Imagining sustainable independent cinema

"So many [screenplays] are written, so few are made, and the majority of those are written by the tiny coterie of Mamelukes, harem detainees, or house slaves who constitute the chosen among the Hollywood faithful. These fattened cattle, myself included, are preserved not to write but to provide the unwary starry-eyed aspirants a further goad to their unpaid efforts." -David Mamet, "Bambi vs. Godzilla," 2006
I've been involved in independent filmmaking since I graduated from the University of Southern California's film program in 2001. My first job on a feature film was as the 2nd Assistant Director, for which I was paid $15 per day for an 18-day shoot in August of that same year. It was a thrilling, joyful, arduous experience working on that film, and many of my friendships and professional connections from that project have endured to this day. I fully understand, from firsthand experience, why people are drawn to filmmaking. A sense of ambient potential hangs in the air on a film set—there's an ever-present, intoxicating possibility that the film will be seen by millions of people, and will open doors to another world of creative expression on a grand scale. Working on that film for $15 per day, I felt like I was a part of something important— and it was entirely worth it, in retrospect, even though I would struggle to pay my rent and my bills for months afterwards. I don't regret that experience and I wouldn't trade it for anything. But I'll never do it again, either. This is an experience that I presume is shared by the vast majority of people who work on independent films, especially in the Midwest—because absent that seductive flush of potential, the independent filmmaking status quo is entirely unsustainable, and makes no sense financially for anyone involved, from the crew to the actors to the investors. I understand the love of the art form and the love of the process, but as a community, I believe that we desperately need to find a way to engage in it differently. The alternative is unsustainable. We cannot continue to work at sweatshop wages in the thrall of Hollywood, clear-cutting the rainforests of our homegrown talent and creativity, selling off our raw materials to the lowest bidder, and selling short our own dreams in the process. Since my film crew debut, I've worked on half a dozen other feature films in various roles, in Minnesota, Los Angeles, and even Kansas, usually as a 1st Assistant Director. I also have observed numerous other projects via friends and colleagues: narrative features, documentaries, and short films with budgets ranging from $15,000 to $600,000. Each one of these films represents literally thousands of hours of labor on the part of dozens of individuals, and much of that time, energy, and equipment is donated for a severely reduced rate or for free. It's not at all uncommon for experienced actors and crew people, who charge upwards of $400/day for their services on a commercial or a corporate video shoot, to work for basically minimum wage, or less, for a standard 12-14 hour day of work on an independent film. This generosity is astounding, and I've benefited from it personally, asking favors from professionals and vendors for every film I've made myself. Yet, in every case I've known of or been involved with personally, the finished film, and all the blood, sweat, and tears that it represents, has been eagerly sold off to distributors at fire-sale prices. Not one of the projects I've been involved with or discussed with other filmmakers , not one of them has yet netted a dime of profit for its producers or its investors—let alone paid back all of the "deferred pay" that is often included in the contracts with the crew and the actors. Nevertheless, when a film that cost hundreds of thousands of dollars to make scores a distribution deal to theaters, cable or DVD for some small fraction of that sum it is declared a victory and a success. Because the film is out in the world, strangers are presumably watching it somewhere, and the director and producers thus gain some credibility and esteem to leverage in negotiations with investors and distributors for their future projects. And the myth continues to grow—that if we keep selling ourselves out, we'll eventually be granted entry into the realm of "the chosen among the Hollywood faithful," like David Mamet—and finally allowed to earn a living making movies. I believe that there is an alternative. Filmmaking can be both sustainable and creatively nourishing, but we'll only get there if we reassess some of our basic assumptions about why, how, and for whom we make movies here, in Minnesota.

