But how far does that renaissance extend toward the local entertainment industry?
While our beloved region experiences a renaissance the arts and entertainment have been left behind. There are few opportunities for Western New Yorkers to pursue a career in the arts without relocating. The local opportunities that do exist typically come from one of two scenarios.
1. Local creators and producers who are woefully underfunded, if at all.
The opportunities offered by micro or no-budget productions are basic, introductory level positions. This kind of role is best-suited for amateurs who are taking their first steps into the industry. There’s nothing wrong with this kind of opportunity for gaining experience but it won’t lead to professional growth or financial sustainability. Limited opportunities also mean the producer holds all the leverage and when that happens predatory behavior and corruption flourish.
You don’t like working for copy, meals and credit? There are 10 more people standing behind you who will. You don’t want to sit on my casting couch? There are plenty who are desperate enough to do it.
This type of creative integrity and quality control typically result in terrible final products that will not benefit your reel or resume.
2. The rare Hollywood production in search of cheap labor and juicy tax credits.
Those productions are few and far between and only temporary. Once the production is over, so is the job. Few on or off screen talent get ”discovered” from ’hit it and quit it’ productions. Those that do, are often lured away by the siren call of an open door to Hollywood.
Desperation and vulnerability get cranked up to an 11 when people hear Hollywood is in town. Scarcity of opportunities breeds corruption and predatory behavior that extend way beyond the abuse of labor. Collusion is rampant between city officials and/or a film commission willing to do anything to beat out Cleveland or Atlanta for the next big production. In the face of this kind of pressure, how vulnerable do you think a local Buffalo actor, who has only auditioned for free work, is when they now have an audition for the big Hollywood movie shooting in town? It’s safe to say, many in that position would do anything for the life-changing opportunity, even more to the point, our culture has already groomed them to believe they must comply or the next person will.
What happens to burgeoning talent burdened with a moral compass, self-worth and a passion to stay in the area?
What about the local businesses that rely on productions for the majority of their income? How many of them struggle due to a lack of local productions with access to a respectable budget?
I left Buffalo, for the same reason as many before me, I wanted opportunities that didn’t exist in the region. I found them in Hollywood, but they came with far darker strings attached than I was willing to live with, even if fame and fortune were guaranteed. What I want, is what Robert Rodriguez has. He bought and converted an abandoned airport in his hometown of Austin, TX and turned it into Troublemaker Studios. He pursues his career and showcases his all-world talent while living and working in his hometown. I think we can learn from him and take it one step further in WNY.
The question for Buffalo or any other city that wishes to establish a vibrant local entertainment industry is the same.
Where will the funding come from?
Out of town money, means out of town agendas. A consistent source of ethical funding must be available to local producers and creators in order for the individual to not be at the mercy of Hollywood or the professional no-budget filmmaker. The solution is a community-owned Digital Media Fund that invests in local artists and productions. Changes to the Jobs Act make it possible to establish a community-owned media fund in every local film market. An investment by the community in local artists means more opportunities, careers and production dollars spent and kept in the region.
In return for an investment in a community-owned digital media fund, investors could receive real-time access to the entire creative process. Fair and ethical finance deals offered by a community-owned digital media fund means artists could commit a percentage of revenue back into the community fund and a local non-profit and still come out farther ahead than they would if they dealt with the establishment.
A community-owned digital media fund is only the first step toward establishing and maintaining a vibrant local entertainment industry. Hollywood built an empire not on the production of content, but around the control of access to the financing, marketing and distribution of content.
Technology and digital media consumption habits have evolved to a point where it is far easier to build a new, more lean and efficient studio model from the ground up than it is for the establishment to downsize 100 years of brick and mortar overhead. This is why the major studios have become overly reliant on tentpole franchises, remakes and reboots. They need HUGE returns just to break even and cover their bloated infrastructure. Local creators and responsible budgets do not have the same burdens.
When we invest in our local artists, we invest in our community, in our businesses and most importantly in ourselves. Gratwick is recruiting creators, community leaders and small business owners to work together to lay the foundation for a community-owned and driven digital media fund. Building public awareness that we can create a culture of ethical opportunities in our community is the most important step.