I remember when I was new to screenwriting: My role models were the stars of the independent film scene, those brash outsiders who seemed to rise from obscurity to displace the Hollywood elite. Independent FilmMaker Magazine was founded in 1992, and immediately gave voice—and a narrative—to the ascension of this ‘new’ breed of filmmaker. Hell, I loved these guys. Every article I read reaffirmed their storyline: They were the outsiders, the kids working the mailrooms or the video-store counters who had decided to make their own damn movie—and had WON. Tarantino, the Cohen brothers, Todd Solondz, Edward Burns, Kevin Smith, Darren Aronofsky—everyone fit the script as a struggling-outsider who’d bet it all and now found themselves on top of the pile—and it was just the kind of script I wanted to believe. Because I had nothing. Because I was an outsider. Because I had no money, no contacts and no reason to believe that I would ever succeed at the OLD Hollywood game. But this new game I was reading about? Yes—that sounded right up my alley.
So I took a page from the playbook of these trailblazers, and started writing ‘independent movies’. Small films with kooky, off-beat characters and kooky, off-beat problems. My scripts were good—they got into film festivals and won awards. I was accepted to the UCLA graduate directing program, and spent several years there having my paradigm reaffirmed: ‘Indy’ films were the films that mattered—the uncommon, out-of-the-mainstream ‘auteur’ voices that would separate a filmmaker from all the ‘elite’ folk working on the Hollywood-inside. Again—I loved this narrative. It positioned talent over social-networks, and hard-work over a birthright-ascension to the best jobs in the industry.
The only problem was—the narrative was totally false.
Here, I’ll skip past the many ‘oh-wow’ moments that finally broke through my fantastical perception, and focus instead on what you need to know as a new, or new-ish writer. At some point I plan to write a book, and in it I’m sure a chapter will be devoted to the many chinks that finally brought down my armor—my deeply held faith (read: HOPE) that the indy-filmmaking game was the best game in town for industry outsiders. For the sake of this blog, though—I’ll just skip ahead to the meat and potatoes. Here is the REAL TRUTH, as I have come to realize it:
Independent filmmaking is for rich people, or people who know rich people.
Now—I’m not knocking rich people. Hell, nearly everyone in Hollywood—and everyone trying to break into Hollywood—is rich, nearly-rich, upper-middle-class or well-tucked into this community. And many of them are extremely talented. In fact, to be intelligent enough, comfortable enough around people, comfortable enough around money, and to have the time and drive necessary to succeed in this industry, you almost NEED to come from an elite background. It’s a rare cocktail of skills that people with moneyed lives are simply better setup to command. But let’s call a spade a spade. With very rare exceptions, the people who’ve achieved runaway success in the world of independent filmmaking have certainly had talent, drive, originality, chutzpah, luck—but guess what? They’ve also had money. A LOT of money. And if it wasn’t their own, it was a rich uncle’s, a business-associate of their fathers, culled from a prestigious circle of alumni, or somehow otherwise ‘rounded up’ from the types of friends and contacts that one accumulates in an upper-middle-class or upper-class childhood. Simply put—the indy-stars I had modeled my early career on may have been Hollywood-outsiders, but all had the silent purse-strings necessary to fund their rebellion. ‘Independent’ equals ‘independently financed,’ and one does not exist without the other. This, more than any lesson of my young career, is one I wish I’d realized and internalized a whole lot sooner.
So what am I saying? That people with no money and no way of raising money have no hope of breaking into filmmaking? That it’s all a wash, and the non-elite need not apply?
No, not at all.
But the path is through the front-door—not the back.
Turns out, after years of honing my ‘independent voice’ and planning a never-realized poor-guy-proves-himself ascension through the indy-film circuit, the REAL path to success was the one I’d exed-out long ago. Turns out, for people who truly have no money, and no way of raising the requisite tens-of-thousands-of-dollars necessary to jump-start an indy production—the way into Hollywood is the same way writers and directors have been breaking in for the last ninety years: COMMERCIAL FILM.
Yup, that’s right. Turns out, if you write movies that are marketable and attract wide audiences, producers will want to make them irregardless of your personal finances, and you, my friend, will have a career. Counter to all the hype, story-weaving, little-guy-takes-on-the world, David-and-Goliath-type reporting of the 1990s and early 2000s—independent filmmakers are NOT the underdogs. In fact, they are the opposite—they're the alphas. Independent filmmakers are the folks who don’t play by the rules because they don’t have to—they have the money to do things their own way.
So what’s the take-away on all of this? Well—here’s what I’d say: If you’re new to filmmaking and trying to figure out the best way forward, do some honest assessment. If you really, truly, deep-down-in-your-soul know that you will NEVER be able to raise a large amount of money from friends and relatives, then forget about feature independent filmmaking right now. Sure, there are exceptions—Tarantino and the creators of The Blair Witch Project probably fall into this category. But 99.8% of the time, those without genuine money-raising ability need not apply. If you really, truly, deep-down KNOW that your friends, relatives and personal contacts haven’t a dime to spare—then embrace your situation, and focus your efforts instead on writing the types of movies and TV shows that studios and establishment ‘indy’ production companies know will earn them money.
Go commercial now, and save that kooky mumblecore script, or offbeat sexual-awakening screenplay for a time later in life when you have more control, and ultimately—more dough.