Indievelopment: Scary Times in Independent Filmmaking

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Happy New Year! Wish I had cheerier news... I'll preface this by saying it's just my opinion, and it's anecdotal. I haven't done any mass survey or a comprehensive examination of the dollars and cents. But, from where I stand (and not just me), storm clouds are overhead. If it's sunshine where you are, then awesome (and let me know; I might swing by!)

So, on with the story.

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Have you heard of Ted Hope? He's an independent producer; he's won awards, been nominated for lots more, and he's produced 67 films to date. You've probably heard of some of them: 21 Grams, Martha Marcy May Marlene, In the Bedroom, American Splendor, Happiness.

Yeah, he's not going to be producing films for a living anymore.

When Ted Hope says he can't make a living as an independent producer, you listen. And you question.

There has never been a better time to be a filmmaker. Cameras are cheap. Smartphones are good enough that you can actually shoot certain types of films on them. Crowdfunding gives you production support and fans, social media lets you reach more fans, and you can release on YouTube for free. You can edit your film on a home computer, and even on your smart phone. There's never been a better time to be in independent film.

And, in some ways, there has never been a worse time to try to make a living in independent film. Yes, I'm going to be crass and talk about money. Dollars and cents, paying the rent, all that tacky stuff.

It wasn't unusual to be paid five figures for a rewrite. One rewrite. In indie, not a studio picture. Now, times have changed. I saw a post looking for a writer to develop the producer's outline into a feature film. I inquired, including my CV, and was told they were selecting from a group, and could I submit writing samples, and by the way, they were offering zero dollars.

Zero. And they were getting enough interest that they needed writing samples!

Are the writers any good? Probably not; very few good writers will write a feature film to spec for no money. But... it's hard to make any money when people will take on a multi-month, sometimes multi-year task for nothing. I work outside of the Hollywood system, and I know indie producers don't have six-figure development budgets. But now? Most of them give themselves no budget at all.

The thing is, production and post-production costs have dropped in indie. There's rarely film stock and processing costs, and smaller lighter cameras often mean smaller lighter gear and therefore smaller crews. VFX can be done on home computers instead of massive server farms. Composers can get near-orchestral sounds from their laptop. Editing is often done at home for free, instead of in a lab where you hear terms like "one light" and "work print."

But writing? Writing hasn't changed; if anything, it's become more expensive as cost of living has increased. However, producers haven't kept up with the times. If it costs $2M to shoot a film, you don't mind paying the writer $25K or maybe even $50K. But if you plan to shoot a feature for $25K... what do you pay the writer? Do you even pay the writer at all? Most of the time, no. They either pay nothing, or they write it themselves. The end result is the same: vastly less money for writers. These people are not producers in the business sense. They produce for art, for fun, for vanity, but whatever the reason, they have no business plan; they're approaching this as a hobby, so if you want to work with them, it better be a hobby for you too.

With web series, crowdfunding, and all the rest, we have seen an unprecedented rise in hobbyist filmmaking. And for all those people with day jobs (or independent wealth), who simply want to get an audience to see their story and aren't really concerned with paying the rent from that story, it is an incredible time. But for those who work full-time in the industry, but not in the studio system or in service production, it's scary. There's not a lot of money (and there's not as much IN the studio system as there used to be either, in many cases). There's so little money out there that Ted Hope, one of the champions of independent producing, has openly thrown up the white flag. He'll still make movies, but not for a living. And if the producer isn't making a living, how do you?

So... what do we do? Is it over? Time to give up on independent feature writing as a career?

Yes and no. There are still people paying for feature writing, but they're getting harder to find. You need to cast your net wider, get more active in networking (which sadly steals time from writing), and you therefore have to get your B.S. detector working better than ever. The times, they are a-changing, and you need to change with them.

And so do I. I haven't given up on indie, not entirely, but I am bowing to the reality of it, and I'm starting to write for Hollywood as well. (Don't get me wrong; I'm not assuming THAT wall will be easy to scale; I'm just accepting that making a living as a professional writer will entail scaling it at some point.) I just finished my latest spec, Needing Time, and it is my first script where I haven't thought of the target budget. Even when I've written the more expensive genres in the past, I was always very conscious of cost, since I knew who I might try to get to buy the script. Now? I've got helicopters, car chases, a football stadium... and I love it. It's been very freeing. I'm not being crazy; it's still conscious of budget. But there's more headroom, so when the script demands a helicopter, then I bloody well throw in a helicopter, rather than changing the plot so I don't need one.

So if you haven't tried writing for Hollywood, maybe give it a shot. Just bring your A+++ game.

And don't write a feature for free.

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