This is an article I wrote for a UK publication so that’s why I’m talking about £s. Would love feedback so please comment away!
What is independent film worth? The Strange Economy of the Arts.
I recently discovered that there is an academic field called cultural economics. They have an association, a journal and a bi-annual conference. I know this because I have become obsessed with the economics of independent filmmaking. I have become obsessed because I have been spending time with talented, experienced and hard-working filmmakers who cannot survive without a second income and hearing about art organizations like New York City’s Rooftop Films who were recently fighting for survival despite huge sold out screenings and solid critical acclaim. So what creates value and why do independent filmmakers do what they do despite the financial hardship? A few perfectly good answers immediately spring to mind of course: the creative process is not something you can ever just turn off like a tap, art is its own reward etc. Most artists are quick to highlight the personal satisfaction they get from their work to the extent that they find it perfectly acceptable not to include a line for their own pay when they submit budgets in grant applications, and often they are expressly forbidden from doing so by the grant-giving organizations which would probably strike a banker or plumber as a very strange state of affairs indeed.
But what is it about our society and economy that makes the situation of the arts and artists so financially precarious? Hans Ebbing’s book WHY ARE ARTISTS POOR? THE EXCEPTIONAL ECONOMY OF THE ARTS is illuminating on this subject. Ebbing describes the peculiar economy of art that dances uneasily between the market economy and the gift economy (more on the gift economy later). He argues that there is an over supply of artists and that subsidies actually increase poverty by creating more professional artists. These artists are often uncomfortable with the business side of their work and will emphasize the non-monetary rewards of what they do. “For artists to actually earn decent hourly wages, the number of artists would have to go down considerably. This implies a current state of over-production in the arts and an oversupply of artists. A career in the arts remains just too attractive for its own good.” Ebbing’s solution is to suggest that more artists should do their work as a hobby and rely on other incomes for their livelihood. This may make people who consider themselves professional filmmakers bristle but remember that the definition of amateur is somebody who does something for the sheer love of it. It is also what many people are doing already anyway, working on reality TV shows or bartending to pay the bills while making the films they want to make in their free time. A steady day job can have the added bonus of including health insurance and other benefits, something particularly valuable in the United States where your health care is not usually covered by the State.
Digital technology makes creating even easier for filmmakers and, judging by the increasing number of films submitted to festivals and competing for television slots and cinema screens, this has led to a glut of new films. This increased competition is a problem for all those filmmakers attempting to get their films in front of (paying) audiences and trying to make their money back for investors. Supply and demand again, and this is further complicated by the fact that we are currently stuck in a limbo between distribution as it was and distribution as it will be. Online distribution is not based on the scarcity model of theatrical and television. This is good news for people wanting access and exposure but currently bad news for people wanting money.
This is why it is so important for filmmakers to be ruthlessly clear about what they are doing and how they are doing it. Most films these days are not only not going to make much money, but will probably actually lose money for the filmmakers and their investors, assuming they are even able to find production money in the first place. You may recoup down the line if you are lucky but it could be rocky for a lot longer than is comfortable or sustainable. This is not a reason to stop making films but a rally to do so with clear expectations. Furthermore, budgets will need to be kept low and filmmakers will have to be involved with the business of distribution and promotion like never before. This can mean a year or two of your life when you may not be able to concentrate on other projects, a frustrating situation for people who consider themselves filmmakers rather than ad hoc distributors and PR people. This calls for a great deal of flexibility, forward planning and mastering of new tools, business models and resources. The upside, however, is tremendous: independent films continue to be produced and distributed in great numbers, new talent continues to be discovered, culture and communities thrive, and savvy filmmakers continue to find interesting ways to support a lifetime of work. Ensuring this optimistic landscape is not easy of course and it calls for filmmakers to embrace aspects of life and career development that they may find decidedly icky: financial planning, long-term goals, clarity of purpose, community engagement. relationship building, self-promotion and fierce time management. Romanticizing the artist starving in the garret is all well and good but it is vital that films that make us stand back and look at the world differently keep getting made and in order to make this happen we need to make sure that talented and ambitious filmmakers continue to make films.
The dearth of real income from most films distributed online leads to other questions about value. If a million people see your film but do not pay for it what is the value of that audience for you as a filmmaker? It is becoming clear that filmmakers are having to think about value (and audience engagement) in different ways now. This is perhaps especially true for filmmakers who have made social issue films and are measuring impact and social change as well, if not more than, profit and personal income. Social issue documentaries currently have a somewhat clearer path through production and distribution than other films due to available funds (Sundance, Gucci Tribeca, Cinereach etc.) and niche distribution but there is still a great deal of competition and filmmakers really need to think about their goals for their films from the get go, whether it be stellar box office, audience awareness or policy change.
The focus here is on filmmakers taking the truly independent route, people who piece together funding, whether it be from funds, investors, or mum and dad, and then try to sell the finished product. There are of course still people getting full television commissions and making a good living making the films they want to make but this is increasingly rare and many people are having to support their personal filmmaking vision with second jobs. There is an argument here for more support of challenging and original work through public broadcasting, a space that is somewhat protected from market forces, and I believe that this is an important thing to fight for in the UK. However, one of the really exciting things to come out of the current digital revolution is the freedom that people have to create and distribute work outside of the traditional gatekeepers. There may be very little money and a lot of competition but there is more opportunity and possibility for more people and this has powerful ramifications. The arts both reflect and create the kind of culture and society we want and so there is radical potential in professional and amateur production that does not need to rely on any kind of “official” permission for its existence and cultivation.
There has been a long-running debate about instrumental versus intrinsic value in the arts. Instrumental value includes areas like economic growth and academic performance, things that can be quantitatively measured. Intrinsic value is qualitative and thus much harder to measure. It is the way we feel when we see a really moving film or painting. It is the experience of watching a film on a roof on a balmy Summer’s evening with 1,000 other people. Metrics are important because public policy wonks need to decide whether each £1 in taxpayer’s money goes to the arts or to a hospital for example (or to a war or a road). Economic growth is a strong convincer of course but it can be hard to show the real importance of a vibrant culture if we do not allow the intrinsic value to be taken into account too.
And so we come full circle. A film is not only successful if it takes the box office by storm. There are other measures of value and there is a large element of what people do as artists that involves the gift economy rather than the market economy. Author Jonathan Lethem puts it this way, “People live differently who treat a portion of their wealth as a gift. If we devalue and obscure the gift-economy function of our art practices, we turn our works into nothing more than advertisements for themselves.” Gifts gain value as they are shared. Lewis Hyde shows this in his book THE GIFT, required reading for anyone interested in this strange economy of the arts, “Those who can be clear about supporting the arts not as a means to some other end but as ends in themselves, those who can shape that support in response to the gift-economy that lies at the heart of the practice, those who have the wit and power and vision to build beyond their own day; for artists, those will be the good ancestors of the generations of practioners that will follow when we are gone.”
So who will these good ancestors be?