Making a Living

October 5, 2011 § Leave a comment

Written for Fresh at FLEFF blog.
Why Gena Mangiaratti Kept Me Thinking

The Ithaca College FLEFF student interns watched my powerpoint and video clip presentation of the Lunch Love Community project with polite interest and asked thoughtful questions.

When I read the perceptively intuitive Live Blogs on the FLEFF Interns Voices blog later, I noticed one major question that I did not answer well enough in person. I’ve been thinking about it ever since.

FLEFF intern and blogger Gena Mangiaratti articulated the undercurrent in the room that I could feel, yet did not satisfactorily address:

“How can someone make a living — earn money — when you are not profiting off the sale of your films? That was what I had been wondering about. With the shift toward internet technology, how will new independent filmmakers who have a fantastic message to spread, such as De Michiel, be recompensed for their work?”

During my talk I did not discuss many of the nuances facing media makers forging ahead in the emerging digital era. I did mention that it would not be possible to earn a living from creating a media series like Lunch Love Community, which, while it is now testing a set of hypotheses, still may prove sustainable in ways we have yet to discover.

The challenges I was thinking and working with, and how students were hearing my answers were coming from different issues, different generations, and different points along the creative career path.

Observations and Advice from the Frontlines of the Public Media Field

Here are some further observations from my experiences working in the field and evolving within my own practice. I acknowledge that the lines between corporate and independent media spaces are blurring, and that there is little use now in worrying about whether you will choose poorly and be stuck where you do not want to be. The situation is far too fluid and dynamic – so, happy surfing.

There is no doubt you can earn a living in the emerging new media economy while not having to make a hard and fast distinction between indie and commercial, entertainment and “nutritional” (like documentary, installation, experimental) media flows. No matter where you land, you will find yourself in some type of cultural economy. With many of you facing enormous college bills and debt for years to come, it is crucial to understand how to function in these art-media-design industries. Your education should lead you towards satisfying projects and jobs using 21st century conceptual frameworks and technical skills.

Neither one package of skills or one focused pathway will ensure success or stability in the new media world now emerging. Creative adaptability to a variety of situations or opportunities will, though, lead to success and stability over time.

As an independent filmmaker for more than two decades after my own MFA from UC San Diego, I’ve adapted to take on various work opportunities that I either was curious about or offered me a challenge. When they were good, they involved working with smart people I could learn from. I’ve worked as a media and television producer, a professor and an arts organization executive. And all along I nurtured and completed my own projects, all of which were deeply affected by the work worlds and people I was interacting with in that phase.

What You REALLY Need to Possess for the 21st Media Ecology

When Rodrigo Brandão, Director of Publicity at Kino Lorber, gave his talk to FLEFF fellows, a comment he made struck me as the truth: He said, “there are three areas to know well if you want to get a job in the film industry today – be fluent in other languages besides English; know how to program code and build online sites; and know your film and media history really well.”

These three aspects of your profile will signal to a media employer that you can communicate across a global context, and that an international scope interests you as an activity you take seriously. Technical skills like coding and managing an organization’s web presence are always valuable and attractive. You’ll be able to achieve common ground with other media and film professionals you are dealing with when you can demonstrate a strong knowledge of and appreciation for the history of your chosen field and art form.

Leadership, Leadership, Leadership

Another kind of knowledge and experience that will help you as you move into the new media economy — especially in these early stages of digital development — is continuing to sharpen your leadership skills across several areas. Leadership abilities are critical in the creative industries – leading and managing teams and collaborators, motivating groups, and looking for new ways to do business.

As young adults entering a volatile and shapeshifting communications sphere, you will be wise to build confidence in your ability to manage and mentor older people who may not understand the digital environment the way you do. You may get involved in digital infrastructure and media policy issues, and need to speak out publically to your peers about the importance of an open internet.

You may want to start your own company or nonprofit – utilizing ideas and facilitative leadership methods developed over the last decade to make the workplace a more humane and satisfying environment.

And you may have to raise money, either from investors, government or foundations. Leadership training gives you an anchor in how to move gracefully in a variety of sectors that feed the arts directly. In Leading Creatively, a free publication you can download from the National Alliance for Media Arts and Culture, you can find stories of arts leaders from three generations reflecting on the role that effective leadership has played in their careers.

Moving in Other Directions

In the creative economy, people may start in one place, discover a strength or a passion, and move in another direction.

When Donna Choi became our Digital Arts Service Corps member at NAMAC in 2009-10, she had graduated from UC Berkeley with an undergraduate degree in Ethnic Studies. We offered her this VISTA position because she was a strong writer, web designer and coder, and online community manager who could apply an intellectual rigor to the job. We also valued her ability to work independently along with focus and persistence to solve problems.

When she came to our organization, Donna wanted to work in social change organizations and politics. Art and design were side interests for her. We invested in her professional development to advance her technology skills. When her yearlong VISTA assignment was completed with us, she found a job teaching new media in the San Francisco schools system and was preparing to go to graduate school for illustration at the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York. That was not where she had started off two years earlier.

There are many markers along the creative career path that allowed and encouraged me to produce a project like Lunch Love Community, and to be actually executed and distributed. That we are not charging for this cultural gift may be a problem worth investigating further, or it may prove to be a blessing still unfolding.


How you enter into the new media ecology, what you intentionally want to do in it, and how you treat it as a space open for telling truth, is wide open, spiraling and expansive.

The future is yours to shape.

You will need to chip away at old distinctions that could keep you from doing what we wanted when we left college back in the last century:


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