The Artist Pay Project is a series exploring how artists in the U.S. survive and thrive amid a cost of living crisis.
This Artist $napshot tells the story of a 35-year-old filmmaker who makes $35,000 a year.
Art Practice: Filmmaker
Location: Los Angeles, CA
Pronouns: He/ Him
How much of your income is from your art practice?
Where does the rest of your income come from?
Commercial projects, contract/freelance producing. I made $30,000 from this work.
How much were you paid for recent freelance or contract work related to your art practice?
I have a production company S-Corp that I created to manage my commercial clients. Much of my personal income is from any profit that we make on the production budget which we also count as revenue.
So my last three clients were corporate entities that will remain anonymous. The latest project, April 2023, I made $31,000 and took home $5,000. November 2022 was $11,500 and I took home $1,500. September 2022 was $15,000 and I took home $5,000.
How do you price your art?
My personal films and artistic projects have either been self-funded or work that I’ve done for free.
I have a roommate and my rent is $1,250.
What are your major monthly expenses?
Car $300, insurance $150, and food $400.
Do you have any expenses related to your art practice?
Stock music, home office, organizational software like Milanote, Evernote, and Adobe Software.
Larger financial picture
Do you have any financial support from outside sources?
Have you received any grants to support your art?
Do you have health insurance?
Yes, but I’m considering cancelling it.
Do you have any debt?
Yes, approximately $10,000.
Do you have any savings?
Did you pursue higher education?
I have a Bachelor’s degree.
Responses edited lightly for length and clarity.
How do you feel about your financial security right now?
Nervous, anxious. It's been hot and cold in the sense that we have a couple of sources that we're able to pitch and get clients through, but it feels like even though we're winning pitches every couple months, the budgets are just too small for the amount of work that they're asking. The labor ends up falling on the shoulders of predominantly myself and my production partner, and if we weren't capable of not just wearing many hats, but being effective at the hats that we wear, we would not be able to keep our costs so low. And therefore, these budgets would just be unsustainable.
In the survey, you list what you made from some of your contracts and it seemed decent, but your take home pay is a small fraction of that. I’m curious, where does the rest of the money go typically?
In production, let's say it's a $30,000 budget. I would say we take home 50% of that. And then we split that in half. But the roles that I'm occupying just to get that done is director, producer, writer. I order craft services, I’m moving furniture into a U-Haul. So it's all the way from labor, to the top.
I do that to cover a series of roles that normally you would pay other people to do. That's just the first aspect of it. So basically we don't make profit, because of all the labor and everything that we put into it. It’s what basic cost of those jobs would be. And we're absorbing that under our own ability and time and effort. The rest of that 50% goes to our freelancers, our crew members.
When did you open your own production company and what sparked you to venture off on your own?
I've always been a Schedule C worker, freelancing even when I had W2 income. The big push was the pandemic. I had been furloughed, and ultimately just lost my job at the corporation. A big part of me just felt there's really no such thing anymore as corporate security, which is always one of its major appeals. So I figured I would take it into my own hands and manage my own accounts and finances. No matter what the struggles were, I could have everything in front of me. I knew what I was dealing with, as opposed to at a corporate structure when the whole thing is falling apart, and people are just twiddling their thumbs, in a constant state of uncertainty about whether they'll have their jobs the next day.
So that was a big aspect of it, taking control. I was able to work with a couple of different agencies as a vendor, and that kept me going and actually sustained me at a pretty high level for about a couple years. But in the last 18 months or so, the post pandemic explosion has now ground to almost a complete standstill. And the writer strike and things like that means that the people who were all the crew members who were unionized — anyone working in the upper echelons of this industry — are now squeezed down shoulder to shoulder with some of the smaller businesses like myself just to just to keep working. Now it's overly impacted and it's just hyper competitive, and the budgets are shrinking outrageously.
That sounds really stressful.
Is it still rewarding? Even though you're dealing with all of this uncertainty?
I would say the most rewarding part is that I am using this platform to develop my own personal artistic projects. I've been able to work on music videos with musical artists that I really admire and respect. And I'm being brought in by other creators now to produce their short films. Essentially, the whole reason why I got into this industry in the first place was to be a filmmaker. That community has an entity that can take legal responsibility and financial risk for them and it has allowed them to rally around me. So although there are some serious financial hurdles that I have to overcome in the short term, I think the community that I'm building will ultimately offer a very fruitful experience.
What is your ideal balance between the business side of the craft — doing commercial projects — and making art?
So the ideal outcome would be that I am making and producing creative projects or artistic projects 80% of the time, with enough attention and notoriety to attract 20% of commercial branding clients that are aligned with our visual aesthetic and our purpose, and will pay us significant amounts to do large campaigns.
