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Tuesday, May 8, 2018

Social media and the local film community

Poster for the Utah-produced
film "Friend Request" (2013)
(Sense a theme in this entry?)
Independent filmmaking and social media seem like a natural fit. From networking and organization to flooding the newsfeeds of friends and groups with pleas for support and links to crowdfunding campaigns.

There’s no magic formula for creating a successful and engaging online forum where individuals can interact, seek advice and hire talent for their projects. Though it’s usually a simple matter of who gets there first, that doesn’t mean a newer forum won’t gain momentum and surpass the original(s).

Take, for instance, a little Facebook group started by this writer back in 2010 called “Utah YouTubers.” At first, it had only a handful of members and very little activity. Largely dormant for a number of years, around 2016 there was a surge in membership and activity. More and more people started to join and share their Utah-based YouTube content. It was later discovered that subsequent to—and completely independent from—the creation of that first “Utah YouTubers” group, another group with basically the same name had really taken off. Rather than try and compete, the original group was content to be associated with the more successful group and is now known as “UTubers Forum”, a public group that hopes to serve as a stepping stone to the more professionally-minded space catering to more experienced content creators.

As far as Facebook groups dedicated to filmmaking in Utah are concerned, there are several (as shown in the graphic below) and it’s not uncommon for someone new to the filmmaking community to join every single one that they find. However—as this writer discovered a number of years ago—one quickly learns that the membership of these groups consists largely of the same people. With an eye toward cleaning up one’s newsfeed of identical film-related posts from the same people, the question needs to be asked, “Which group do I join?” Or, more often, “Which group—or groups—can I just leave?”

The groups that aren’t doing anything or only engage members sporadically—usually because of low membership to begin with—are the easiest ones to let go of. One should also note which groups are posting the same information—in other words, find out which groups are populated by mostly the same people—and just stay in the one that’s most useful. Participate in the group that has experienced members that are willing to answer questions, offer sound advice and honest critique. Commit to the group that takes filmmaking seriously as both an art form and an industry.

Of course, the UFA™ is going to recommend the de facto group for Utah Filmmakers started by Ben Hawker, Utah Filmmakers and Actors. With the largest membership of any group of its type—over 13,400 and thousands of active participants at the time of this post—one can’t go wrong by clicking on that join button and answering the two basic screener questions for admittance: “What is the nature of your involvement in filmmaking?” and “Where in Utah are you based?” Since the group welcomes both film industry professionals and beginning filmmakers, it would be difficult to figure out an exact ratio of professionals to novices in the group without doing some exhaustive research. However, one can make a conservative estimate. Assuming that only 1 in 50 members of the group works or has worked full-time in the film industry with a guestimated average of ten years of on-set/in-studio experience, that's over 2,600 combined years of industry experience in our one group. That is a pretty impressive source of information and know-how that one can turn to.

While Utah Filmmakers and Actors is a valuable group for local filmmakers to be part of, there are other groups that cater to more specific topics of discussion such as Utah Film Writers and groups set up for local college and university film students. Another group that this author participates in is the Utah Video and Film Production group which offers a low-key but valuable discussion environment consisting largely of local industry professionals.

There are many other groups that have been started with goals similar to that of Utah Filmmakers and Actors. This writer is also a member of a few of them but doesn’t actively follow many of their news feeds for the simple reason that much of the information that they offer is identical and their community access limited to a significantly smaller audience—an audience that’s most likely also part of the Utah Filmmakers and Actors group, especially when it comes to novice filmmakers and those just starting to make inroads into the industry.

Redundancy can be a good thing when it comes to filmmaking—having a backup shooting location, extra lenses, mics and lighting options on hand in case of unexpected complications, for example—but when it comes to resources for hiring, networking and collaboration, it can be confusing. The fact that a few of these other groups have actually been started by existing and former members of Utah Filmmakers and Actors—for reasons that include disagreements with group policies and/or admins acting in accordance with said policies—doesn’t help either.

Graphic created by the author,
derived from publicly sourced data.
Higher Resolution Version
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Utah Filmmakers™ and UFA™ are trademarks registered with the Utah Department of Commerce Division of Corporations and Commercial Code, Registration Numbers 10706542-0190 and 10502093-0190 respectively.

Monday, April 23, 2018

The value of time and talent

The Utah Filmmakers Association does much of its online engagement on Facebook, primarily through the Utah Filmmakers and Actors group. Originally started by Ben Hawker in 2007, the group has grown over the years into the largest online forum for filmmakers in Utah with over 13,280 members (at the time of this post). While The UFA™ has existed separately since 2002, with it’s own unique Facebook page and web presence, it does not have a formal membership structure. Instead it promotes the Facebook group as the de facto online forum for collaboration and promotion and is very grateful for the service that it provides to the filmmaking community in bringing Utah Filmmakers and Actors together on projects.

