request | Filmmaker Magazine
BETTER LIVING THROUGH FILMMAKING
Tips on how to be a successful filmmaker during the recession.

By Esther B. Robinson

What do you do when all the news is bad news? Layoffs, bank collapses, credit constriction. Gloom is the swine flu of our media ecosystem, and it's hard to ward off infection and hysteria. Our economy's become a dark, frigid sea that we're supposed to distance swim without instruction or a shore in sight. So what does that mean for us as creative individuals?

First and foremost, we need to recognize that we have unique resources. The news may be bad, but we started adapting to murky economic realities long before most people ever dreamed of a financial crisis. We've evolved for this extreme environment, like those crazy deep-sea fish — the glow-in-the dark ones with lamps on their heads. We may not be pretty, but we know how to survive in dark waters — and now the whole ocean's gone dark. Everyone else is panicking. They don't know how to live like this. But those of us used to late-night edit rooms, 20-hour days, Red Bull, ramen and shoebox apartments... we already know how to swim in these waters. We've already developed our weird adaptations in order to find work, food and friends, and now we're at an advantage. While everyone else slows down or stops, we can see clearly and keep creating. While others are blind in the dark, we can be proactive and fearless, and by taking some pretty simple steps we can make major leaps in our work and our careers.

TOP 10 THINGS TO DO IN THE RECESSION:

1. Commit yourself to filmmaking.

First, stop equivocating and commit to the long-term goal of being a filmmaker. You're either in or you're out — decide. Then recognize that living day-to-day, throwing everything into the next project without regard for what follows may not work over the long term. It's a question of pacing. If you still want to be doing this when you're in your forties, fifties and eighties, then you need to construct a life that functions. Committing to being a filmmaker means making all parts of your life work well.

2. Dedicate yourself to a lifetime of making inventive, rigorous work that matters.

If you're going to do this for the rest of your life, then you must ask yourself, "What am I making?" Is what you make the best possible thing it can be? Have you done the thinking to bring real artistry to your pursuit?

Commit to rigor over fluff and meaning over flash. The world does not need more predictable fare. The world needs films that share something about our moment; something that cannot be seen in any other way. To be a great filmmaker you must be inventive and rigorous. So swear to yourself that you will be as fearless as possible in pursuit of this goal.

3. Use your creative skills to build your future, not to deny your current situation.

We've all heard someone (maybe even ourselves?) spin fantasies about "how it'll all work out." That financier, that funder and even Mom, in a pinch. Someone's coming to make it right. They'll fix our financial mess for us, and we can ignore life's harsher realities till that white knight arrives. But unless there is a trust fund on your horizon, this is creative fiction. And while your ability to weave creative fiction may serve you professionally, it will hold you back in your actual life. There is no buyer, funder or producer that is going to save you. You only have yourself. So decide to use your creative skills to build your way forward through the challenges. Instead of using your creative imagination to deny that things are hard or to ignore reality, learn from past mistakes and do not repeat them. You need to be able to look at your life, banish fear and say with unshakable confidence "I've got a new plan."

4. Spend with clarity and save with purpose.

Why is it that when someone says, "You can't make that movie," you think, "Yes, I can," and if they say, "You should have some savings," you say, "There is no way." Recognize that you are skilled at making a lot happen with little money and use that skill on your work and your life. You're a filmmaker, you know how to build real things from no resources. With planning and forethought you can both make your movie and slowly build up savings.

Be ruthless about the difference between what you want and what you need. Track your money, making sure you're spending it well and prioritizing things that really matter. The goal is to save. Set a target savings amount. If you can, buy only what you need and barter for whatever else you want. Use eBay and Craigslist for bargains on all those weird little things you cannot live without.

For your films, be clear that big movies need big partners. If deep-pocketed partners aren't in your future, you need to change your "at any cost" strategy. Narrative filmmakers may need to embrace the era of the small movie: small containable scripts, few locations, small crew. You also may need to deepen and wield your knowledge about local and international tax credits. Both narrative and documentary filmmakers need to really research the grant landscape and be realistic about the odds of receiving funding.

