It is possible to make a living as a filmmaker.
You would be wise, however, to read that sentence as the reluctant acknowledgement of an improbable truth; the way an expert witness being cross-examined by a wily attorney in a courtroom drama would say it:
“But it is possible, Doctor, to make a living as a filmmaker, is it not?”
“I suppose it is possible, but—”
“No further questions!”
“—it’s highly unlikely!”
Hell, there are people who make a pretty penny strapping boards to their feet and doing tricks on big piles of snow. Clearly even the silliest of endeavors can pay off.
And obviously I’m talking about a particular type of filmmaker. If the hypothetical snowboarding guy from the previous paragraph has heard of them, those filmmakers are most likely making rent just fine. No, I’m talking about the new breed of moviemaker. The ones who scrambled over the barrier to entry when technology and affordable equipment finally toppled it for good. The ones who hustle in the shadows and premiere on VOD. Who put their budgets on credit cards. They have roommates and day jobs. They sublet their rooms when they leave town. They supplement their income with filmmaking-adjacent freelance work, shooting local commercials and weddings, or editing industrials.
These are talented, seemingly successful independent filmmakers; and even the most articulate among them find it difficult, when pressed, to explain just how anyone is supposed to make any money making movies. Believe me, I’ve asked them. I’ve seen them stutter and shrug and say they still haven’t seen a nickel from that movie they made two years ago.
Wait, the one that was on all those year-end best-of lists? That played those prestigious festivals? That you spent a year on the road promoting? The one that’s on Netflix and Amazon and Hulu and on DVD on the shelves in all the big box stores? Really? Nothing? Why? How is that possible?
More stuttering. More shrugs. It’s complicated.
And filmmakers are expected to wear this inevitability like a badge of honor. Well, we can’t make rent, but hey, we’re living the dream, right? It’s par for the course. The realities of the business now. I’m certain there is a contingent of readers—some of them filmmakers themselves—who would consider this article a bloated piece of purple prose whining. Who think I sound ungrateful. If I don’t like it, fine, good, stop making movies then. One fewer hipster horror movie in the world competing for eyeballs on iTunes.
I love making movies. And I will do it, somehow, in some capacity, until I am dead dead dead.
In 2011, having long since grown tired of waiting tables and pounding the pavement for acting jobs, I decided to make my own movie. Give myself a role. In August of that year, myself and five friends went into the woods for 14 days with $6,000, and made a feature-length zombie movie called The Battery. It ended up playing more than 50 international film festivals. I was able to see the world. To make lasting friendships in foreign countries. To talk with gracious, generous movie lovers in different languages. We won more than a dozen audience and jury awards. We secured digital distribution. An international sales agent. I met filmmakers I was a fan of, who treated me like a peer. Two years after we went into the woods, I walked into the Barnes and Noble in Union Square in New York City, and saw the movie I made with my friends sitting on the shelf. Right there next to all the other “real” movies. Same as it was sitting on shelves in stores all across the country.
Making The Battery, and the friends and fans and network and experiences that have been a direct result of it, was the single most rewarding experience of my life.
But just because you love something enough to do it for free, doesn’t mean you have the means to do it for free.
Shortly after the whirlwind of our first film wound down, we found ourselves doing what I imagine more than a few other filmmakers in our enviable position have done…
We went back to work. All of us. Back to our day jobs. I went back to slinging burgers and extolling the subtleties of different hop varietals to beer drinkers on dinner dates. Rarely, if ever, would I tell those couples going home to watch a movie that they should watch mine. It was there. On demand in their cable box. On iTunes. Amazon. Hulu. Shouldered in with all the other “real” movies. I found I was telling fewer people that I had actually made a movie, than I had told, years before, that I was going to make a movie. Because if that were true—they might think—if I really had made an honest-to-god movie… What the hell was I doing getting them another side of ranch dressing and hoping for an eight-dollar tip?
