Monday, May 8, 2023

Filmmaking is NOT a hobby!

The Utah Filmmakers Association does not set out to discourage anyone striving to work in the film industry, but one cannot espouse Professionalism, Integrity, and Respect without complete honesty. It must also be acknowledged that some of the terms we’ve used in reference to community filmmakers, while intended to make those lacking professional experience feel welcome and included, may not have been helpful to the organization’s Mission. Emphasis has always been placed on our Vision, yet confusion persists about what “filmmaking” represents within our society and culture.

Is filmmaking an art form or a business?

More to the point, can filmmaking just be considered an art form without all the baggage associated with “business” and “industry”? Our response may disappoint some, but the entire premise of the question is false. It assumes that the “art” and “business” of filmmaking exist independently—they do not.

"Creativity Versus Profit"
Image by Craiyon
While some might not like to hear it, the business of filmmaking is a definitive and inextricable component of the art form because of its collaborative nature. When two or more individuals agree to cooperate on a project—regardless of whether or not it’s artistic, commercial, public, or personal—they have entered into an implicit contract and are conducting business amongst themselves. Whether or not it was discussed in advance, the project will create a unique asset that did not exist previously—an idea or an object—a commodity that will have value to someone. As such, an owner—or owners—must be identified and agreed upon by everyone involved in its creation.

Too many community filmmakers have misappropriated the word “hobby” to describe their involvement in filmmaking. Such use is damaging to the industry and the art form. Filmmaking cannot be described as anything approaching the definition of a hobby. It never has, and it never will. It’s certainly not something that’s done to relax—it’s difficult, challenging, and often stressful work. While anyone can derive a great deal of satisfaction from their efforts and enjoy the process, filmmaking is not something that can be picked up and put down at anyone’s leisure; and is rarely undertaken as a solo activity. The collaborative aspect of the art form requires a level of commitment that does not allow for casual participation. No one can be expected to drop by a set when they have a spare minute to help out. While improvisation can and does happen on film sets—in front of and behind the camera—no one can improvise the creation of a motion picture.

One may attempt to counter this point by referencing the 48-Hour Film Project, but that would require ignoring all the logistical considerations required to participate in it.

There is no such thing as a “hobbyist filmmaker”

There are amateur filmmakers, yes. Do some amateurs refer to themselves as “hobbyists”? Some do. The colloquial use of the term “hobby” notwithstanding, anyone self-identifying as a “hobbyist filmmaker” is doing a disservice to themselves, the industry, and the art form. It also devalues the hard work of industry professionals in the public's minds in a way that would be unthinkable in any other line of work.


Two of the host’s mutual acquaintances are making small talk.

So, what do you do?

I’m a neurosurgeon.

Well, that sounds like a fun hobby!

The Professional rolls their eyes and walks away.

Just as the cliché “passion project” has been abused into a code phrase meaning “unpaid labor,” “hobby” is being similarly shoehorned into an absurd belief that filmmaking does not require any sort of investment. As if hobbyists, in general, don’t spend any money on their leisurely pursuits. Even if one considers meditation or walking a hobby, they still require a substantial investment of time—a commodity typically measured in an hourly wage.

The casual use of leisure rhetoric is symptomatic of amateur thinking. We’ll repeat the caveat above that some might not like to hear it, but those who insist on incorporating these terms into their concept of “filmmaking” may only be doing so to deflect attention away from the actual state of their career prospects.

Perpetual amateurs, unable to quit their day jobs because they are unable to make a living doing what they love, may prefer to think of themselves as “hobbyists” because no one wants to think of themselves as having failed to achieve something—especially something into which they’ve invested so much of their time, energy, and money. Framing their efforts as a “hobby” means they don’t have to think of their time and money as  “wasted.” Rationalizing that one can’t call it an “investment” if one “never” expected to profit from it.

This reasoning is typically applied retroactively but can also be used as preemptive cover by amateurs, mentally preparing themselves for not achieving what they desperately want, an actual career in the film industry.

