Sunday, December 31, 2023

Symposium Reflections - Part VII

This writer has been on an interesting journey throughout their unconventional filmmaking career—to say nothing of how the film industry has evolved in that time—and continues to do so.

The phrase “Existential crisis” has come up repeatedly throughout 2023 for many filmmakers, with drawn-out, overlapping strikes, local projects flying off their respective rails, and witnessing community filmmakers repeating the same mistakes they always have.

We might also consider the unchecked egos of quasi-professionals as they double down on their efforts to try and use the perceived chaos around them to build personality cults from the ashes of moribund careers they don’t realize have already fallen victim to the Peter Principle, at a time when honest communication and solidarity between professional and aspiring filmmakers is needed more than ever before—ideally guided by the knowledge and experience of industry veterans.

In a frustrating example of artificially heightened drama in service to pathetically low stakes, only those on the outside, looking in, can take anything resembling comfort from the fact that what they’re witnessing is mostly isolated from the actual film industry—or only in a remote, tangentially affiliated corner of it. Nevertheless, real damage can occur. Real talent with career potential can find itself sabotaged in service to the empty promises of charismatic but feckless dreamers trying to build reputations on everything they say they’re going to do.

In an effort to encourage novices, the Utah Filmmakers Association has always tried to err on the side of inclusivity regarding what defines a Utah Filmmaker. However, identifying oneself as a “filmmaker” does NOT automatically mean they are “part of the film industry.”

We have previously discussed how “industry” is defined by commerce with capital investments needed to determine feasibility, build infrastructure, plan, develop, and—most importantly—pay people to do the actual work. All of which results in a quantifiable economic impact. Communicating that inextricable economic component of filmmaking is a key part of the Mission of the Utah Filmmakers Association.

Anyone interested in filmmaking will notice its effect on the algorithms pushing targeted advertising through their social media feeds. Every other post seems to be an advertisement or sponsored content featuring online film schools or industry professionals with international name recognition, offering informative—albeit non-accredited—classes and instruction through established online learning communities and distance education platforms.

However, I’ve also seen quasi-professional community filmmakers who believe that they have gained enough insight into the craft that they, too, are qualified to offer advice to aspiring filmmakers—sometimes for free through blogs, vlogs, social media, and panel discussions at local conventions—often prefacing their rudimentary knowledge with references to their “industry experience.” Others try to commodify their “inside knowledge and expertise” by charging “tuition fees” for “hands-on training” on a “real” film set. Vetting their professional credentials is certainly possible, but not many people have the time or inclination to put in that sort of effort, and embellishing one’s IMDb profile is not exactly a herculean task. Eager “students” are often unaware—or only figure it out towards the end of their “class” that their “tuition” was, in reality, how their instructor was funding their latest film project. Instead of hiring cast and crew for their production, they sold a class where students would pay for the privilege to learn how to make a movie at the feet of a self-proclaimed master. Should that film ever find distribution and see a return on its investment, none of that revenue will likely find its way back to the “students” that made it possible.

These quasi-professional gurus have been selling their brands for years, featured prominently at local events, where they are invited to share their “insider” perspectives on what they have come to perceive as “the film industry” or set up their own “classes” and “workshops” where they generously “share” their wisdom for a modest fee or an ambiguously defined “donation.”

This writer sees no need to call out any of these charlatans by name, but they will no longer be politely ignored. After years of silent observation, we will no longer hesitate to recognize and acknowledge such problematic behavior, the potential harm that they can cause—to individuals and to the local industry—and direct potential marks to legitimate resources such as those promoted by the Utah Film Commission and dedicated institutions like the Utah Film Center.

Again, there is no need for a formal “blacklist.” Instead of worrying about who to avoid, we will work to identify the people, organizations, and events that all aspiring filmmakers should want to work with and have established the Utah Filmmakers Associate Program to make that happen.

Over the last couple of years, concurrent with the UFA’s 20th Anniversary, the Utah Filmmakers nonprofit organization has been considering its role in the local community and Utah’s film industry. To clearly define its path moving forward, it has evaluated the programs it has implemented—those that have worked and those that have not—projects to which it has made significant contributions and sought to gauge the impact it has had on the careers of its members.

Utah Filmmakers has consulted with experts in the non-profit sector, advocates for the continued development of creative industries, and film industry veterans with a desire to expand our infrastructure—especially regarding the training of the next generation of filmmakers in a rapidly evolving industry—and exploring options to partner with existing organizations in service of our mission.

