Why No One Makes Films and Why That's A Big Problem

In a world of unprecedented disparities, the widest gulf may be between those who get to make films and those who don't.

When asked "what I do," I usually respond that I'm a commercial filmmaker or that I own a commercial film production company. The followup question is usually "Cool. What kind of films do you make?"

The real answer is that I don't make films, and this admission is, today, the greatest source of frustration in my (otherwise lovely) life, because everything I have done professionally to this point has been about cultivating the opportunity to make films.

And here's the most discouraging thing of all: I've been (some would say very) successful, and 15 years in, the dream of telling stories on film still feels financially out of reach. And to be clear: I am a devil-may-care leap-right-off-a-cliff riskyboy when it comes to money.

At this point, I have at my disposal:

  • More than $1,000,000 in film equipment, all the same stuff they shoot Marvel movies with.
  • My own studios. Real sound stages. Two of them. 29" by 47" by 20" high. Owned, not rented.
  • A full-time staff of 15 talented filmmakers, producers, and crew who want to make films and often have extra time in their work schedule to do so.

If filmmaking feels out of reach to me, the very person our entire economic system has been set up to serve1, then the degree to which filmmaking is out of reach to others (women, black people, poor and middle class) represents a legitimate crisis.

  1. The reasonably smart, viciously competitive white guy with resources. ↩︎

Here's the truth: No one makes films. No one. There are like 14 people making films and deciding what films get made, and they're all pretty much the same guy (a lot like me, which sucks, but I'll come back to that). And this exacerbates every other problem in the world, from a morally reasonable distribution of resources to hate, war, and peace.

There's no hyperbole here. If anything, I'm underselling what a problem this is. Film affects (and ossifies) culture more than any other artistic medium, and it is completely monopolized by a small gaggle of very, very rich white guys and mega-corporations.

Film is the most popular artistic medium in the world. In fact, along with music and sports, it is the only popular artistic medium in the world.

Sorry, but people don't read. So sorry.

If we are going to have other voices at the table when creating the games and rules and culture of the world, we must figure out a way to bring down the cost of filmmaking. This is a moral imperative.

I am optimistic it can be done, but there are a number of obstacles to overcome. Luckily, we have an unlikely ally in this effort: "The Market" would also love to find a way to bring down the cost of filmmaking, and they're trying so hard.

Here are just a few of the top-line reasons why I personal haven't made any films. Most of them are also the same reasons why no one else makes films either. I'll go into more detail on each of these soon:

1. Filmmaking is wicked expensive, even when you have "everything you need."

Filmmaking is perhaps the dumbest thing that a person can do financially, and that's because...

2. Filmmaking is wicked hard (and labor intensive).

Why is it so hard? Well, for one, it's the only artistic medium for which the entire world is a connoisseur. Film audiences are incredibly sophisticated, and the work they watch represents the highest level of the form ever achieved (not necessarily the highest level of the content within that form, of course).

Here's the good news: The hardest part of filmmaking is the part that doesn't cost the equivalent of a building or a private jet, and it's also the part that "de-risks" the part where you do burn all that money. In fact, the story development part of filmmaking has the promise of completely de-risking film production. Ask Pixar. But of course, Pixar has a team of dozens of story artists they can afford to pay six figures to do that story development and iterate over years until they know a film will be a critical success. Regular people can't do this, because...

3. Visual storytelling tools are absolute garbage.

The only reason I can surmise for why there has been literally zero innovation in story development processes in more than 100 years1 (the whole history of the motion picture) is precisely because there have only ever been a few thousand people who have had a chance to participate in the process.

  1. That is... until wonderunit's Storyboarder came along. More on this really exciting tool soon. ↩︎

So we don't even have the tools to open up filmmaking to most people who have great, important stories  to tell. If you don't have resources to hire a team, you'll need to be the rare mad genius who is a good:

  • dialogue writer
  • story artist
  • personal productivity master
  • manager
  • photographer/cinematographer

But even if you are all those things, it still doesn't matter if you don't have the resources. You'll need to find someone who does have those resources and convince them to let you in... And that always comes with conditions.

Yes, you've read Robert Rodriguez's book and yes, films have been made for next-to-nothing by people willing to donate their bodies to science and forego having a basic standard of living while making an extremely constrained (while impressive) film. These exceptions do nothing but prove the rule that filmmaking is completely inaccessible.

4. The "Greatest Show on Earth" is full of only one perspective, and it's probably a lot like mine...

I have a lot of self-doubt stacked on top of the normal pile of self-doubt that mosts artists have: If a whole bunch of money and labor and resources are going to be burned on a film1, why should it be mine? What new perspective do I have to contribute here, particularly when all other perspectives never make it to the big screen?

  1. The combination of the cost and the allure of filmmaking also leads to a bunch of other nasty side effects like exploitative labor. The accepted shoot day, even by the still-marginally-effective (for now) film crew unions, is 12 hours, and going over is the norm. People are willing to PA/do crappy work on set for free, and let's not even talk about acting... Of course, there are lots of unscrupulous filmmakers who take full advantage of this. ↩︎

With all this said, I could totally make a movie, and in fact I plan to (and I plan to do it in public). But if I'm going to do that, then in addition to making a different kind of movie (which is the only kind of movie worth making) that depicts the stories that are never allowed on this medium, I need to help create a process by which others will be able to make movies, too. Without achieving progress on that, all I've done is tossed another stick into the moat of fire surrounding and blocking access to filmmaking.


5. I'm probably a coward.

More on that another day.

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