A career in filmmaking
Back before the 90s, breaking into the filmmaking industry was extremely difficult, but established filmmakers generally made an alright living. Even into the 90s, with the rise of independent film, filmmakers were still able to make okay money off of their craft. The same isn’t so true today. With the rise of technology, anyone can make a film. When you take a high-demand job and remove the restrictions, naturally you’re going to get a flood of newcomers, eager to get their work out there.
There are so many people trying to make filmmaking their career. I don’t say this to discourage you, but it’s important to have a healthy perspective on the industry. Just in Vancouver (where I went to film school), there are four serious film schools that take in large groups of students every year. The school I went to, The Vancouver Film School, has intakes of 30-40 students every two months. Sure, many of these students end up dropping out, quitting their film pursuits, or they end up working on sets across various departments. But most of them have dreams of making films. On day one of school, one of our teachers said, “With a show of hands, how many people here want to be directors?” Every single student in our class raised their hand.
Luckily for the determined, most people who set out to make a feature film don’t succeed, usually because of lack of confidence and/or lack of motivation. Still, thousands of films are made every single year.
The tyranny of distribution
Distributors no longer pay money for independent films. Thanks to over-saturation, they don’t need to pay. They have hundreds of filmmakers sending them films, all willing to give away the rights for a small cut that they may or may not ever get. Decades ago, before the Great Independent Film Flood, distributors would offer big sums of money as minimum guarantees, or MGs. These days, MGs are rare, mostly non-existent. Back in the day, you sold the film and the distributor did the rest. These days, filmmakers are expected to provide everything from artwork, posters, subtitle files, commentary tracks, and so on.
A typical deal goes as follows (and this is if you’re lucky): A distributor will take your film with no MG, and usually around a 70/30 split (in their favour). They will spend a small amount on marketing, usually around $25,000 (much of this is to pay themselves). Then, once the film is released, you aren’t paid until they recoup that $25,000. Not until then will you start to earn your 30%. If you want to learn a little bit more, read my article on the state of the film industry today.
Unless you raised all of your finances through crowd sourcing, or you paid out of your own pocket, you will have to repay your investors before you see a dime. Most filmmakers will even sell their movie to a sales agent, whose job is to take the film and sell it again to a distributor, or multiple distributors. They will take an additional percentage and will have their own marketing expenses that need to be recouped.
More often than not, filmmakers who are successful in making a film will never see a dime.
How you won’t make it
Hoping to make a living off of a film’s (or multiple films) royalties is nonsensical. It won’t happen. In making Black Mountain Side and Hammer of the Gods, I was lucky enough to meet some established filmmakers, with films I had both seen and enjoyed. I was shocked to learn they all had other jobs on the side that they worked between productions.
Many filmmakers pay themselves a portion of the film’s budget, which is fine, but you won’t (you shouldn’t) make enough to pay the bills. Even if you’re insanely efficient, making a film every year, you’re only going to be making about $5,000-$20,000 off of every film. For most beginning filmmakers, that money is better used on other things. I wasn’t paid anything out of the budget for Kankered or Black Mountain Side, my first two features.
Here in Canada, we have decent tax credits. In BC, you can get up to 35% of labour costs back. During the beginning stages of Black Mountain Side, our accountant told us that this is how most filmmakers pay themselves, with the tax credit money. We used a portion of our tax credit to paid ourselves, but again, it was nowhere near enough to pay the bills.
If you pay yourself out of the budget, and you give yourself a bit of your tax credit, and you manage to make a chunk of money from royalties, you STILL won’t be making enough to live. So what can you do? How do people do it?
Finding work elsewhere
Most independent filmmakers have other jobs. Many work in the film industry. I worked as a boom operator for a few years, until it started to take a toll on my back. Some filmmakers have more standard jobs, in restaurants and bars, in retail stores, and so on.
Here’s the best advice I can possibly give: do not work in the film industry if you want to make films. The years I worked in film were my least productive years, and I regret them. There’s a stigma in the film industry, especially with those who went to film school. People seem to think working outside of the industry is, in some way, giving up on filmmaking. People feel they need to live in one of the big film cities and work tirelessly on sets. You don’t, and you shouldn’t.
Film industry pay is mediocre, even once you work your way up the ranks (which is difficult), and the hours are absolutely brutal. Working fourteen hour days, sometimes seven days a week, you aren’t going to have time to write scripts or plan your projects. When you do get downtime, you won’t have the energy. Set work is where aspiring filmmakers go to die.
There are arguments for working in the film industry but maybe that’s an article for another time.
Work part time, or from home
Two years ago, I quit the film industry and started working from home doing private graphic design work, mostly for publishers and web designers. I also do a good deal of ghostwriting and editing between design jobs. I get to work from home, I make far more than I was making working on sets, and my work week is only about 30 hours. Thanks to this work transition, I was able to make Hammer of the Gods, and I’ve been able to write multiple screenplays and do plenty of market research.
A filmmaker friend of mine works as a bartender. He sends his boss a text message when he needs two months off for a shoot, and his job is waiting for him when he gets back. I have the privilege of being able to e-mail clients that I’ll be away for a few months, and I know there will be work for me when I get back (I also make royalties from my ghostwriting efforts, which helps).
These days there are tons of ways you can work from home. It’s not easy; it takes a lot of discipline (which you should have anyway if you want to be a filmmaker). Working from home is low-stress, which is important for creativity.
You need to be stubborn
The word stubborn has such a negative connotation, but I’ve found it’s actually one of my more valuable traits. If you’re going to make a living with filmmaking, you need to be stubborn. You need to be able to live off of very little, you need to put in hours when you sometimes don’t want to put in the hours. The truth is, you can’t finish a screenplay without being stubborn. Most people get ten pages into a script before throwing their hands up and yelling, “this story is crap!” Every script is going to suck in its first draft. You need to be stubborn if you’re going to see it through to future drafts and through to production.
Don’t expect to be making money off of your first film. Don’t expect to ever make real money off of a career in film. It’s not guaranteed, and distributors will make it their goal to get all the money they can. The best way to approach it, is to treat it like a hobby. Find a job on the side to support your hobby, the way you might if you’re an avid skier. My brother-in-law is an avid mountain biker. For years, he went on mountain biking circuits and he tried to make a career out of it. Now, he makes a comfy living as a carpenter and he has plenty of spare time for biking. He’s probably the happiest person I know.
Filmmaking doesn’t need to be your job. In fact, you shouldn’t want it to be. If you try, you will just end up becoming jaded and you’ll begin to hate the process. Filmmaking should be fun. It’s an art. There’s a reason it’s such a sought-after career choice.