Monday, March 20, 2023

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

Founder/President Utah Filmmakers™ Association

The short version of the UFA™ Vision Statement is “Bridging the local film community with Utah’s film industry.”

Most aspiring filmmakers don’t realize there is a difference between the “community” and the “industry”—which is true of many creative fields. While they overlap, one must first understand that a distinction exists to tell one from the other.

Image composed by the Author
Elements generated by Craiyon

An admittedly simplified explanation is presented here. The reader is invited not to think of this article in terms of ignoring important but subtle—even subjective—details but to consider it in terms of resolution. If the big picture is Ultra High Definition (UHD), this version is only in Standard Definition (SD).

The “film community” and the “film industry” are as different from each other as “networking” and “working.” One is the playground of amateurs, the other is the domain of professionals. The word “amateur” is often used pejoratively, but, in all fairness, everyone pursuing an interest in any industry starts out as an amateur. While some are content to remain in that category—perhaps seeing themselves more as “hobbyists” or “enthusiasts”—it’s safe to assume that many amateurs would prefer to engage in their interests for a living. Having a clear understanding of the differences between amateurs and professionals is key. The most unflattering traits of amateurs are rooted in impatience—subscribing to an amateur philosophy of “Just get it done!”—and an unwillingness to accept that they are amateurs. There is an advantage to those who recognize their own limitations; it offers the clarity to identify their weaknesses and to improve them. This a characteristic that remains essential to professionals whose philosophy encourages one to “Get it right!”

Working professionals in Utah's film industry are part of the local film community by default—many having gotten their start as community filmmakers.

Many amateurs in the film community want to work in the industry, but they have trouble “getting their foot in the door.” More often than not, they have difficulty just finding “the door.”

This metaphor can be problematic, suggesting a narrow entrance to something exclusive—in the sense that excluding others from entry feels deliberate. The idea of getting one’s “foot in the door” may come with an expectation that said foot would prevent the door from closing—perhaps, enduring the pain of someone trying to slam it shut from the other side. Finally, how can one not infer, once they’ve gone to such lengths to get in, that they will not feel welcome, having entered despite all the effort put into keeping them out? Maybe they’ll feel it best to act like they’ve been there the whole time, having to reconcile feeling guilty for sneaking in with succeeding in “faking it ‘til they made it.” It could set someone up for a severe case of “Imposter syndrome.”

Many have heard the aphorism, “It’s not what you know; it’s who you know.” The quote's origin is probably lost to history, but whoever said it was most likely an amateur in a vocational rut that didn’t know how to get out. It would be ironic if that same person organized the first occupational “meet and greet.”

Enter the film community “networking” event. This author has been to several and can’t help but notice that, depending on who has organized them, many people that attend networking events are not the same people who actually work on professional film and television productions—and vice versa. This is not always the case, but it looks that way in SD.

The reason for this apparent lack of crossover is simple: working filmmakers are usually too busy working to attend networking events, having already established themselves as part of a professional network within the industry.

Most connections made through artificial “networking” are between amateurs meeting other amateurs looking for the same industry “door.” Many aspiring filmmakers—including people that want to work in front of and behind the camera—can get desperate. They’re so eager to “get in” that they undervalue themselves. They say to the world—or social media—that they’d like to “just be on set” or to “shadow” someone. Some make the mistake of offering to “work for free.” Again, because they heard—from other amateurs—that’s how [insert name of a notable, eccentric, and ironically successful indie filmmaker] “got their start…” Not realizing, or perhaps even forgetting, that the now-famous auteur they were referencing may have actually grown up in or adjacent to the entertainment industry—or they happened to live near the L.A. TMZ.

Unfortunately, the regular attendees of networking events can also include those who won’t pass up an opportunity to exploit the desperation of others. The locally famous amateurs who are more than willing to play the part of “who you know,” eager to take aspiring amateurs under their wing, offering “real on-set experience.” They promise to help launch careers but deliver little more than a few IMDb credits.

So, how do aspiring filmmakers find that portion of the Venn diagram where the film community and film industry overlap? Let’s look at one created specifically for this article. Again, this is a simplified or “low-res” representation of something much more detailed and complex.

Note that the connection they share is not represented by a narrow locked door with “Keep Out!” plastered onto it. There’s no need to con one’s way in or to sacrifice an appendage for the privilege of entering. There is a significant overlap between the two. One should not think of it as a door but rather a broad, open bridge. There is no gate, no guards, nor signs to discourage anyone from entering—except for the ones we might imagine are there—most likely on the Community side.

There will always be those who actively discourage others from pursuing a filmmaking career. They can exist on the Industry side and even along the length of the bridge. Their cynicism and discouragement may indicate their own insecurity and/or a fear of competition, often a side effect of imposter syndrome. Beware those who discourage from within the Community who feed off cynicism, regurgitating it in front of others in a self-defeating attempt to feel better about their own perceived failures. There’s only one thing worse than a Community cynic complaining about being “shut out of the industry”: The aforementioned locally famous amateur who has managed to convince themselves, and others around them, that they are “working in the industry…” when, in reality, they are not.

The bridge to becoming a professional filmmaker represents learning and embracing the standards and best practices of the industry. It turns out that “what you know” does matter. This information is available to anyone who’s serious about becoming a professional and as accessible as their local film commission. It’s the first important step in transitioning from being a Community amateur to an industry “novice”—this is not necessarily an industry term but is used here to identify those who successfully make the transition.

The aspiring filmmaker that puts in the effort to learn and implement industry standards early on will stand out in the film community and avoid the pitfalls typically associated with amateurs. 

Adopting a professional philosophy includes accepting that the business of filmmaking is an inextricable part of the art form. It means having integrity—i.e. being honest with those with whom one works and oneself, especially when it comes to owning mistakes and committing to learning from them.

It requires respecting colleagues, clients, customers, and the law. Finally, approaching every project as a professional endeavor regardless of one’s experience or the budget one has to work with will make those with real potential stand out amongst the other amateurs. Industry professionals within the local film Community will take notice.

(Part II)

(Current Revision*: March 27, 2023)

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.

*There may have been a few minor changes made since then.