16 April 2010

Rock N' Roll and ROI

by guest columnist Frederick Marx.  Follow him on Twitter.

When do you work for nothing and when do you demand money? When is no money plenty and when is decent money not nearly enough?

I still regret not working for nothing to develop one particular project in 1985. I was living in China at that time when a friend of mine was about to go on a tour with his rock and roll band. The first rock n’ roll tour ever in China. (The band was made up entirely of foreigners.) My problem was I relied on a Paris Match reporter to raise funds to produce the project. I should’ve just gathered the necessary gear and produced it myself. So half way through the tour when the French guy failed to deliver, and the Chinese tour promoters got tired of paying for my girlfriend and I, we just left. But oh, the stuff I witnessed and never filmed! (And the later stuff I didn’t witness but should’ve filmed!) Rich, well connected Chinese youngsters (mostly the sons and daughters of Party apparatchiks) going crazy with unleashed libidinous fury, uncorking the rock ‘n roll genie. Not unlike 1950s youth in the US. But it wasn’t enough for me to witness history, I wanted to be paid! I wanted somebody else to produce and for me just to direct. But omigod the missed opportunity! The outtakes alone I could probably be selling today for thousands of dollars. What a mistake.

I believe the goal of every filmmaker is to be paid, and paid well, for making their own films. It certainly has been my goal for 35 years.

And if it’s not yours, why the hell not?

When I look over the whole of my career, knowing that I always had that goal in mind, the story that I tell myself is this:

Act 1: I start out doing work for nothing and get little to no ROI.
Act 2: I turn down freebies and start insisting on being paid for my time.
Act 3: I’m now back to offering myself for free but measuring my ROI totally differently. (like in this blog)

Like a lot of stories I tell myself about my life I see that this one is not really true. I’ve really been doing all three all along, interchangeably.

Traditional sales training tells us that we teach others how to value us. Whatever money we accept is the money we are worth. If we accept $5 to mow a lawn that’s what our time and services are worth. If we accept a plane ticket and three nights’ hotel room that’s what showing our film at a festival is worth to us. If we accept heartfelt gratitude and snacks at a reception for speaking at a local non-profit event that’s all we’re worth.

Now we can always ask for more. When we do we’re serving notice, “this is what I’m really worth.” But any economist will tell you you can only ask for what the market will bear. You can ask for $500 to mow a lawn but the market will undercut your self-valuation pretty quickly. I’m pretty good at asking. But as my wife is only too quick to remind me, I’m also pretty good at settling for less. And with the market for services such as mine coming down by the second as they are right now who’s to say where the basement and ceiling actually lie?

So when and how do you decide to demand more for your time and services? It’s easy when the demand is already there. There was plenty of demand for HOOP DREAMS from 1994-1996. So it was relatively easy for me to get nice speaking fees at colleges, conferences, events, screenings, and meetings. But I also upped my asking price for freelance work: producing, directing, editing… That didn’t work as well. People just went out and found other freelancers working for less. For them it mattered less that I had done HOOP DREAMS than the cost savings of hiring others.

You have to constantly reassess how you value yourself and how the market values you.

Cut to 2007.

One producer in LA wants to hire me to edit her half hour doc. The friend who referred me says she mostly produces feature films and has plenty of money. Yet when I reduce my rate to my bottom line minimum – a rate I only offer to non-profit labor of love documentaries – she still won’t hire me. Finally, I decide to write her off. As much as I love the subject matter I won’t work on it below my bottom rate. Still, she calls me once or twice in the following weeks to see if I won’t go any lower. What I want to say but don’t is “F--- you, cheapskate! Pay me a living wage!” Do I regret not taking the job for less. Not at all. Especially not later when I see the finished film and it’s no good.

When I was a student of course everyone worked for free. This hasn’t changed. So you should assume at the very beginning of your filmmaking career you’re getting a pretty good ROI. If you total it all up, you’re probably getting many more hours of help from friends than you’re providing them. If you’re not, fine. You still need help to get your films made. Another point to keep in mind is to cultivate your fellow students as future contacts. You never know who the next Spielberg will be. Whoever it is, you want to be his friend.

To be continued next week…

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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