Putting the "Pro" in Profiteering

There's something about the film industry that makes everyone see dollar signs and broken promises. It is almost a joke. Recently I had the misfortune of experiencing this first-hand. As an independent filmmaker it is easy to forget that even the simplest of tasks, such as shooting a short scene of a girl falling asleep on the train, will invariably be crushed beneath the wheels of our litigious juggernaut of a society. 

We had a concept for a shoestring budget film the premise of which is heavily based upon the main character falling asleep and missing her stop on a train. And when I say "shoestring budget" we are talking about shoestrings so thin that dental floss gets jealous and goes on a diet. Our idea was to take our crew (consisting of two people, a camera, and a portable sound mixer) and our actress on a regular commercial train ride during non-peak hours and quietly shoot the scene along the way. All we would need would be a location release from the train company to let us use the footage in the finished film. 
I contacted the train company via email and described our project to them.  A representative contacted me back and demanded insurance coverage that probably would've paid off the train and "a fee starting at $1500" for the privilege of setting foot on their property. 
I put my eyeballs back into my face and emailed back politely explaining that our budget made the take-a-penny dish at the convenience store look like a weeks pay and could we possibly work something out? I mean, c'mon: we're not shooting "Source Code" here. 
Impossible, they assured me. It would cost that much just to have personnel on hand while we were shooting and to pay for the utilities that would be used while we were there. 
Well it's a good thing they have filmmakers just clamoring to cover these bills for them. I mean, imagine if this world were filled with starving artists trying to legitimize an art form? However would the poor train companies keep themselves running?
I shouldn't be bitter, I really shouldn't: back in the good 'ol days in Hollywood, studios reigned supreme and big-budget film was the only kind of film because the equipment just cost so darn much  it was perfectly appropriate to expect a large fee for a location. There was just no way the production team could avoid disrupting normal business. Wth so much money needed just to shoot the film they were already set for distribution once they were completed and there was a good chance that it would make a profit in the end. 
Enter the era of the Apple computer and handycam and suddenly anyone can make a film: it's a true revolution of the industry! Filmmaking, at last became an independent profession. And everyone knows: it is only "professional" if you get paid for it. So we find ourselves trapped in an era where, if we want to be taken seriously, we have the choice: pay up the same prices as the commercial studios or go rogue and hope you don't get sued. As independent filmmakers, we can either ask for permission to use a location and be forced to pay exorbitant fees and perpetuate the myth that all filmmakers have money or we can shoot first and beg forgiveness later and perpetuate the myth that all filmmakers are liars and cheats and promise breakers. 
Or we can re-write the scene. 

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  • Ah... Asking for permission or begging forgiveness, it's a tough concept. I too have found that when asking for permission, as an indie, non funded producer, I get all kinds of ridiculous push back and assumptions made by those being asked that are completely wrong.

    Sometimes it's easier to partner with a bigger organization like the nfp Split Pillow, just not worry about it, because we both know no one's really going to make any money on it, or rewrite.

    Recently, I went to rewriting for a Short film I'm working on. I'm really glad we did because I feel like it's turned out so much better than expected.

  • A response we received from our friend Elana Mugdan; director and producer of the feature film "Director's Cut":
    "I just read your blog article, "Putting the Pro in Profiteering", and I have to say I was very impressed! I loved the article, and I know I've certainly been in the same situations before. I once called the LIRR to ask if it would be possible to bring a camera on board a train and film a short scene (without being disruptive and with all my crew buying tickets, of course) and they came back at me with a very snarky response that I would need to present their office with proof of insurance, listing the MTA and an additional insured, and give them a modest $5,000 stipend.

    It's a hard industry we find ourselves in, especially when people keep thinking they can bleed all filmmakers dry. I've definitely learned that the "ask forgiveness rather than permission" route is how one must conduct most of one's operations! After all, that's what keeps the process exciting, isn't it?"

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