How Indie Filmmakers Survive: The Details
I’d like to share the financial details of living as a working artist in the United States. This post will likely answer a few questions and inspire some new ones from those who read Beyond the Frame. It was inspired by the producer Ted Hope. If you’re serious about filmmaking, make sure you read his work.
I am nearing 10 years of working and living as an independent artist. I spent most of that time in Chicago, living on the edges of transitioning neighborhoods. Convenience and price were my top two priorities. I can’t spend an hour commuting and arrive late. I can’t miss a meeting due to a downpour or a snowstorm. Opportunities are too rare and first impressions are too valuable.
I kept my personal possessions light; I moved too often to collect stuff. I haven’t owned a car since 2005. Although I drink socially, I cook my own food when I’m alone. I can make you a dish with navy beans so good that you’ll forget you’re eating beans.
This is all anecdotal without the numbers, so here’s the skinny from 2011, my last year in Chicago:
I made $21,612.00 of taxable income in 2011. This is actually out of a larger net haul of $31,112.00. However, my production company, EARTHCIRCL.ES spent $9,738.00 finishing up The Assassination of Chicago’s Mayor (12 minutes) and shooting The Coldest Winter (11 minutes). Considering the scope of each film, this was absolute bargin. My producer, Kathryn Henderson, is astonishingly talented. The fact still remains that I spent nearly $10,000 - or a third of my income - working on my craft and improving my narrative reel.
Through some equipment rentals, working as an assistant director, some editing, and some production work, EARTHCIRCL.ES only made $1,835 in 2011. It was a bad year. We’ll actually turn a profit in 2012 but that’s for another entry. Much of 2011 was invested in projects-to-be ”just waiting on the funding.” That’s the film business. Income can fluctuate wildly depending on where a feature may be in distribution or a client may be in their development cycle.
The majority of my income in 2011 came from working part-time as an Associate Professor at the Illinois Institute of Art in the Digital Film and Video department. EARTHCIRCL.ES was regularly a 40/hour a week job. My work as a professor was a little under 20/hours a week. The hours add up but that’s life as an independent artist.
When I moved to New York in 2012, I took an extended agency contract as a Digital Project Manager/Producer. This was a step away from my primary goals in independent film: to direct a 7 to 8-figure feature and to develop cutting-edge interactive narrative experiences. However, diversification is key to many of us making a living in this business. If you’d like to take a look at the breadth of my work, and how different revenue streams may look from year to year, you can see my resume here:
There is a plan in all that activity. I’m looking for content to congeal online in a specific way that I have yet to see. As it comes together, I will be flirting with advertising and academia part time in a bid to retain my independence and work on what I feel is truly important.