Sweatshop Cinema

Ever since I got involved in filmmaking ten years ago, I've heard the cheerleading of the independent film consultants and seminar speakers: that the old model no longer applies, the system really is broken this time, and a new age of truly sustainable, independent film is finally upon us because of the internet, viral video, social networking, drop-ship DVD distribution—if we're just willing to work even harder, invest even more, and bear full financial responsibility for the outcome. But somehow, the brave new world always looks very familiar, with the usual hustling, scraping and favor-begging for scarce resources at every stage of the filmmaking process. Large Hollywood studios and smaller boutique distributors (many of which are owned by or partner with the larger studios) have, in the past few years, radically divested themselves of the responsibilities and risks of developing and producing smaller films—increasingly, they're not even willing to invest their own resources in the branding or marketing of the films they acquire. Design and printing of posters, postcards and fliers; travel expenses to promotional screenings; website design, hosting and maintenance; sometimes even the duplication of the DVDs themselves—all of the expense of making the movie and selling it must now be borne by the independent producers and their private investors. There's nothing terribly sinister about this decision on the part of the studios and distributors. What self-respecting businessperson would choose to pay for what he or she can get for free? If there's one thing the studios have learned in the last decade, it's that there seems to be nothing that the committed independent producer won't do in the service to their film, including taking out a second mortgage or cash from their 401(k). What I see is a brilliantly conceived mechanism for extracting maximum value from us for minimal investment in us—a system that is probably the envy of the post-industrial world. Other industries must make at least a marginal investment in the means of production—retooling a factory in Indonesia, for example, and hiring workers at whatever legal minimum wage has been negotiated with the government— but film distributors have a finished product delivered to them, gift-wrapped, and the complete freedom to choose whether or not they'll deign to take it off the hands of a producer who is deeply in debt and desperate to recoup something and slap a studio logo on their DVD box so they can declare victory and move on to their next project. Whether the architects of the film industry knowingly fostered this dynamic or whether it happily fell into their laps as a byproduct of decades of savvy PR efforts is a moot point. Personally, I don't believe that there's a roomful of executives somewhere in L.A. smoking thick cigars and chuckling about the rubes hauling sandbags for free in Kansas. Perhaps it's the inevitable result of a culture increasingly held in the thrall of famousness, wherein all the beautiful extroverts dream of being stars, and the slightly-less-beautiful introverts dream of writing for and directing the pretty ones.

"I saw the best minds of my generation…"

"So what?" you ask. (I ask myself too.) "If people are willing to put money into these films, and people are willing to work on them for cheap, isn't all as it should be? Why should anybody care that you feel exploited?" And, no, as much as I personally want to feel victimized by this state of affairs, the fact remains that it is up to us to set our own boundaries, act on our own values, and insist upon basic sustainability in our projects, if we deem it a priority. Without this honest self-appraisal and a firm belief in on our own value, we doom ourselves to a lifetime in a dysfunctional system which is ultimately only interested in harvesting low-hanging fruit for less than the cost of production. But in my 10 years of experience in the local film community, I've seen incredibly talented friends and colleagues bounce back and forth between unpaid projects, corporate freelancing, and short-term day jobs, until they're emotionally exhausted by the cycle of long days of hard work followed by long weeks of unemployment, never knowing when the next call for a paying gig will come, and sick of not being able to afford health insurance. As we get older, our willingness to work on any paying gig grows stronger, and creative expression and even self-respect become unaffordable luxuries. So, most people eventually give up. The rate of attrition for independent filmmakers beyond the age of 30 is grim—every year, people who, in my opinion, could be making beautiful films are instead turning away from filmmaking altogether, or working exclusively on commercials and corporate gigs, and saying no to any project that won't help pay the bills this month. Once in a blue moon, somebody does get "noticed," and raptured away to the mythical promised land of professional filmmakers, where they'll be paid to direct a commercial, or they'll have a screenplay optioned for $10,000. Good for them, I guess, but the primary impact of their success for this community is to reinforce the myth and persuade the rest of us to remain on the treadmill just a little bit longer, just in case, we might be next. And so we're convinced that this status quo is somehow just and right, that we don't actually deserve to earn a basic living for our efforts—which incidentally create a significant percentage of the movies that happen to be available on Netflix or cable. Somebody is making money off the fruits of our labors—but it sure ain't us.

"Just say no."