Image courtesy of "Vectorolie"
at FreeDigitalPhotos.net
The group consists of both professional and novice filmmakers and is open to new members based in Utah.

With this mix of both people in the film industry and those who aspire to be a part of it, it’s become a valuable resource for professionals seeking paying work, productions looking to hire seasoned and new talent, and novices seeking experience and advice.

Over the years, the group’s administrators have tried to make the user experience in the forum as pleasant and productive as it can be. With so many members—and the number growing steadily—this can be challenging but, thankfully, the group is largely self-managed. There are a few policies and some guidelines—even a suggested template for members to use when posting cast and crew calls for upcoming projects. The most important element of the casting and crew-call template is the placement of the payment offered at the very top of the post. This placement is a courtesy to the professionals in the group that are there specifically to find paying work.

It is generally understood that the only projects that should ever be listed as unpaid are student films and filmmaking competitions that require all participants to be volunteers.

Nevertheless, this does not prevent people in the group from posting “unpaid” projects. As long as the lack of compensation is clearly indicated at the top of the post, the professionals in the group can more easily ignore them.

From time to time, someone starts a discussion in the group about an overabundance of these “unpaid” projects. This almost always sparks a lively discussion that soon devolves into a debate that requires the intervention of an admin to end the exchange, usually by turning off comments on the post. Full disclosure: the admins can be lively participants in these discussions as much as anyone else.

The default position of the Utah Filmmakers Association (which serves as one of the group’s administrators) is that apart from the aforementioned student and competition projects, all cast and crew calls should offer some form of compensation when seeking the time and talent of others in the group. A few examples, as referenced in the group description, include: “Rate / Negotiable / In Kind / Stipend / Deferred.”

“Rate” refers to either an hourly wage or a typical day-rate as indicated by federal law and industry standards. 
“Negotiable” simply means that there’s room to negotiate what the rate will be. 
“In Kind” means that the producers are seeking a trade in services or are offering another commodity with an equivalent or greater retail value to the standard rate indicated by the position. 
“Stipend” indicates that a flat fee, at least enough to cover travel costs, is being offered. This sort of compensation should be limited to very small projects and limited time obligations of those being sought for otherwise low-rate positions. 
“Deferred” refers to “deferred payment” which indicates that the participants will be paid only when—and if—the project recoups its investment costs. Anyone being offered deferred payment should consult an attorney—if possible—and/or read their contract carefully. A general understanding of the difference between gross and net profits might prove helpful as well.

There are myriad other ways of compensating people and all forms of compensation have their pros and cons but those listed above tend to be fairly common. Regardless of how individuals are paid for their efforts, all agreements should be in writing with a legally-binding contract and/or deal memo.

Also included in the group description is the following caveat:
“…state and federal laws prohibit the use of unpaid labor for for-profit entities... Which means…: No, you can’t use volunteer labor to make your film.” -G.R.Kanaan [Cinema Law: Why Using Volunteers is a Risky Way to Keep Costs Down on Your Film, MovieMaker.com, 2013]
Regarding the aforementioned non-student/non-competition projects that ask for unpaid labor, while group policy discourages the practice, administrators tend to ignore such posts, as do the professional members of the group. The reason being, simply, such posts are primarily made by novice filmmakers and are mostly answered by other beginners.

It’s not uncommon for these “unpaid” posts to try and entice responses with cliche promises of “food,” “fun times,” “experience,” “footage for their reels,” “IMDb credit” or all of the above, conveniently forgetting that paid projects can offer the exact same things—as a matter of course—in addition to a paycheck.

Whenever novice filmmakers—and sometimes experienced filmmakers who should know better—are reminded of the legal obligations associated with hiring talent, i.e. the lawful requirement to pay at least the Federal Minimum Wage, they often respond with a ready list of excuses—none of which carry any legal weight—for why they don’t have to pay anyone. Such excuses range from appealing to the artistic nature of filmmaking, claiming that because theirs is a “passion project” and they are foregoing a salary then everyone else involved should as well and be grateful for the "opportunity," to claims that they don’t expect to make a profit so that makes them exempt from the obligations of for-profit entities—n.b. making a profit is not what defines a for-profit entity. Even Utah Filmmakers™—a tax-exempt, nonprofit organization—is required by the same federal labor laws to pay participants in its productions under the Section One Entertainment moniker, business entity known as a DBA (Doing Business As). There are a litany of other excuses that novices fall back on but eventually, they’ll resort to making personal insults and accusing anyone criticizing or attempting to educate them of “not caring about the art” and only being “in it for the money.”

