Careers Outside Major Media Centers: Surviving--and Thriving--in Flyover Country
After over two decades of living in New York City (half in the Village, when "no-man's land" began east of Avenue B; half in Greenpoint, when it was still a Polish majority), this film writer/maker/programmer had had enough. The combination of rising cost of living in the midst of disintegrating infrastructure—and, not incidentally, my inability to bear another Northeast winter without wanting to slit my wrists—proved crucial in my decision to leave the Big Apple behind. Yet, strangely, due to the fact that we're now firmly in the online age, I never truly did. I simply packed up all my East Coast connections along with my possessions and moved them with me out West.
So I was indeed curious to learn how fellow film folks survive, both creatively and financially, outside the usual NYC/LA bubbles. Speaking with a handful of documentary filmmakers, I found answers as far-reaching as their regions.
Like myself, filmmaker Michael Galinsky, now based in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, began by piecing together an artist's existence in pre-Giuliani New York City. "When I first moved to New York for college in 1987, one could still find pretty cheap apartments," he reflects. "I shared a three bedroom on Avenue B for $450 a month, so my rent was $150. This made it possible for me to work as a messenger and production assistant a few days a week and still have more than enough money to play in a band—and the flexibility to do it. I can't imagine how hard it must be for a young person to move to New York now and try to make enough to live on and make time to be creative without thinking about revenue. Location is important, especially when people are starting out, because relationships often have a lot to do with location, and opportunities have to do more with relationships than anything else. If you can't meet people at events face-to-face, those relationships have a lot less chance of turning into real opportunities."
Milwaukee-based documentarian Brad Lichtenstein, another former New Yorker, concurs. "Being outside of New York, LA, San Francisco—even Chicago or Austin—means fewer opportunities in documentary. We just don't get to as many industry events and find the serendipitous opportunities. I think it is much harder to move to the level of producing large series, getting representation—if that's a goal—when you are far from the fray. That said, it's not as much of a hindrance as one might expect. I try to be very present at key industry conferences and festivals and maintain connections to industry colleagues whenever I'm in town. We try to be a constant presence on social media. Just a quick coffee or stroll with industry colleagues and friends, if not a meal, makes a huge difference in staying connected when you're not on the coasts.
"The more daunting challenge, though, is talent," Lichtenstein continues. "Working in Milwaukee means there are very few documentary producers, directors, DPs with vérité experience and on down the line. We grow our own talent, through our internship program, a partnership with Milwaukee Film. So you have to create the world you want to live in. The upside is that the pressure of high rent doesn't drive us to secondary jobs, like advertising or teaching, and we can focus on filmmaking and other media projects. It is also nice to have a little distance from the documentary industry when it is time to hunker down and develop a film. Most important, as I left New York 14 years ago, an executive urged me to go tell stories from the rest of America. In fact, that's what we are doing. We are here, not dropping in from our base in New York or LA, and sometimes that's a very authentic advantage as a storyteller. Of course, there's a flip side. I find it funny sometimes as I observe that the magic of saying, ‘I'll be flying in from New York' sometimes opens doors that ‘I'll be driving up from Milwaukee' can't."
Similarly, Ohio-based Steve Bognar, along with his life and filmmaking partner, Julia Reichert, strive to tell tales from their own backyard. "We try not to think in terms of ‘markets,' but rather in terms of cities and stories," he says. "Now, a huge upside to living far from the coasts is proximity to stories that should be told, that filmmakers from New York or LA would have a hard time being here for. We've made films on stories from our region that are just a car ride away. The long-form documentary work we do means we go back to a place on a daily or weekly basis for months or years at a time. And because we live here, we can hop in our car on short notice when something is happening."
And while location is important, access is key. As Galinsky points out, "The opportunities to make work are always there, and in fact sometimes it's much easier to have direct access to a story outside of a major market. When we started to shoot Battle for Brooklyn, there were a dozen people poking around, trying to figure out if they had a way to make a film. We kind of had to wait them all out." Or as Lichtenstein puts it, "In New York, I'd be one of hundreds of doc-makers, maybe thousands. But here I'm one of a handful, so I get to partner with the others and Milwaukee Film to build an industry and to help nurture young people who never would have imagined this work as a career had the festival here not exposed them through school field trips to screenings, or had we not reached them in our internship program. The other thing is that in a small market we can really find ways to build community, which is happening as we all develop a film hub here to better collaborate."
Bognar agrees. "There are many ways to build community, but we feel working on each other's projects is the biggest and best. For us specifically, teaching documentary at Wright State University has introduced us to a wonderful younger generation of documentary makers whom we hire on our films, and whom we try to help with theirs. That's been very meaningful. Doing a documentary film series can also be good in a place where docs don't get many public viewings. But nothing beats working on a film together."
