Kansas, Can Do: Why You Can Sustain an Independent Moviemaking Career Outside of L.A., NYC and Austin

You don’t need to live in L.A., New York, Austin—or anywhere deemed “acceptable”—in order to be a successful filmmaker.

After all, there are just as many unsuccessful filmmakers living in L.A., New York and Austin. And nobody ever suggests we need to move to Mumbai, and after all, India has the largest film industry on the planet.

In order to be a successful filmmaker, you need to decide to be one. That might seem far-fetched, or too easy, but it’s the truth. I’ve done it. So I know you can too. In fact, my feature-length documentary Wamego: Making Movies Anywhere (available on Vimeo and featured as one of the first YouTube Spotlight videos) shows you how I’ve done it. Over the span of 20 years, I’ve directed 16 feature films, all from my home base in Wamego, Kansas. But I never felt trapped by living there. Sometimes I shot in Kansas, but I also directed films in Palm Springs, Georgia, London and even Hong Kong. My casts have included rock stars, Oscar-winners, punk rock royalty and cult icons. My living in Kansas was beside the point.

Think of it as a bell curve: There are ways to exist in the fringes and create in the fringes. There are plenty of successful businesses in the world that aren’t trying to be like the big boys. If you can’t raise a million dollars to make a movie, find out how much money you can raise, and make a movie for that amount. When I’m consulting with people who want to make a movie, I tell them to do top-down budgeting, as opposed to the industry-standard bottom-up budgeting. You might not be making movies which cost millions and make millions, but you can easily make movies for thousands which make thousands.

With that, you can figure out an affordable lifestyle. The cost of living in smaller cities and towns is unbelievably different. In Kansas I had a 4,000-square-foot Victorian mansion and my mortgage payment was only $950 a month. Outside major cities, the amount of income needed in order to afford a sustainable life is considerably reduced. And if you need to get to a major city often, simply obtain a frequent flier airline credit card!

Steve Balderson on the set of Elvis Lives. Photograph by Raymond Liu

Steve Balderson on the set of his feature Elvis Lives. Photograph by Raymond Liu

Finding Talent

I’m often asked, “How can you make those kinds of contacts from Wamego, Kansas?” Well, emailing people and making calls isn’t any different living outside of a major city. When I first met Debbie Harry of Blondie fame, I did not have the opportunity to sit down with her in person, as she was living in New York. So we just talked on the phone. If I was living in Los Angeles, it would’ve been the same experience.

If you know a certain actor is a supporter of a cause you also support, perhaps that’s a way for you to meet with them. Social media knows no zipcode.

There used to be a book you could buy called the Academy Players Directory. Now, of course, IMDb provides similar resources. IMDbPro lists contact names and numbers of talent; some have a “direct contact” option so it is possible to email or call them directly. If someone has a “production company” listing, sometimes it’s just an office in their home—and a voicemail they check themselves! So call it. That’s what I do.

In order to attract a recognizable star to be in your film, you’ve got to have a good script. When Dennis Hopper read my script for my 2005 feature Firecracker he said it was one of the best screenplays he’d ever read, and asked me to fly out to L.A. and meet with him at his house in Venice. It was pretty magical. And how did I get to Dennis Hopper all the way from small-town Kansas? I knew that his agents certainly weren’t going to forward my emails, let alone even read the one I sent them, so I knew I had to approach him directly. It turned out Karen Black had his fax number, so I used it. How had I met Karen Black? A friend of a friend of hers, my college advisor, introduced us.

Finding Investors

My dad is a businessman. He taught me what a business plan was, and how to make one. So I made a business plan and approached investors—some of whom declined, while others agreed to become part of the process. How to find investors? I learned how to identify the top five different kinds of investors (which I teach about in my maverick filmmaking workshops and with my consulting clients). My favorite type of investor is the Philanthropist. These types of people are most interested in investing in a person—more so than in a specific project. I’ve worked with some of these kinds of investors, who see the value I bring to the world. Sometimes they make a lot of money. Sometimes they don’t make anything. That’s just how it goes. But, in most all the cases, the Philantropist investor isn’t entirely interested in making a return. How to find these Philantropist types? Go to your local museums, read the list of sponsors and benefactors. Attend a regional theater show and take down the names in the playbill. Research, and then call them up or send a letter.