Hiding one’s resentment for their unpaid contributions to weekend “passion projects” can be exhausting. Especially when they must return to work on Monday morning in some other industry. When a friend shares an article on social media about the importance of paying cast and crew or an opinion about living wages, the self-described “hobbyist” filmmaker may actually want to express their support but may fear that it might be perceived as critical of the person who “hired” them for the “proof of concept” trailer/sizzle reel intended to highlight an uncomfortably modest crowdfunding campaign. So, they do what they always do: hide behind a cheerful façade and the declaration that they’re “not in it for the money.”

Many are attracted to the film industry by the “glitz and glamour” associated with the modern myth of “Hollywood,” outdated and exaggerated stories of independent films produced with “no budget” and getting “million-dollar” distribution deals on the “festival circuit.” No matter how much they might want it to be true, it’s not an accurate reflection of the industry—not even the “independent” niche—and never was.

Amateur filmmakers must understand that it’s okay not to be “in it for the money,” but one has to be in it for a living! At the end of the day, the film industry isn’t that different from any other facet of the economy. Most people in it—even many recognizable names, faces, and voices—are not getting rich. They’re just working. Like any occupation, some enjoy the process, and for others, it’s a grind.

Unfortunately, many amateurs find themselves grinding away, trying to get into the industry only to learn—usually when it’s too late, or they’re too burned out—that they were nowhere near it.

Everyone starts as an amateur; it's not the goal.

It’s generally understood—and accepted—that everyone begins their vocational journey as an amateur, regardless of what sets them on that course. Within that context, as a beginner or novice, the descriptor of “amateur” is apt and can be discarded when one becomes a working professional—which requires time, effort, and commitment. While no one consciously chooses to remain an amateur, many try and fail to become professionals because they never let go of amateur thinking and the habits that become engrained in them because of it. What may have started out as an honest description then becomes the pejorative label of “Amateur!” so familiar to professionals—used more often out of frustration than disdain.

No one can become a professional filmmaker without first letting go of everything they think they know about making movies. An integral part of that means knowing and respecting the value of one’s time and talent and that of others. Amateurs tend to believe that being a “professional” is defined by whether or not what they do pays their bills. Yet, counterintuitively, they often maintain the false notion that they must “pay their dues” by not getting paid to gain “experience.”

Utah Filmmakers has developed a flowchart designed to help aspiring filmmakers identify which opportunities—“gigs”—offer real industry experience.

This flowchart can be applied
to almost any creative profession.

This does not mean that perpetual amateurs can’t make a living in the film industry—or at least within some corner of it—they just rarely get very far as “working amateurs.” They may refer to their income and the fact that they write “Filmmaker”—or a similar descriptor—in the “occupation” field of their 1040s as proof of their status in the industry. Still, they undermine it by engaging in amateur practices and behavior, like disparaging the local film communities they came from—and still rely upon for easily exploitable young talent. 

Amateurs who manage to find work in the industry despite their self-sabotaging habits offer cover for even more amateurs to disregard the tools of professionalism—making it appear obvious that one can “still get in” without them. The working amateurs count on this because only new amateurs are willing to work for predatory rates, to suspend their disbelief to accept that what’s happening to them is “normal” and it’s “how the ‘industry’ works!” Reinforced, whenever someone dares to complain, with “That’s how I started out.” Spoken with an odd mix of bitterness and pride, familiar to anyone who has confused exploitation for mentorship. Should anyone outside their sphere of understanding and influence point out unprofessional practices that working amateurs rely on to make their living, they may perceive it as a personal slight and waste little time attacking the messenger, usually by calling into question their professional bona fides.

Actual meme made by a working amateur
(Professionals don’t waste time
making petty insult memes)

Again, despite any personal prosperity they might enjoy in their particular corner of the industry, working amateurs are more than willing to maintain a narrative of a “struggling local market” to justify unfair wages and buyout terms that actual professionals—filmmakers and on-screen talent alike—would scoff at.

Some would insist that low rates are not necessarily an indicator of predatory behavior. Defensively claiming that they “can’t pay more,” referencing having to work within the constraints of a “micro-budget.”

This may or may not be in reference to SAG-AFTRA’s Micro-Budget Project Agreement. If it is, then the producers should be able to provide all of the necessary documentation to prove that theirs is, indeed, a signatory production. If it is NOT an actual signatory—the list of projects that do not qualify is clearly defined—then the producer may be misappropriating the term “micro-budget” as a catch-all excuse to pay their cast and crew as little as possible. Their motives may not necessarily be rooted in greed or shameless self-interest—amateurs will do whatever it takes to just get it done—a practice that always makes itself evident in the final product.

