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.