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Hobbyist Is Not a Four Letter Word.

hob·by  [hob-ee]

noun, plural hob·bies.

1. an activity or interest pursued for pleasure or relaxation and not as a main occupation: Her hobbies include stamp-collecting and woodcarving. (And independent film making.)

 

(adapted from Dictionary.com)

 

I am a hobbyist, and chances are, if you are reading my blog, you are too. I have a lot of hobbies. This blog is a hobby, my band was a hobby, and any work I’ve done in the indie film world is a hobby. I’m proud of my hobbyist status.

You on the other hand are ashamed of it.

In fact, it raised your hackles the second I suggested that your indie film and acting pursuits are merely hobbies. It did, so don’t try to deny it. Why is calling an actor or film maker at the indie level a hobbyist the equivalent of dropping the N-word? (Non-Professional.)

Theater actors don’t have this problem.  People in theater get it. Unless they work for the top houses like 5th ave or The Rep or Seattle Children’s Theater (and even then, sometimes) they have come to terms with the fact that they are never going to “make it”. It is their hobby, and a grand hobby it is. If they’re good and work a lot their hobby can actually pay for itself, and you are not going to offend a theater person by referring to their work as their “hobby”.  Give a theater actor an audience and they will be pretty happy, regardless of where they are performing.

In contrast, Indie film actors are obsessed with “making it” in a way that puts even the most hard core America’s Got Talent contestant to shame. Here’s what I think is going on: we are used to seeing film actors in the movies and on TV. If we don’t see them there we don’t perceive them as being successful or talented. Film actors get into acting because they want to be seen on the silver screen or TV, plain and simple. It’s incredibly glamorous, and validates the actor in a way that nothing else can. If they are not on TV or the movies, then they can never feel like they’ve ‘made it’ as an actor. Even commercials are not enough. And don’t get me started on the abject narcissism that most actors are saddled with. It’s a disease, and not a lot of  fun to deal with.

At the hobbyist (there’s that word again!) level the term “indie film maker” and actor are interchangeable. If you are at a forum or conference with indie film makers and ask the actors in the room to raise their hands, all but one or two of those hands will go up. One reason for that is that most independent film actors have realized the stark truth that if they ever want to get a decent role, they will need to write and produce the script themselves. They did not get into filmmaking to make film, they got into film making to act. Hence the sea of vanity projects that clog the shores of indie film land.

The term hobbyist has nothing to do with the talent or success of the individual. Hobbyist merely means you are doing something because you love it, and it is not your primary occupation. Some people who make films or act as a hobby are every bit as good or better than people who do it for a living.  I know a guy who restores classic cars as a hobby. It’s the most beautiful work I’ve ever seen, and he’s a lot more talented that the dudes at your local body shop. He wins awards. But his day job is that of mailman. Do you think he would be offended that you referred to his award winning pursuit as a “hobby”? Nope. He calls it his “expensive hobby”. Also, there are times when people who do something for a living do a form of the very same thing as a hobby.

We need to de-stigmatize that term (as well as the term, “vanity project”) and change the underlying attitudes that produce the stigma, because in all human arrangements, it’s the people at the bottom of the power structure that do the most to reinforce stereotypes and keep themselves in an inferior position by the way they perceive themselves. It’s damaging to the individual and community at large.

How does a warped perception of one’s position, status and actual opportunities damage an indie film maker? And what freedoms and opportunities can an indie film maker experience if they fully adopt the hobbyist status?

The biggest mistake an indie film maker can make is biting off more than they can chew. They may feel like they need to make a big splash with an individual product so they can hang with the big boys, never mind that they don’t possess the resources or wherewithal to pull it off. All of a sudden they are dealing with funding issues, scope creep, payroll, unions, city officials, vendor after vendor, endless contracts, disgruntled employees, lawyers, distribution companies, you name it, all for a ten minute short that will never see the light of day.

Do you have any idea what a pain in the ass it is to run a union shop and deal with payroll? I’ve done it with my construction business, and let me tell you, I wanted to kill myself. Taft, Hartley, Davis, Bacon. Those fine gentlemen can suck my balls. But some independent film makers are jumping blindly into the fire simply just so they can use the occasional SAG actor. Or because they themselves are a SAG actor.

