The Indie Film World Reformation

“The indie theatrical release is dead” proclaimed Michael Kang, the indie film director of Kimberley Rose Wolters’s new feature-length romantic comedy “4 Weddings”. In a Q&A session that was quickly overtaken by the current woes of the indie film industry, this was the most disconcerting comment made by Kang, Rose Wolters, or actress Iliana Douglass. Kang continued “the indies that pay for theatrical release…they’re just doing it for vanity.” According to Rose Wolters and Kang VOD is the way of the future. This striking comment about a certain kind of death and vanity of the old world dreams some new filmmakers have made me wonder what the “new” image of the “future” of film really has to offer. Are actorsin the same boat as their directors, producers, lighting technincians, and so on? What a fascinating thought: if you want to make a movie, now, you have to compromise for the team- you have to do it for the love of it, because the big money is simply not guaranteed…opportunity does not necessarily mean prosperity.
Kang’s audience was primarily SAG-AFTRA union members, most of whom have worked for their entire careers to make it to the big screen, and though his string of comments provoked laughter, tension lingered in the air as the discussion went on. Independent filmmakers are expanding opportunities for actors and it seems that production budgets are shrinking with every inch of creative expansion. Moments after Kang’s startlingly realistic admissions, Iliana Douglass explained that “there is no difference” between acting on a web series, in indies, or on other kinds of feature films “except the pay is…they pay me, like, $100 a day.” She continued “It’s just they pay me…[laughter] you know, pretty soon I’m going to be pay them to shoot their films in my house.” Again, a knowing kind of laughter filled the theater, then one woman from the back of the theater shouted out ”OH, that’s the story of my life.” The ladies behind me nodded. Perhaps the audience was wasn’t just emitting your basic starstruck contraction, but a very real kind of fear. Will they “make it”? If they have a shot to do so because of the expansion of the film industry to independents, does it mean that they have reached success? It seems that we must rethink what these terms mean to us now, as creators and performers.
On first thought, “4 Weddings” seemed an admirably well-produced, low-budget romantic comedy. I intended to write about the film itself, but found the talk with the filmmakers overwhelmingly worthy of consideration. They didn’t just shed light on the film itself (which is an amusing, thoughtful, and effectively touching story of a family of women and their loves and love-losses), they knowingly exposed the weaknesses that most industry professionals probably want to scoff off as realism. Anyone who has pursued their interest in becoming part of the film world, looking for an “in”, has surely come across job listings that contain the following pay scale: pay based on experience. Those with little to no experience can expect an unpaid or low-paying internship. Unpaid internships are one thing, but there’s something nagging about the new-world order in film that makes me wonder how many aspiring creatives spin their wheels in unpaid internships and find themselves moving nowhere- and what were they looking for, anyway? Their name in big letters, scrolling: the theatrical release. The money as proof of their value to the industry. Is this possible? It is certainly not what it was.
For producers, a dollar saved is, necessarily, a dollar that can be used in some non-negotiable part of the film’s budget. The nature of these projects forces this cut-and-dry view of workers and there is little room to budge. So, the indie has opened up a world of experiences to newbies, but unpaid internships that lead to other unpaid internships are not terribly appealing. Why work yourself to the bone if your industry guarantees very little hope of allowing you to work your way upwards? If the majority of one’s options are not monetarily livable, passion may be drowned out by basic responsibilities; we’ve all got to eat. The filmmakers on stage at this particular screening are all active in the industry and have been for years, so there must be a draw beyond big bucks: the love of making a film happen because, with enough grit, you really can nowadays. As Rose Wolters said “It’s up to you guys- tell your friends to buy the DVD. And it should be on Netflix soon, so spread the word.” It’s up to us: spread the word. It’s all in YOU.
So, how far can the Industry of You take an aspiring filmmaker? In another case of indie film reality (also brought to us by SAG-AFTRA) the producer/writer/star of ”Supercapitalist” brought a fair amount of optimism to the ongoing, if indirectly scheduled, discussion of opportunity in the indie film scene. Derek Ting impressed audiencemembers when he explained his motivation for making the film, saying “you know, I tried to audition and it was just…so…hard.” Would you guffaw or nod your head in consideration? The reaction from those actors in the packed theater was mixed. Yes, it is hard to audition and waiting to be chosen is excrutiating, but it’s part of the job…or so most people think. Continue, sir.

Ting continued on, explaining that he decided to just find the money to produce his own film. Why wait when he could make it happen? He pulled it off as a trade-off between being at the mercy of casting directors and being a creator in his own right. Actors Linus Roache and Michael Park agreed to take up roles because, as Roache said “he had the money ready.” Having the money ready to offer got Ting the star power he needed to kick-off a real theatrical release of his first film. These two actors shared the stage with Ting for the Q&A, and seemed utterly floored by his unique blend of determined naivete and talent: he made it happen for himself as well as for his creative team and crew, which were both made up of purely new industry talent. An indie with a real budget can partake in the glamour of the big-wig Hollywood party, as “Supercapitalist” has proved.

So, we have the example of Derek Ting, who wanted to be an actor and decided that the best way to do it in this rough financial climate was to be a filmmaker. He made it happen and inspired the idea that maybe it was a real alternative at this point in time. Alongside Rose Wolters’s efficient, wholesomely bemusing “4 Weddings” Ting’s action film goes to show that extraordinary persistence along with hardcore networking are vital to success within the film industry. However, the main difference between these two filmmakers was that Ting developed a strong social media prescence and used every marketing tool possible to promote the piece in the style of a theatrical release, whereas Rose Wolters seems to be more interested in doing her work on foot- amongst the people. The difference may come down to that of creative personality, but one must wonder why projects in the same non-Hollywood sphere are produced in such varying ways: the big time style and the for the love of art type. Both deserve admiration, but are we still in a time of film glamour? Has the indie reformed glamour- or has it dampened such ideas? I like to think that we can solve the disparities by having hope, like Derek Ting (to whom no big name could say “no”), and guts like Kimberley Rose Wolters, who funded her project locally through serious networking.

What is success for actors and filmmakers at this moment? Is it going to see yourself on the big screen- your name in lights? It may be that filmmaking, screening, promotion, and funding has changed so drastically with the expansion of filmmaking courses and affordable technology that the actors of the now generations must take make their own vision of success (and share it with others, like Ting and his starter crew).

As facts go, materials and talent can be (and remain) affordable. On the bright side, we don’t have to sell our souls to make movies that will be seen. But what of competition? There are so many aspiring filmmakers- maybe equal to the number of actors looking for a break! I say: good. Independent filmmakers exist in a sea of not only struggling actors, but beside technically talented and visionary minds that love or can’t help doing what they crave: creation. Comforting is the thought that all talented people are in the same boat, and also that social media tools can help the working creators upstream, where recognition, if not big paychecks, await them. Still: Can we change the industry yet again to make it prosperous on top of opportunous? Check your tools and assess your situation. I would think answer is yes, so long as you don’t settle.

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