The Path to Filmmaking

Note: this blog post is sort of a stream-of-consciousness post, and largely based off my own memories and readings over the years. Some things here I may have misremembered, and may be incorrect. Hopefully they won’t affect the point I end up heading towards by the end of the piece.

Me & Film

In 2011, I became a video game developer. It was a sort of happy accident, in a way. A confluence of things – from a contact through a former co-worker to my side-line as a video games critic – lead to me (accidentally) pitching a video game idea to an acquaintance who ran his own studio.

Not to diminish the enormous amount of work that my brother and I put into the next decade of our life making games together, but the kick-off event was completely and absolutely accidental.

Before that, if you’d asked me what I wanted to do with my life, I’d have answered “make films” without hesitation. And that wasn’t just a pie-in-the-sky dream, either. In the years before 2011, much of my ’20s, I had finished two micro-budget feature films, a dozen odd short films, two web series’ and that’s without getting into the numerous failed projects – things that remained incomplete for whatever reason.

So in 2010, it 100%, to me, looked like that was my future. It was something I loved, and I couldn’t imagine doing anything else with my life.

In retrospect, the films I made were… student-ish. Which isn’t a huge shock. I didn’t go to film school, so I learned by doing. Making tons of cheap films was a way to learn how to shoot, how to edit, how to direct, and how to write. I learned a ton from them, and while I can tell you (truthfully) that the organisational, writing and visual skills I learned doing those helped me in my latter career making games, I was also left with a sense of loss. I told myself I’d keep making films ‘on the side’ as I made games, but as anyone who’d done it can tell you, video game development, especially indie development, is all-dominating. My time was all taken up with making our games, sometimes 7 days a week for months at a stretch.

You don’t think of it as ‘crunch’ when you’re an indie, you think of it as kind of… doing what needs to be done until you release a game or two and can get proper financial support.

It left no time for filmmaking, and as a result the last time I directed anything was now 11 years ago.

As my time in video game development begins to feel like it’s waning a bit – becoming more of a hobby and a way to pay rent than a genuine passion – I find myself drifting back to making films again.

I finished a micro budget feature script recently, and did the first table read with the actors I want to use. It was exciting to see my words being brought to life by them, and excellent beginning to figure out how I’d shoot certain scenes – logistically and creatively.

But as I began planning just what to do, I began to poke my nose into the indie filmmaking scene online and… thing is, filmmaking has changed in the time since I was last doing it. Just, not in the way I’d expected.

The process of making a film is much the same. Sure, lavaliers are a bit fancier and cheaper, and capable digital film cameras are smaller & cheaper (you can, and people have, shot professional-looking feature films released in cinemas on iPhones). The tools are more accessible, which is good, but… the world has changed. The structure surrounding launching a filmmaking career seems very different now.

Releasing Films in 1991 and the Age of the Indie Auteur

There’ve been several ‘golden ages’ for indie filmmaking, but I think the one most people think of these days has to be period around the end of the ’80s to the mid ’90s. During this time numerous indie filmmakers, starting on low-budget filmmaking, forged careers, some even becoming cultural icons.

The process back then was really a sort of known quantity. You made your film, scavenging the cash to rent the film cameras, then took it to film festivals. If it was half decent, you’d sell it to a distributer. Either a larger company that has a small indie film wing, or companies that produce and distribute lower-budget or genre faire exclusively.

This whole process has been pretty well documented in all sorts of books, interviews and audio commentaries, and honestly I think it’s part of the indie filmmaking process that has I think been rather ‘mythologised’. “I’m shopping around my first feature film and doing the festival circuits”.

Not everyone who made it big with a hit first film in this period had a huge career ahead of them, but most you look up had SOME kind of career. Some moved into TV, others made the odd film for years, some stuck to producing or writing, but there was at least the chance of success. Just how much of a chance… well, as with most things I guess it’s possible we’re affected a bit by confirmation bias – we think of the success stories rather than the people who didn’t make it, because the successes are the ones we see and think of.

A common path was short films. You may not have the resources to consider a feature film, especially back in the day when the film to shoot on would at least set you back tens of thousands of dollars in 1990s money.

From the ’80s onwards, there was of course a second path to debut features – music videos. The Scott brothers and David Fincher being good examples. This often resulted in a debut film being a higher budget than the more raw indies cutting their teeth on 16mm.

