Filmmaking Doesn't Have to Be a Business

There’s a universally held belief in the world of filmmaking. It’s that film has to be treated as a business, and to treat it as anything else would be foolish.

Well in this post, I’m going to call bullshit, and give everyone a new way to think about filmmaking in 2016 and beyond.

First off, before folks start coming after me with torches and pitchforks, I’m not saying that filmmaking shouldn’t be a business or can’t be a business. Very clearly it can be.

I’m simply saying that in 2016, thanks to a confluence of factors, it’s perfectly acceptable to treat film as a personal or collaborative artform done for its own sake rather than in pursuit of money.

And even more than that, I’m going to argue that many people, especially those who are struggling to find meaning and to make ends meet in the world of independent filmmaking, should consider adopting this mindset.

This article is lengthy and detailed, and it will likely take you a solid 20 minutes to read, so I suggest grabbing a good cup of coffee beforehand.

All set? Now let’s dive down the rabbit hole, shall we?

The basis for why we treat film as a business

Let’s start with a little bit of historical perspective.

At this point, the moving picture medium has been around for roughly 120 years. For a solid 110 of those years, making a feature film and getting it in front of a sizable audience were extremely expensive propositions.

For that reason, the entire process had to be treated as a business. You had to get investors involved, either from a studio or independently. The investor’s money was then funneled into a filmmaking process that was inherently expensive.

From the film stock and lab costs to camera and equipment rentals, from hiring specialized crew to the myriad costs of post-producing a film, every piece of the process came with expenses that very few people would be able to afford without that up-front investment.

You then had to ensure that your investors were satisfied with your finished product so that they could shepherd it off to distribution companies, who would then bring it to market on expensive 35mm prints shipped right to your local theaters.

And then hopefully, after all of that hard work (and some equally expensive marketing campaigns), audiences would flock to see the film, and everyone involved would make their money back and then some.

Of course, there have always been people making films for cheap, maybe opting for s16 or s8 film stocks instead of the traditional s35. And there have always been people showing their work independent of traditional distribution channels. However, these people had always been outliers, and the odds were always stacked against them, especially if they were seeking commercial success.

All of this is to say that, since the very beginning, it hasn’t been financially feasible for ordinary people to make films simply for the sake of making films.

How inexpensive digital technology changed everything

Let’s fast forward to 2016.

Last year, one of the best films at Sundance was shot on an iPhone. I’m sure you’ve all heard the story of Tangerine, as it’s been touted multiple times by every film blog in existence. But stop and think about it for a moment. A film with a minuscule budget, featuring unknown actors, and shot on a consumer device (a cell phone no less) took one of the world’s most prestigious film festivals by storm.

It’s simply incredible, and if someone had predicted that would happen 20 years ago, they probably would have been institutionalized.

Tangerine is another outlier of course. There are tons of films, both short and feature length, that are shot on phones and inexpensive consumer-grade equipment that will never reach a wide audience and that will never create a profit for those who made them.

But the success of that particular film signals something. It tells us that the monetary barriers to creating incredible film have been all but obliterated. Access to technology good enough to produce a “professional” image is no longer an obstacle for most people. The same can be said for audio quality.

The result of this is that pretty much anybody who feels so inclined — regardless of who they are, where they live, or how much money they have — can make a film. In 2016, the once-exclusive world of quality filmmaking is both accessible and affordable to everyone.

Online funding and distribution are game-changing as well

Just as the technology to make a high-quality film has been democratized, so have the funding and distribution processes.

Thanks to crowdfunding outlets like Kickstarter, IndieGoGo, and a handful of others, anybody with an idea can pitch it to a group of strangers in hopes that it will resonate. And then maybe, just maybe, if that idea is good enough, those strangers will fund the project.

Making a film and then getting it in front of an audience is no longer out of reach for the vast majority of people, which opens up a world of possibilities for those of us inclined to treat film first and foremost as an art instead of as a product.

The end result of this shift is that filmmakers no longer need to rely on studios or independent investors to fund their projects. To take it a step further, this means that films don’t need to be treated as a product if the filmmakers aren’t interested in treating them as a product.

Of course, many films are still treated that way because they’re made with the purpose of being sold. Nothing wrong with that. However, that mindset and approach are no longer prerequisites for getting your film funded.

Now let’s talk briefly about online distribution. That’s a vague term that can mean many different things, but essentially it comes down to the fact that filmmakers now have an incredible array of options in terms of how their films reach people.

From YouTube to Netflix, Vimeo to iTunes, and a bevy of other VOD sites, filmmakers can choose any number of online distribution channels that best suit their particular film and their intended audience.

