Being an independent filmmaker means, in some capacity, being addicted to failure.
It means you put yourself out into the world, time and time again, to always feel like you didn’t really succeed as much as you hoped and that things are never as easy as they should be.
Which is why I have changed my definition of the word failure. Do I make a great living with my films? No. Do they bring tremendous fame? No. Has each one been easier than the next? Nope. And yet I keep making them. And so I have to ask myself why. Why do something that doesn’t come with our standard hallmarks of success?
I keep making movies because it’s how I find the small pocket in the world that exactly fits my hand. In this place, my heart can be more daring and radically open than it can in the rest my life. So failure means struggling to make every movie, but it also means unending creative freedom. It means working with amazing actors and crew and telling stories that I think need to be told. Every few years, I get to move through life in a deep, fierce current that pulls me along with other artists engrossed with humanity. For now, failure means continuing to be happy.
And failure means learning, fast and dirty. I’m taking risks I never would have attempted on my first feature. And there are crucial mistakes I didn’t bother repeating this time. I don’t make movies as an end in and of themselves. They are just peaks and valleys in this life I’m trying to sculpt. I started out as an actor, which led me to performance art, which led to making video art, which led to a short film, which led to a feature. And here I am now, making my third feature. All of that has been my education, which is not over.
We are all fascinated with the newcomer: first-time filmmaker! He’s only 22! Never picked up a camera before! But in the end we all grow up, and we only have more insights to draw from. More sex, more love, more loss, more life. Why is the story of the 50-year-old who has been trying to break out for 20 years and finally does, not as compelling as the 19-year-old prodigy? Why are there thousands of grants and filmmaking labs available to the first-time filmmaker, but only one (that I know of) for the over-40-year-old? We need to create an industry that nurtures the life of an artist beyond their first toe dip in the water.
So here I am, finishing my third film, No Light and No Land Anywhere, by crowdfunding on Indiegogo. Crowdfunding is the great leveller of the playing field. Without it, the same people decide again and again what movies get made—a process filtered through their own commercially driven tastes, experiences, and connections. These are the global gatekeepers of our cinematic imaginations. I want my work to be supported by crowdfunding and I also want to support the now familiar, but no less profound, idea that films can be made by their audiences, a hungry group of people who embrace new and underrepresented perspectives. These are the movies that are now populating Sundance and other top festivals. It’s radical and dramatically successful.
There is a children’s song about a flock of very small birds that get trapped in a hunter’s net. Each bird individually struggles against the net but can’t lift it and remains trapped, but when each bird lifts just a small piece of the net and they fly upwards together, they are able to free themselves. That’s how I see crowdfunding. If we each give just a little bit, no one person has to give too much. We are sharing the weight and changing the way films get made. We are taking the power back into our own hands.
This lifting of the net is so clearly needed when you look at the statistics of gender and racial diversity in the film industry. This industry is shamefully afraid of change, and huddles around known quantities. It will take time for studios and even most independent financiers to reflect the reality of our country, and so in the meantime, we have crowdfunding. My team and I (a pack of female filmmakers) were conscious of how the support we’ve received along the way has incrementally helped with gender disparity in the film industry. As such, we worked on paying it back by hiring as many women as we could for our production. We were thrilled to pull together an amazing cast and crew that was 87 percent women. If you want a world where there are more films made by women, there is a very tangible way you can make that happen: donate to the crowdfunding campaign of a female filmmaker. In this simple way you are directly changing the statistics.
I’ve heard many friends complain, “Oh god, not another person asking me for money online!” and I think: “Really? You’re upset that someone is out there trying to make something tangible that they care about and are asking you for a few dollars? If you don’t want to donate, fair enough, don’t. But how can you not support their enthusiasm? Their willingness to put themselves out there?” It’s beautiful, this opening up of ourselves and asking others to join us, and there are so many other ways you can donate if you can’t give money: tweet, email, help spread the word. Donating takes very little from you, but can change the outcome in a big way for many others.
I donate to campaigns for different reasons: sometimes I think the film or product itself will be good, sometimes I like the people involved, sometimes I want one of the perks, but most of the time I donate because I believe in the principle of supporting the effort that the filmmaker is making. I support the fact that they are out there asking. I know how hard that is, and I support the very nature of making a film by collective effort.
I liken it to voting. I often say that when you buy anything you are voting, you are telling the companies of the world what you care about and what your values are. On election day, often I don’t really care for either of the candidates, but that doesn’t mean I’m not going to vote. Letting our voices be heard makes us brave, filled with faith, and ready to raise hell when it counts.
Together, we can lift the net! MM
Amber Sealey is an award-winning filmmaker and performer. She is about to start post-production on her third feature, No Light and No Land Anywhere, produced by Sealey, Drea Clark, and Alysa Nahmias, and consulting-produced by Miranda July. She lives with her husband and two children in L.A. Visit her campaign page on Indiegogo here.