There is no Democratization in Filmmaking. It’s Pay-to-Play.

Why “Just make your film” is terrible advice.

I’m communicating with a potential client. That music video I shot and edited a few years ago was impressive. It won me and the music artist a regional filmmaking and music video award. The client wants to know, “What did you use to shoot it?”

“Oh, that was just my Canon 60D. We shot it on a limited budget as a last-minute video when we didn’t get the funding for our original video the artist wanted.”

“Oh okay, wow.”

Despite proving that I can work with budget constraints, quick story-building techniques, and with limited equipment, I’ll never hear from this client again. Why? Because I shot the video alone with limited resources. I shot it with a mid-range Canon crop-sensor camera that was okay for the time but definitely shows its age now. Even if it was a favorite among quality budget filmmakers like D4Darious.

It’s a good camera.

Just like D4Darious, my Canon 60D has been good to me. I still shoot with it and I’ll never get rid of it unless I have to. But I would be nuts to assume that I still can be considered for client work with just this camera. Maybe no-to-low-budget work, but the hard truth is that no-budget work won’t get you hired beyond your local market. Eventually, you’ll have to open your wallet to either rent or purchase better equipment and to hire additional crew. Actual crew who know what they are doing. Like an assistant director. And grips. And an on-set “sound guy” who ideally isn’t also the boom guy.

Your Canon 60D can only miss focus so many times before you are dismissed as a time-wasting hack. At the very least, you’ll eventually need a monitor. And then you need a place to mount that monitor. Soon, you are shopping for cheeseplates and not the awesome kind.

Once you enter the professional world of filmmaking — the actual professional world of filmmaking — you learn very quickly that no one takes you seriously as a filmmaker unless you actually helmed a crew. Preferably on a camera that doesn’t prioritize stills. Also, “filmmaker” isn’t a job title. It’s what you tell children you are because not even an adult can explain the difference between a story producer, an associate producer, a co-producer, and an executive producer.

I like to pretend I’m not still bootstrapping my career. But I am. My world of financial privilege was swept away with the Gulf tides and I found myself trying to maintain a Southern California lifestyle on an Alabama budget. So I had to return the drawing board several times in the past 15 years, falling flat on my face nearly every time.

Damn. Is it too late to be a software developer?

As much as I talk about brotogs and Youtube content miners, I believe strongly in the democratization of filmmaking. I believe it’s the only solution to amplify minority voices. I’m sick of being one of the few women and/or people of color on a set and the more stories the disenfranchised are allowed to tell, the more control we have over our own lives, histories, and destinies.

However, to shoot a film, whether as a hobby or as a career, is privileged, and it always has been. YouTube is a platform that allows anyone to publish content (for better or worse), but at the same time, its algorithm favors channels that already have a strong following or channels that make YouTube the most money. In a post-2013 world, those are more professionally produced shows, even if they didn’t start off that way. The era of piano cat and flash animutations is long gone.

As you continue your career, “Just make something,” gets less and less relevant. Why? We imagine film careers to be linear. I’m at mid-career. I’m supposed to be above “making a backyard film with friends” stage but before the “have you been nominated for an Emmy” stage of my career. As much as I love, “just make something with your friends,” I have to realize that I need to spend more time working jobs that will actually pay. Do I still make small films? Yes, but I can only do so many of those before realizing I need to pay my bills like a functioning adult. I’m also in my 30s and married, so I could be pregnant next month and then my whole budget is shot for the next forever.

Backyard films get you practice, but it’s not even good practice because the client is you. Unless you can monetize that backyard film, you’ll be wasting your time creating another. While that’s technically easier with VOD, YouTube, and Patreon, the real money is still in traditional distribution methods. And to get there, you’re gonna have to up that budget, Steven Spielberg. You can only make Blair Witch and El Mariachi once. No one wants to buy a film that looks like it was made cheaply. So, unless you have a rich uncle or something, you will probably be creating client work for a while. Which is fine. Studios are nothing more than clients with deep pockets.

But even if you are creating a video for that hip brand, agency, or local startup, clients are far more selective these days so you’d still have to plunk down some money to look like they made the right decision hiring you. You know, “operating costs.” Doing the math may send you into a deep depression, especially if your client is also cheap. Don’t forget those non-sexy costs like your taxes and insurance.

Photo by Jp Valery on Unsplash

You may even talk to clients who specify you use a certain software or camera rig. Something you may not have. For example, I talked with a representative from a post-production house recently and he asked if I knew AVID. I technically know AVID because that what I learned to edit on the first place. It was and still is a Hollywood standard. However, in my day-to-day, I edit on Premiere just like every other freelancer who tends to edit projects with short turnarounds. Why? The only reason I chose Premiere over AVID is price and compatibility with other Adobe programs. Before I worked for a community college, I paid $85 a month for all of Adobe’s programs. Now, I pay $21 a month with my educator’s discount. In contrast, AVID media encoder used to cost thousands. Now, it’s $20 a month, but free for the “lite” version. Eventually, if I want the big bucks, I’m gonna have to invest in AVID in addition to Premiere as well as a decent non-traveling editing bay that can handle the processing needs of both programs. Some weirdos out there still cut on Final Cut Pro, but at least I can save that $300. And the more footage I get to store, the more I have to spend on physical drives, backup systems, cloud systems, and possibly even data recovery when a drive fails.

Oh. This client only has $500…cool. I could either turn it down or I can do what every creative professional claims not to do: take the job because I have no other prospects right now and S̶a̶l̶l̶y̶ ̶M̶a̶e̶ Navient called me for the third time this month looking for my student loan payment. And I need my thyroid medicine filled and a new EpiPen. I do enjoy staying alive.

Well, maybe they will pay in a day or two. I pray to God for no scope creep. Or maybe I pray there will be scope creep so I can charge more.

…how’s Silicon Valley looking right now?

is a filmmaker, photographer, and digital media artist living a stereotypical artist life. She could have been a doctor or a scientist, but here we are.

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