The Double Edged Sword Of Independent Film

I’m incredibly fortunate to be working with James on making Janapar. Not only is he a very talented producer-director, but he is one of the few with enough ambition (or recklessness) to turn down numerous well-paid TV gigs in favour of his own independent film.

It’s an inherently risky business we’re in here. The majority of independent documentaries are passion projects. Most will never see a penny of profit. A startling proportion will bankrupt their makers.

Why? Because filmmaking costs money. ‘Low budget’ means at least a five-digit number. Even the accepted definition of ‘no budget’ usually runs into thousands.

To minimise costs, James and I are living off meagre savings and working full-time in a home office to fill the roles that dozens (or hundreds) of people might fill in a commercial project. We are typical indie filmmakers.

And that’s where I’ve met the double-edged sword, which I suppose is one that most self-employed-for-life people will sooner or later encounter . In order to remain creative and self-directed — particularly when non-negotiable overheads like a bed, food, and a place to practice a craft are concerned — attention must be paid to making the practice self-sustaining.

That means engaging on one level or another with the instruments of ‘business’ — of creating things of value and making them available to those who want them. And that means making connections. Which means spending time communicating. And in this day and age, that means screen time. For an ex-website-developer like me, it’s an unwelcome return to the original cause of escape.

There’s a compromise, of course. But it’s difficult to identify where it lies. For three weeks now I’ve spent 8 hours a day at the keyboard, interspersed with runs and bike rides and project-related trips to the city. What differentiates my job from an office nine-to-five? At the moment, not much.

(I have nothing against office nine-to-fives, by the way. I know plenty of people who are happily aligned with such jobs. But they’re not for me.)

I keep telling myself it’s a means to an end. And the end is clear: to be in a position to share a story, having collected and crafted the material for it over the last five years of my life.

The question is: when do the means instead begin to dominate? At what point does the (meaningful) marketing, publicising, communications and business development I’m doing to serve my creative passions simply become a (meaningless) marketing, publicity, communications and business development management job?

What do you think?

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6 responses to “The Double Edged Sword Of Independent Film”

  1. I realise I’m a little late in responding to this blog post but it sounds very familiar to me — in fact I am in a similar position. Similar in that I’m making an independent film about a journey. A journey I took on foot over Scotland’s highest mountains. With that journey over and I’m now spending most of my time in front of a computer screen communicating, marketing, editing, writing, and so on. I often look out of my window and think I’d much rather be on a mountain somewhere continuing the experience of the journey.

    But when I think about it more deeply, I think about all the tough times during my journey, especially the times when I was soaking wet, miserable and wishing for the warmth and comfort of a home. The times I wished I wasn’t on a mountain. I also think of all the good times and the overwhelming feeling of having accomplished something that seemed so daunting in the beginning. 

    And then I realise that the journey is not yet over. Some of the tasks might be mundane and seemingly meaningless — much like when I was walking hours and hours over rugged, boggy terrain or on a mountain surrounded by nothing but the greyness of mist. But all my efforts now will help to make the film as successful as I can make it. If was ever feeling down on my journey, I would think about how those low moments would later inform the better, joyous moments. That is, if everything was wonderful all the time, then we would soon lose the ability to appreciate it. We need contrast. It is the fluctuations between extremes that eventually gives us a meaningful experience.

    I think I’m rambling now. Best switch of the computer and dream of mountains…

  2. When you work for yourself you might find yourself doing the same types of jobs as a typical nine to fiver but at least you have the choice, for me that’s what makes the difference.

  3. I think the means can be a real drag working in the creative field — a necessary drag. However the minute you start doing things that don’t feel true to yourself, it’s time to step back and have a look at what’s going on. It sounds cliche, but as long as you’re keeping it real, all your efforts in the necessary, less creative / administrative areas will mean the project will eventually hit the mark. As long as you’re doing something honest in a way that’s honest to you, others will pick up on that honesty and the end product will resonate with them…

  4. Stephen Chapman avatar
    Stephen Chapman

    I think the means of getting to an “end” always dominate, they have to. I struggle with this myself, trying to remain creative and principled, especially when the stuff I love to do disappears from my desk completely–often weeks, months at a time. Sometimes I feel the game is up, that I’ve been swallowed. However, a busy period often leads to a quiet period and time to realign again with the end goal. (And then I start to worry about how long the quiet period will be.) 

    I think it ultimately comes down to time management, maximizing the hours available to you, and always making time for the things you want to be working on; separate them from what provides you with the means.

  5. Keep going…

    Eventually, all the doubts will become clear and all the soul crushing screen time worth it, when you accomplished your goal and, once again, return to the saddle.

    Looking forward for the Book & DVD 🙂

  6. For me, your passion is driving you to create the end goal — the film and its success — and I like to think that drive is like a tank of fuel, a tank which you are expending to get you through the rigors of the less palatable tasks which need to be done to get to the end goal.

    Recharge, refuel and refocus. Take some time to look back over what you have achieved so far. Make sure that the successes within that are recognized and celebrated.

    Don’t over emphasize focusing on the end result — it is the journey which is important, not the destination.


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