[Originally Published on Renegade Cinema & re-edited for Film Anthropology]
No/Low budget independent filmmaking is a necessity for most filmmakers who want to produce work that will help break them and their friends into the film business, or at least, get recognized by what’s left of the film business. Robert Rodriguez, the king of no budget cinema and the master professor on how to avoid spending money on your indie project even goes as far as to feature a “Ten Minute Film School” on the DVD release of his breakthrough film El Mariachi. The audio commentary in and of itself is one example after another on how to cut costs down to zilch. Although I am a film school graduate, the Rodriguez approach has always been far more helpful and yielded far more positive results than the ins and outs I had been taught at VFS. I’m not alone.
There has always been a basic system in place, a journey so to speak, that every filmmaker attempts to traverse: a filmmaker gets a bunch of people together, all with different talents and interests and all of them go out and make a movie. This is one of the hardest activities in the world to engage in because a lot of these kinds of projects are achieved through trial and error and generally go against the grain of society’s normal functions. Those with the knowledge and experience to make life a little easier for these cats only work for financial compensation. More on that later. So let’s say that the movie does find its way to completion. That movie enters the festival circuit and wins a few awards or at the very least gets an honorable mention, which in this day and age is considered an award in and of itself. This recognition is not lost upon distributors and soon the film gets picked up and everyone wins. Sure it’s an outdated, bullshit system that doesn’t really work as much as it used to, but the route is still possible and still attempted by many independent filmmakers.
It would seem that the production culture of some of these smaller films have driven the “professional” and “working” freelance community to the point where there is now an unofficial and unannounced war against these no/low budget filmmakers. It would seem that, at least in the big cities, anywhere a filmmaker can go to find help with his or her project is being taken over by freelancers who are crying fowl, engaging in vicious attacks against the filmmakers. An example of this is the decreasingly popular website Craigslist, where both no budget and low budget filmmakers can list their projects and production needs for any and all to respond to. CL even offers the option to list an ad as “Pay” or “No Pay”. It would seem that some of these pay only freelancers are sick and tired of sifting through the hundreds of no-budget calls for crew and the CL website has unofficially developed into a sort of anti-no-budget zone.
New Jersey filmmaker Chris Notarile said, “I believe that while it is improper to abuse or take advantage of free labor, a filmmaker should not be penalized for being resourceful and making a no budget film with willing participants.” Notarile went on to say, “If we just blindly crack down on all no budget productions, the only people we hurt are ourselves and our own community.” Notarile is correct. Without an outlet for filmmakers to inform the community that they are making a project and that they have a need for various talents, the very existence of independent filmmaking is threatened. Of course there are some that would welcome this depletion of projects from the pipeline. Another crewing website, Mandy.com, no longer allows for the listing of No Pay productions at all, unless it’s a short or student film.
Beanie Barnes for Salon.com, pretentiously wrote an article, labeling independent film as America’s “next Wal-Mart”, arguing that there needs to be less independent film made for the entire film industry to survive. “Anyone who says we need more of this, without offering any solution to make it better, is part of the problem.” Barnes wrote. “Many in the industry still refuse to acknowledge that film is subject to the economic laws of supply and demand.” For Filmmaker Magazine, John Yost tackled the subject of low/no budget indie filmmaking by taking on the no pay aspect, in his article The Microbudget Conversation, Unpaid Crew vs Underpaid Crew. Yost wrote, “It’s amazing how much of a difference even $50/day will make to some of us. Just knowing we’re not working for free goes a long way in making us more likely to give our best effort to some poor, inexperienced, yet passionate filmmaker. ” While there is a sort of wisdom and logic behind this thinking, and a great deal of collective examples of this, across many industries, this is only a fraction of the truth. In my experience and in the experience of others I’ve collaborated with, the animosity from crew members who weren’t my friends previous to the project, were nearly identical in both no pay and low pay productions. The common mentality with these specific crew members who were getting paid x amount a day was that they felt they were getting stiffed, regardless of the amount. They’ll always think you can afford to give them a little more and that’s problematic when there are so many other expenses on these projects than payroll. Going back to some of Robert Rodriguez’s comments on the El Mariachi commentary, “once you start spending money you’ll never stop” and this is absolutely true.
The other side of this is a much more serious problem. So many filmmakers are not capable of raising what the freelance collective would consider “proper financing” for their projects and some of these worker bees, while incredibly talented, are a bit sociopathic about this reality, insisting that if you can’t pay everyone to help you make the film then you shouldn’t make it at all. This line of thinking is incredibly dangerous, both to film and the art world as a whole. Many filmmakers take their projects very personally and some that I have talked to have no interest in having people on board their projects who’s dedication to the film is only commensurate with the capacity of a paycheck, or exists only when a paycheck exists. No money = no passion is not something that sits right. “You can pay a person to do anything” says one independent filmmaker who asked to remain anonymous, “anything goes, if the price is right. There’s something different about films made by people who are engaged in the project for reasons other than what they can get from it or whether or not it gets picked up.”
While I’ve dedicated my life to the pursuit of understanding and demystifying film through making films and writing about film, I have no intention of surrounding myself with people who’s hearts aren’t in the right place. With that said, I agree with both sides of the aisle because I am both an indie filmmaker and a freelance editor. How do you establish a peaceful balance with both sides when freelance film and video makers and pseudo journalists are rising up against the very existence of no and low budget filmmakers, even going as far as to relabel these cats as “bum filmmaker wannabees”, who also often become the victims of cyber bullying in the very forums where they post ads seeking out collaborators. How do you establish an acceptable balance when the hatred for one-another continues to grow. How do you establish a mutual understanding when these same freelancers are publishing media content like the spiteful and mean spirited video that has been gaining views on YouTube. It’s clear that a peaceful discussion among filmmakers and would be collaborators and service providers is desperately needed. Money is tight but we shouldn’t let that threaten the output of independent cinema. From a personal perspective, if I had waited until I had sufficient funds in place for all of my projects, I’d have no projects at all to speak about and I can safely claim that my truth is the truth for most filmmakers.