Long gone are the days where (expensive) theatrical distribution was the only option. Today, thanks to the power and ubiquity of the internet, you can reach wider audiences than you ever could before (though again, it’s far from easy) and you can monetize your work without ever involving a distributor.

Ultimately, the point of these past two sections is this: making a film and then getting it in front of an audience is no longer out of reach for the vast majority of people, which opens up a world of possibilities for those of us inclined to treat film first and foremost as an art instead of as a product.

Why you should maybe reconsider treating your own independent films as a business

This is the part of this article that is likely to piss some people off.

Here’s what I want you to do before skimming down to the rest of this article. Sit down and think for a moment about why you started filmmaking in the first place. I’m asking you to dive deep, and really get to the core of what makes filmmaking special to you.

Does the reality of what it takes to make a living as a filmmaker align with why you started making films in the first place? Is the magic still there, or are you just going through the motions without any overarching sense of purpose for why you’re still working at it?

Was it a result of your love of movies as a kid? Were you, like many, enthralled by the worlds created by minds like Spielberg and Lucas? Did you inherently know, without any doubt whatsoever, that this is how you wanted to spend your life, creating and playing in new worlds?

Or did you come to film at another point in your life, perhaps migrating to filmmaking after being heavily involved with another artistic medium, such as photography or literary writing?

Really sit down and think about it. Then ask yourself these simple followup questions.

Does the reality of what it takes to make a living as a filmmaker align with why you started making films in the first place? Is the magic still there, or are you just going through the motions without any overarching sense of purpose for why you’re still working at it?

Those are immensely difficult questions, so I’ll let you think about it for a bit. In the meantime, here’s a bit more information about me, which should help you understand why I feel this article, and the difficult thought-exercises I just asked you to do, are extremely important.

My story, or why I’m choosing to no longer treat film as a business

For me, it all started because I enjoyed watching movies in high school. I never had any intention or desire to actually make them until I headed off to college, at which point I took an introductory film class out of curiosity. From day one I was hooked. The process was mysterious and magical to me, and I wanted to immerse myself in it as much as I possibly could.

Over time, my love of film grew as I was exposed to new work. Ultimately I started focusing my attention on smaller films, foreign films, art films, and even experimental films. Instead of Spielberg and Lucas, my heart belonged to Tarkovsky, Malick, and Brakhage.

For the first time, I began to experience just how powerful film could be. I began to realize that film could convey great big ideas, important ideas, and it could move audiences beyond what any other medium could accomplish.

Yes indeed. I became a film snob, deeply entwined with esoteric films that most people find boring and tedious. I didn’t care, however, because for the first time, I began to experience just how powerful film could be. I began to realize that film could convey great big ideas, important ideas, and it could move audiences beyond what any other medium could accomplish.

As I continued my education, I worked on many projects. The goal was to get as much experience as possible under my belt so that I could start working my way towards becoming an esteemed cinematographer, shooting dramatic character-driven features and television shows for a living. That was the dream, and I was inching my way towards it.

Over time however, something weird began to happen. I started questioning the thought of a career in the film industry, and then I started dreading it. I didn’t care about most of the projects I was working on, and the process itself started feeling like a tedious and unnecessary slog. The 14 hours days on set that I had once been extremely excited about became a chore, and sometimes even a burden.

Eventually, I stopped participating in student films. Paid projects soon followed, as I was making a living as a writer. For about a year afterwards, I contemplated just giving up on film. The thought of pursuing any kind of career in the film industry — working tirelessly on meaningless projects with people I didn’t particularly like — weighed heavily on me.

Then I remembered the period of time in which I was most passionate about film. These were the times where I was not only enthralled by the possibilities of film as an artistic medium, but the times in which I deeply enjoyed the filmmaking process for its own sake. What if I could return to that state, I thought. How would I do it?

Ultimately, I came to the conclusion that I want to spend my life making interesting, unique films that have something important to say, and I want to work on those films with people that I genuinely like.

In order for that to become a viable and sustainable reality, I thought, the business of film would have to be removed from the equation. I’d have to make my living doing something else, then funnel money and time back into the process of making films without expecting them to pay me back. Not exactly the traditional way of going about it, but I’m confident that this approach will lead to a more fulfilling life and a body of work that I can be proud of.

And so here I am, running a website dedicated to one of the things I love most in this world (filmmaking), while having no real intention of ever participating in the film industry again.

Treating filmmaking as a business stifles creativity

Now that you know a little bit more about where I’m coming from, let’s get back to those difficult questions that I had you ask of yourself earlier. Have you thought about your answers? If not, these next three sections of the article will push you towards deciding whether or not you should treat film as a business in your unique situation.

