In six days from now on March 31, 2020 it would have been three years since my feature film FOR HERE OR TO GO? released in theaters in the U.S. It has been streaming on Netflix since 2018. Naturally then, I frequently get the question that is the title of this post.
This question bothers me probably twice as much as it excites the person who asks it. The honest, short answer to it is - I really don’t know. At the same time, it does inspire me to work diligently on my next film and I hope to make one very soon.
There are multiple reasons for why this a challenging question, let’s dive in:
1. Writing is not filmmaking
It was the challenge of writing something substantial that got me into the world of film. I had not anticipated what it’d take to actually make it (8 years apparently) and in that sense I’m very much an accidental filmmaker.
Besides the very important bit about writing a screenplay is no guarantee of getting a film made. Screenplay writing can feel very incomplete. And I intensely dislike leaving things unfinished. So, I got in it for the art and ended up doing a lot of the business. And I learnt that art does not reach audiences without business. I therefore need to choose my next topic wisely- one that balances my curiosity and the ease of convincing others of its viability. This is non-trivial.
2. Film funding is extremely hard
No, it doesn’t get easier the next time. Even a master like Martin Scorcese has a hard time raising funds for what he really wants to make. In fact as a second time filmmaker, the stakes are raised much more- you have a bit more riding on your name and you lose all the benefits of being an unknown entity.
I live in Silicon Valley, where investing in startups is the norm and the returns expected are exponential. Studios, film festivals and arts grants are reputation and hierarchy based. Career filmmakers are preferred and you are often asked to “get in line”. Bootstrapping a feature film yourself is also very expensive if you want to achieve even half the quality I did with “For Here or To Go?”.
That leaves one with very few options. Commercialism is a critical aspect as a screenplay writer and producer. And balancing commercialism with the actual heart of a topic or inquiry is no easy skill. Lastly, with commercialism come many other layers of stakeholders that have to be scheduled and managed.
3. Audience behaviors and expectations have changed
This one is a big reason to always doubt the commercialism of any idea, especially independent film. No one goes to theatres for smaller films, especially in the drama/comedy genre. Stories stream to your TV’s and phones, there’s endless choice and no one expects to pay $15 for an independent film ticket that’s just 2-D.
Attention is a very hard thing to compete over when TikTok and “bite-sized” content is all the rage. Film is also no longer the only means of entertainment and within film too, it's a challenge to get noticed when competing with so many talented and established names.
Here again, it boils down to the freshness of the topic and its commercialism. I chose “For Here or To Go?” as a topic for its freshness but I just didn’t have the financial or marketing muscle for optimizing the commercialism. For all the reasons I mentioned above, there are no guarantees of getting a decent audience share.
4. My first film wasn’t exactly a raging success
This is a hard fact. Yes, it's on Netflix. Yes, I released it in theatres in the U.S (where it ran a good 5 weeks) and in India. Yes, I got some good press and reviews. And yes, I get heart warming messages till date that appreciate the effort and are grateful for the fact that I told this story.
All of that still does not account for the tough realities of the numbers and the lack of admiration in film circles. Which means that the very long, back breaking, scrappy and guerrilla ways of making a feature film aren’t going anywhere were I to choose another independently made film without some form of institutional backing.
5. Making an independent movie means you live and die many times over
It's not for the faint hearted, it's like extracting water out of stones, and it pushes you well-beyond whatever you think your mental and physical abilities are. I was running empty for what seemed an endless last mile of sales and release. And after the absolute insanity of releasing it was over, it completely broke me down.In short, I am still recovering and regaining my energy. I’m reflecting, digesting and forming a wiser, sustainable long-term approach that helps me tell a thousand more stories like “For Here or To Go?”
All that said, embarking on my entrepreneurial filmmaking journey has completely transformed my life- I discovered my own strengths and values, the film actually helped people articulate difficult issues, I developed as a creator and a leader, I made some amazing life-long friends and I earned my freedom of living in the U.S because of it.
Going forward, writing will be my main vehicle and tool to think through my next storytelling adventure, express my past experiences and learnings, test my ideas and meet new collaborators and friends. This, I believe is part of getting wiser and adapting to operate in the 2020’s.
Not only do I have several dozen ideas for films, I’m also actively working on solving #2 on this post about simplifying film funding. Stay tuned.
Thoughts, comments, questions? I'd love to hear from you. DM me on twitter