Also don't be afraid to slow down your schedule to benefit your work and your pocketbook (remember everyone is adjusting — no one will blink at a schedule change). A slower pace means you can fit your film around your money job and use the extra time to keep on solid financial footing and deepen the work. Keeping your money job allows you to move forward without falling too far behind. However if your film is topical in a way that means it must be shot right now, then you need to really know how much cash it will take to make it happen.

So be realistic and clear about how much your film will cost and which funding sources are likely and which are not. Make a plan for what you will do if none of the funding comes through. Next, make a plan for if half comes through. Your goal is to understand how much debt you can take on. Be realistic about this part and set a limit before you start shooting. It's important to know the answer to this in advance because during the crunch you can easily lose sight and get into trouble. You need to be honest with yourself — you may not sell this film. The debt you are accruing is yours and yours alone. Having a clear sense of this in advance can really help you make strong choices during production and post and could mean the difference between long-term debt obligations and solvency.

5. Get your credit in order.

Remember that access to capital when you need it is good but bad debt can sink you. So if you have debt, commit to eliminating it: Figure out how much you owe, figure out what your upcoming costs will be and determine how much you can realistically spend each month to pay down your debt. Three good online debt resources are Snowball down your debt, the smart money resources, and powerpay.

For those of you with no credit, you can establish credit by joining a local or national credit union and obtaining a debit card that you can then trade up for a credit union charge card.

Either way, dedicate yourself to raising your credit/FICO score. Use resources like the Filmmaker article from Spring 2009 to assist you so you have the credit resources you need when you need them.

6. Embrace multiple income streams.

Other forms of income make your work possible. Instead of fighting this, be grateful. It's amazing how much energy you save if you stop fighting this paradigm. If you need more money, find new sources of income based on your odd skill-set and apply No. 3. If your job is demeaning or bad, commit to finding a new job and leaving your old one. But remember that this is a recession. Don't just up and quit your day job. You might not find another one as easily. And frankly, your day job is keeping your movie happening even though it feels counterintuitive. Sure, you may need to make adjustments to keep your second (or third or fourth) job from interfering completely with your film, but it's likely necessary to keep you moving ahead financially in these times. By first adjusting your attitude you greatly improve your chances of making the whole thing work.

7. Create strength through community.

Your friends and colleagues are your greatest resources — they have skills, equipment, intelligence and savvy. Clues to survival reside with our peers and our community of fellow filmmakers and artists. The choices they make will help us solve our own problems and make better choices. Take colleagues you admire out to coffee, lunch or dinner, and ask questions about how they make it work. Also, do things that help you enjoy your community. Too often in the single-minded pursuit of filmmaking we forget to enjoy our friends. Movies get made by groups of people. Make sure that this group brings you joy. Communal dinners, caffeinated meet-ups, tequila. These are all tools to bring folks closer together, and the better we play together, the better we work together.

8. Manage your goals and chart your progress.

Set your goals in writing. Studies show that writing down your goals drastically improves your chances of meeting them. Break down the steps. Any goal, even a big one, is achievable if you break it down into the smallest steps possible. Then share your goals. Make yourself accountable publicly so that you have an incentive to follow through on things like debt reduction. Also, track and share your success. Use the discipline of goal tracking to bring order to your life. Then use the lists to remind yourself that you are making progress. It's too easy to think you aren't moving forward if your goals are really big, but progress is progress, so make sure you can chart yours.

9. Give more and participate in making the world a better place for all people.

When you focus on your own challenges it's easy to forget that the world is a difficult and challenging place for those less fortunate than yourself. Don't be a selfish artist, be a good citizen. Volunteer for a cause, a campaign or a soup kitchen. Help your friend or neighbor. Give advice, give your time, give your expertise. Especially do this when you're afraid. It will banish the fear. It will also lead you to new and unexpected opportunities. And remember, even when it's hard, we are blessed to be able to do what we love.

10. Make the decision to make your best work and be good with money and enrich the world.

Now go out there and kick some cinema booty.



VOD CALENDAR

Filmmaker's curated calendar of the latest video on demand titles.
Free Men Sensation Restless City
See the VOD Calendar →