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.

YOU!

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:

TO CHANGE THE WORLD AND GET PAID FOR IT!

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Contained Abundance

October 5, 2011 § Leave a comment

Trish Kandik rents out a room in her Eugene, Oregon downtown bungalow to travelers coming through town. I stayed in her home last weekend while visiting my daughter who goes to the University of Oregon.

Her home is small and modest. The first thing I noticed though, when I walked in was a sense of spaciousness and calm.

It is completely lacking clutter. I found out later that Trish has a business helping people get rid of stuff and organize the environments they live in. I was really drawn to this domestic space she’s created, and each day I would marvel at how I enjoyed being there and taking pleasure in the minimalist aesthetic. It was not severe or deprived, just serene, and imbued with a spirit of intentional reduction.

Contained Abundance

My room was simple and tidy. A bed with a quilted cover, a bookcase with six books clustered in a corner, a closet holding four hangers, two towels and an extra blanket. Every object is in a place, where it seems it is supposed to be.

There was a house key, loaf of pumpkin bread and a bunch of bananas on the dining room table. It might have been the dark, rainy November day, the multi-colored leaves scattering outside in the park across the street, but I thought this is contained abundance.

To focus and pay attention to keeping things simple takes a huge amount of care and discipline. And to keep it up day after day. Not letting the proliferation of stuff happen. I’m not sure if it requires an obsessive-compulsive personality to create this kind of atmosphere. Perhaps the lessons of less can be learned and internalized.

My experience at Trish’s has me thinking about the Lunch Love Community Project – exploring how a ‘story’ or a ‘proposition’ can be conjured out of cascades of recorded material from the river of life and arranged into a five minute film that tries to imply much more than it shows. What is not there, or there between the edit points, is as important as what is there.

For me, the Lunch Love Community webisode will do well to have, upon clicking the Play button, an infused spirit like the one I found at Trish Kandik’s bungalow in Eugene. Small, contained and spacious, with a subtle power that only becomes apparent as you tune in and pay close attention.

Is this possible to create an oasis like this in our media-cluttered environments?

I am trying.

It really is like writing a poem where every word, and how it sits, and is linked to the next, is making the experience work.

I say this because it requires a fearless and confident relationship to language, design, and visual culture. To be able to pick and choose, remove more than you add, and contain the abundance.

Lessons from less, so that people can see more.

Jamie Oliver Provokes

October 5, 2011 § Leave a comment

I would NEVER have thought, in 2007, when I started working on this doc, that we, as independent filmmakers, would be competing with Jamie Oliver doing school lunch for major broadcast media. His series is certainly now polarizing discussions, but I want to say that in this emerging era of social media, there are alternatives to this kind of television.

All over the country people are struggling to change the way our children eat. We want to see, think about, and talk about how other people, in other communities, are solving these problems and having a good time doing it. Alice Waters told me, “there’s no need to ‘replicate’ the way school lunch being done in Berkeley. Think about how to ‘interpret’ this experience for your own place, social situation and food customs. “I love that idea of interpretation rather than replication — like improvising with a recipe.”

In this highly partisan society we live in now, the Berkeley school lunch initiative proves that giving the gift of healthy and sense-awakening food to children may be an issue that a community can rally around, and individuals can discover common interests and passions they did not know were there.And when that happens, it might become a space in which to share — as citizen — thoughts and possibilities about other issues that matter, all outside the conflict-ridden media echo chamber.

In our webisode series, it is a very diverse and opinionated community — not an individual hero — that works over years, not days or weeks, to make change.It is hard, and it is gratifying, and it is an adventure in which we can all participate.

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