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 practices of the Utah Filmmakers™ Association, its Officers and/or Associates.

Monday, December 18, 2023

Wearing all the hats is NOT the solution - Symposium Reflections - Part VI

Attempting to create a database—to say nothing of maintaining one—is demanding work. Trying to formalize a “blacklist” of ostensibly suspect filmmakers—in addition to being legally and ethically problematic itself—would not be practical in part because it would always be subjective. Most people in the workforce at large have had enough negative experiences with others in their fields that they probably already have a personal blacklist.

Narrow them down to a selection of filmmakers, picked at random, in a common market, and this author is reasonably confident that their individual lists would be practically identical, consisting of the same “quasi-professionals” and “working amateurs” that most in their community already know, have dealt with, and perhaps continue to deal with anyway—better the devil you know.

"Wearing all the hats"
Prompt by the author.
Image by Adobe Firefly
As mentioned in the previous installment of this series, the justifications for blacklisting are varied. Second-hand allegations from disgruntled contractors, unflattering opinions from established and respected professionals, even first-hand testimony, accompanied by verifiable evidence of deliberate malfeasance. Yet, it would have no real effect on those listed because their misdeeds and questionable practices are often already commonly known. It wouldn’t change their behavior or livelihood because they tend to have a loyal—often sycophantic—following of reliable talent that won’t allow themselves to believe that they are not respected or are being regularly exploited.

It should also be considered that there’s a good chance that everyone reading these words—as well as the person writing them—is probably already on somebody else’s blacklist, perhaps even placed at the very top. Were anyone to ask why they’ve been blacklisted, the initial reason may have been forgotten or grossly misremembered. Still, their names will undoubtedly trigger an emotional justification not to remove them from said list.

While legal recourse exists for blatantly illegal behavior, witnessing exploitation and the fear of being exploited can motivate people to try and find solutions to prevent it. Subsequent actions, however, can be subject to implicit biases rooted in local culture, its political climate, personality types, and whether the root cause of a problem can be discerned from its apparent symptoms.

This author believes that the most pressing issue for workers in most sectors is stagnant wages that can’t keep up with a perpetually rising cost of living. Within the context of the film industry, the perception of these issues can vary considerably. A simple “Studios” vs. “Auteurs” or “Above” vs. “Below-the-line” analogy may superficially resemble the conflicts between management and labor.

Like any business venture, the decision to greenlight a film is heavily influenced by its projected return on investment (ROI). While most novice filmmakers tend to limit their budget estimates to the cost of production—i.e., just making the movie—investors require a more detailed and long-term prospectus. A comprehensive budget doesn’t just go beyond the wrap party. It starts with everything from development costs to rights clearances, option agreements, preliminary contracts, marketing analyses, securing distribution, and many other line items with associated costs, salaried employees, contractors, and consultants, all of which must be paid before starting PRE-production.

Another major factor is where production will take place. This is where regional tax waivers and rebates, like Utah’s Motion Picture Incentive Program, come into play. While production incentives are an excellent means to attract feature film and television series productions to markets like Utah—employing local talent and strengthening infrastructure—effectively communicating how it benefits the local economy often proves challenging.

When some local filmmakers have discussed these matters in Utah Filmmakers’s official forum, this author has noted the use of some troubling talking points and misinformed justifications that—to put it politely—are counterproductive. While the film incentive practically sells itself to prospective film productions, some local filmmakers also emphasize Utah’s status as a so-called “Right-to-work” (hyphenated) state as an additional selling point—often without fully understanding what “Right-to-work” legislation is intended to do, beyond reinforcing the deliberately vague and politically motivated stigmatization of labor unions.

The phrase “Right-to-work” sounds benevolent because one may infer its purpose is defending a right. As if the Founding Fathers somehow neglected to include it in the Bill of Rights.

The concept of “...the right to work”—note the absence of hyphens between each word—as a right of all individuals that should be protected was defined in Article 23.1 of The Universal Declaration of Human Rights by the United Nations in 1948 thusly:

“Everyone has the right to work, to free choice of employment, to just and favourable conditions of work and to protection against unemployment.”

In 1966, the “right to work”—as well as the “right to health,” the “right to education,” and the “right to an adequate standard of living”—was recognized in human rights law in the Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. An international treaty in which the United States is a signatory but has yet to ratify it.