But short films still worked. Short films in festivals, getting into Sundance or the like often opened doors. Maybe on the strength of it, you’d find a producer or a studio willing to give you money for your debut feature project.

But whether it was indie-made or done off the strength of a short, the next steps involved a pretty well-honed and understood pipeline too, that had been more or less similar for at least 20 years at this point, and longer if you’re talking about just the cinema release component of it.

You’d get a limited cinema release or, if it seemed mainstream enough, maybe a large one. Some became cult hits, shown at festivals almost exclusively. But showing you could actually do it was often a serious foot in the door. This was still clearly true even to the early 2010s, with filmmakers such as Colin Trevorrow ‘graduating’ from their debut films into directing franchise pictures such as Jurassic Park 19: Yet More Bloody Dinosaurs.

But examples have become… less common.

Makes You Think

I tried to find modern-ish examples of this pipeline – the short-to-indie-feature-to-full-filmmaking-career pipeline, but didn’t end up finding many. Unsurprisingly, too, when there’s fewer seats on the bus, the people who get those seats end up more likely to be white cis men.

Not that it was at all ‘easier’ back in the ’90s of course – it’s interesting comparing the women who were indie darlings around the same time as Tarantino, Rodriguez, Linklater and Soderbergh, seeing what their careers ended up being life.

There are fewer do-overs for commercial or critical failure for women and people of colour, that’s for sure. One not-great film could put a woman in the wilderness, unable to get funding for her next project for years – and that was 25 years ago.

This all stayed in my mind, and I found myself wondering if it was really as bad as all that?

Then I watched Emily the Criminal – a truly fantastic debut feature film that came out last year. It’s a perfect example of the kind of film that I’d been thinking about. Relatively low-budget at least by early ’90s standards ($1.5-$2M), shot quite quickly in 20 days.

The meta aspect of the film itself, however, weren’t what interested me about the film. Sure, it was an example of something that seems increasingly rare – a written & directed by project that isn’t part of a franchise and wasn’t made for the cost of two bowls of ramen and a cheap DSLR – but the content was something that was pretty amazing.

It’s about Emily (Aubrey Plaza), a young millennial graphic designer, her career stalled and her options fucked in a way previous generations weren’t, who eventually and slowly turns to a life of crime. It’s shown in a very believable, slow way. What really leapt out at me, however, is a scene around the middle of the film.

In it Emily has a job interview with a very girl-boss figure. It turns out, of course, the ‘job’ she’s applying for is an unpaid internship which “might” turn into a full time roll. Exasperated, she loses it and asks how anyone is supposed to “work” for free. How will rent be paid?

She gets a short dismissive lecture from the older woman played wonderfully by Gina Gershon, and it serves as a fascinating counterpoint. The same type of person, but just one generation dramatically altered the nature of the issues they both face.

This scene spoke to me, and it was clearly personal to the director as well. A quote from a great interview with him about the film.

I always felt that these two are from the same place. They’re from a very similar world. They even kind of look similar. And yet they’re from a different time. Gina didn’t have to work for free. Not saying she had it easy, but she did have a paying way into it. Not to mention, if Gina’s character got that job in the eighties or the nineties, it would’ve paid so much more compared to the cost of living and wages would have increased at the rate of inflation. There would’ve been just a whole host of things that would’ve led to her enjoying the lifestyle that she currently enjoys.

So, there’s something interesting to me about having two characters who are very similar from the same place, from the same culture, and yet divided by an era. And what does that mean? The way that Emily behaves in that scene, I have to think, is probably not too far off from the way that Gina’s character probably behaved when she was younger: rejecting certain norms, and knowing that she’s smart, and not accepting certain things, and taking control. That’s what she did. And that led to her being a CEO of this major company. To Emily, it’s not gonna lead there. There’s something that’s very true generationally about all that for me.