I attended a forum recently where members of the local SAG/AFTRA chapter answered questions of local film makers (read: actors). Their advice: ‘There is nothing wrong with being a hobbyist. It is not a bad term. If you and your friends want to get together to make a free, volunteer film, and you want to use your mom as an actor, then go do it. You don’t need to worry about SAG if you don’t use SAG actors. We are not trying to ruin your hobby.’

I think the way SAG/AFTRA views things is telling, and a good lesson for film makers: There is a definite difference between a hobby film and one that is done to make a profit. When film makers blur the lines between the two because of their own delusions of grandeur it is damaging to the film maker, and helps no one. We need to stop blurring those lines. If you do not have a viable business plan, and no chance in hell at making a profit from your project, why run your project as a hobbled, mutated chimera? Neither one thing nor another, but all of them at once. An abomination, if you will.

Here is the freedom and opportunity that indie film makers have: taking on the hobbyist mantle, and flying proudly under the radar. I think this should be the default method for doing any indie film at the lower levels, say, below $50,000. (If your budget is above 50 G’s then you may qualify for the state tax incentives managed through Washington Film Works. Please see the previous article: Innovation Labs–An Opportunity For Indie Filmmakers.)

Proudly identify your project as a hobby project. Go ahead and do your due diligence of having the necessary contracts and releases in place, but do not make transparently disingenuous promises of deferred payment or fame. Rather, make a big deal out of the fact that you have no plans for fame and fortune. You’ll put it up on youtube, have a showing for everyone involved in the film and their families, and that will be that. And everyone gets to put it on their reel, yay! (Never mind the fact that you don’t need a reel if you work in Seattle.) Gather people and resources to yourself that want to do it for the fun of it. And actually make it fun. If people flip you shit for getting free labor, they can fuck off. They don’t need to be involved, and there is no profit to be had anyway.

A caveat to this is the fact that you may need to pay some of or all of the technicians involved in the project, people like the editor, or electrician. Why is that? And why is it entirely appropriate to pay some people in a ‘free’ production and not others? Simply put, people will do the ‘sexy’ jobs for free. And good technicians probably pursue their trade as their actual living. You will have people lined up around the block to act, and you might even get someone to operate a camera or direct for free, those are ‘sexy’ jobs. Being an electrician is just a job. That’s the rule: the people doing the fun jobs on volunteer projects either do it for free or pay to play, the technicians who make it happen need to be thrown a few bones.

Take a band, for instance. You can get people to play for free, they’ll even pay for the privilege, and in some places pay to play is the norm. But the sound guy? He’ll have to be paid. It’s expensive to buy all of that equipment and a pain in the ass to lug it around.

You can see this dynamic in action within our local community theaters. Actors almost universally work for free, or next to free, but the technicians and even the musicians get paid. Sometimes fairly well. Everyone wants the sexy jobs. Therefore, the market for those jobs is saturated. Playing first violin in the orchestra pit? Not sexy. And no one hires a first violinist because they have the right “look”. You need to know what the fuck you are doing. Yes, you need to know what you are doing to be a good actor, and good acting is critical to making a good film, but the rule still holds true:

People will always do the sexy jobs for free.

Hobby projects and professional projects are simply not the same creature. And that is not a bad thing. It’s a good thing. We just need to make that distinction. Hobby or vanity projects are not necessarily of poor quality, and they are not a lesser expression of one’s art than a professional product. Hobby projects offer a person more freedom, which is why professionals often make hobby projects. And hobbyists can sometimes make professional products. You can do both. Sometimes a person’s hobby can even turn into their job.

Let’s finally elevate the term hobbyist to a dignified station, and stop getting so wound up about ‘making it’.

 

4 Comments

  1. I call it my acting “habit”

  2. I call it a passion. I know I’m kind of an average actor right now, but I’m just getting started, and I improve with each new experience. If my passion becomes a career, then that’s icing on the cake. If I continually work to improve, and that brings joy and fulfillment– then I call that a success.

    • I think passion is the right word. You get to do something you love? Doesn’t get much better than that. Getting to make or act in a film is a pretty great deal. How many people get to cross that off their bucket list?

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