Tuesday, October 31, 2023

Bridging the gap between community and industry - Symposium Reflections - Part II

In the years following my efforts to develop a local television series, I continued to moonlight in the Utah film industry, working in front of and behind the camera on feature films, commercials, corporate productions, and reality series. I also remained involved with the local film community—attending local screenings and meet & greets and participating in the 48-Hour Film Project. All the while, I noted very little crossover between the two. The professionals I worked with were rarely seen at community events, and the locals I recognized—actors mostly—were usually spotted among the extras in productions from outside of Utah. From time to time, I was also recruited to work on locally produced feature films. Still, they often lacked the funding, organization, and discipline I had come to expect from out-of-state productions taking advantage of Utah’s Motion Picture Incentive Program.

During this time, I also continued to work with
Ben Hawker, developing the Utah Filmmakers and Actors Facebook group into a growing professional resource that remained welcoming and instructive for beginners.

For a few years, starting in 2014, I was hired by Ben Fuller through mediaRif as an Assistant Director for a Utah State Fair ad campaign featuring local comedian Steve Soelberg. During one of our initial conversations, Ben told me that I was one of the few people he knew that has one foot planted in the film industry and the other in the local film community. Having never heard it articulated by anyone else, this casual observation confirmed what I had been witnessing. At this point, a new mission for the Utah Filmmakers Association began to crystalize, most easily summarized by what would become the organization’s vision statement: “Bridging the local film community with Utah’s film industry.”

The question remained: how does Utah Filmmakers help facilitate a community filmmaker’s transition to becoming an industry professional?

The answer would present itself in the core values adopted by the organization: Professionalism, Integrity, and Respect. These would inform a Code of Ethics & Conduct and become the guiding principles for Hawker’s Facebook group as it was adopted by—and subsequently named for—Utah Filmmakers, becoming its official online forum.

The UFA Ethics Code offers local filmmakers—industry veterans and beginners alike—a standard to strive for. These basic parameters were written so anyone can apply them—in any vocation—to mitigate problematic behaviors and questionable business practices like those I have experienced and observed many others continuing to experience.

There’s a long, sad history of young creatives with a sincere desire to become industry professionals being exploited. The most common unethical and illegal practice they fall victim to is wage theft. Trite justifications along the lines of “paying one’s dues,” appealing to artistic “passion,” and even ham-fisted justifications along the lines of, “If I don’t do it, somebody else will” have proven effective in the short term for the completion of commercial enterprises like made-for-cable movies, commercials, and corporate videos—the latter of which represents a significant portion of Utah’s production work—to mostly unwatchable “passion projects” that are “made in Utah” by “local filmmakers.” The generally poor production quality of these independent films stands out considerably when compared to that of other, more successful films and series that are “made in Utah” by out-of-state production companies taking advantage of the aforementioned Motion Picture Incentive.

The reasons behind the disparity in quality are painfully obvious yet continue to be ignored. Many locally produced narrative projects—from short films to features and series pilots—have developed an unfortunate habit of cutting corners to just “get it done.”  I’ve been involved in several of these projects, mostly in the lower echelons of the production, seeing poor decisions being made, not because the filmmakers don’t know any better but because they feel that they have no choice. Even when I’ve found myself above the line, able to identify potential problems and offer solutions to avoid them, I’ve run into the same problems. Resources that could have been better invested in more comprehensive preproduction and paying ALL cast and crew fair wages are reserved for only the most “essential” of department heads, with the remainder wasted on submission fees to major festivals with little chance of acceptance, and familiar-sounding, online-only “awards” competitions, “geographically” adjacent to—but lacking any endorsement and often even direct knowledge of—the established and reputable festivals whose coattails they’re attempting to ride with their confusingly similar branding. Oftentimes, the most that any filmmaker will get for their trouble is access to festival laurels in the form of digital assets—typically bearing the description “official selection,” which might as well just say “participant.” These graphics are incorporated into amateur-looking movie posters with the interminable false hope of getting a lucrative distribution deal.

Ultimately, many of these films remain unsaleable, lacking the deliverables that serious distributors require—like a clearly defined chain of title, signed contracts, and other industry-standard due diligence. Eventually, they may only be “released” on Vimeo or YouTube or relegated to obscure streaming services appealing to a tiny fraction of a minuscule audience. At best, they are buried along with similar sub-par content on wider-reaching platforms, available to rent for a few dollars—the lion's share of which is collected by the platform, leaving a few cents per view for whichever “creator” signed their virtual signature on the dotted line; but they do so with pride, having achieved something they can refer to—at least technically—as “distribution.” In reality, it’s the film industry equivalent to self-publishing a novel—a service that is also offered by the parent companies of at least two of the larger streaming platforms.

Do such projects ever see a return on their investment? Not to my knowledge, but that doesn’t stop the personalities behind them from launching another crowdfunding campaign with a “flexible” goal, “From the producers of…” that other local film potential backers may have heard of but probably didn’t watch, even if they received an “Associate Producer” credit for their last $100 contribution.

Does anyone actually benefit from these productions?

Any “experience” that’s gained by cast and crew is usually in the form of first-hand knowledge of how NOT to manage a film production. This assumes they’ve had the opportunity to work on a competently produced project to which it may be compared.