What is a fair wage or the income that you're aiming for, that would allow you to be comfortable?
On a low end scale, I keep my own personal expenses fairly low. If I was getting $75,000 a year out of this, honestly, I would be a very comfortable. I would live very comfortably. Ideally, I would like somewhere around $125,000 so I can take more risks.
Right now, your annual income is $35,000?
Exactly. It's effectively what I pull in from all the various projects, because I'm not just working on these client projects. Sometimes I'll get pulled in by an agency — like right now, I have copywriting work. I'll stand in, I'll move lights around every once in a while just to make a couple extra bucks. I look at every opportunity regardless of the role that I’m given as an opportunity to build a client base, expand my network, and potentially get recommendations with others in the future.
What resources do you think would help you the most, as a filmmaker who has to make a living? What would you like to see?
I don't have a very clear cut answer for that because I'm learning all that stuff right now. But I think grants are extremely helpful. In the creative realm, there should be some kind of government subsidies, perhaps tax breaks. I know that in California we all pay a franchise tax every year. It would be really nice if that can be discounted or exempted for small businesses that are still growing. Overall, [business owners] would ideally look for more capital investment opportunities and more programs that connected small businesses with investors that were tied in with the government, and I actually do see that a lot of these exist, but they're also not very prevalent. You really have to go and dig to find them.
Frankly, it's just too expensive to live here. If there are ways in which we could have some kind of relief from that — from the general expenses of our lives, because it's not getting any cheaper to rent a camera, for example.
Do you have any thoughts about pay transparency, how that can help artists? Or even how you've learned to price your own services?
How I've learned to charge — it's been based on a protracted negotiation with producers I've worked with in the past, executive producers when I participated as a freelance employee. That's how I would determine my own personal rates. Other times, you would basically be negotiating based on the budget that you have.
For example, I know staffers who can range from $450 to $500 a day on a 10 hour day on set, all the way up to $5,000, just for the day. And knowing that that range exists, you have to work with people who you trust and that are willing to meet the level of budget. It’s not necessarily an active conversation that industry professionals are having with each other. Because producers like myself are not always so forthcoming about what our full budgets are, simply because I think if we were, people would maybe approach the way they charge us differently, or have that leverage to approach this differently.
So we have to play our cards close to our chest, if you will.
Were there any other thoughts that you wanted to share?
Something I've been thinking about lately is just when we are a small business, we're still subject to the general interest rates of credit facilities.There is no government subsidy, or protections, or almost like a rent control version of that, where we are either given access to or interest rates are negotiated on our behalf.
We’re fully exposed to needing to borrow money, but at the interest rates that have basically been set to the generic economy. The current climate is an economy that only lends to the richest 15%. So our economic inequality effectively is exacerbated by this one mere aspect, of how we are able to sustain our living, which is by borrowing.
That’s really fascinating.
Being an artist means you are a business in and of itself and unto yourself. There's a lot of what I call mysticism around creativity in our society. What that has created is a real gulf in education and understanding of how art is actually handled in this world. Starting my own business — basically just being fed up with being unable to move forward in my artistic pursuits and being shackled to these companies — it's helping me to learn a lot about just how its truly made. A painter sits and he paints, and he's making his art in the purest way, but you don't become an artist until some gallery with millions of dollars that have been invested into it agrees with you a price to show your work, and therefore sell it too.
What do you think could be done to combat that mysticism that you talked about? How can we change society’s understanding of the labor that goes into making art?
I think where it begins, is in the realm of publicity and marketing. If we're led to believe that creativity and art is a mystical event that happens, then we won't see that any individual can do it, and any single person can apply creativity to their lives in any moment. You cannot instill a scarcity mindset into the general public if they all believe that creativity is possible within every individual. That's the beginning of it. Unfortunately, our economy and our society is based on scarcity mindsets, as well as infinite growth — which what I've understood is the only thing that really has infinite growth is cancer. So we are living in a “cancer society.” How do we combat what is effectively centuries, at this point, of marketing? I personally don't know, other than to be as transparent as I am with you now about the nature of it.
Artists themselves need to give a shit. They need to start caring. They need to start speaking up. They need to start organizing themselves. I’m sounding like I'm like a Marxist all of a sudden. But they need to get organized. They need to form their communities. They need to speak to each other. They need to be honest about what's going on around them and then they need to start making demands, because the whole point of the system, the hierarchies, and the middleman is to isolate, isolate, isolate.
That's how these musical artists get exploited and have been for over 100 years now. They don't talk to each other. There are artists out there such as LaRussell, who posts his finances online and he talks about this stuff. So finances have a taboo, creativity has a mysticism, and at the same time, probably this is the first time in history where we're finally realizing it. But we are convinced that art is not a feasible or realistic career path.
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