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Ristau, 32, wound up in Missoula a decade ago, around the time when independent filmmakers began to congregate here. With the industry's embrace of digital media, it's become possible to eke out a living far from post-production hubs such as New York and Los Angeles. After Ristau did several shoots for The Bus at Burning Man last year, he was recruited by the Burning Man Project to do some volunteer video editing. Then it hired him to do all their internal video work. In today's industry, that job doesn't require Ristau to travel to San Francisco, where the organization is based; he can largely collaborate from Missoula.
Gita Saedi Kiely came to Missoula nine years ago from Chicago, where she'd already established herself as a documentarian through her own work and her collaboration with a local film collective. Her move here came in the midst of a project for PBS, a series called "The New Americans" that told the stories of five immigrants in the U.S. She traveled repeatedly between Missoula and Chicago for work, always finding that the connectivity of the filmmaking community was notably stronger in the latter. "Fifteen years ago, if you loved Missoula and filmmaking, you just knew you had to love Missoula later," she says. "You had to move and get your career going before you could come back here."
Now Saedi Kiely, 42, is finding more of the collective vibe she missed from Chicago, "and 10 years from now, it's going to be here even more," she says. Meanwhile, she teaches at UM, collaborates on projects with local filmmaking friends such as Katy Garton and works with past and present students.
"If we could all rely on each other to watch each other's rough cuts and make sure we finish our films, and get advice from each other and shoot with each other and edit with each other, it'll just make our community stronger and bigger," Saedi Kiely says. "I don't see any reason why we can't make great films here that are absolutely comparable to the films in New York or Berkley or Chicago. I don't think we're there yet, but I think we're on our way."
Paying the bills
As readily available as the technology is, filmmakers still need to make money. Filmmaker Katy Garton sees that as probably the biggest hurdle now for those new to the industry. Garton, 32, got her start in the documentary world about 10 years ago, at Montana State University. The accessibility of new technologies allowed her to buy the equipment she needed. But making a living here, she says, requires a degree of "recognizing what you're worth...
"You get paid less in Montana, and there's no way around that. There's my Montana rate and my not-Montana rate. It's a sticker-shock to people, because a lot of people have no idea what it takes to make a production...People don't understand the time and, therefore, the cost."
Garton, who's currently two years into a personal project on indigenous music in Azerbaijan, considers herself lucky on the commercial front. Much of what she's done has been more in the documentary style, allowing her to hone her artistic skills while making the money she needs to invest in equipment. Getting jobs in Montana depends greatly on who you know and who knows you, she says.
"One thing leads to another. I've never sought out or advertised. It's just a matter of forming relationships and building them and being passionate about the work. Before you know it, it links in a chain. Paths just connect and lead you to the next project."
Damon Ristau has managed to strike a balance between personal projects and the commercial work that comes with a somewhat steady paycheck, though he notes it's not always easy. Making an independent film calls for a level of obsession; otherwise, Ristau says, he'd have a harder time finishing a project. Yet obsession can be a slippery slope, as Ristau's learned the hard way.
"I found myself in a lot of trouble," he says of his personal work just prior to The Bus. "I made a film called The Best Bar in America a few years back, and it turned into this absolutely insane...We just fell down the rabbit hole with it and became all-consumed. I forewent all this commercial work that was coming in the door, and it ended up biting me in the ass. We barely finished the movie, it's still not released. It just spun my life out of control...Even if it may take a bit longer, you have to have a foot in both worlds."
There, too, technology has stepped up to help. The internet is rife with fundraising and networking opportunities for independent artists. Filmmakers don't necessarily have to sink lots of capital into projects. Folks like Ristau are increasingly turning to Kickstarter, an online fundraising platform designed to free artists from financial restrictions. Ristau raised $25,000 on Kickstarter for The Bus, about 95 percent of it from "perfect strangers." Even independent feature films are realizing the promise of grassroots support. Andrew and Alex Smith, brothers and renowned local filmmakers, launched a Kickstarter effort last summer to raise $60,000 for their film adaptation of James Welch's novel Winter in the Blood. They received $67,223 in total pledges, from as far away as the U.K. and Italy.
"It becomes a team effort then, and that's something that's changed the playing field too," Ristau says. "Your supporters take some ownership...I get some emails from my Kickstarter supporters calling it 'our film.' That's great. It's like a big family. And at the same time, when people are giving you money and support, you don't want to let them down."
The breakthroughs even extend to the distribution side of media, Hawes-Davis points out. The collapse of the DVD market was a hit to documentary filmmakers, he says, but the internet has opened untold doors for exposure. Given the limited out-of-pocket expense on The Bus, Ristau is contemplating an online pay-what-you-want model for the release of his film—akin to what bands such as Radiohead have done in the music industry.
For many, the internet has changed the way independent filmmakers gain exposure. The emphasis is no longer on historic broadcast outlets. A filmmaker can create a website, throw up a film reel and show off his or her work to potential clients and audiences alike.
"I just think back even to when I was first getting into documentary filmmaking," Garton says. "The topics of conversation having to do with funding, everything was about broadcast. That's how a documentary filmmaker got work shown...on TV. It's still an incredible outlet, but now there's a lot of outlets. Now, people are self-distributing their work."
However, the internet lacks a reliable filter. The amount of available media may be increasing radically. That doesn't mean it's all quality production.
As the volume of media increases, "the more it's necessary to have things like the Big Sky Documentary Film Festival, where there's somebody who's curating, trying to make sense of it all and provide really compelling, artistic stuff for the public to consume," Hawes-Davis says. "The Big Sky Documentary Film Festival isn't YouTube. There's great stuff on YouTube, but you have to go try to find it. Nobody's curating it for you, except for how many hits something got."
A few years back, Marc Pierce and his partner Chris Richardson found themselves on the far side of the Mexican border getting shaken down by the Mexican Federal Police, better known as "Federales." They were filming a hunting show for the Outdoor Life Network, now called NBC Sports. The two have trekked far and wide for their Missoula-based filmmaking company, Warm Springs Productions. They've slept in a lot of airports, Pierce says. But Mexico was something else entirely. Neither of them even speaks Spanish.
"That's probably the scariest thing that either of us has dealt with, being accosted at gunpoint by 16-year-old Mexicans with machine guns," Pierce says. "They just wanted to know what the hell we were doing laying out in a field with guns. We were goose hunting, but between the cameras and the guns they were very confused or suspicious and they weren't very friendly. It scared the heck out of us."
Pierce, 50, and Richardson, 41, have over 30 years of filmmaking experience between them. Their company, launched in 2008, has supplied outdoor programming for networks ranging from the Golf Channel to ESPN to Discovery. They film hunting, fishing, skiing, kayaking and pretty much anything else that makes Missoula seem a logical home base. Warm Springs, housed in a modest brick building on Missoula's Northside, produced 82 episodes for television in 2011. It claimed a score of awards for that work this January, including best combo hunting and fishing series at the Sportsman Choice Awards and best overall series at the Golden Moose Awards.
"We just hired our 40th employee," Pierce says. "We're busting out at the seams, buying equipment, hiring more people. We're having a blast."