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Guest Post: David Geertz "Are Indie Filmmakers Slave Drivers?"

by Ted Hope
July 28, 2011 2:59 AM
6 Comments
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How do we truly think about film? Do we ignore the truth even when it is right before our eyes? Are we sometimes willing to compromise our ethics in order to achieve our creative goal? Would we be willing to defer that goal in order to maintain the ethical standards that we otherwise embrace?

I named David Geertz as one of Hope For Film's Brave Thinkers (2009 Edition) for a new start up he had then. That venture may now be gone, but David is still very much a Brave Thinker, as his guest post below, and his commitment to more, attests.

So you’re planning on producing an independent film -- good for you, join the club. You are now officially a Slave Driver.

Before I begin this post I’d like to state that this post is mainly precursor of a series of posts to come for filmmakers and backers who see film as both an art form and an enterprise. An enterprise that pays skilled people a living wage, and provides an opportunity for those who fund those endeavors a chance at seeking a return on their money, while providing the needed funding for best and the brightest to continue to push boundaries within the moving image.

Let’s play a numbers game first before we dive into this post. Here are some assumptions that I am going to make on your behalf about your unmade film stuck in development hell.

1.    # of pages in my script - 90

2.    # of characters in my film - 10

3.    # of days on average that my talent will be on set - 7

4.    # of people on my crew - 20

5.    # of days I need to prep - 6

6.    average # of crew during prep - 8

7.    # of days I need to production - 15

8.    average # of crew during production - 20

9.    # of days I need to post - 30

10.    average # of crew during post - 6

11.    # of hours a day in production - 12

Using these tidbits you can get a rough idea of what it will cost you in labor to produce your film. All you need to do now is to assign each member of your crew an average dollar per hour for all their hard work. Here are some results.

2 bucks per hour       $14,352

5 bucks per hour       $35,880

10 bucks per hour       $71,760

25 bucks per hour       $179,400

40 bucks per hour       $287,040

70 bucks per hour       $502,320

Never before has it become so easy to access technology to make and deliver these cultural snippets that are part of the every day fabric of modern storytelling. I mean all you have to do is buy a cheap camera and some editing software and BLAMMO you are now a full on filmmaker!

The question is: Are you a slave driver?

Never mind about all the marketing, publicity, travel, deliverables, legal, accounting and banking mumbo jumbo....lets just get the film done.

And lets also forget about all the services like food, hair and make up, gear, locations, wardrobe, props, permits, insurance, hard drives, etc etc....

Lets focus on the people and assume that they will make up the majority and the rest you can do for a paltry 50K.

So....whether or not the people working for you feel like....well...slaves....here are a few more questions.

1. Where are you going to find the money?

2. What are you going to offer in return?

Perhaps before you try and answer those questions it’s a good idea to think about the people who are funding you and what their needs are. I think it’s a good idea knowing where your backers ‘donor fatigue threshold’ is as well as their ‘opportunity threshold’. There are two things that will make it easier for you to obtain this said funding (providing that you have all the creative, technical and management issues ironed out in your package but I’m not here to talk about that) and these are those things::

1. Provide easy access for people to fund you.

2. Provide an even easier method for those same people to recover.

Seems simple, but how do you do this without having to jump through the regulatory hoops, hire for a bunch of underwriters and lawyers? Even if you do this properly how do you ensure that the people who helped you out are going to have the best chance for a return on their money, or that your true fans get to see your film in the best light without having to wait for it to come out on Netflix?

Over the coming weeks I’m going to be writing a series of blog posts here. These posts will cover a range of topics mainly dealing with aspects of these subject matters.

   -- enterprise and/or hybrid crowdfunding

   -- theatrical and online digital distribution of your indie film

   -- building a promoter mindset inside the film community

   -- learning how to accurately find and engage your audience prior to a funding campaign

   -- how to put a fair pre-funding valuation on your film prior to approaching people.

I hope you’ll join me and clobber me with all your questions and concerns regarding all of these issues as we try and find a happy middle ground not only for producers, but for crews, backers and consumers of independent film.

Join me and find out if you are indeed - a slave driver.

“You're unhappy. I'm unhappy too. Have you heard of Henry Clay? He was the Great Compromiser. A good compromise is when both parties are dissatisfied, and I think that's what we have here.”    -- Larry David

David Geertz has worked in the film business since 1992 and is a partner in Binoir Media, a diversified holding company that has a focus in the content sector and is heavily engaged in building social utilities for the producers to assist them in funding, marketing, distribution and audience participation of independent media based projects. David's work currently focuses on finding the new sweet spot for ensuring a balanced approach to funding and profiting in the content sector through his newest technology company SoKap.

6 Comments

  • Matches Malone | August 6, 2011 4:50 AMReply

    Clearly, this is for a feature film. How do the numbers change when you're doing a ten minute short film, based on a Bible verse, in a week?