Let me ask you another question. Do you consider creativity to be an integral part of who you are as a person? I know that I do. And I know that treating film as business is largely antithetical to pure expression.

I want to spend my life making interesting, unique films that have something important to say, and I want to work on those films with people that I genuinely like.

It should come as no surprise to anyone who’s seriously considered filmmaking as a business that in order for it to work, you have to treat your films as a product instead of as a piece of art.

Instead of channeling your creativity and your voice into something that is uniquely your own, you’re instead forced to think first of the audience you’re trying to serve. What do they want? And what do they expect from a film within the genre that you will likely be pigeonholed within?

Perhaps more important than what the audience wants is what the people investing in your film want. Quite simply, they want to dive into piles of money like Scrooge McDuck. So they look at films that have historically made a significant return, and then they lay out the expectation that your film will be similar in style, tone, and content, lest you be tempted to break away from the formulas that have worked in the past.

As a quick but relevant detour, check out this article by Sareesh Sudhakaran over on the excellent gear and workflow blog Wolfcrow. It’s a brief overview of what it takes to market and distribute a feature film so that you can actually make a living.

The post is very logical and straightforward, and it pulls no punches in terms of the many harsh realities that people must face if they’re looking to make a living making feature films.

And though it’s a truthful, relatively accurate article, it presents a soulless, wildly uncreative vision of filmmaking. It’s an existence in which you are constantly beholden to your investors and your audience, instead of to your ideas and your creative intuition.

No thanks.

The world needs more thoughtful films, not meaningless products

If you’re anything like me, you don’t make films because you want to create a product. You make them because film is the most powerful, universal artistic medium known to man, and you want to leverage that medium to say something important.

Quite frankly, this weird, broken world we live in doesn’t need more watered-down films that pander to lowest common denominator audiences. We need more smart films, unconventional films, and films that challenge our foundational beliefs. Even if they reach fewer people, these films are vastly more important than the ones that achieve mainstream success, but are ultimately vapid and empty.

Luckily, filmmaking is more accessible than it has ever been, and the chances of these incredible films being brought into existence is much higher than it has been in years past. The only barrier to that happening is if everyone treats film as a business.

Unfortunately, if people follow the path laid out in countless blogs, magazines, and books about how to achieve success in the world of filmmaking, then we’re bound to wind up with more of the same. More films that look and feel the same, with canned emotions and no greater purpose outside of making a few bucks.

On the other hand, if people take the road less travelled and abandon the business mindset with their films, I sincerely believe that both the people making those films and the people who watch them will be better off.

It’s just a hunch, but it comes from the belief that art is one of the most powerful forces in the world. If you agree with that sentiment, then I think the choice is clear in regards to which path you should follow.

Independent filmmaking isn’t a viable business for most people anyway (and that’s putting it gently)

Despite what you may hear in the wide world of film blogs, independent filmmaking is a shitty business, plain and simple.

Let’s be honest here. For every uplifting success story about an independent feature being picked up by a major distributor, there are probably 100 feature films of similar quality that fail to get seen on a wide scale or turn a profit. In addition to those 100 excellent films, there are probably 1000 mediocre or poor films that also crash and burn in terms of finding an audience making their money back.

The truth of the matter is that the independent film market is growing more and more saturated every single year thanks to those advances in technology we talked about earlier. More people are making independent films these days, yet demand isn’t really growing all that much.

Ultimately, this means that even though it’s easier and less expensive than ever before to make a film, it’s paradoxically harder than ever to actually make a living from it, especially if you’re seeking to write and direct your own films. Even if you do everything right, following tried and true paths for how to attain success, you’re not guaranteed anything.

I know I’m being extremely critical here, but it’s important to wrap your head around the improbability of forging a lucrative and stable career making unique films that you actually care about. From a mathematical standpoint, the chances are very close to zero. That’s not to say that it can’t be done. It’s just insanely difficult, and the road to get there will almost certainly be fraught with countless obstacles and crushing letdowns.

You’ll hear a lot of people tell you that film always has been and always will be a business, and that you should fall in line with the traditional way of doing things. Otherwise, you’d be a fool. Don’t believe them. The path you choose to follow through the world of filmmaking is entirely up to you.

It’s important to note that I’m not saying high-budget filmmaking and television are bad businesses. Nor am I saying that offering filmmaking services (to corporate and commercial clients or on a freelance basis) is a bad business.

