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.

Monday, November 13, 2023

Amateur attitudes undermine professional goals - Symposium Reflections - Part IV

Image by Canon USA
In the latter part of the 20th century, professional videographers paid a premium to invest in their equipment. They dedicated themselves to learning how to use it and honing their skills on projects for which they appropriately charged premium rates. With time and experience, the services provided by skilled professionals in any field can earn them a return on their initial investment multiple times. As the commercial videography market transitioned to digital video and non-linear editing, there was a brief honeymoon period where the investment in new technology was still prohibitively expensive for most people—even when the end product was typically optimized for
interlaced Standard Definition analog broadcast.

With the introduction of “Prosumer” digital video equipment in the late 1990s, the quality of entry-level equipment started to improve, blurring the line between “producers” and “consumers,” it also saw an increase in “professional” videographers whose primary business strategy was to find out how much the veterans were charging for their services and just offer the same thing at a lower price, what they lacked in experience, skill, or even basic business acumen, they made up for by lowering potential clients’ expectations and standards while undermining the work’s value for everyone else.

Meanwhile, in the world of cinema, independent filmmakers like Jim Jarmusch, Spike Lee, Steven Soderbergh, Richard Linklater, Robert Rodriguez, Quentin Tarantino, and Kevin Smith were breathing new life into the artistic and commercial potential of independent film. However, after “The Blair Witch Project” premiered at Sundance in 1999, anyone with a camcorder seemed to think they could be a filmmaker. Those who didn’t give up when they realized how much work was involved or satiated their interest by making a “Blair Witch” parody because they couldn’t come up with an idea of their own suddenly found themselves rewriting their business plans—usually just in their heads or in early social media posts.

To this day, many would-be film auteurs try to break into the film industry through commercial video production. It’s become a clichĂ© to announce their “arrival” to the scene online, plugging their websites, logos, and business/creator profiles and pages across all available social media platforms, ready to sign new clients and get to work. They are so excited—i.e., naive, impatient, desperate—to get started that many of them make the same mistakes right out of the gate. Like not understanding that there’s more to starting a business than registering a domain name and establishing a social media presence. Should it be observed that their business name has yet to be registered with the state where they reside, they’re often quick to respond with, “That’s next on our to-do list…” or “We’re in the middle of that process right now…” Most of the time, they just didn’t know it was an actual thing they had to do.

With a limited portfolio of “student” or “hobby” video projects—often “inspired” by the work of indie-film darlings like those named above—they may or may not be willing to share with the world, another common mistake is to talk enthusiastically about their plans for success. It’s always so brilliant because it's so simple: “We’ll shoot weddings and commercials cinematically and use that money to fund the production of short films that we’ll send to festivals, then pivot into making features.”

It's so crazy, it just might work.

Most go nowhere, hopefully with a newfound respect for the amount of work it takes to start and run a new business, to say nothing of trying to produce a motion picture. Some figure out how to make a living at it; a handful even learn to become professionals—finding a comfortable niche in their corner of a particular market; a few among their cohort even manage to make and occasionally sell a feature film. When it comes to the day-to-day production work they rely on to pay their bills, they still have to compete with working amateurs who underbid projects and devalue the market.

Advancements in technology over the last few decades have continued to lower the cost of digital filmmaking equipment even more significantly. Cameras, computers, nonlinear editing software, and visual effects tools have become increasingly powerful and available in form factors so small and inexpensive that they can be combined into a single, pocket-sized device. Still, having a tool and knowing how to use it are two separate things. As I’ve described, the democratization of digital filmmaking technology has proven to be a double-edged sword.

Whenever working amateurs get a creative itch to produce a narrative project—usually a short but, occasionally, even a feature-length film—perhaps with an eye toward breaking out of doing corporate gigs to achieve their real goal of becoming a “serious filmmaker,” their amateur habits tend to undermine any potential they might have for that kind of success. Just like the quasi-professionals, a lack of planning and resources is downplayed when recruiting cast and crew by overemphasizing how much “fun” there is to be had and that they’ll “...submit it to festivals.” For reasons previously mentioned, these “community films” are of little benefit to the local film industry—to say nothing of the industry as a whole. The immediate economic impact is essentially non-existent for most people who agree to work on them.

Some amateur filmmakers have attempted to take a “community theatre” approach to filmmaking. However, Such a concept is problematic in practice because community theatre aims to produce a limited number of live performances with a mostly volunteer mix of professional and amateur participants—at least when licensing an existing play. Unless the licensing agreement entered into by community theatre allows it explicitly, recording any of their performances must be requested separately, in writing, and may include specific restrictions on how such recordings may be used.

Producing a film aims to create an ostensibly unique intellectual property asset, recorded with the intent to be distributed and for which legal ownership should not be ambiguous. The amount of creative input that goes into the production of any film is so wide, varied, and extensive that any questions about ownership, management, roles, and compensation for the same must be clearly defined—in writing—before the start of production. 

While their efforts behind “community films” have not resulted in anything that can be seriously considered commercially successful, I doubt that any of the due diligence needed for standard distribution outside the community(ies) in which they are produced can be sufficiently met which could result in legal liabilities if, through some fluke in the system, such a motional picture were actually to make a profit.

The production of community films, as defined in this treatise, can’t even be called a “cottage industry” simply because it is not self-sustaining. In the long run, unsaleable assets, by definition, will never see a return on investment. The quality of  “footage” promised for actors’ reels can also be disappointing. Yet, quasi-professionals keep making community films, paying for what they can out of pocket—the source of those funds may be their day job, either as working amateurs or being employed in another industry entirely. They rely on crowdfunding for the rest—despite unrealistic funding goals, which can be too high to be taken seriously or too low to be practical. The willingness to settle for whatever they can get—i.e., “flexible” funding—leads to further compromises on their productions in an attempt to make up the difference. Despite continuing to make these “movies,” their IMDb catalogs get longer, but community films don’t get much better.