They tell themselves—and others—it’ll be better “on the next one.” Unfortunately, for every lesson that could inform their future efforts, they refuse to put in the work to learn how to get it right and settle for an amateur workaround to just get it done. They repeat their mistakes, confusing an expanding list of completed projects on their IMDb page for evidence of their creative growth. Some people are impressed with long lists of titles, especially if they don’t bother to watch anything on them. In reality, one needn’t commit to watching every title in the catalog of a quasi-professional or working amateur to know why all of those “next” projects never pay off for their respective casts and crews. Just watch their first film, then watch their most recent film. Qualitatively, they’ll be almost indistinguishable.

Professionals understand that while getting paid is key to working consistently, how one gets paid for their work—i.e., embracing honest and ethical business practices—is also an important consideration.

Differences between amateurs and professionals

The reader is invited to consider the following juxtapositions of amateur and professional behaviors and to honestly consider whether or not they reflect their own practices. New amateurs needn’t be embarrassed by what they read; they need only embrace some professional humility and apply what they learn.

Working amateurs are not likely to have read this far into the article—or even admit to identifying with that descriptor. On the off chance that this essay has come to their attention, one may hope that they can get something from it.

  • Amateurs typically undercut their competition to get the job now, but they devalue the work, making it harder for themselves—and established professionals—to make a living.

    • Professionals know the value of their time and talent and respect that of their colleagues.

  • Amateurs cut corners and take shortcuts to just get it done.

    • Professionals do what it takes to get it right.

  • Amateurs are impatient because they think they already know what they’re doing or they can figure it out.

    • Professionals know their own limitations and collaborate with others so all can benefit from each other’s unique skill sets.

  • Amateurs put a lot of time and effort into making the same mistakes repeatedly while never getting better at what they do.

    • When professionals make mistakes, they own them, learn from them, and grow from them.

  • Amateurs complain about rules getting in the way of work.

    • Professionals know that it’s the rules that make their work possible.

  • Amateurs are driven by their egos to reinvent the wheel.

    • Professionals will try and improve existing tools until something truly innovative and transformative replaces them.

  • Amateurs talk.

    • Professionals produce.

  • Amateurs get offended.

    • Professionals get to work.

Joe Puente

The opinions expressed in this blog are those of the authors and—especially where guest posts are concerned—do not necessarily reflect the official policies and/or practice of the Utah Filmmakers™ Association, its officers and/or associates.

Monday, April 17, 2023

Forget the door. Find the bridge! (Part IV)

Avoiding exploitation by “quasi-professionals”
and “working-amateurs”
Founder/President Utah Filmmakers™ Association

(Start at the beginning!)

While no one can claim pure objectivity, the author’s commitment to expanding the overlap between the local film Community and Utah’s film industry has required honest self-reflection and a critical—even humbling—assessment of their own place in the professional landscape. Being in what they describe as an industry-adjacent position has provided a unique perspective.

It should also be noted that novice filmmakers—those transitioning from amateurs to professionals—may find themselves in a position where the professional goal to “Get it right!” runs into the financial obstacles that amateurs often dismiss to “Just get it done!”

Put simply, they don’t have the resources to pay standard rates to cast and crew for a project. The amateur philosophy that encourages cutting corners wherever possible can form habits that are difficult to break, negatively affect the quality of one’s work, and seriously impede one’s career prospects. This doesn’t mean that there aren’t solutions one can turn to without compromising one’s commitment to professionalism.

Many novices cut their teeth on producing short films, but there are right and wrong ways to go about it. Knowing the difference separates novices on track to becoming working professionals from perpetual amateurs who might work really hard but never get very far.

Regardless of the art form, every creative Community has its share of “locally famous amateurs.” Described in this article as “quasi-professionals”—“quasi-” meaning, “...apparently but not really”—they are always working on a new project and ensuring everyone knows about it as they promote their most recent title. Incorporating just enough business terminology and trade-specific vernacular to convince those in their immediate orbit—including themselves—that they’re “in the industry.”