Likewise, though he doesn't teach, Lichtenstein finds that focusing on the filmmakers of the future is crucial to "making it" in flyover country. "We participate in all kinds of wrap-around filmmaker support programs and work hard to bring national organizations, like ITVS and Creative Capital, to town. We are also expanding our internship program into a more formal diversity pipeline, with ‘diversity' being race, ethnicity and geography. Hey, we're underrepresented in Milwaukee! Our idea is to build cohorts in high school, expose them to great filmmaking and its impact, start mentorship and internship programming with the committed young people, and track their progress with the hope that they'll return to Milwaukee to practice, and in turn mentor someone anew."
And yet the choice of where to call home may simply come down to the type of work a filmmaker is aiming to create. "For years, I beat the drum of ‘You can now do documentary from anywhere in the world,'" notes Daniel Junge, who spent much of his career in Colorado before he "succumbed to the inevitable and moved to LA"—a decision he's not regretted. "But I want to do more commercial work, for-hire television work, and make myself available for other big opportunities rather than constantly self-generate independently made films. Yes, there can be cost-of-living advantages in smaller markets, but some things, like crew and post, are just as expensive or more, and travel can be greater. So I don't think that cost of living so much as quality of living is the most alluring factor; some people just don't want to live in New York or LA."
Which is a sentiment to which Gita Saedi Kiely, who went from living in cosmopolitan Chicago to frontier Missoula, Montana, can certainly relate. "I was recently at a dinner party where nearly every person at the table had created his or her job in one way or another; and I don't think we are all born entrepreneurs. It's just that we live in this special place without built-in professional options and we don't want to leave, so we need to create opportunity. Montana does not have as many ready-made opportunities in film as larger metropolitan areas do. But that reality forces you to think creatively, and it makes people create their own opportunities.
"It's been my experience here that most creative projects and opportunities force you to create a second, more economically productive path, in your career," Kiely continues. "We have a few media outlets in town that produce nationally and internationally acclaimed programming and Web content, and they have helped keep the talent here, with exponential local effects." Though Kiely does acknowledge that, "Like many in Missoula, I've come from a much larger market and freelance out of state much of the time. Since I moved from Chicago, I started editing more for projects that were out of state. I could easily work virtually on cuts. This trend only continues as technology makes it easier, with immediate sharing via links and online chats. There is no reason why you can't stay connected, or get connected, with a larger market. Being there is sometimes essential, but traveling in and out can also work in the right situation."
"There are some advantages to be being a big fish in a small pond," Junge observes. "You can be the first and best choice to tell stories from your region. There are also grants, benefactors and financiers who are willing to invest in local filmmakers, especially once you've proven yourself. But I don't think these factors override the reality that there is more money, more access to high-profile stories, and more opportunities for bigger projects in major markets. That said, I believe the single biggest thing you can do to build a smaller market is to make world-class films from there. I think it serves as both an example and a challenge to other filmmakers in that region to raise the bar. I know that when other filmmakers in my region make world-class caliber product, I feel empowered and challenged to up my game."
On this subject Kiely struck a philosophical tone. "If you have the skills and experience, it is a much easier place to be to make a film. I wouldn't have said that 13 years ago when I moved here, but now having the equipment is no longer an obstacle. However, I think it's important that you have the experience and the connections to create great work in these smaller places. You don't have the talent at your fingertips, or the breadth of foundations and support, to help you make great work in smaller towns, so either you are the talent or you are connected to it somehow. I think there are pockets of talent here in Missoula and elsewhere, but it pales to the work and talent in LA and New York. That's just the reality." Though Kiely was also quick to emphasize the creativity that can be unleashed when one leaves the major markets. "In New York and Chicago, I really stuck to producing long-form documentaries. It was great, consistent work with projects always on deck. Since I moved to Missoula, I have found more opportunities in directing, editing and teaching, not to mention my current job running a documentary film festival. It's similar to wearing many hats at a small company. You tend to wear more hats in a second-tier market, where you are stretched between the different facets of your industry.
"What I like about this reality is that the collective experience allows you to see the big picture a bit better," Kiely adds. "It's not all production for me anymore; it's about the funding, the pitching, the technology, the presentation. My understanding of the industry feels deeper, more true to the impact of film work. And it's made me more flexible and thoughtful about the many arms necessary to take film to great heights— which is the ultimate intention we all have, no?"
Lauren Wissot is a film critic and journalist, filmmaker and programmer, and a contributing editor at Filmmaker magazine. Her work can also be regularly read at Salon, The Rumpus and Hammer to Nail. Currently, she serves as the features programmer at the Hot Springs Documentary Film Festival.