  • John | July 30, 2011 7:26 AMReply

    Great point by filmerz.com that filmmaking is like playing sports in that you don't usually see real paydays until you reach the highest levels. The problem is that many who work in indie filmmaking don't think the way athletes do in terms of playing for little money (or sometimes even no money) to improve their game and build experience while plugging away to get to the major-leagues.

    I directed a feature for $200K in 2007 using SAG ultra contract that pays actors $100 per day. I was director, but not producer. Our key positions were getting $175/day and I think assistants got $125. So recently I started trying to put together another project with same producer as last time, similar budget and this time I would help produce as well. My first thought was to whack down the budget to shoot for between $100-150K. And I suggested to the producer that if actors are getting paid 100/day why shouldn't key positions get the same?

    "Oh no that's not how it works...you'll never get good keys for 100 bucks a day" was what the producer answered.

    So in theory there are many capable crew members sitting at home doing nothing while they could be at least making a bit of money on a film and also honing their craft, but they won't do it because "that's not how it works".

    Hmmm. As we all know too well, things have changed for the worse in indie film since I shot my last film in 2007. Distributors offer tiny advances, if any, and you really have to hustle your butt off to make a dime. But indie crew rates don’t change to reflect the environment? I came to the conclusion that our producer was being lazy and was simply going to go through his rolodex and call the usual suspects that he works with instead of actively looking for crew that want to work on an indie feature because they are committed to the project and (as another commenter here posted), will find a way to make the shoot work on a minimal budget. So now I will be much more proactive in finding crew. They are out there, I know it.

  • Mashitoh Chen | July 29, 2011 5:56 AMReply

    This forum and topic is like ..brainstorming. I think it really depends on where you stand and how you position yourself. I will strive to make a movie if i believe the content/story will benefit society when they watch it. Yes, i work hard to develop the content, pull the right force and convince investors...but it's gonna be worth it if in the end, the movie will bring positive impact to the audience, one way or another. I'd be proud and think all my hard work and effort , whatever name you call it as a contribution to society...or part of serving the country ; yet receiving other benefits and earninsg. Don't u all think it's worth it?

  • Julio Ponce Palmieri | July 28, 2011 8:05 AMReply

    Interesting post but it does raise some concerns on my end. I agree with filmerz.com as to the use of the word "slave". Nobody is forcing anyone to participate in a high budget, low budget or no budget production. If they are willingly a part of it then the onus is on them. Branding the indie filmmaker as a "slave driver" is something that could potentially become dangerous as people will now view us with a negative stigma and that will only end up demoralizing everyone on set, no matter how much they get paid.

    My other question is the following: Why do most people seem concerned with the attempt to find funds as opposed to finding talented people to work with who can actually know how to handle the most minimal budget and stretch their money to the max?

    Wouldn't it make more sense? And with that talent comes the benefit that the production won't suffer. That's the payoff from finding the right people to work in your film, as opposed as spending years on end working on finding money.

    Of course, I am not discussing mulit-million dollar deals but moderately budgeted films which are in the high five figures to the low six figures. With the right people behind in your production, one can make the films with a third of that money just by cutting crew and minimizing equipment.

    Just a thought floating through my head.

  • Kenton Bartlett | July 28, 2011 6:07 AMReply

    Our movie is right in line with this article. Our feature had an $80,000 budget, but 588 people volunteered their time, and the production spanned 3.5 years and 5 US states: http://www.FindYourMissingPieces.com.

    As a filmmaker, I did feel like a slavedriver when working with some of the less passionate people involved, and with volunteer hours, many many many people flaked out causing countless problems. Making a feature for $80K is not a course of action I would recommend to anyone.

    However, everyone who worked on the project has said it was one of the most memorable and rewarding experiences of their lives, and the resume builder of having a major position on a feature film has helped many out in their careers.

  • filmerz.com | July 28, 2011 4:45 AMReply

    You are right, in independent film, the costs are usually far beyond the budget of the film-maker. Because of this the budget for paying those involved in the production quickly evaporates. There really isn't a lot that can be done about this.

    However, I really wouldn't go so far to use the term Slave Driver for a number of reasons. The first being that Slave Drivers force workers to work for meager pay or nothing in order for them to maximize their profits. Low budget independent film-makers generally don't make any more money than their crew. Furthermore, a slave is someone that is being forced to do something they don't want to do. In the case of film-makers they love what they do or they wouldn't be doing it. No one in forcing them to work. They WANT to be part of the production. Even though they want to make their passion into a career, filmmaking always begins as a passion. In the great big scheme of things passions tend to cost more than they ever bring in for most.

    Filmmaking is like playing sports, until you reach the highest tiers of the industry it is essentially a big black hole that swallows wallets and bank accounts. Yet, athletes love what they do so much they will play their sport as much as they can, even if they never see a dime from it.

    I do look forward to your posts on getting funding though! I imagine it will be great info.

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