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Thursday, November 22, 2012

Feast or Famine: Living as an Independent Digital Filmmaker


It's never easy. We all know that.

Fiscally speaking, the life of the independent digital filmmaker is about as rewarding as playing the lottery. Week in and week out we take chances, quietly hoping that this gig or project or music video could be the winning ticket to a staggering amount of dollar signs. In reality, most of us will never reach the lifestyles of the rich and famous. And that's okay. We're artists after all.

What's not okay is not learning to cope with all the in-between stages, which makes up about 90% of our life. It's the the day-to-day, the hustle, the grind. I usually try to avoid the cliche "tough skin" speech but it's getting harder and harder to soften it up for peers today. To succeed--and by succeed I mean, to stay (somewhat) gainfully employed AND creatively challenged--in this niche business of passions, you need to have a killer instinct. Yes, some days are better than others but everyday that you wake up you're still faced with the same task: To reinvent the wheel.

And how does one do that?


Well, the first step is understanding what "the wheel" is. In the case of the independent digital filmmaker, "the wheel" is your role/voice in this ever-changing new media landscape. Case in point: Earlier this year, amidst all the hub-bub of Kodak filing for bankruptcy, the disappearance of film projectors and the cavalcade of digital filmmaking instruments, I went ahead and curated a free video art exhibit called "Film Is Dead." Of course, I'm not the first voice in that specific dialogue; what's important is that I made a visibly public stand on an industry issue. The value behind such an action is that it forces viewers/followers/supporters to re-gauge their valuation of me. Some did not agree with the "Film Is Dead" concept and they left my "support group." On the other hand, this led to me gaining new viewers/followers/supporters. These are people who up until that point, had never heard of me. But now they know who I am.

And therein lies the through-line for surviving as an independent digital filmmaker. It's not just staying "visible" in the public eye--it's staying "relevant." It can be the difference-maker down the road for a prospective for-hire gig or dream project. Don't forget: Potential employers have access to information (the Internet!) too.

In other words, it's not about you having the most Twitter followers, it's more about HOW your Twitter followers are interacting with you. You need to be able to convey the kind of impact you are making in your specialized areas of concentration. If artists are a dime a dozen, which artist is going to land that contract with an employer? I'm willing to bet it's the artist who's making a splash or shaking some bushes.

Being able to position yourself as a valuable figure isn't easy science--but you'll be surprised at how thorough you can be in quickly developing your online voice (a.k.a. public identity) when push comes to shove. Especially if your back is pressed up against the wall with financial stress...

But that's just the "action" of reinventing "the wheel." Behind every move, there needs to be core fundamentals. The most important fundamental (and what is basically the backbone of FREE CINEMA NOW) is the ability to embrace the changes in our industry. It's about understanding and accepting that the theatrical exhibition system continues to shift toward the DIY micro audience model. It's about accepting the idea that entities like YouTube will in fact affect how our films are seen--and in turn understand what that means for content creation. And the list goes on.

Finally, if the whole "accepting industry changes" thing STILL bothers you, I suggest you try listening to an Oscar-winning filmmaker explain it in laymen's terms.