international poster for the film “Green Room,” and on the production side, I was a camera operator on Adult Swim’s “Your Pretty Face Is Going To Hell.” 

Carson Mell, “Another Evil”: I write for HBO’s “Silicon Valley.”

Nicole Lucas Haimes, “Chicken People”: I produced and direct unscripted television.

Simon Atkinson and Adam Townley, “Shovel Buddies”: We make shorter films for huge corporations, commonly known as commercials. Just before going into “Shovel Buddies” we did an animation film for a charity (a film we’re very proud of as it’s saved 26 infant lives – and they’re just the ones we’ve heard about, it could be many more), and during the post-production we shot a commercial for the last Super Bowl.

Linas Phillips, “Rainbow Time”: The last few years I’ve mostly gotten by with freelance editing work. Also I sometimes shoot/direct promotional videos for people’s websites. Sometimes I’m lucky enough to get paid to act. Guest spots on TV shows but that’s still rare at this point because I’m more focused on my own projects. When I was prepping for this this I feel under hard times and I worked at PF Chang’s in Pasadena for awhile. That was tough. I mean it was a real character building experience. When I was in my twenties, my main job was working with special needs kids and I still do from time to time.

Mike Flanagan, “Hush”: I’m fortunate enough to finally be able to make my living making films, but before that I edited reality television to keep the lights on. That lasted well over a decade, and it turned out to be one of the best things that ever happened to me; the skill set I acquired as an editor has proven to be the most valuable thing in my arsenal when it comes to writing and directing.

Fran Strine, “Hired Gun”: I’m a touring videographer and photographer. Immediately after my film premieres at SXSW, I’m getting on a plane and heading to Nashville to shoot Dolly Parton’s new album cover and press campaign.

Debra Eisenstadt, “Before The Sun Explodes”: When I’m not making a film, my husband’s making a documentary. I teach/write, he does commercials/TV. We have kids. It’s chaotic, it’s creative, we support each other.

Musa Syeed, “A Stray”: Aside from random writing and production gigs, I really enjoy teaching. I’ve been able to work with some really talented youth recently through the Tribeca Film Institute and the Muslim Youth Voices Project, and they always keep me on my toes.

Carles Torrens, “Pet”: Ever since I graduated college, I’ve made a couple of TV movies, another feature film, and a few shorts that have made money, a fact that would theoretically allow me to get by on movie-making alone. However, I also own some property that I rent out, so that steady monthly income helps me quite a bit too; otherwise I’d be surviving on 7-11 ramen and sleeping on a couch.

Billy O’Brien, “I Am Not A Serial Killer”: Full time writer/director. Just about able to keep paying the rent and keep food on the table for the family (the kids don’t eat much!). Lot of nervy moments and sleepless nights on the long financing of this one. But long may it continue.

Kasra Farahani, “The Waiting”: I am lucky enough to have had a long career in the art department on large studio films for almost ten years before I started directing. I was a concept artist and then an art director and then a production designer. I have been working as a concept artist lately as the schedule is more flexible than that of an art director or a production designer. Most recently I worked on “Insurgent,” the latest film in the Divergent series and I’m currently doing some work on the Netflix series, “A Series of Unfortunate Events.” For those who don’t know what a concept artist is, I’m basically making conceptual illustrations of sets and vehicles and props that the story unfolds in. I really love this type of work and it’s integral to my point of view as a director as well.

Julia Hart, “Miss Stevens”: I am a full time screenwriter and have been for about five years now. Before that I was a high school English teacher. I saw another script that I wrote get made into a movie and it really inspired me to direct the next one myself. 

Lauren Wolkstein, “Collective: Unconscious”: I am a full-time professor in the Film and Media Arts department at Temple University. I’m the head of the BFA in directing concentration for undergraduates and an advisor for graduate students in the MFA program.

Tomer Heymann, “Mr. Gaga”: To my delight, a few years ago my younger brother and I opened our small company “Heymann Brothers Films” for documentary film production. Since then we are working hard to create quality films that interest us. Fortunately we don’t sacrifice our values to manage economically, but rather through screenings in theaters and workshops that we lead we are able to make a decent living from our art.

Zach Clark, “Little Sister”: I edit things, including features for other filmmakers. I cut Sophia Takal’s “Always Shine” which is premiering at Tribeca this year. I’ve cut tons of trailers, and just started editing commercials, too.

Patrick Shen, “In Pursuit of Silence”: I score a buck here, a buck there through a combination of hustle and luck to survive. Once I’ve completed a film, hopefully there’s enough demand for it that I’m being invited to present the film and talk about it. The honorariums aren’t enough to live on, but it helps. I get royalties for my previous work most of which I redistribute to partners and financiers; I use the scraps to buy myself a burrito and that’ll hold me over for a day or two before the hunger sets in again. From time to time, I’ll get hired to shoot a commercial or a short documentary-style promotional video for someone. I have an online store where I sell DVDs to old people and other film swag we’ve produced over the years; I use that money to buy socks and toothpaste. Oh yeah and I sell footage on Shutterstock.

READ MORE: SXSW 2016: How This Year’s Film Directors Got Visually Inventive

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