Meanwhile, 27 out of 50 states in the Union have taken it upon themselves to enact their own “right-to-work” legislation, which—at least superficially—may seem like a noble effort to make up for an unfortunate oversight by the federal government. In reality, all these laws accomplish is codifying an individual’s “...right to refrain from paying or being a member of a labor union.”

They have nothing to do with protecting workers’ rights to employment, protection from unemployment, and their ability to achieve “an adequate standard of living.”

They have everything to do with undermining the effectiveness of trade unions to advocate for workers—regardless of whether or not they are members—without explicitly outlawing organized labor. And yet, its wording creates a false impression that union membership would otherwise be compulsory without such legislation.

With the ability of unions to negotiate contracts impeded—not by the specific wording of the legislation itself but by the confusion it sows in the minds of workers—employers, including film production companies, feel that they have carte blanche to offer lower rates to local below-the-line workers. It’s not even as if the wages offered are only marginally lower than current rates, equivalent to those guaranteed by previous contracts. In the case of entry-level cast and crew—background actors and production assistants—rates can be tied to what any employer can legally get away with paying. In other words, the federal minimum wage, which, as of the publication of this article, has not been adjusted in any way—not even for inflation—since 2009!

Cast and crew positions with greater responsibilities and obligations and require specific skills don’t fare much better. Actors represented by local “talent agents”—operating in a state requiring no training, licensure, or professional oversight—will often agree to predatory rates and terms with little or no negotiation.

These issues are no secret because some of the worst perpetrators are local producers. Suspect business models and ethically questionable practices are regular online and in-person discussion topics in the local film community and film industry. Still, most people feel helpless to do anything about it. They are leery of trusting anyone in a position to affect real change—because systemic reform is needed most, addressing root causes would need to be implemented through government legislation.

This lack of trust and frustration with the status quo leaves some filmmakers believing they must take it upon themselves to change things. They feel that local talent agents can’t be trusted because they’re not accountable to anyone. Still, instead of advocating for government oversight, they think they can fix it… by becoming talent agents—who are also accountable to no one.

Because casting directors work with agents, they can’t be trusted either. So, some of these filmmakers, having also become talent agents, decide to be casting directors. This has resulted in the rise of some “one-stop-shop” production companies/agencies/commercial-semi-fiefdoms, insisting they alone can be trusted to meet all their clients’ needs. Unfortunately, their lack of trust in others and the absence of genuine oversight can blind them to conflicts of interest and the ancillary effects of compromises they make to remain competitive. Their efforts to affect positive change in how their local industry conducts business are compromised by systemic flaws that remain unaddressed. More often than not, they just perpetuate existing problematic practices, albeit with newer, friendlier-looking branding.

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 practices of the Utah Filmmakers™ Association, its Officers and/or Associates.

Monday, November 20, 2023

Movie mogul roleplayers & cannibalistic community films - Symposium Reflections - Part V

The demand for motion picture “content” has never been higher. Traditionally, increased demand means higher prices for what’s being supplied. Still, many people—from business managers needing commercials and other videography services to streaming platform executives looking for new series and features—may assume that since the tools have become more affordable, the cost of acquiring the skills and the labor associated with using them should also cost less. Of course, those who do the actual work would disagree. During the period in which this series of articles was being written, production for many feature films and narrative series had come to a halt because the members of both the Writers Guild of America (WGA) and the Screen Actors Guild (SAG-AFTRA) were on strike. The rapidly changing distribution models, their effect on how residuals are calculated, and questions about the influence of machine learning were among the factors behind the work stoppage. Tentative deals have been reached at the time of this writing, but many still find that some of the minutiae remain problematic.

Source: Economic Policy Institute
Historically, there was a brief period where increases in productivity—an essential metric for gauging the value of labor—were rewarded across all industries with proportionate increases in compensation at every level of employment, from workers on factory floors (think background talent and production assistants on film sets) to upper-office managers (executive producers, studio leadership, etc.). This has changed considerably in my lifetime. Productivity continues to increase, especially with technological advances, but instead of recognizing and rewarding the people who actually know how to use the technology and are doing the work—without whom the increased value of their labor would not be possible—their very humanity is disregarded, as they are reduced to figures in a spreadsheet. Just as a manufacturer might seek less expensive sources for raw materials, the labor involved in production is treated the same way, as an expense that factors into the wholesale price of whatever they’re selling instead of an investment in their capacity to stay in business. This attitude has also affected the film industry, not just in the executive suites of major studios but also in smaller markets like Utah.