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, Associates, and/or other Members.

Monday, November 6, 2023

Economic impact of local productions - Symposium Reflections - Part III

How much of an impact can a film project have on the local economy?

The Motion Picture Association of Utah (MPAU) commissioned an Economic Impact Study of Utah’s film industry, emphasizing the benefits of the state’s Motion Picture Incentive Program (MPIP)—colloquially referred to as the “film incentive.” The MPAU summarized the study in an explainer video.

In short, the state—through the Utah Film Commission—invites filmmakers worldwide to produce their movies and series in Utah by highlighting local resources such as unique filming locations, support services, experienced crew members and actors, etc. The film incentive—a 25% rebate—is available to qualifying productions that spend a defined amount of their production budget within the state. For example, if a film production spends $1,000,000 in Utah—a claim that has to be verified by a third-party audit—they may receive a rebate of up to $250,000.

The impact of money spent on film and television production in Utah is not limited to the local film industry; it’s also advantageous for ancillary industries and sectors as well. Fees for location permits benefit municipal, county, and state governments. Hiring local crew members and actors, catering and vehicle rental, hotel accommodations, renting equipment, and studio space benefit local businesses, enabling them to pay their employees. Employees pay local taxes; they buy groceries and pay for their housing and transportation, and myriad goods and services for their personal needs, benefiting even more local businesses, who have their own payrolls to meet. They may not even realize that the film industry’s economic impact also works to their advantage.

This begs a more specific question: How much do film projects by local filmmakers affect the local economy?

The answer depends on whether or not—and to what degree—those local filmmakers understand and accept that the business of filmmaking cannot be separated from the art form.

As I’ve previously discussed, in the Venn diagram showing how creative industries and their adjacent communities overlap, local filmmakers may find themselves in one of three archetypical roles: Industry Professionals, Working Amateurs, and Quasi-professionals.

There are indeed a number of Utah-based film industry professionals. They understand and respect that filmmaking is as much a business venture as it is one of artistic expression. They have established effective and sustainable business models. They understand that prioritizing people with fair compensation is essential to creating a quality film that can see a return on investment. One important characteristic they all share is knowing that no one person can do it all. They know their professional strengths, have the integrity to acknowledge their limitations and respect the varied, complementary talents of those they work with, trusting them to do the same. They embrace the standards and best practices of the industry, maintaining due diligence through all stages of production and effectively managing assets and required deliverables from concept to distribution. This is what professional industry filmmakers do: employing themselves and others, doing their part to sustain the industry, and making a quantifiable difference in the economic landscape.

The working amateurs are those filmmakers who have managed to corner a niche within the local market that’s technically part of the larger industry, embracing business models with a modicum of sustainability—at least for those above the line. Their priorities are in the saleability of the finished product with a maximum return on a miserly investment. They don’t embrace industry standards so much as meet minimal requirements. Best practices will almost always be substituted with whatever they can get away with legally, if not ethically. If a loophole will save them money on production, they’ll find it and exploit it. They understand the business well enough to know that a mediocre film—with a built-in, albeit less discerning, audience—that’s done its due diligence has a better chance at distribution and profitability than an otherwise flawless work of art that can’t produce a chain of title, signed contracts, and/or other deliverables that reputable distributors will ask for.

Quasi-professionals are well-versed in the jargon associated with their craft. They take themselves—if not the art form—very seriously, an unfortunate and potentially volatile combination of the Dunning-Kruger effect and unchecked narcissism run amok. More often than not, the responsibility for the unsaleable nature of many local productions—I’ll refer to them hereinafter as “community films”—rests squarely with quasi-professional community filmmakers. Having never let go of amateur thinking, they prioritize the completion of a film over its distribution, assuming that the completed project will be so good that it will sell itself—grossly underestimating the importance of basic business planning and the necessity of due diligence. They are so focused on getting to say “That’s a wrap” to the applause of an exhausted and under-compensated crew that every decision they make leading up to that point is rooted in a scarcity mentality. Problems that can easily be avoided by not starting preproduction until proper funding is in place are simply dealt with along the way. Lacking any practical means to hire the professionals needed to do the job right, they cut corners just to get the job done, starting—most often—by requiring most of their cast and crew to waive or defer payment and convincing those above-the-line to accept rates that aren’t just below industry standards but even fail to meet the federal minimum wage.

Quasi-professionals like to refer to themselves as “in the industry” because they sincerely believe that they are. Actual film industry professionals may beg to differ. Finished “community films” exist only on the outer-most fringes of the film industry—assuming someone remembered to create IMDb entries for them, as promised to many a cast and crew, in lieu of a paycheck. This speaks to the economic impact of such projects; there is none—people can’t pay rent or buy groceries with deferred salaries.

Despite the excitement they tend to engender in the local film community—I don’t think community films actually benefit anyone. To be frank, I think that they do more harm than good. Exploited actors and crew are prevented from learning the actual value of their time and talent. They become so accustomed to “donating” or underbidding their services and paying the “passion tax” that when they’re presented with an offer that industry veterans would scoff at, they accept it without question or even any negotiating on their behalf by their so-called “agents”—because 15% of a lousy offer is still better than 15% of a client’s “experience” and IMDb credit. This undermines the income potential for other local actors and crew. A desperate labor market attracts predatory employers. While some may be quick to point fingers at incentivized productions hiring local background talent for less than half of what SAG-AFTRA deems as an acceptable minimum day rate, some Utah-based producers, including the working amateurs described above, also exploit that desperation. While it might be good for their bottom line in the short term, the practice is simply not sustainable.

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.