There are lots of movies that are “passion projects.” Most of them, no one ever hears about. The ones that do get press are the ones that secured funding before going into production and paid their cast and crew—including the person whose passion was behind the project to begin with. Those participants may have felt inspired—or compelled—to agree to a lower rate than they’re used to for the sake of the production; most likely making up the difference in other ways, like profit sharing, but they certainly didn’t agree to do the job for free.

There are a number of legitimate reasons for insisting that participants in any project should be paid. The aforementioned legal obligations, fairly standard and ethical business practices, the reassurance that compensated labor will result in a higher quality end-product and a significantly smaller chance of facing litigation from disgruntled participants seeking unpaid wages—just to name a few—and for every one of those reasons, the willfully uninformed novice and the experienced-but-unethical producer has an excuse to counter it, usually rooted in the one excuse that they’re both ashamed and proud to admit: “I don’t have the money to pay anyone.”

The argument that they should wait, get more experience, save their money and go into production later is met with a counterpoint that can be very difficult to defeat: “But I want to make my movie now.” It’s also at this stage that, with a little prodding, they might even confess that they haven’t finished the first draft of their screenplay.

It can be very frustrating to see someone with such obvious enthusiasm for filmmaking fall into this trap of impatience. For these naive individuals, no appeal to the law, ethics, sound business advice, industry standards or fiduciary responsibility can convince them that what they’re doing is wrong. Having accomplished little themselves, they will rest on the laurels of other notable filmmakers that self-funded their own projects—without acknowledging that those funds were used to pay cast and crew. They will vehemently deny that their practices undermine the wages and bargaining power of film industry professionals and claim that the experience they will gain—at the expense of a fair wage even for themselves—will help the industry later on, when they will have to settle for a lower rate that they’ll be partly responsible for while the cost of living continues to go up unabated.

It was following one of these discussions about paid vs. unpaid projects that this writer realized what those novices, hobbyists and ethically challenged filmmakers were actually saying.

The entire conversation can be boiled down to the following simple exchange:
Professional: Everyone has value that's worth being paid fairly… even you. 
Novice: No, they don't... and neither do I.
A general query was made afterward, asking, “Why is it that the more I try to tell someone that they have value, the harder they argue that they don’t?”

It prompted some interesting responses, including the following:
“If you [have] to tell them, then they didn’t believe it to begin with. Which is sad, because… a lot of the people that think they don’t have any value have more than most, but that truth was beaten out of them at some point, by someone who truly doesn’t have any value.”—Ryan Pederson, Producer/Director
To be clear, this is not a judgment call, just a speculative response to a generalized question. Though, to apply it directly to the context of this treatise, the practice of recruiting people to work without pay can be rooted in a few different places. One is the expectation in film school that people will help a student filmmaker because it's for their education—though there is nothing stopping a student filmmaker from compensating talent, especially non-student participants. The writer of this essay has been paid for student projects with both gas money and liquor (even though he doesn't drink... sometimes it's the thought that counts).

Unfortunately, some filmmakers take this "unpaid student-film" budget model and try to apply it outside of school. The results often speak for themselves in the form of barely watchable content that's celebrated by an overly-enthusiastic group of filmmaking hobbyists who think that just because they have a film degree and/or managed to cobble together a short film without a budget or doing any due diligence that they're somehow in the film industry now and on their way to being the next Harvey Weinstein (insert name of notable film producer without a sex scandal here).

In reality, they're not actually in the film industry but the way that they conduct themselves when making movies does have an effect on the industry. As much as they might want to wear the "strugging artist" badge to justify not paying their cast and crew to realize their vision—even if their current "passion project" is a commercial they agreed to produce for a friend of a friend's new business that "can't afford advertising," just so they can build up their reel and continue to convince themselves that they're "really doin' it!"—the reality is that whenever two or more people agree to participate in a venture that results in the creation of a finished product they are in fact engaged in a business activity. They're certainly not following the rules of business, they may or may not be aware of the legal requirements needed to even be in business or to market their services (even if it's only by word-of-mouth) to others. In their desperate need to build that reel and get noticed, they undercut the prices of experienced professionals just for the sake of getting their toe onto an actual film set or television production, where they hope to network with other filmmakers "just like them." The professionals know to ignore them, other novices, beginniers and naive young dreamers who don't know any better will get vcaught up in the excitement and enthusiasm and justify working for nothing as just "paying their dues."

This is not to say that professionals don't "pay their dues." It just needs to be understood that in the actual film industry, "Paying one's dues" means giving a friend a discount on one's standard day-rate, so they can afford to hire enough people to do a job right instead of recruiting a bunch of hobbyists that are just going to half-ass it for that ever ellusive deal called "Copy & Credit."
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Utah Filmmakers™ and UFA™ are trademarks registered with the Utah Department of Commerce Division of Corporations and Commercial Code, Registration Numbers 10706542-0190 and 10502093-0190 respectively.