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.
It is impossible to build a career in this industry without tremendous support from many other people. Film and television are crucially dependent on numbers of people coming together to make a project come to life.
The same is true for any individual’s personal career. It’s such a rare occasion that one achieves measurable success while remaining a complete loner. However, it is just as true that you need to be fiercely independent or else you can easily find yourself on the short-end of many situations.
I recently sat down with a friend of mine to give him my feedback/support on the completion of a new feature film he’s been writing. A year earlier I met him after he’d hired me to help him develop another script, which he’s now showing around town to potential investors and producers.
My friend casually told me about a good meeting he had with a production company that read the script after it made its way into their hands through a strange maze of friends and business relationships. The company showed enthusiasm, but felt the script wasn’t right for them at this time. However, they wanted to build a relationship with the writer and keep doors open for any future projects. The company was created by formidable entities, so, understandably, my friend was very encouraged. Short of hearing the name of the company, I would have been equally supportive.
However, this company was greatly responsible for my move to Los Angeles. They’d read a script of mine, then two and pretty soon we were all enjoying the process of moving the scripts towards production. I enthusiastically introduced the company to an investor whom I’d worked with prior, and after a group dinner and breakfast in the investor’s home, the team was formed and heading towards production!
In film terms, ‘cut’ to ten months later and I find out in the trade papers that the investor is committing millions of dollars to the production company to fund a completely different project. The many hours of meetings, passionate pre-production discussions, and musings about our bright future together now seemed like a bad dream.
Sitting across from my friend, I wanted to go into detail about the people and circumstances that led to a very distasteful experience. However, I now understood that for him, under the right circumstances, with certain events lining up, he could have tremendous success with this company.
The point of the above musing is to say that it is always necessary to find the ‘I’ in ‘we’ in every business interaction one has out here. It’s crucial to define one’s personal goals in every creative endeavor, no matter how strong the personal relationships seem to be. Often this can be perceived as aggressive or self-serving, and believe me, there are enough people to support that observation. Yet, you can have strong personal goals alongside others with different, yet equally passionate ambitions. In fact, most endeavors only get off the ground when the individual self-interests lean on one another to birth an idea into existence.
Perhaps the biggest lesson that one should learn when trying to start a career in this business is to clearly define one’s personal goals and then seek out individuals whose own personal goals benefit from your own. It’s an essential lesson, yet rarely learned without one life-changing personal experience or two.
One of the first characterizations I remember hearing again and again when describing someone in the independent film business was a ‘hustler.’ Now, there are a lot of meanings one can attribute to that word. From my perspective, it meant someone who was selling something without real value. But what becomes clear when you’re making your living in the independent film business, is that everyone is hustling to find a way to put all the necessary pieces together to bring a project to life.
Because this is mainly a business of self-employment, hustling is the one reality that makes everyone equal. I know screenwriters of great success, who’ve been trying to direct their first project for ten years. Studios have no need to take the chance on a first time director, so the writer is forced to start the process of getting that script, which he could sell and step away from, funded and into production himself. He starts his hustle.
Conversely, I know studio executives who’ve left the multi-million dollar world of big movies to pursue their love of film, unencumbered by the studio system. Yet, at the end of the day, they are in the same position as the first time producer. They must hustle to find and put all the right pieces together.
Calling someone a hustler in this business is like saying that he likes the weather in LA. It’s a given. No one rises to any level of success without hustling, whether the project is of artistic or commercial merit. However, it’s the person, his projects, and his ethics that decide if he’ll have a sustainable level of success over the course of many projects.
Because there are no companies that hire a writer, director, actor or producer for a set salary and a defined number of hours per week of work, each project is it’s own unique and unrepeatable adventure. You must learn to be responsible for presenting something you believe in to the marketplace and finding a way to convince people of your instinct.
The hardest part of this process is being able to put all your efforts into multiple projects at one time, and then detach from the outcome. When one hasn’t done this (and I’ve been there many times myself), you start to see the outcome of every meeting in a way that feeds your hope but not your reality. The last thing one wants to hear is that someone of potential help doesn’t believe in a project that you’ve put your life into for many months or years. Therefore, it’s much easier to hear every gentle, ‘no’ as a very possible, ‘yes.’ Put enough of these together and you’ve convinced yourself (and friends and family) of a delusion masking itself as your reality.
Consequently, you never really know who is telling you the truth, or who has convinced themselves of a truth that he’s selling to you. It’s too alluring to hook your wagon to a star, and trust that it’s not going to be a falling one. But reality (and I’ve learned this lesson the hard way) dictates that you must put your efforts into believing what you tangibly see, experience and do for yourself. A minimal amount of Internet research tends to quickly cut through a lot of the spin. Yet it’s amazing how many people don’t really want to find the truth of a ‘too good to be true’ potential. It’s not then surprising why so little due diligence goes into verifying information until very late into the process. There seems to be a pride in saying that one important element fell through at the eleventh hour, rather than admitting that it was completely bogus from the beginning.
Friends and colleagues around the country have often asked me, “What is Hollywood really like?” Three years ago my answer would have been much different than my answer today. When I first arrived in Hollywood it seemed that every cliché that I’d heard about was dispelled by the amazing circumstances that I was experiencing. A year ago, I would have said that every single cliché was not only true but also worse than you can imagine. But today I better understand that both answers are equally correct. In fact, you can often have both extremes within the same week.
The focus of this column is to offer insight through my personal experiences and the experiences of the guest writers who will be contributing from time to time. Through our collective experiences, both good and bad, I hope we will provide an accurate portrayal as to what Hollywood is really like.
One of the most astonishing realities I’ve discovered is that “The Wild West” is alive and well out here. Hollywood, like the Wild West of the mid 19th century, seems to still be about staking one’s claim without apology, and often times without perceivable qualifications. I spent fifteen years training, teaching, writing, producing, literally living in the theater that I built, but soon discovered that my background and experience are only as valuable as the talents I present going forward. If all that work resulted in depth of craft, then the advantage is opportunity based on what I have to offer now. However what is on paper describing what I’ve done is only valuable for casual conversation at best.
In the Wild West tradition, people walk into rooms and say, “I’m the Sheriff” – whether or not they have any right to say so. No one spends time investigating your right to that claim; they tend to nod politely and say, “Great, good to meet you.” This applies to acting, writing, directing, producing, etc. There are ten people that will claim that title in every coffee shop. However your real qualifications are shown in the work you do and you’re the only one responsible for putting your qualifications into practice.
This is an industry that requires many talented people to come together at the right time, under the right circumstances to make any project come to life. The series of events that need to play out to bring a film from idea to distribution is truly mind-boggling. However, on the positive side, if you possess something of value there will always be a place at the table for your talents. It certainly doesn’t happen overnight, but as you build advocates, doors start opening. Hopefully, through reputation and determination, you’ll build your own tables and find talented people to pull up seats around you.
A century and a half ago, you would be given 160 acres of your own land as long as you stayed on it for five years. There is no such perceivable solitude anymore in this crowded city, but there still remains an immense sense of isolation. Almost on a daily basis you’re forced to look in the mirror and ask yourself three questions: Who am I? What do I believe? Why am I still here?
Eventually, over time and through experience, you can answer each question honestly. If so, those answers can reignite your purpose as an artist, and as a human being and compel you to put on that sheriff’s badge or claim your own plot of land.