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We Make Movies: How I Started an Indie Film Collective

We Make Movies: How I Started an Indie Film Collective

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My name is Sam Mestman, and I run a film collective in Los Angeles and Toronto called We Make Movies.

Moviemaker asked us to write a weekly DIY filmmaking blog about tips and issues facing up-and-coming filmmakers. I think our experience will ring true for a lot of independent filmmakers working today.
With the rapidly decreasing cost of moviemaking technologies and the ensuing glut of movies getting made with those technologies, how does the little guy figure out a way to make the film he’s passionate about? How does he get people to pay money to watch it, all while employing limited resources and competing with a million other filmmakers? How do you separate yourself from the crowd, retain creative freedom, and actually make a living in the current market without completely selling out and spoiling all the reasons you wanted to make movies in the first place?

Is there a clear formula for how to do this? Of course not. However, at We Make Movies, we have an approach that for a number of years has proved effective, and I’m going to spend a little time explaining why it works and why we do things the way we do them.

First, a little backstory. I was a producer, editor, and colorist for a smaller independent feature called How I Got Lost a few years ago (you can see it on Netflix and a bunch of other places if you’d like). The story of that production is at this point a cliché (which I guess makes me a cliché). And the cliché goes like this: A group of talented and ambitious individuals got together, cashed in every favor, tapped every resource, and put their lives on hold for two years in pursuit of following their dream of making a feature that was theirs. They went out and kicked ass on set, and made a movie they shouldn’t have been able to make for the budget they had. At the end of the day, the movie wasn’t perfect, but by any standard was more worthwhile than at least 85 percent of the trash Hollywood turns out. It was a solid, well-crafted film that, for a particular audience, resonated. But they made one critical mistake: They believed that just making the movie was sufficient. They thought some magical angel (studio) would come down from heaven, see their genius, hand them a whole bunch of money, make their investors whole, and grant them carte blanche to go make whatever the hell they wanted to make next, no questions asked.

Rereading that paragraph, all I can do is laugh. We were a joke. We were a car accident on the side of the road in a town that didn’t have an ambulance.

The journey we embarked on after making How I Got Lost was a rude awakening. We’d put all our money into making the film, not realizing we had to keep some in reserve to get people to actually care about seeing it. That’s how we got introduced to the bottom-feeding sales agents, publicists, film festivals, and distributors that feed on filmmakers’ blood, sweat, and tears without any real intention of giving anything back. (Obviously, there are wonderful non-bottom-feeding middlemen, but the scam artists out number them severely). The specifics of our experience trying to exhibit How I Got Lost are for another article entirely, but after fighting vainly across the distribution battlefield without a damn thing to show for it, I told myself I’d never let myself get taken advantage of again. But I also vowed not to quit pursue my dream of making movies. The problem was now, though, that I was in debt, living in a new city (Los Angeles) that had just been hit by the financial crisis. Bottom line: Things sucked—for a while. But I barely remember it, and I think that’s the important thing.

Soon after the How I Got Lost debacle, I came across a book called Think Outside The Box Office by Jon Reiss. If you haven’t heard read it, you should. It’ll change the way you think about making and marketing movies. And it’s what gave me the idea for We Make Movies.

I got together with two close collaborators, the incomparable Tara Samuel and Joe Leonard, and we brainstormed ways on how to get our work made. We were all broke and hurting at the time, and all we really had were our scripts. So that’s what we used. We decided to rent a small theater in Hollywood, take excerpts from our screenplays and the screenplays of other writers we liked, cast them with actors we knew, and just start developing them on stage.

We didn’t know what would happen, but the first reading in our tiny black box theater was standing room only. People were into the idea. So we held another reading a few weeks later, and a third one a few weeks after that. The audience kept growing, and before we knew it we had to switch to a larger theater. We put up a website that wasn’t very good, but people liked it anyway, and we kept expanding our ranks. As it turns out (and this might not surprise readers of MovieMaker.com) there are a lot of frustrated professionals in Los Angeles looking for an outlet for their work, interested in meeting others who want to make movies for the right reasons. Who would have thought?

Fast forward three years, and we now have a thriving filmmaking community in Los Angeles, and we just opened another branch in Toronto (headed by the amazing Michael Coady). We’ve promoted two successful Kickstarter campaigns (which we used to fund 15 shorts), five features developed in our workshop have gotten shot, and almost 40 shorts have gone into production, all because of this cooperative Tara, Joe, and I started on a whim. Just since the beginning of 2012, our community has increased five fold. Every week we release a new video (a “how to” or an interview) that we shoot at the Asylum Theater in Hollywood. This exponential growth indicates to me that you don’t need the Hollywood establishment to make the movies you care about. All you really need is a dedication to your craft, a refusal to quit, and a willingness to make the most of the people and resources around you. The rest will take care of itself.

When I look at the larger picture, the landscape for producing and distributing content is changing. Costs are going down and competition is getting fiercer, but if we as filmmakers let go of the cynicism and embrace the evolution, it’s easy to see that there’s never been a time when there was more opportunity for the little guy to do what he loves—and get paid for it. The old system no longer works. With every remake, comic book movie, reduced rate/paycheck, and shortsighted decision, the studio system is slowly poisoning itself. We need to stop trying to play that game, and rewrite the rules to suit what we want to do. The goal with this column is to give people a better understanding of the new moviemaking landscape, and how they can carve out their own profitable, life-sustaining niche within it. I’m hoping that what we write here will make it easier for you to keep doing what you love to do—and get you paid to do it. MM

Find us at www.wemakemovies.org and come get involved! (Image via We Make Movies.)

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