By Ron Merk
I wake up every day, full of enthusiasm and excitement for what I do. Make movies, distribute movies and write about movies. But after the initial enthusiasm wears off about the same time as the caffeine from two cups of great San Francisco Graffeo’s coffee, I have to look myself straight in the eye and ask, “What’s next?” or “What the hell are you doing?” The answers don’t come easily, if at all. I look at my bank account on line each day, asking myself the even more pertinent question, “how can I fill up the coffers again?” or “How can I keep doing what I love (making films) and stay afloat financially?” This is a question that so many of my friends and colleagues are asking themselves these days, too. We talk about this constantly when we get together. “What happened to the good old days when we could make movies AND make a living?”
We complain to each other that we’re working harder for a dime today than we used to work for a dollar ten years ago. What happened? Were we asleep? What did we miss and more importantly, what can we do about it? The simple answer is I have no firm idea or plan, just more questions instead: “How can we survive in the meantime and what are we able to do to accomplish this short term goal?” Again, not an easy question to answer. Some of my colleagues have simply given up on making films and found “day jobs” in other businesses. Some who have pensions and Social Security to lean on have decided to “wait and see.” Some are in bad financial condition because they believed the hype that “a whole new world of platforms on which you can monetize your films” is on the way. I remember hearing the same thing when cable TV was beginning. Here are all these platforms hungry for film and programming, opening doors for specialized product. Yet in just a few years, all these cable channels were acting like the big three networks, on their knees in front of the advertising executives who kept the cable channels’ doors open. Advertising money fueled everything.
So with the question of economic survival weighing heavily on those of us who used to make a living making films and programs for television, what practical steps can be taken to improve our economics? The simplest thing we can do to balance the books is cut down on expenses. I mean really cut down. We all spend money like it’s never going to stop coming in. Well, guess what? It stopped and the reservoir is really low. Look at your phone, internet and cable TV plans. Cut back on services that you’re not using, or find other providers that offer deep discounts for the same service. Competition drives prices. If you have two cars, see if you can do without one. If you have expensive life insurance, see if you can convert it to term insurance, or cash it out and buy a much cheaper plan. Cut out the five dollar cups of coffee at Starbucks and other such expensive beverage emporia. Coffee is just flavored water and one of the most overpriced consumer items we purchase every day. You can make it yourself for 50 cents, and put it in a travel container if you feel like meeting friends in the park. Fancy bottled water is more expensive by volume than gasoline. Consider a good water filter system, and make your own bottled water. Ask yourself if you really need an office? If you can work at home and get the same things done, it’s just another unnecessary expense. Get rid of the “stuff” you don’t need by selling or bartering for what you do need. If you’re paying for storage where stuff you haven’t used for a year is sitting, look for the nearest Goodwill location or dumpster. Convert anything of value to cash. Cash is king, and that is the reality of our everyday lives.
Stop working on anything that’s simply a dream, and has no basis in reality of ever being completed in your lifetime, and then generating money. Sure, we all have passion projects, but they are expensive, and just suck up resources. Identify projects or jobs that will realistically succeed. Focus on those for a while. Let some time pass and then see where things stand financially. Take the pressure off. Pressure can kill you. Wait until there’s some clarity on the horizon about how to make films that can earn their money back. If the future is YouTube or other similar sites with no one getting paid enough to live on, then we all have to consider another profession or retiring and remembering the “good old days.” We can also make films just for the love of it, but with no expectations of making money. That’s fine, too, but when I was a kid, this would be labeled a hobby, not a profession or a real job.
With my whole lifetime in the entertainment industry, starting in New York, then moving to Los Angeles for 25 years, and then moving to San Francisco in 2003, I’ve seen tremendous changes in the industry in subject matter, technology, distribution and economics. I used to think that it was possible to make a plan, make a film and get the film distributed through traditional outlets: cinemas, TV and video, recoup the cost and move on to the next film. That model is totally out the window as the “wild west” of moviemaking and distribution has descended on us, making it very difficult to make movies that make their money back, unless you shoot them on a micro-budget. But that begs the question, do we want to make movies with micro-quality? Digital technology can only make up for a portion of what we used to spend on film and lab and editing. Where do we get the rest of the money we need to pay real actors and a professional crew?
I wish I could say I’m optimistic about the future, but for me, someone with almost 50 years in the business, I am looking at folding the tent and just watching for a while to see if things get better. There are lots of signs along the road, signs we can understand or ignore. When our company’s lease for our offices in San Francisco could not be renewed by our landlord (the San Francisco Film Commission’s SF Film Collective) because the building owner found a new tenant for the entire building, I saw it as a sign. The sign said, “time to shut it down and think about what’s next without the worry of paying rent, labor, insurance, and all the things that drain the bank account.” For the last month I scrambled (as fast as scrambling is possible, believe me) with my small team to finish up our important projects, update the database of our inventory, and get everything into boxes, carefully labeled for storage or transport elsewhere.
When it was clear that we had to close the office, my first reaction was annoyance about packing up and then setting up again at another location. So many details that boggle the mind. Next came the sadness about losing the people I work with on a daily basis, and finally a sense of relief. I didn’t losing our lease it as a disadvantage, but an advantage. It was a sign that I couldn’t ignore, unless I wanted to continue my economic struggles in an uncertain economy and industry. I knew that would not be fair to my loyal team members or to myself. So, I made the decision to fold the tent that I first erected in my parents’ basement in 1967. It turned out to be a happy decision.
Yesterday the big move took place. With the help of two loyal friends and Jon Rolston’s “Hauler” moving company, we emptied the office, took everything to storage, and then came back to patch some holes in the walls and vacuum the rug. The offices are now a “clean slate” for the new tenants. In fact, it was a clean slate for me, too.
I will finally have the time to just think about the future. I’ll have time to spend with my family and friends, as just as important, I’ll finally have time to spend with myself. I will be able to travel, to write and to think about what I will do next. I have many projects in development, many which are written and ready to go. What does the future hold for me? Only time will tell. But for now, there will be a brief Intermission.
An extract from this article was first published on Ron Merk’s Linked In Profile on May 3, 2014