Keeping Your Friends While Making an Independent Film
(Another installment of Paul Kampf’s ‘The Wild West’ Series)
Independent film has the reputation of being a world that is fraught with betrayal. It’s been the subject of many conversations with friends within the independent film industry, and others considering moving into the industry. So, I wanted to address the “dog eat dog” perception with a bit of my personal experience.
It’s essential to accept the fact that making an independent film, whether $50K or $5 million is equal parts excitement, optimism and high-stakes gambling. Yet, most projects start out with a small group of people who decide that they want to make the film together and no matter what, they will remain loyal to each other.
If they stopped right there, no one would get hurt, no one would feel unappreciated, and everyone will still be talking to one another in three months. But, making an independent film means taking the risk that everyone who chooses to go on the journey brings essential talents and/or assets crucial to the project from conception to production. This is where the real drama begins.
I’ll describe the process like trying to fly a hot air balloon for the first time. Everyone is working hard while it’s on the ground and enthusiasm drives the impulse to get it up in the air as soon as possible. Then someone comes along who’s done this before (Producer) or is bringing the money (Investor) and tells you there are holes in the balloon that you didn’t see (script/budget) and that the basket is too full with people (your initial team) and you’ll need to make room in the basket if you want his participation, so someone has to get out (first price paid).
In the independent film balloon, the outsider might be completely right, absolutely wrong or somewhere in the middle. Regardless, alliances start forming inside the basket for and against the outsider joining the process. The group starts identifying the person from the original team that possesses the least value from this point forward. It isn’t usually a new thought to the group, but circumstances force them to face what they’d hoped to avoid.
When that person is asked to leave, it is always the most painful situation for everyone involved. But it also has a very positive effect because those still in the basket either start working harder and as a team, or they start highlighting all of their past value to the project to build a case to go on the ride. From here forward, the whole process evolves solely based on the requirements to get the balloon ready for flight.
If money is being spent, it quickly accelerates the removal of anyone who isn’t satisfying a line item payment. To extend my simple metaphor, the wind is coming (first day of the shoot) and dead weight is cut every time someone is perceived to hamper the chances of getting that balloon into flight.
I’ve personally been inside and outside of that basket many times. I’ve ignored my instincts as much as I’ve listened to them. I’ve fought for people that eventually pushed me out of the basket. I’ve fought against people that became key to the project’s ultimate success.
That is why the path to making any independent film is littered with broken friendships, perceived betrayals, and damaged egos. However, the bonds that are formed with those who’ve been through a seemingly impossible endeavor are life long and explain why a successful team finds a way to work together again and again.
So, before you move forward with your independent project, I urge you to have a blunt conversation with those who plan on being in the basket at the end. The sooner you identify everyone’s real value to the project before going forward, the less the ‘cost of doing business’ will damage the personal bonds that you feel today.