The reasons why many filmmakers can’t make a living are myriad and murky. A tangled mess of torrents, lack of transparency, over-saturated markets and distribution strategies that rely on slowly selling your rights piecemeal to different territories. Which seems painfully antiquated in a wireless world. If someone in Vladivostok is willing to pay for a movie and has no legitimate means to do so, there’s always the Pirate Bay…
Within hours of The Battery’s release, there were dozens of torrents of the movie being downloaded tens of thousands of times. Though each of those downloads would probably not equate to an actual sale or rental if file sharing didn’t exist, it’s hard not to imagine that if even a fraction of those “pirates” actually paid for the film, those numbers could be legitimately life-changing.
It is very easy to vilify piracy. The affect that file sharing has on every facet of the film industry is easily apparent. These days, a $200,000 budget is scrutinized, and hemmed and hawed over the same way a $5 million budget was a decade ago. Everything is a risk. Fewer films are made, which means fewer crew jobs. Screenplays are homogenized to appeal to a wider audience. Actors are shoehorned into roles they aren’t right for because they were in that “teen vampire thing” which guarantees foreign pre-sales.
But when you drill down the pirate community, things get more complicated. In Spain, I was actually recognized on the street by a couple who giddily asked me to pose for a picture after exclaiming they had downloaded the movie for free. It was an incredibly conflicting feeling for an unknown actor-director. There really is nothing quite like a stranger in a strange land telling you they love your work… and then telling you they stole your work.
A customer at the bar I worked at pointed at me across the room and screamed, “Dude, were you in The Battery?! I torrented it last night!” My hands were full of dirty dishes.
Vast numbers of everyday people use torrent sites to see films and have absolutely no idea the toll it takes on filmmakers. Sure, there are those who ignorantly justify it as a statement; that all information should be free. And there is a younger generation that simply can’t imagine a world in which you’re supposed to pay for movies. Movies are just those things you click on that start playing.
But in an effort to appeal to that first group, we decided to wade into pirate waters and post comments on the most popular torrents of our film. We said we weren’t passing judgement, but we were filmmakers with day jobs and if they liked the movie and felt it was worth their time, they could send us a donation.
We made more money on donations from “pirates” than we did selling the film on our own website.
Like I said, it’s complicated.
Throw in a heaping helping of managers, lawyers, sales agents, financiers, and the occasional questionable expense and its little wonder there is little left to trickle back to the filmmaker.
Don’t get me wrong, the people and companies that handled our distribution did an incredible job with a relatively risky little arthouse horror movie. Our investors are all in the black. But it took so damn long that there was never enough at any one time to take the time to make another movie.
The whole damn enterprise can seem like a Gordian Knot.
So rather than attempt to untangle it again, we have decided just to try to cut the damn thing in half.
Alexander did the same and went on to conquer the world. Our ambitions are much more modest. We just want give a movie to the world. Every territory. All at the same time. For free. Forever.
About three years into The Battery’s festival tour, once again frustrated—this time by how many meetings to get our next film off the ground went nowhere—we decided to go back into the woods. We just wanted to make a movie again. This one, a full-blown comedy. A satire of the popular genre of survival TV shows. It’s about a famous adventure host who is revealed to be a fraud. In an effort to clear his name, he attempts to film himself, without a camera crew, surviving alone in the wild for 30 days.
The movie is called Tex Montana Will Survive!
In an effort to speed up that antiquated distribution process, we are currently running a slightly experimental Kickstarter campaign. We are not trying to raise a budget to make a film.
Tex Montana is already finished.
So, if we can reach our goal—which we have set at what we would expect to make over the course of five or more years with a traditional release—we will give the movie to the Internet. Instantly. For free. Forever. Under a Creative Commons license. This allows anyone to share the film in any way, as long as it isn’t for profit. We will provide download links, and torrents and DVD ISOs and artwork. It will be available for anyone in the world to consume it in whatever format is most convenient for them. And it will remain that way, until the sun swallows us all up real good.
We aren’t the first to try to go directly to consumer, and we have tried very hard not to become a T-shirt fulfillment center. But we also aren’t Louis C.K. So if this concept seems charming enough, or novel, or is a stirring call-to-arms, please consider helping.
We are trying to prove that microbudget filmmaking can be rewarding and convenient for both the artists and the audience.
We are trying to prove that you can make a living as a filmmaker.
We are hoping that if enough of us put our hands up in the air, we can stop the sky from falling. MM
Visit the Tex Montana Will Survive! Kickstarter campaign here.