Do these projects benefit the local film industry? Are they even affiliated with the industry? The word “industry” is literally defined by economic activity. All industries have a quantifiable impact on the economy. Public and private investments are made in determining feasibility, building infrastructure, planning, development, and—most importantly—labor. The film industry is no different.

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, October 16, 2023

Recognizing the "Con" in "Confidence" - Symposium Reflections - Part I

On Friday, October 6, 2023, Utah Filmmakers hosted its first Associate Symposium at Publik Space in Salt Lake City—an event specifically for our Associate Members and eligible candidates.

The author, speaking at the
2023 Associate Symposium

The Associate Program was implemented in 2021 to identify reputable, Utah-based film industry resources that share common goals and core values with the Utah Filmmakers Association.

The symposium—co-sponsored by Cyclone Spuds, DB Productions Utah, and the Utah Arts Alliance—included a presentation by yours truly, UFA Founder Joe Puente. What follows is based on my remarks from that evening, in which I discussed my filmmaking experience in Utah since 1999 and my efforts with the nonprofit organization I started in 2002, highlighting past projects and programs and discussing the mission going forward.

One of the defining experiences of my filmmaking career occurred in 2011 when I sought assistance from more experienced filmmakers to reboot a local interest television series. I had already established a library of short-form episodes produced for CentraCom Interactive a few years prior.

One person responded to my post in the Utah Filmmakers and Actors Facebook group, and we scheduled a time to discuss the project. Upon meeting this individual, who claimed to have experience developing original broadcast programming, I was initially impressed with the apparent knowledge they were bringing to the table. At this time, I was not yet up to speed on how one would go about vetting anyone’s industry credentials. Still, I did see an opportunity to learn more about the inextricable business aspects of film and television production. Concurrent with creating a pilot/sizzle reel, I took it upon myself to seek out additional sources of knowledge on the subject, including an attorney experienced in entertainment law, with whom I had consulted in the past on the subject of intellectual property.

As I learned more about the business side of production—including variations in the practices and vernacular between film and television—I started to note discrepancies between what I was learning about industry standards and how my collaborators were attempting to manage the project. By the end of that year, I came to an unexpected realization—the people I was working with didn’t really know what they were doing. They were enthusiastic; they sprinkled their discussions with industry jargon and spoke confidently. However, by the end of the year, I had learned much more about the business. While I still did not understand all the minutia of developing a TV series, I had learned enough to recognize that the knowledge I had gained over the previous six months had apparently surpassed that of the people who were trying to “help” me.

When they presented a “deal memo” describing oddly specific and largely irrelevant requirements they claimed were necessary to continue with the project, I shared it with my friend—the aforementioned attorney—who advised me not to sign it. From a legal perspective, it was apparent the people I had been working with had only a rudimentary understanding of intellectual property ownership and what amounted to trivial knowledge of how a TV series is produced. Still, they demonstrated no real acumen or practical experience in developing a broadcast television program, to say nothing of getting one on the air.

It was both a frustrating and enlightening experience. I did not consider it time wasted because of what I had learned. Still, I was concerned about what others in similar situations might experience. I would later witness similar shenanigans from people with more interest in play-acting as industry moguls than actually creating something saleable. It’s one thing to recognize an idea with promise and to secure ownership of it, but the potential of a marketable idea cannot be realized without practical knowledge and experience or the willingness to understand when relinquishing control over one’s IP is genuinely in service to that potential and not just one’s ego.

Reflecting upon the personal time, resources, and energy invested in that project, which ended up going nowhere, I’m not angry with those I worked with. Hanlon’s Razor states,  “Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity.” To be clear, I did not perceive their actions as malicious, but they were definitely greedy. Nor do I think they suffered from stupidity, just ignorance, but how had they managed to get as far as they did? The same way that others have managed to get even farther. They overcompensated their lack of knowledge with false bravado or what many might label confidence. This is the primary component of some of the worst advice that could be taken to heart in any field: the idea that anyone can “Fake it till you make it.”

Confidence in one’s abilities can certainly be positive if genuine and indicates one’s potential contributions. However, being honest about one’s weaknesses—especially with oneself—and demonstrating a willingness to learn requires self-awareness, humility, and an ability to work with others.

The problem with faking it, pretending to know how something is done to impress a stranger who isn’t as familiar with the subject, or worse, to be hired for a job one isn’t qualified for, is that it requires deception. Faking confidence to inspire others to have confidence in them—or a product or service they are trying to monetize for their personal benefit—is a very old practice, known as a “confidence trick,” perpetrated by a “confidence man,” shortened over the years to simply “Conman.”

Again, I don’t think the people I worked with had the intention to con anyone. They were just “faking” confidence, hoping to “make it” someday. This begs two important questions:

  • Does faking it actually work?
  • What does it mean to “make it?”

The answers to either question can vary from person to person—which is problematic. “Faking it” leads people to confuse a product with a profession. They point to a film they managed to complete and say, “Check it out! I made it!”

Technically, they may have “made” a film, but if no one sees it—because one can’t fake distribution—can they say they’ve “made it” as a professional filmmaker?

They may claim as much and do so with an abundance of “confidence,” but how many other people are getting conned along the way?

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.