They’re very good at getting people excited about what they’re doing and attracting others into their bubble, especially other amateurs-turned-adulators—Community members who, perhaps, don’t produce as much and just want to “collaborate,” hoping that the charisma and ceaseless self-promotion they’re confusing for success will somehow jumpstart their own careers.

The quasi-professional’s compulsive need to keep wearing all the hats blinds them—and their adulators—to conflicts of interest that are obvious to those outside of their amateur bubble, in which it’s okay to be the filmmaker and the casting director and the talent agent. Anyone who says otherwise may risk being labeled “toxic” and/or “black-listed.” Because the quasi-pro’s bubble is a “safe space”—for them. A place where they don’t have to deal with the “drama” (dissenting opinions, industry norms, labor laws, etc.) or “negativity” (realistic assessments) of “bullies” and “gatekeepers” (actual professionals).

That’s just one reason why quasi-professionals are rarely at a loss for willing participants to “help” with their projects. Many of their adulators—who may prefer to think of themselves as “colleagues”—may be just as talented, if not more so, but considerably less prolific, lack confidence, and usually forget that the length of one’s resume cannot accurately gauge talent or skill. Adulators quickly forgive the quasi-pro for having to work for “deferred” wages. Often convincing themselves that it’s an “honor” just to be able to “work” with them because now they think they’ve “got their foot in the door.” One can’t risk squandering that kind of “access” by fretting over things like fair compensation for services rendered. Quasi-pros have a vague understanding of sacrificing for one’s art—the amateur philosophy they’ve embraced to “Just get it done!” gets easier once they figure out how to get other people to make sacrifices for them, usually by associating it with a better chance for a paycheck on “the next one.”

This is the nature of the amateur bubble. Where desperation is preyed upon, unpaid labor is repackaged as an “opportunity for experience” or a chance to do the quasi-pro a “favor.” Where wage theft is called “paying your dues,” and paychecks are for “sell-outs”—unless it’s from one’s day job. Where adulators are manipulated into believing that someday they’ll be able to make their living “doing what they love,” just like the quasi-professional, who always seems to scrape together just enough of an income—mostly from working on the productions of others—to pay their own bills and fund most of their next “passion project,” for which salaries will, once again, be deferred. Many of those trapped within the amateur bubble's safe confines believe there is no such thing as exploitation as long as they’re “not in it for the money.”

They fail to understand that “passion projects” are not unpaid; they are self-financed—as in, “The studio wouldn’t back my project, but I’m so passionate about it that I will hire the cast and crew with money from my own pocket.”

To be fair, some of these quasi-pros—despite their unwillingness to let go of amateur thinking—do manage to carve out something resembling a “career” on the outer edges of a niche or grey market. They call it “working in the industry”—a statement that may be considered technically accurate in the same way that a self-published author is still, technically, a published author.

Success for the quasi-professional is typically measured anecdotally. Some of their work may reach a slightly wider audience—even amateurs get lucky occasionally, especially when focusing more on quantity than quality. Distribution is limited to less-than-reputable options, but it’s still technically distribution. Any revenue it might generate will be piecemeal, trickling in so slowly that most of the cast and crew are likely to forget about their deferred salaries—regardless of whether or not they signed a written contract or if the project manages to break even… assuming that anyone apart from the quasi-professional is in a position to know. That won’t stop their adulators from telling all their family and friends about it. “Watch it today on [a streaming platform no one has heard of]”—perhaps represented in the final budget as an empty line-item labeled “Marketing = (social media/viral?)”— providing plenty of “exposure” for “A film by [insert name of faux auteur]” who’s already “hard at work” on their next screenplay.

Exploitative bubbles are not difficult to recognize. They usually surround an individual or a small group of cohorts. They can also be found within the industry. Ostensible “Professionals” with established careers that still think like amateurs with the “Just get it done!” philosophy. Herein, they are referred to as “working-amateurs.”

What’s especially unfortunate about “working-amateurs” is that they can cloud the distinction between the Industry and the Community when they exploit Community members. This is typically in the form of wage theft. While some stoop to utilizing unpaid labor, most simply pay unfair wages. Some go even further by misclassifying employees as contractors or paying lower-level workers in cash, skirting tax laws as business owners, and making accurate income reporting much more difficult for the people they hire.

