Hopes for a true film collective?

Unfortunately, this will probably end up as a very long post. It will also probably end up as being quite polemic, and may upset some people, but there you go.

Recently, the Irish Independent talked about the lack of funding for Irish film. While that is a laudable debate, unfortunately the article echoed recent comments by Siun Ni Rannallagh regarding additional funding for Ardmore Studios. This, however, is not a reasonable request. First off, the studio has been well-funded by the Irish taxpayer throughout it's less-than-illustrious history, and recent developments as documented by Tom Dowling, show that little has changed. It is no secret that the Vikings TV series went to Ashford Studios. Up until that move, Morgan O'Sullivan was a strong proponent of the studio. It is anyone's guess why this happened. Anyway, I'm not here to bitch and moan about Ardmore. I wish them every success, but I would not like to see taxpayer money poured on top of existing investments, when hospital waiting lists are increasing, and the rest of the economy is in the toilet. It's not like the owners of the studio are short a few bob. If they have grand plans for the studio, let them fund those plans through traditional means.

I guess the bigger (and more reactionary) concern of mine, is the overall state of the industry. We are led to believe that the Irish film industry is worth tens or even hundreds of millions a year in direct and indirect income. However, our catalogue of releases shows that the vast majority of Irish films don't recoup their budgets, much less make a profit. A lot of films don't even see a theatrical release, beyond a token gesture in a handful of screens. Let me be clear, though: Irish film is as important as it ever was. We need to see these films. We need these films to be made. I don't dispute that for a second. What I dispute is the notion that we have an industry. By any benchmark, it is not an industry. It cannot sustain itself without FDI and state funding.

If we look objectively and impartially, we could see an industry which could support perhaps ten or twenty heads of department (you may dispute those numbers, but I doubt very much if you'd claim they were off by an order of magnitude). In this context, I mean directors, cinematographers, sound mixers, editors, and so on. While each of these may also have five or six people who work for or with them, the numbers are underwhelming. The situation is slightly better for actors and writers, but most actors barely subsist. They do one or two TV commercials over their careers, they do a lot of profit-share theatre (which also has its issues), and a large number of free, student films. Contrast this with the number of film schools in Ireland, and the sheer volume of film students who graduate every year, fully expecting a career in film. Like many people who run a small production company, I am inundated with emails from students seeking unpaid intern jobs. This is just unsustainable.

As someone who has directed a number of short films, and someone who threatens to shoot something long-form in the near future, I am conflicted by the need to support people in their chosen profession, and the absolute dearth of funding for film. Yes, the Irish Film Board does a good job, but rather than cultivate independent cinema, they seem to act as a gateway to it. A sort of self-censor for Irish film. Their short film budgets are excellent, but they only fund a handful of films. Likewise, their feature film supports are superb, but it has reached the stage where an Irish film can't get made without the implicit approval of the Board. This is not good. Yes, there are films like Charlie Casanova, but Terry's film is the exception. Terry himself got sick of waiting for Film Board money and decided to go it alone. It wasn't easy, and his tireless efforts on behalf of that film, did a lot for it. It also helped that it is a good but controversial film. I know of other film-makers who have also tired of shaking the IFB money tree, and have found themselves between the proverbial rock, and hard place.

Charlie Casanova could not have been made without the support of a large number of people who gave of their spare time, freely and willingly. I know Terry would have liked to have paid them, but given the choice between not paying them and making the film, or not making the film, he rightly chose the former. As a film-maker, I have also relied on the "kindness of strangers" to help me make my films. But therein lies the rub. They're not my films. Everyone who worked on the film could claim ownership and credit for it. I was the one who paid for the lunches, the accommodation, the equipment hire, transport, and all of the unavoidable costs. But it is a collaborative effort. The film doesn't stand or fall purely on the efforts of the director or the producer. It requires everyone to bring their best work to the endeavour. Many times, while making zero-budget films, I have been asked (sometimes quite strongly) to make a payment to crew members. If I could afford it, I would have no compunction about agreeing. But there's a down side to that, too. If I had the funding to pay for a cinematographer or an actor, I would choose the best available for the money, seeing as money was no object. If someone wants to start out in this insane business, and works their way into a second-assistant camera position, they will spend a long time looking for work as a cinematographer, while their mentors are also looking for work. Their only hope is to work on an independent, no-budget short or feature.

