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.