Such practices aren’t just informed by amateur thinking; they’re often justified by a scarcity mentality rooted in a need for control. It’s not that the working-amateurs don’t know any better because they often do, but they may not recognize the bridge between Community and Industry. They may feel that, having found “the door” into the Industry now that they’re in, they embrace an attitude that considers those outside their sphere of influence as “less than” the professionals they believe themselves to be—“not real filmmakers” or “not in the industry.” Their definition of “professional” may even be limited to the fact that it’s how they make their living. As noted before, this can be very discouraging to Community members that want to work in the Industry, especially when working-amateurs show their true colors within Community forums.

A working-amateur derides online community forums
they participate in and/or manage through social media.

Ironically, such derision shown to the Community doesn’t prevent working-amateurs and quasi-professionals from using the same tools and the language of established Industry and Community resources to try and mimic them for their own purposes.

Anyone can use the critical and practical tools discussed previously to determine if something presented as a resource for the “community” is legitimate or not—especially if it appears redundant and cliquey. Genuine altruistic endeavors will stand up to scrutiny and satisfactorily answer important questions:

  • For what purpose was it established?

  • Does it try to reinvent or supplant something that already exists?

  • Was there a previous affiliation with an established resource/organization?

    • If that affiliation has been severed, why?

    • If that affiliation has NOT been severed, why?

  • Does it present itself as a magnanimous undertaking?

  • Is it actively collecting personal and professional information?

    • If so, to what end?

    • (Directories are usually publicly accessible resources; databases and contact lists, typically, are not.)

  • Is it selling something available elsewhere for free or already provided by a different, established resource?

  • Are they offering “classes” or “Workshops”?

    • Are they hosting experienced instructors or teaching everything themselves?

  • Is it seeking donations?

  • Does it claim to be an accepting community while behaving as an exclusive club of like-minded members?

  • Does it set realistic expectations or emphasize affirmation, encouragement, and positivity?

  • Do they value honest critique, or do they prefer coddling?

  • Do they go a little overboard with the familial and/or sports metaphors?

    • Do they claim to be “a family?”

    • Do they talk a lot about their “team?”

  • Does it take the industry seriously and acknowledge economic reality, or does it sidestep those topics to emphasize “passion” and the “art form?”

  • Are those behind it being direct and transparent about their motivations, efforts, and intentions?

    • Or does access to that information require one to do some digital digging?

Many of these questions can be answered through publicly available sources. Those answers may validate or disprove what is being presented. They may also expose unethical or illegal practices.

When financial support is solicited through direct “donations,” crowdfunding, or membership platforms, it’s important to remember that anyone can create profiles with such services, and not all contributions are tax-deductible.

Membership platforms are ineffective for financing unproven concepts. They exist for established creators who produce content regularly and know how to monetize it. There are no shortcuts to doing the work.

Projects with no expectation of a return on investment should never be described as “nonprofit” undertakings—though it does happen. “Nonprofit” is a term often associated—but not synonymous—with “tax-exempt” status, but tax-exempt organizations are not allowed to request donations without a solicitations permit!

Quasi-professionals often fail to understand that operating a business at a loss differs greatly from running a nonprofit organization. For example, business losses can only be claimed on federal income taxes for three out of five years. Working on a film set in any capacity without being paid cannot be legally classified as “volunteer” work. Anyone convinced to “donate” their time and talent to a project is not “helping” the production; they are allowing themselves to be complicit in their own exploitation and undermining the value of the work for others.

Still, if it’s promoted as something that aims to benefit a community, creating a public impression of altruism, it probably should not be operated by anyone who could financially benefit from what it claims to offer—regardless of whether or not it’s profitable. It’s still a conflict of interest; quasi-professionals and pro-amateurs may fail to see that or find a way to justify it. It may appear to yield advantages or small gains in the short term, but only at the expense of other amateurs. Still, it will not go unnoticed by actual professionals for the maladroit distraction that it is.

The opinions expressed in this blog are those of the authors and—especially where guest posts are concerned—do not necessarily reflect the official policies and/or practice of the Utah Filmmakers™ Association, its officers and/or associates.