19 February 2010

Notes on Transitioning from Student to Professional

by guest columnist Frederick Marx.  Follow him on Twitter.

Out on the road releasing my new film gives me the opportunity to share some basic thoughts with beginning filmmakers on how to transition into being a professional.  Given the extremely volatile and uncertain condition of the film business these days, please work all these suggestions into YOUR best understanding of the film world now.

Start from your own ideal.

Then work backward and figure out what your interim goals are.  This is MOST IMPORTANT.
If you truly want to be a docmaker, regardless of whether you’re an independent, think about ~ 10 years of sacrifice.  After ten years you should have enough experience and know whether you truly want to become (or remain) one, where you’d like to be located, etc.  

I used to think it took about 20 years of hard work and sacrifice before it was possible to work full time for yourself making your own movies.  In today’s climate, I’m no longer sure.  The truth for me now is that after 35 years doing this work I feel like I'm back where I started: making films myself and distributing them myself.

Things to Think About

Family money 
Is there anything here for me to fall back on?  If so, that’s a real plus.  Increasingly and unfortunately, long-term, high production value, independent filmmaking is the domain of the rich. If your name happens to be Guggenheim, Rockefeller, or Kennedy you’re way ahead of the game. If not, then figuring out how to support yourself while pursuing your dream will be all the more significant.

Do I get along well with people?  Do I like teaching?  Analyze your personality and consider what you’re best suited for.  Character is what you create after you figure out how best to work with what your personality offers you.

What is Your Best Skill Set? 
Is it truly being one of the “creatives?”  (editing, writing, directing, props, wardrobe, set design…)  What are my business skills?  (working w/ people, administration, raising/managing money, sales, number crunching, planning, …)  Your clear, honest answers will help steer you toward producing or directing or tech crew positions or something. else entirely.

Your Lifestyle.  
What about my lifestyle will serve my career goals?  What needs to be changed?  Am I comfortable moving around a lot, meeting people in many places, or am I best suited to stay in one place and sink deep roots?  (being peripatetic might work for ~ 10 years, or, do I need to be in one place to get support, ie., live at my parents’ house.)

Where to live? 
NY/LA  are obvious choices.  SF and Chicago are good towns for doc makers; anyplace where there are NOT many filmmakers, much less doc makers CAN be good – getting freebies from the few professional houses, getting help from surrounding community, lack of cynicism on the part of potential subjects and potential crew... But for freelance work you almost have to be in one of the top ten cities.

Developing a second, saleable skill – apart from making your own films – is an absolute MUST!  

Think about which avenue is best for you: 

Freelancing for others on films.

Develop a speciality NOW in school. 
Something you like to do and are good at: editing, sound, etc. Know that you need to live in a major city in order to get this kind of work.

Develop contacts NOW: colloquium filmmakers, teachers, your fellow students can be your best future contacts!

Taking a job in a production house/network/studio… Think apprenticeship, think mentoring.

Go to someone you LIKE A LOT and say...
"I’ll work for nothing for you for 6-12 months in order to work with you, learn from you.  Then after that time you’ll hire me because you’ll see how valuable and dedicated I am."  

This is probably the single best way to start yourself on a trajectory toward your dream.  Your mentor will later become your greatest advocate and helper.  The downside of course is that it requires you to have enough money to sustain yourself while you're working for another for nothing.

I myself wrote Coppola, Wenders, Bertolucci, even Tim Robbins, asking them to be my mentor.  (I did this AFTER Hoop Dreams!)  I never heard back from any of them.  So I consider myself guilty of not following my own advice above.  I still consider one of the greatest faults of my career is that I never really had a great, successful mentor-filmmaker.  Though there were people like Gordon Quinn at Kartemquin Films that I certainly learned lots from along the way.

Seek part-time positions, small schools, media centers like BAVC, community centers, overseas jobs*; or create your own workshop.  (It’d be great to have a tenure track position at a big university but these positions are EXTREMELY competitive right now.)

Teaching really teaches YOU.  You really learn that way.  I taught Writing in Grad School, (Beginning Composition, Creative Writing).  After grad school, in China and NYC, I taught English as a Second Language.

Take a completely different job: Business, computers, sales, service, whatever…
It's a great way to get DIFFERENT LIFE EXPERIENCE(s).  Different skill sets can inform filmmaking in all kinds of unforeseen ways.

You can earn A LOT of money doing something else, e.g. stockbroker, then come back afterwards and make films.  (Just note that many don’t come back!  They get used to the money and/or tied into debt.  But that’s OK if they’re happy.)  (I knew this path wasn’t for me.  I was never interested enough in making money!)

Start your own video production company.
There's no shame in doing weddings, bar mitzvahs, birthdays, industrials, corp. image-pieces.  From 1985-1987 I did some producing of low budget projects under my own company after I returned from two years teaching in China:  a promo for Chanute Air force Base; a kid’s party at Chuck-E-Cheese...

There are A LOT of 501(c)3 non-profits that are DYING for decent image pieces: even if there’s no pay you can combine the process with a personal doc you’re doing; or do it on spec; or help them get the $ to pay you.) A good demo for a 501(c)3 can lead to a great documentary.

*On overseas jobs:

If you’re born in the USA, your “skills” (really, the privileges you’ve been born with) make you automatically employable:
  • You’re a native English Speaker – this alone is a saleable commodity.
  • You may have clout from your school or university or even home city.
  • You’re a US citizen (this used to be a major plus around the world, and still is in many places.  But it can also be a liability now!)
  • You have familiarity with US culture, customs, politics, history, etc.  
  • The relatively low pay you might get overseas will mean much less to you now that it would later. 
  • You may be given much more responsibility in an overseas job than you would ever be given as a starter in the U.S.

In short, overseas jobs are good places to rack up both life and work experience.  They’re also a good way to decompress after college or grad school and figure out your next life steps.

Frederick Marx  is an internationally acclaimed, Oscar and Emmy nominated producer/director with 35 years in the film business.   He was named a Chicago Tribune Artist of the Year for 1994, a 1995 Guggenheim Fellow, and a recipient of a Robert F. Kennedy Special Achievement Award.  His film HOOP DREAMS played in hundreds of theatres nationwide after winning the Audience Award at the Sundance Film Festival and was the first documentary ever chosen to close the New York Film Festival.  It was on over 100 “Ten Best” lists nationwide and was named Best Film of the Year by critics Roger Ebert, Gene Siskel, Gene Shalit, and Ken Turran and by the Chicago Film Critics Association. Ebert also named it Best Film of the Decade. It won numerous prestigious awards, including an Academy Nomination (Best Editing), Producer’s Guild, Editor’s Guild (ACE), Peabody Awards, the Prix Italia (Europe’s top documentary prize) and The National Society of Film Critics Award.  The New York, Boston, LA, and San Francisco Film Critics all chose it as Best Documentary, 1994.  Utne Reader named it one of 150 of humanity’s “essential works,” the Library of Congress recently added it to its prestigious National Film Registry and the International Documentary Association named it the Best Documentary Ever.


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