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.