Not at all. In fact those things can be highly profitable if you play your cards right. And for many independent filmmakers, their day jobs fall into those particular sectors of media production.

All I ask is that you be wary of treating independent film as a business. Though success isn’t impossible, it’s likely more improbable than you’d like to believe.

Benefits of abandoning the business mindset

So here we are. It’s crunch time.

In these last two sections, I’m going to walk you through the benefits and drawbacks of abandoning the business mindset when it comes to independent filmmaking. First up, the benefits.

1. You get complete creative freedom over your projects.

When you choose to abandon business, you get to make the films you want to make, not having to compromise your vision to appeal to a general audience or what investors want. If you value your creativity and your voice above all else, this one reason is plenty.

2. You no longer have to focus on feature filmmaking.

Feature films are the gold standard in filmmaking because that’s the way the market has operated for more than a century. Feature films are considered a marketable product. Short films are not.

However, when you take business out of the equation, you can make films as long or as short as you want without worrying about how that will effect marketability. If you don't want to commit to a the insanely lengthy and tedious process of making a feature, you don't have to.

3. You don’t have to put up with working on films or projects you don’t care about just to pay the bills.

If a project comes your way, but you get a sense that it’s meaningless, don’t work on it. It's that simple.

4. You don’t have to work with people you don’t like.

The film industry is notoriously full of arrogant assclowns. And chances are that when you approach filmmaking as a business, you will occasionally be forced to work with them. However, When you only work on projects you care about, you also get to choose who you work with.

5. You can still sell your work!

This might seem to contradict everything I’ve written, but think about it. If you’ve been able to cultivate any kind of an audience that likes what you do, they’ll certainly still purchase your films on VOD platforms (and DVD if that’s still going to be a thing in the future), even though you made the film without business in mind.

Let’s take someone like Don Hertzfeldt as an example. The dude makes strange esoteric animated films (which are some of the best films in the world, quite frankly), and he’s wildly popular. Even though Hertzfeldt is an outsider who makes films that he wants to make, people go out of their way to watch and purchase his work. Just take a look at this Kickstarter that he ran last year.

Drawbacks of abandoning the business mindset

And lastly, here are the drawbacks to treating film as an art rather than a business.

1. You have to find another way to make a living. 

Frankly, most people in the independent film world already make a living doing something else, whether it’s teaching, directing commercials, running a production company, or even something not related to filmmaking at all that gives them time and capital to invest back into their films.

2. You have to fit filmmaking into the time when you’re not working or taking care of life’s random obligations. 

This is perhaps the biggest drawback, as I see it. When you treat film as an art, it has to take a back seat to making a living and taking care of your family. You might have to make fewer films because you just don’t have the time or energy to make as many as you want.

3. You’ll have a harder time finding collaborators.

There are lots of people out there who are immensely talented, but who have no interest in working for free, even if the project is interesting and creatively fulfilling. When you abandon the business mindset, you essentially lose access to these people, which is a big bummer.

There are still plenty of people who genuinely love filmmaking and want to work on great projects though, so don’t worry about not being able to find anybody to help. In fact, I’m writing a book on that very topic right now, which will tell you how to find those people and make them a part of your filmmaking tribe.

Final Thoughts

If there’s one thing that I would like people to take away from this article, it’s that filmmaking means different things to different people, and that there’s no single path through the world of filmmaking that fits everyone.

Far too often, I see people criticized and scolded when asking for unpaid help on their passion projects. In a world where filmmaking has to be treated as a business, perhaps that criticism makes sense. However, as I hoped I’ve explained in this article, that’s not the world in which we live. Not even close.

So, if you’re a filmmaker who treats every aspect of the process as a business, that’s great, and best of luck to you. But please be open and accepting of the people who treat film as something else.

If you’re a young filmmaker, or someone who’s passionate about the artform but cynical about the state of the industry, don’t fret. You’ll hear a lot of people tell you that film always has been and always will be a business, and that you should fall in line with the traditional way of doing things. Otherwise, you’d be a fool.

Don’t believe them. The path you choose to follow through the world of filmmaking is entirely up to you.

You still have to make a living in this world, and there are many ways you can accomplish that both in the film industry and in areas adjacent to the film industry. However, there are also plenty of ways to make a living that will give you more free time and more capital to funnel into films that you care about.

In the end, if you really care about making films, you will do it regardless of whether or not it’s a business.

The only question left is: which path will you choose?

If you enjoyed this article, you'll love Filmmaker Freedom Weekly. Each week, I share my latest writing, curated stories from around the web, a short film that I love, and a healthy dose of filmmaking inspiration.

Are you ready to take your filmmaking to the next level?