There, I've said it. I've put paid to the notion that people just starting out in film, can earn the same as people who have been doing it for years. They have to prove their worth, and in film there aren't many opportunities to prove yourself. But there's another side to this. A more important facet of the debate. It is this cock-eyed notion that you became a film-maker to make a lot of money (if you did, I would suggest suing your career guidance teacher). Even at the top of your game, you can expect a life of boom and bust. Times when the film-gods smile upon you, and you are busy. Interspersed with times where, as one accomplished film-maker said, "I have too much life in my work-life balance." The truth is, you decided on a career in film, knowing only too well that your chances of making a living exclusively from film, are quite slim. Particularly at the upper end of the scale. As a second-second assistant director, you may be able to keep your calendar full, between Morgan O'Sullivan and RTE, with TV3 also starting to fund production. But take, for example, RTE's most successful independent production in many years; "Love/Hate." One writer, and one director. If you were hoping for a gig like that to pay the mortgage, you are in trouble.

So, if you acknowledge that unless you're one of a very small cadre of full-time workers in the Irish film industry, you also acknowledge that you will need to supplement your income, elsewhere. If you don't believe me, research the salary figures for members of the Directors Guild of America, bearing in mind that to become a DGA member is quite a difficult process. Likewise, look at the average annual income of SAG actors, again bearing in mind how hard it is to join that particular union. The situation in this country is much worse.

Where does this leave film? Having lived and worked in Northern California, and also in London, I was pleased to be part of a film community in both locations. A community that worked together to make films. In some instances, such as the London Film-Makers Co-Op, also pooling resources such as cameras and edit suites. I know that the Galway Film Centre and Filmbase both attempt to provide this kind of "collective" experience, but I wonder how successful they really are at encouraging film-makers to just get out there and make films?

What I'm proposing, is to try and set up a similar collective, but without the offices, buildings, membership fee or overheads. Perhaps people help you direct your first feature? But bear in mind that you will have to drop everything and "swing boom" for their projects, when the time comes. A collective which is open to directors, cinematographers, actors, writers, producers, editors, animators, and whoever else wants to make more films. If you've had enough of rejection letters and failed funding requests, maybe this is for you? But don't expect to be paid.

I know this will raise the ire of many, particularly the unions, who see an endeavour like this as an opportunity to circumvent their daily minimums. However, if even the well-funded films aren't making a profit, where is the exploitation in decided to make films for the sake of making films? It is quite easy to write a manifesto and produce a contract which stipulates that any profits for the film will be divided amongst the people involved, but that gives weight to the lie that the film will turn a profit. If it makes people happy, then so be it, we can let the lawyers define the terms.

The other side to this, which is rarely acknowledged, is the fact that the only way to get better at making films, is to make films. Odd, that. If we all sit around waiting to win the IFB lottery, if the day ever comes, we'll find ourselves unprepared for the experience. By filling our idle moments with the practice of making films, we become better film-makers as a result.

My intent here isn't to extend some sort of job-bridge scheme, or exploit students. Far from it. The intent is to enable people to make their own films, by helping others with theirs. The intent is to get back to the real reason why we make films. The intent, really, is to find out if I am alone in this, or if there is a constituency of disenfranchised film-makers, who are itching to get out there, and make films. Is that you? Or maybe you're repulsed by the idea of free labour? Either way, I would love to hear your thoughts and comments. Either this is an idea which should die on the vine, or it's the start of something.