Ford then continues, and says something that just felt like a gut-punch. (Emphasis mine)

Look man, I played by the previous generation’s rules for a long time. I took out loans. I went to school. I made a short film. It got into Sundance. That’s the dream. I went to Sundance. I got agents, I got managers, all this stuff. I wrote a script. I was ready to make my feature debut forever ago. Twelve years ago I would’ve been ready. I couldn’t do it because there wasn’t any fucking money. All of that capital that financed all those great independent films in the nineties and the early aughts was gone. Then there was a housing crisis and there was a war and there was all this stuff and it was just like, how do you do it? The way that the people before me had done it was not gonna work for me. That was this major realization and I had to go back and work catering, the job that Emily had. I don’t mean when I was 23, I mean I was 33 delivering pizza, trying to be a movie director. By the time I sat down and wrote that scene, I really felt those things. I really felt like don’t dare even attempt to give me advice because what advice are you gonna give me? How to succeed in 1991? Thanks. (Laughs). It felt very deeply true. I’m not like defending the character’s behavior there, because Emily is all kind of shitty, but I feel the way I do. The fact that I got this movie made is an absolute miracle. It almost shouldn’t have happened.

John Patton Ford is my age. He’s facing the same issues I will have, but I am unlikely to get into Sundance with a short. (Also, I’m queer, transgender, and woman, all things that will and do work against me.)

Thing is, even ten years ago when I was at the tail end of my first indie filmmaking stint, I was already moving on a bit from films. Micro-budget features are hard. So I made web series. It was an interesting medium, but largely a dead one now. Back then, it seemed like ‘web series’ (in the sense of short episodes released on youtube) were the future. But now everything is streaming, and what people watch is… the expensive things. The Netflix and the Apple TV+ and the Disney+ things. Why would most people watch small indie web series’ when they can watch similar-length things with massive budgets?

The Mandalorian releases exclusively on streaming platforms, and episodes are quite short. It’s functionally a web series in a traditional sense 2000s sense of the term, at least in my mind. It’s even shot using brand new technology-based cost-cutting methods. That’s not even a derogatory thing – most everything is a web series these days.

What about micro-budget features?

I made two. One even got into a film festival back in 2007.

They’re much more accessible to make now. You can shoot them on your damn smartphone. So I looked on YouTube, out of curiosity. Dozens, just in the first few pages. Feature-length films, shot on really nice equipment, many very slickly edited and mixed. The one with the most views I saw was 22,000. Most sat down in the double or triple-digits.

People just don’t want to sit down to watch a feature film on youtube, especially if it’s made by and starring nobody they’ve ever heard of it, and it’s not a Star War or a new Marvel film.

This is not a new problem, clearly, it’s just part of the ever-changing landscape.

But… where does this leave someone starting as a filmmaker now? (And by ‘now’ I mean in the past decade or so.)

Thing is, YouTube has still very much made people career filmmakers. Or, at least, YouTubers, which is often quite a dismissive term given how talented many of these people are. The problem is most of the don’t do narrative filmmaking. What people go to YouTube for is video essays. Regular content by creators they like. Sometimes, bits of narrative content get snuck into ongoing series, and in at least one case I know of can even graduate from that to a feature film.

But not all filmmakers are cut out to be video essayists, especially when the barrier for entry is so low and the quality of the good stuff is so high.

I’m far from an essayist (as this rambling blog post shows).

So this path isn’t one I could really pursue.

What Now?

I’m not exactly a stranger to feeling out-of-time. Like, the games I make are often better suited to 1993 rather than 2023. But at least with games there’s a growing industry for intentionally retro-styled things. Aesthetically drawing from older games, but with modern design principles, content and taking advantage of new interfaces and distribution methods.

I’m not sure where that leaves people who want to make films now. If you goal is to have a career that looks something like Martin Scorsese or Quentin Tarantino, it increasingly feels like you may be shit out of luck.

The irony is that with streaming providers spending billions on new content, it seems like in a way it should be the perfect time for indie filmmakers – and yet so many of the films commissioned and released by big streaming services seem (at least from what’s being marketed) to be by established creators. Indeed with limited exception most of the major remaining ’90s filmmaking superstars have migrated to doing content for streaming services, though often using their clout to ensure they at least get SOMETHING like a theatrical release, however small.

I’m not really sure where that leaves me, frankly, and it’s a bit depressing. I hope I’m wrong about all this. Or, at least, that it’s not as grim as it seems from my searches and readings over the past few years.

I suspect, ironically, I’ve no choice but to ignore a lot of the new avenues to become ‘content creators’ and just hope whatever I make is seen by the right people in whatever niche film festivals I can find.

Or, even, do what most Australian filmmakers do – rely heavily on state and federal art grants.

Or just, like most things I do, find joy in the act of creating, rather than focusing on whatever career I hope to come out of it.