This state of affairs has been the status quo for so long – a generation at least, the entirety of many of our adult lives – that it can be hard to believe that an alternative exists. In spite of decades of work by countless individuals and organizations, and millions of dollars in funding devoted to promoting independent filmmaking in Minnesota, conditions don't seem to have changed. There's always a different excuse—the Snowbate, the weather, the economy—but the result is the same: the promised land, where local people earn a decent living for working hard on creative projects, is as elusive as it ever was, in spite of the phenomenon of Diablo Cody (who I don't seem to see around much anymore, these days…). If no one wants to pay us to make movies here, and the system is set up to buy what we have to offer for less than it costs to make, here are our options:
  1. We can soldier on here in Minnesota as we have in the past, waiting for our auteur savior to come, our very own Minnesotan version of Robert Rodriguez, Richard Linklater or Gus Van Sant.
  2. We can move to L.A. or New York where, legend has it, many people do actually earn a living working on movies—though, being on a film crew and being a filmmaker are two very different things. My independent filmmaker friends in LA seem to struggle to get their work financed and distributed just as much as we do here.
  3. We can stop making movies altogether and find work that's not predicated on our willing participation in our own exploitation.
  4. We can adjust our expectations, take a fearless personal inventory of our motivation for becoming filmmakers in the first place, and pursue a sustainable form of filmmaking that serves us, here, now.
Here's what #4 would look like in practice: When deciding whether or not to make a movie, take all of the dreams of future success and future projects and future acclaim and future earnings out of the equation and take a hard look at this project, right in front of you. Ask yourself a few questions. Can I afford to make this? If I need to ask other people to help me make this, can I afford to pay those people a fair living wage? If this movie never wins an award or earns a dollar, is it still worth doing? In short: is this project both worthwhile and sustainable, unto itself? This doesn't mean smaller crews working harder and longer for less money. It means reimagining the production and postproduction process, rethinking our shooting styles, our lighting styles, our production schedules – really doing things differently to reflect a different set of values from mainstream cinema, and learning how to do more ourselves so we don't have to keep asking for expensive favors from professionals who are themselves struggling to pay rent and support their families. And: it means saying "no," loudly and clearly, to all those seeking something for nothing – all the distributors and producers who are still invested in an unsustainable and exploitive system, who come around regularly asking very nicely for cheap labor, discounted equipment, and emotional investment for deferred pay with vague promises of an eventual return.

Independent Cinema 3.0: Homemade, Handmade

I recently taught a filmmaking workshop at the St. Paul Conservatory for the Performing Arts, and it was beautiful to see how much fun the students had—five or six kids in a group, brainstorming ideas then running around downtown St. Paul with a camera, directing one another. I remember that feeling from when I was a teenager. And, I know for a fact that as adults we still know how to access that joy. Look at the popularity of the 48-Hour Film Festival, which draws hundreds of participants every single year. Do we really need a meaningless competition, with an entry fee by the way, to convince us that making a movie is worthwhile? Is the process completely fueled by dreams of winning, by the desire to make a movie that's better than somebody else's movie? I hope not. My vision for independent filmmaking in Minnesota is this: If we quit playing the game and seeking the approval of authority figures on the coasts, if we stopped letting them set the terms for success and failure and stopped dreaming about things being better down the line, elsewhere—if we stopped selling out our own creative potential in pursuit of some mythical future payoff—I think we would make more movies here, and better movies, and cheaper movies, and stranger movies. I think if we started to make them for ourselves and for each other, and developed our own unique Minnesota style that looked nothing like mainstream indie fare, that we'd feel better about ourselves and our work, and we'd start to do it just because it feels good. And you know what? After a few years of that kind of movie-making, magically, without even having to try, a movie from Minnesota would start to become its own special thing, and that thing would be ours. Maybe that would finally get us noticed.
Headshot of Kevin Obsatz
Kevin Obsatz

Kevin Obsatz is a filmmaker and media artist who has been living and working in Minneapolis since roughly 2002. He currently teaches Intro to Experimental Media at the University of Minnesota and co-leads the Production Mentorship workshop at IFP. He curates Cellular Cinema, a recurring screening series featuring local experimental film, video and performance at the Bryant Lake Bowl Theater, and should receive an MFA from the University of Minnesota this spring. You can find samples of his work and his full resumé at