The Hustle of Independent Documentary Filmmaking
A Case-by-Case Study on how to get your film made
By: Charysse Tia Harper, USC Alum 2006 (Production) Director/Producer/Journalist Xplore the World, firstname.lastname@example.org
When you hear the word “hustler,” you think of a shady character on the side of the street trying to sell you something. His or her mouth is moving a million miles per minutes, their hands are going up and down and their eyes are shifting to look out for their next customer. The main reason why this character is on the street is to make money. Plain and simple. They have something they think the public wants and does – by any means necessary – to make that sale. Believe it or not, filmmaking – specifically independent documentary filmmaking – is a form of hustling. You just have to know how to do it well.
I have decided to break down my experience of “this game” into a series of three case studies.
Case Study #1: Lupus Project
Summer 2006. This is when my “hustler” lifestyle begins. I just graduated from the University of Southern California in May. My best friend tells me about an idea to bring more attention to lupus. I say, “Let’s do it as a documentary!” We shoot for a couple of weekends in San Diego until we run out of resources (seeing we only had what we walked in with) to continue. Final ‘Hustler’ Analysis: FAIL.
Case Study #2: The Other Side of Carnival
December 2007. I am preparing to move to London to begin in my Master’s degree. I meet with some USC buddies and tell them I would like to make a documentary about Carnival in Trinidad & Tobago and its social and economic impact on the society (The Other Side of Carnival). We all agree to work hard to prepare for our first shoot in July 2008.
I move to London in January and start making connections with people in Trinidad & Tobago and reach out to the British community. The other producer, USC alum Drusilla Luna Bouraima, does the same thing in California (though she is reaching out to the American community). We successfully make it to Trinidad & Tobago for production in July 2008, February 2009 and September 2009. We finish the film in January 2010, where we are able to premiere it in Trinidad & Tobago, as well as do a few media-related promotions there.
Though we finished the film, no one got paid and we did not utilize online crowdfunding or do a lot of “in person” fundraisers. Final ‘Hustler’ Analysis: SEMI-SUCCESS.
Case Study #3: Panomundo
April 2011. I am in New York City hosting The Other Side of Carnival during the New York International Film Festival. I meet a British filmmaker, Keith Musaman Morton, who really likes the film. He tells me about his passion for music and Trinidad & Tobago culture and would like to do a film in the country. Keith lives in London and I reside in Las Vegas. We exchange information and agree to stay in contact.
September 2011. I am in London for a screening of – what is known now as – ‘The ‘Carnival doc’ at Caribbean Film Corner. Keith and I meet up and we put the final steps into place for making our documentary in Trinidad & Tobago. We decide to focus on the steelpan and agree to begin in January 2012. Keith comes up with the name Panomundo, which really highlights what we are doing: looking at the history of the steelpan and its influence around the world. We would like to uncover the steelpan communities not only in Trinidad & Tobago, but also in England, USA, Canada, Japan, Switzerland and Nigeria. Keith is hosting his Black History Month film series in October in London, where we will begin fundraising.
January 2012. Keith and I are in Trinidad & Tobago. We are here for 3 months. We were able to raise close to $1000 from fundraising ventures (and picking up second jobs) in London and Las Vegas from September 2011 to January 2012. Instead of contacting people in T&T via phone or email, we decide to wait until we get there, so they can meet us in person. From making The Other Side of Carnival, I have come to understand that the citizens are wary of foreigners and I want to gain their trust and understanding. We visit a variety of panyard (locations that are used to host steelband practices) getting b-roll and conducting interviews. We are also able to get footage for another documentary entitled T&T 50 in Fifteen, a 15-minute piece looking at important events that have occurred during Trinidad & Tobago’s 50 years of independence. We are hoping that this short documentary can give the Trinidad & Tobago citizens an idea of what we are all about.
July 2012. I am in SoCal and Keith is back in London. Keith edits T&T 50 in Fifteen and I edit the 8-minute promo for Panomundo. We form an international team (producer in Trinidad & Tobago, publicist in London and producer in Los Angeles) to assist us in spreading the word for both. T&T 50 in Fifteen lands in Caribbean Film Corner for September 2012. We will simultaneously use that venue and social media to launch our press release for Panomundo.
October 2012. We are receiving feedback from our Panomundo press release. People all over the world are contacting us about assisting us while we travel to their country. We host an Indiegogo campaign for $30,000. It fails BADLY. We raise under $140! Yes, as in one hundred and forty dollars! We agree to stick to what we do best: hosting “in-person” fundraisers. We plan to have at least one fundraiser per month starting in January. In addition, we realize we need more help. We look to Elance.com to provide an affordable production assistant. We are able to find one and he has been with us ever since.
February 2013. We have set a timetable for our “international” travels: Switzerland in July; Canada, Japan and England in August; USA in September and Nigeria in November. We start contacting steelbands in those countries, as well as reaching out to the steelpan community via social media. This proves formidable as we link up with Matt Potts, owner of The Steelpan Store who assists us in publicity and interviews as we plan to travel to his Steelpan Festival in April 2013.
June 2013. We host a crowdfunding campaign on Seed&Spark to obtain flights to Canada and Switzerland. We succeed.
November 2013. We are coming off a 2nd run of a successful Seed&Spark campaign to obtain flights to Nigeria. We have made it to six countries with the assistance of crowdfunding, hosting over 20 “in-person” fundraisers and guest lecturers in four countries and having good people around us.. We finish up the USA portion of Panomundo by visiting a steelband made up of autistic children on the 8th in Akron, Ohio, and journey to our final country, Nigeria, on the 18th.
While we have not gotten paid for this project, we have figured out a strategy that has enabled us to capitalize on funds to make Panomundo – which takes place in seven countries – and not go bankrupt. Final ‘Hustler’ Analysis: SUCCESS!
A great hustler of cars may not even be a good hustler of DVDs. To be a good “hustler,” you need to understand your strengths and capitalize your monetary investment from it. Over the past seven years, I feel I have honed my craft of hustling when it comes to independent documentary filmmaking.
Yes, you are working a full-time job, a part-time job and filming small projects when you can and hosting fundraisers (live and online) to make it all possible. Yes, you use social media like it’s your best friend! Why? Because it is a global network! Instead of reaching out to one person, you are able to reach out to millions! Yes, you are writing press releases and contacting the local media of whichever country you are visiting. The best way to get support is by getting the locals to get support for you! Yes, you barter like crazy! A restaurant is in need for some publicity? You make the video for free, so you can use the venue for a fundraiser in which you get most of the proceeds. Yes, you take whatever assistance you can get; money is not fundamentally necessary! We need $5000 for the Nigeria trip. However, by contacting the CEO (Chief Bowie S. Bowei) of Africa-Trinidad & Tobago Steelpan Development Company, Ltd in Lagos, Nigeria, who in turn is close with former Nigerian President Chief Olusegun Obasanjo, we are able to have accommodation, meals and a local crew sponsored for us while in Nigeria. Most importantly, YES, you will fail along the way, but really who doesn’t at one point or another?!
All hustlers doubt themselves at some point. That is normal. But all great hustlers also get back to their spot on the street and keep an eye out for the next customer. They see a woman in the distance and start to take some purses out from their bag. But, wait…there’s a man coming. He may be interested in some watches. Either way, they know they are going to make a sale! They HAVE to make a sale!
After all, if you aren’t going to represent yourself, who will?