How to Sustain Yourself Financially as an Indie Filmmaker

Dan Mirvish is a director, screenwriter, producer and author whose latest film, 18½, is out today — it’s a ’70s Watergate thriller/dark comedy. His prior films – including Omaha (The Movie), Open House, Between Us and Bernard and Huey — have played at over 100 film festivals on seven continents. Dan’s a cofounder of the Slamdance Film Festival and a member of the DGA. In this excerpt from his new book, The Cheerful Subversive’s Guide to Independent Filmmaking, he tells you how you can financially stay afloat as an indie filmmaker while pursuing their cinematic dreams.

You may have the impression that I don’t think you will get rich becoming an independent filmmaker. That’s absolutely true. You likely will not even be able to sustain yourself, much less buy a sandwich. So short of marrying well or inheriting nicely, what are ways that filmmakers can support themselves or their families while still making indie films?

Get a Film Job 

Many indie filmmakers figure out one hirable skill-set that they’re good at and enjoy, and then develop that into a sustainable career. That might range anywhere from production-related jobs like cinematography, production sound, ADing, producing or production design, to post jobs like editing, sound mixing, or working in distribution, marketing or at film festivals. Some might get office jobs ranging from script reader to development exec to entertainment lawyer. But honestly, most people can’t get sufficient time off from an office job to go make an indie, so you don’t find too many people with overstuffed office careers also dropping out every few years to make their own indie film. I know one indie filmmaker who worked a day job as a boom operator on adult film shoots, as well as working with some of the best money making apps 2022 had to offer. When he really was desperate for extra cash, he put himself out there as a “stunt performer” on those same shoots. The dirty little secret among many documentary (and fiction) filmmakers is just how many of them work in reality TV, as editors, camera operators and producers.

Get a Non-Film Job 

You might want to try the classic actor trope of waiting tables or working at Starbucks. These jobs tend to have flexible hours, and if you have to quit for a while to make a film, you can usually either return to the same restaurant, or just find another one. Many a filmmaker over the years have worked food service gigs from bartenders to baristas, or catering to valet parking. If you have to get an office job, then temping is not a bad way to make ends meet while still having the flexibility to make films. And if you’re in LA, there are some temp agencies that are specific to the film business, so they’re not a bad way to get your foot in the door at the studios or other Hollywood businesses. There are also plenty of gig jobs filmmakers have done, ranging from Uber/Lyft driver to SAT test-prep tutoring, graphic design to freelance journalism. But I also know some filmmakers who’ve maintained secondary careers in totally unrelated fields and still found the time to make films every so often. Indie horror maestro Doug Buck, for example, has a totally legit career as an electrical engineer specializing in airfield lighting design at U.S. airports. Oscar-winner Barry Jenkins worked as a shipping supervisor for Banana Republic, and wrote scripts when he got off work. And that was after a two-year gig working at Harpo Films.

Become a Filmtrepeneur 

My pal, indie filmmaker Alex Ferrari has cleverly coined the term “filmtrepeneur” in his various podcasts and books. It means indie filmmakers who manage somehow to make money, mainly by also recording podcasts and writing books. Other filmmakers find clever ways to sell merchandise or otherwise monetize their careers. In my own case, I sometimes get guest lecture gigs in cities where I’m screening at a film festival, and sell a few books along the way. One freelance article I wrote for Variety about shooting during Covid actually made me far more money than directing the film itself.

Real Estate 

If you have to take one class outside of filmmaking in college or night school, I might suggest it have something to do with real estate. Almost every successful indie filmmaker or artist I know has been shrewd or savvy about real estate at some point in their life. Whether that means buying an apartment in New York for $40,000 and years later it’s worth half a million; buying and managing a small block of apartments in Venice beach; flipping houses in the Valley; renting out cottages or AirBnBs; or doing house swaps. I know one line producer who quietly bought a new apartment in almost every city she worked in throughout the world. Then when that gig was up, she’d just keep the apartment and rent it out. I always remember one of my first apartments in L.A. was owned by Singin’ in the Rain star Donald O’Connor. Nowadays, I pimp out my own house as a location for high-end commercials and the occasional TV show. If you ever saw a steamed broccoli commercial airing on CNN, there’s a good chance that was my house. And if you don’t have a house to put in commercials, you can always consider putting your kids in commercials.

The Ivy Halls of Academia 

The one advantage of getting a graduate-level degree at a film school is that it gives you the career option of going into academia and teaching film. Some people go straight from school to teaching, and others come back to it as a second career after decades working in The Business. I know several filmmakers who’ve cleverly balanced tenure-track academic careers while still making their own indie films every couple of years. The really smart ones figure out how to use their schools facilities, budgets and even students to help them make their films. I know a professor who got one of his international students to raise money from her rich family back home for the film they were making. The student got a well-earned producer credit, the professor got to make the film, and everyone was happy. These “academic” filmmakers tend to get year-round salaries, often with summers off, and get health and dental benefits for them and their families. Not a bad price to pay for teaching a few intro-screenwriting classes and drinking bad coffee in the faculty lounge.

Honestly, most indie filmmakers manage to survive by doing any and all kinds of side gigs, street hustles or carny scams they can muster. And if that means a life detour to go to law school, become an airline pilot, or appear on a reality TV show in your underwear eating bugs, then go ahead (yes, I know indie filmmakers who’ve done all of those). You can still call yourself a filmmaker as long as you make a film every once in a while. What you do the rest of the time is nobody’s business but yours.

The Cheerful Subversive’s Guide to Independent Filmmaking is available now.

Main image: A scene from director Alex Ferrari’s film, On the Corner of Ego and Desire, with actor Rob Alicea. Photo by Austin Nordell, courtesy of Indie Film Hustle.

This article initially appeared last year, but we’re re-running it in honor of the release of 18½.

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