It is not a job anymore

  • Datum 27-01-2011
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Claudia Siefen wonders if the film making process is becoming a job for the rich. More and more film productions offer jobs without payment.

Trying to get hands on a job at a film set is getting harder over the last years. While in the 90s and 00s all you had to know was the day and time of the next shooting, it was easy to get a paid job as a clapper, loader or script-continuity for example. The opportunities have changed. As most of the filmmakers now have to rely on film foundations, there are a lot of jobs that won’t get proper paid anymore. We read so-called job offers like "If you want to be part of a beautiful project, work with us but sorry, we can’t pay." Is making films becoming a job for the rich? Or a job only appealing to an tremendous willingness to make individual sacrifices? If we take that for granted, what consequences will this underpayment have on the films and the stories they tell?

"But wonderful. Sort of dream-come-true. Don’t you think so?", a curator-colleague answered when I started a conversation about this. Asking him about the motivations for his opinion he just nodded: "Well that looks to me like a natural selection, right? The system itself drops out now all that "wanna be directors". If a movie should be really made, if there is an artistic urgent need for the director to create his or her vision that movie will find its way from every point of view." He took a big bite from a cheese-sandwich: "And these are the only films that matter anyway, right?"

When it comes to "working for the movies" I am lucky to refer to personal experience. On the one hand as a film editor (good old Steenbeck) and on the other hand as a film critic and essayist. Working as a film editor provided the combination of a sweat-inducing trade and an artistic musicianship. You got well paid in these days and there was always a new job waiting for you while the last project received its finishing touches at the recording studio. To build up a remarkable career it is recommendable to pan out as a director’s one and only film editor. If fame is knocking on the filmmakers door the editor will function literally as the stylish and shiny mail box. Well, I have to admit that after ten years that transformation did not happen to me, so I quit.

As I started writing already in my teenage years, I thought it a good idea bringing them both together, which was not a very wise decision, financially speaking. But added to catalogue editing, writing and translating it makes my living. I thought of working with students and got back to the editing room that way again. Those years of working on graduation films gave me the opportunity to get to know certain student’s financial backgrounds. I guess there is no need to say that most of these students were blessed with a solid financial background. What I am talking about is the obvious financial security that is needed if you want to work on your film project in an uninterrupted way.

Well, obviously making movies is not about using talent and creaming off the most interesting subjects for your work anymore, sadly enough it’s about wider issues. Being able to work on projects is about money and networking. And it is no secret that networking only works like clockwork when keeping feet on familiar territory.

"It is easy to make films. All you need is a wealthy wife", as a director-friend of mine put it last year. Beside filmmaking he stays on the safe side working as a lawyer, just for information. So does that mean the only possibility to produce a film is the safe financial resource that results from a proper job? Well, does that romantic-glorified attitude actually still exist: the poor artist? Because working conditions in the business lead us back to that one: when your work does not provide a monthly regular income can you call it your "job" in the common parlance? Do all these facts only proof that time has come to fulfill the expectations created by middle class so called "higher earners"? Can we imagine the stories told by filmmakers like that? Or better: can we imagine a cinema only created by wealthy artists? Yes, few of them still actually question the things they’ve been brought up to believe and accept. As everyone of every class should. To make clear: I only suss out the working conditions and if there might be a connection to the stories on the big screen.

So that might be the reason to find young film makers mostly in the experimental field. I was lucky to pick up the most ridiculous reasons during the years for working "the experimental field", but that is a different story. Also the reason for narrative short films created in a social surrounding that only mirrors a long time pampered cliché. Rare enough to find an inside-story on the big screen when it comes to working-class and their problems. Yes, you can criticize me for assuming that classes still exist.
I am simply sure about the fact about the demoralizing nature of low-paid insecure work. We already entered the zone where "making movies" does not pay your rent, heating costs, insurances, clothes and food. The system made it an activity for people without financial problems.

Will that fact still create a widely ranged richness of cinema? Inspiring and gorgeous, simple and severe, dashing and calm. When cinema leaves the paid job business area does that mean automatically it enters the ivory tower, but this time for good?
Or does that mean it enters the real coal mining, digging for treasures and ensuring a living?

Claudia Siefen

Freelance writer and editor, living and working in Vienna, Austria.