All this takes a good degree of self-discipline. It might take hours and hours of research, writing letters and making calls just to get one person to agree to meet with you.

Balderson (center) shooting with crew in Hong Kong

Balderson (center) shooting with crew in Hong Kong

Finding Film Services

There may not be catering companies in every town (though they might not be used to serving film crews). As for crew, I usually fly in key crew positions from the coasts, and sometimes rent gear from there as well. I’m shooting a new feature film outside of Los Angeles soon, and we’re doing the same thing. It’s often less expensive to shoot elsewhere.

Getting sponsors for production-related needs is one way to save money so your movies cost less. I once directed a feature shot in London. We didn’t have any money, so I wrote emails to every hotel in London asking for free guest rooms for my cast and crew in exchange for filming a scene in their lobby and featuring the hotel logo in the film. People said I was crazy and that it would never work. I figured it was easier to try and see what happened than to not. With nearly 1,000 hotels in the London area, that process took a long time. Out of all attempts, I heard back from three. One said no, but the other two said yes!

We also didn’t have the funding to afford permits. Shooting on the London Underground would be very costly between permits, insurance and so on. I elected to forgo both, and do it guerilla-style. If you look like filmmakers, you will be caught, but if you look like tourists, no one with bother you. So I had a smaller crew: an assistant director who was also the boom operator, a script person who was also the art department, and two cameras. We used natural light whenever possible, but carried a backpack with the flexible reflectors you find in the front windows of cars to keep out the sun. Each crew person wore a backpack which held the gear for the person next to them. So when the sound guy needed the boom, he would unzip his neighbor’s backpack and retrieve it, and then immediately after the shot, replace it and zip it up. That system was more efficient than keeping your gear in your own backpack.

To do a “maverick” film you have to let go of any ego. You will appear like the annoying guy down the street who always makes videos with his friends. No one passing by will admire you, want to be you, or stop to care about what you’re doing. But, fear not. If you value your craft, and you’re working with other people who value their craft, it doesn’t matter what it looks like on set. It only matters what’s on screen. Once I filmed Karen Black for something, and it was just me, her, and the boom guy. I’m sure we looked like amateurs to a passersby. But we knew what we were really doing, so it didn’t bother us.

Balderson (center) with actress Karen Black shooting the film Stuck. Photograph by David Bags

Balderson (center) with actress Karen Black shooting the 2009 film Stuck!. Photograph by David Bags

I realize that my advice doesn’t apply to certain filmmaking jobs. Writers, directors, producers: They can live anywhere. But a gaffer or key grip simply won’t get regular work in a rural area. So for them, it probably is a good idea to move to an environment which supports hiring them. There are many cities scattered around the globe which are not mega-metropolis size and have a very productive commercial industry. I know filmmakers who live quite happily and abundantly in places like Macon, Georgia, and they bring top dollar.

Last advice: Making a genre film and marketing it to a niche demographic can be done anywhere. I made several genre movies, and the successes of those helped me fund the more high-brow art films that were bigger risks. And in general, adapt, be flexible and resourceful. You can do anything you set your mind to. The only thing you have to do is take the first step. The trip might be lonely at first, but you’ll soon find the friends and collaborators who support you and want to take the journey with you. MM

Steve Balderson directed Elvis Lives (which premiered on AXS TV August 16, 2016), Hell Town (which opened on VOD August 23, 2016) and El Ganzo (which opens September 9, 2016 at Arena Cinemas). His film Firecracker has a 10th-anniversary screening on September 10, 2016 at Arena Cinemas.

Featured photograph by Maryann Bates.

1 Comment

  1. David Frederick

    September 8, 2016 at 8:01 pm

    I agree with this article 100%. The only reason NY, LA, etc.. are considered “so called” hubs is because they’ve somehow convinced everyone that they are. It’s completely false. The film is where you create it.

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