Sunday, June 19, 2011

Getting into show business

"Yeah, I'm a filmmaker. But it's not so glamorous as it sounds."

I've said that phrase to over 100 people this year and not a single one of them believed me. I think I really mean to tell them that filmmaking is a long journey. If you ask me if I am a filmmaker, I am sometimes tempted to say "I don't know. Ask me in 10 years if I'm still in the business."

As a production assistant at the bottom of the film industry, I encounter all shapes of gatekeepers. These are people who try to keep you out of the industry. Some of them appear to me in the form of demanding producers and assistant directors and some of them appear in the form of grizzled old film veterans with an axe to grind with everyone he's ever worked with. The trick is to keep a level head and not so much to defeat these foes but to soften the relationships and build friendships.

Oh, that's easier said than done!

The first thing you must learn is the inherit risks in the film industry. Every minute you invest in a project is a potential loss. You're not just betting on the quality of the film but also its ability to meet completion. Will anybody want to watch this picture? Will anybody bother to edit the picture together? These are all likely scenarios for every picture.

Field producers are under a lot of pressure from the studios and production companies to keep operations under a limited budget. They have a limited amount of resources with expectation to pull of a television show that works. They're looking for help. They don't want to quibble over nickles and dimes and often, the production assistants are asked to help fill in the gaps.

My recent experience with a reality television producer can be summed up as thus: he asked me if my car could carry a doorway dolly. When I said no and requested a truck, I was fired.

Was that a messed up situation? Of course! But its not unusual for producers to delegate responsibility (and cost) to production assistants because, if for no other reason, there are production assistants out there desperate enough to do it.

I don't think these overworked producers set out to take advantage of the crew. Expectations are high for everyone from the top down and its not unusual for a production to expect even the lowly assistants to share in some of the risk. As they say, shit rolls downhill.

The second kind of gatekeeper is the seasoned veteran filmmaker. They offer words of warning to young filmmakers, not to let producers walk all over them. These guys who earn their stripes and hold indispensable positions on the crew are quick to forget that one's dignity is a privilege in the film industry, that they too once had to swallow their pride to get into show business.

The number one benefit of being a production assistant is the opportunity to make yourself useful. Simply fulfilling your duties and doing what you are told is not good enough. You have to pickup the slack where no other person could possibly do the job as well as you. You need to make yourself invaluable. And the most difficult thing for a production assistant to learn is that having this opportunity is a privilege.

Is being a filmmaker a glamorous job? I guess it depends on how you define glamorous. Is it an uphill fight, both ways? Yes. Is it by all means impossible to break into the business? Yes. And once you're in, is it one of the most exhilarating and rewarding things you can do? Absolutely. Its glamorous. And just as anything that's worth while, it takes a lot of hard work, dedication and sacrifice to get in.

Edit: Since writing this blog post, I sent a message to that producer and told him that I was sorry for not seeing things his way. He responded that he appreciated my note and that he would give me a call if he needed any help.

1 comment:

Brody Willis said...

Speaking as a seasoned filmmaker, I have to agree.

But I think the most fearsome gatekeeper of all is the clique.

Cliques exist within the film community on the assumption that one's friends are the best, most trustworthy people one can hire - until they're not, of course, but that's a nuance that often gets soft-pedalled.

They also exist to keep the pool of jobs exclusively available to people who think they are the only ones best suited for those jobs - until they're proven otherwise, another nuance that simply gets swept under the rug.

My question is how can the film community - no matter where it's located - grow if new talents are not given a chance?

Given the inherent difficulty of making films, those who are not meant for this industry will leave, plain and simple.

But everyone who wishes to work deserves a chance to find out what it's like, preferably without the likes of the producer described in the above post.

So, no, the film industry is certainly not glamorous: it is very hard work, sometimes tedious and dreadful, but for people like me, often rewarding.

In short, film is the biggest pain in the ass you'll ever love.