Ups and Downs of Collaborative Filmmaking

When you get an opportunity to build a team and make a film, be careful you don’t get all precious when the shoe is on the other foot and someone else needs help.

When I hear people call themselves, ‘Filmmakers’ I often wonder, ‘what film do you want to make?’ This is a moot point for most people in ‘Hollywood,’ because if you want to make a living in the business, it is only the top fraction of a percent who make a living making the films they want to make. When even Steven Spielberg is called out for ‘giving them what they want for a pay check,’ it’s clear that very few practice the ‘art’ of film making.

So, successful indie filmmakers get the, ‘privilege’ of not only making their own films, but also acting, gripping, cooking and cleaning up behind their friends when they make their movies. And I say ‘successful filmmakers,’ because if you’re working with folks you aren’t paying, and you’re ready and happy to ask them to bust their butt doing what needs to be done, but you don’t feel like doing what needs to be done for others? You won’t be working with folks for long.

Hollywood has a highly structured and its militaristic approach to filmmaking which requires lockstep rigidity and structure because the process moves so fast and also because there are so many people involved. Film teams with fewer than six or seven people on the crew are a lot more fluid but there are more than six or seven jobs to be done, so  if it all got to get done some roles can get a little blurred. For some, this inspires dismay; “Why do I have to slate, monitor sound AND hold a flag, and you always hold the camera?” Others realize, that this ‘smaller footprint’ approach allows you to shoot faster, in more locations for less money and more spontaneously. But there is a point of diminishing returns, for example, when one or two people is the film crew. So realize, you need help, and to get free help, sometimes you’ve got to help others.

The upside to this collaborative model is you really become a well-rounded filmmaker. You know what sound won’t work in post because you’ve worked in post. You know how to dress a set because you’ve seen boring backgrounds take you out of the story. You keep an eye out for continuity issues because you’ve dealt with them on your own projects: you become a very valuable team member if you can do more than just look for traffic. The cheapest way to learn in on someone elses dime, but the lessons you learn on your own shoots about ‘crossing the line’ will last a lifetime.

The downside are those bossy toxic people.  They have their projects, and they want to run your projects. Input is one thing, railroading your vision into their vision is something else. And if you don’t know anyone like
that, you have to ask yourself if the people you’re working with are coming back for seconds.

You don’t have to love the projects your friends want to make, but it benefits you to help them make them. Worst case scenario, you might learn what not to do. Best case scenario, you’ll become a better filmmaker.

And the odds of you, ‘making it’ beyond the level of hobbyist are slim. But if you have a crew and you’re loyal to each other, your odds of ‘winning’ are better than you working on your own. It’s like buying a bunch of raffle tickets, and not just getting one at the door. And if you look at the Happy Madison Crew, (David Spade, Anna Faris, Rob Schneider, Kevin Nealon, Kevin James), The Wayans Crew (Kennan Ivory Wayans, Damon Wayans, Damon Wayans Jr., Kim Wayans, Shawn Wayans, Marlon Wayans, Anna Maria Horsford and John Witherspoon), the Judd Apatow Crew, (Steve Carell, Seth Rogen, Amy Poehler, Jonah Hill, Jason Segel, Shauna Robertson and Barry Mendel) and the Spike Lee Crew, (Denzel Washington, Wesley Snipes, Halle Berry, John Turturro, Samuel L. Jackson, Delroy Lindo, Coatai Mundi, Roger Guenveur Smith, Isaiah Washington, Steve White, Thomas Jefferson Byrd.) And these are just the actors. Then you have the directors, cinematographers, grips, screenwriters, production staff crew, marketing people and distributors. As you can see these are just a few of the more well known cabals that have taken Hollywood by storm.

But with all things, just working together isn’t enough. Without genuine friendship and a healthy serving of loyalty, one of you might get there and the rest will just hate that guy from back home. Just look at most boy bands. Do you think Ricky Martin is looking forward to the Menudo reunion? Mark Wahlberg holding his breath for his brother Donnie and the boys from New Kids to go on another tour? For many teams, success is the worst thing that could happen. But then, that’s a reflection of the coherence and integrity of that team, isn’t it?

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