When writers and actors took to the picket lines in 2023, I wondered how much it would affect the industry in Utah. With that in mind, I shared the following observation on social media:

“...Anybody with an unapologetic history of paying scab rates and cares more about getting it done than getting it right probably won’t be impacted that much from the strike…”

Unfortunately, amateur habits have become so ingrained in the local industry that cynicism runs rampant among those just trying to scrape by locally. In contrast, several actors and crew members have all but given up on the Utah market. They are relocating to Los Angeles or Atlanta—though often with the hope of returning to Utah periodically if a project seems worth the effort.

In the meantime, working amateurs—acting the way they imagine Hollywood movie moguls would act—continue to lower the professional bar for what it means to be a filmmaker in Utah by underbidding their colleagues for corporate and commercial projects, then preying on desperate actors and crew to maintain some semblance of profitability.

The best example of this attitude is one I’ve shared before of a Utah-based producer of corporate videos and commercials. This is a person who has real talent and produces quality work. While they’ve made a living in the local industry, they cut corners to do so and brag about exploiting others in their community for their own benefit. Primarily through “cattle calls” on social media forums.:

It should be noted that this producer is an admin for several such “necessary evils.” 

Prioritizing short-term profits over long-term sustainability will result in smaller markets like Utah’s, cannibalizing itself to the point where a relatively functional corporate and commercial sector within the state will all but disappear.

Such an outcome can be mitigated here in Utah if more of our local filmmakers would abandon the amateur philosophy of cutting corners and making ethical compromises for the sake of just booking gigs. They must also embrace higher standards when it comes to running their businesses and managing their productions. This should start with understanding the actual value of the required work, budgeting accordingly, and effectively communicating that information to clients and investors. This also means being prepared to temper unrealistic expectations and advocating for cast and crew by holding firm on paying livable wages.

Maintaining the Motion Picture Incentive Program will continue to attract film productions from out-of-state, employing local film industry professionals and enabling the maintenance of our existing infrastructure. There are also incentives for local independent productions. Some Utah-based filmmakers have found sustainable niches, enabling them to make a living in the industry. However, a handful of quasi-professionals—who confuse their local notoriety with credibility and still manage to attract a sycophantic following—continue to churn out embarrassingly unwatchable content that contributes little to nothing of value to the art form or the industry.

A colleague once asked me if those films are like the “mockbusters” produced by companies like The Asylum, which has brought work to Utah. However, a realistic comparison between quasi-professionals and The Asylum cannot be made because the latter employs a sustainable business model, something quasi-professionals can’t comprehend.

Some professional filmmakers produce quality films that do not gain much attention or make much money upon their initial release but still see a return on their investment in the long run. This is because they try to figure out their audiences, calculate budgets appropriate for the stories they want to tell, and work within the established parameters of professional filmmaking, adhering to industry standards, best business practices, and effective due diligence.

Based on my observations over the years, quasi-professionals seem incapable of grasping anything beyond locking the final edit, screening their film—typically at their own expense—and basking in the adoration of others for just “making a movie.” To what end do these quasi-professional productions serve if there’s no benefit to the art form or the industry—to say nothing of any measurable impact on the local economy? To put it bluntly, the egos of the quasi-professionals themselves.

Periodically, someone poses a question in our official forum, wanting to know which local producers and directors they should “avoid.” The initial concern is for the safety of cast and crew—minors in particular—but several other red flags are usually brought up in the comments. Some local individuals and companies have earned unflattering reputations. Thankfully, one or two have taken steps to address those concerns, but others perceive criticism as a personal affront instead of an opportunity to improve their business practices.

One of the group’s rules clearly advises members to “Talk about problems and solutions, not people.” When it comes to identifying perpetrators of illegal behavior within the group, it’s only acceptable if their identities have already become public knowledge—i.e., law enforcement, related news articles, etc., have published arrest records or court filings.

Regarding questionable business practices, unethical behavior, or engaging in malfeasance that’s been directly witnessed but unreported, forum administrators strongly advise anyone with knowledge of such practices to report them to the appropriate authorities. Although not an enforcement agency, the Utah Film Commission does assist individuals who need to address problems with workplace conflict and potential fraud. Utah Filmmakers Group policy posts also include information for contacting state government agencies. On more than one occasion, members simply appealed to other forum participants for advice on addressing those issues and received genuinelye helpful feedback.

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 practices of the Utah Filmmakers™ Association, its Officers, and/or Associates.