How a community-supported collective of filmmakers wants to rewrite the rules of indie film

The Bureau of Creative Works is a non-profit, audience-funded operation founded by Mike Ambs and Erica Hampton that acts a bridge between filmmakers and audiences. They believe filmmakers and film enthusiasts have a responsibility not only to create and encourage quality films, “but to provide a sustainable environment where filmmakers feel supported and have access to the tools that they need to experiment and share their stories.”

Here, Ambs reflects on the challenges that indie filmmakers face—notably those creating short films—and how community-supported and community-funded endeavors could change the way these independent films are made and received.

By Mike Ambs, co-founder, The Bureau of Creative Works

At its heart, The Bureau of Creative Works is a pretty simple idea: take a community of people who love films and bring them together to create an audience-funded studio that flies in the face of everything the film industry has become in the last several decades.

Recently, we’ve seen an incredible shift in resources available to individuals — tools such as Twitter, Kickstarter, Seed & Spark, YouTube, VHX, BitTorrent, Vimeo On Demand — that allow for complex collaboration, funding, and distribution for the kinds of creative works that might not have found a home or an audience only several years ago. As exciting as these changes have been, at The Bureau we believe that the next decade will see these tools and others applied in completely new ways. We’re already seeing some of this take place with group efforts such as Lost Arts, Collective Unconscious, and XOXO — more and more people are coming together to launch not just isolated projects but entire ongoing communities.

Understanding that it takes a community to make a community, Kickstarter made the most sense for us as a starting point for The Bureau. I’ve been actively involved on Kickstarter since its launch — both as a backer and as a creator. What I’ve found since the very beginning is that the kind of community I can connect with on Kickstarter is nearly unheard of anywhere else online. It’s fostered the exact kind of audience support and audience involvement that The Bureau hopes to expand on.

With independent films, and especially with independently produced short films, filmmakers work within a very narrow bandwidth of expectations. Expectations from film festivals, distributors, and even from the filmmakers themselves — the entire food chain, for lack of a better term—leaves very little room for outside support and risk-taking.

An essential element of any art is risk. If you don’t take a risk then how are you going to make something really beautiful that hasn’t been seen before?
— Francis Ford Coppola

It’s important to make the distinction here that we are talking about experienced filmmakers — filmmakers with several films behind them, who have beyond proven their voices as independent writers and directors.

Considering that studios are rarely interested in personal short film projects, filmmakers are largely on their own during each difficult step of production. If filmmakers are interested in turning to crowd or community funding platforms, many feel they must work on ideas assumed to be more marketable or widely sharable, filtering out deeply personal films that might otherwise be difficult to articulate in the earliest stages beyond a very small and trusted group of collaborators.

Then comes the hard part—or perhaps more accurately, the hard truth: after a filmmaker has poured everything they have into a film, they are met with a tremendous amount of pressure to pay anywhere from hundreds to thousands of dollars for an increasingly small chance to play their short film work at festivals that—in far too many cases—underrepresent their short film programming to festival audiences. Of course, this underrepresentation isn’t entirely the festival’s doing; press and distributors pay attention to features because, to put it simply, short films are often seen as second tier.

Personal [short film] projects, even when Oscar-nominated and whatnot, are perceived as just a way to attract some empty corporate advertising gig where they can maybe make enough money to fund another personal project that’s again maybe dropped on YouTube, loses money, and forgotten about. It’s a terrible cycle.
—  Don Hertzfeldt

It is very much a terrible cycle—but one that is reversible.

The Bureau of Creative Works is, above all else, a set of principles, a checklist of everything that feels unnecessarily broken in the film industry. We fund people, not pitches or scripts. This means filmmakers are free to tell any story they’d like. There is no voting, no popularity contest. Filmmakers fully own their work. Period. The Bureau simply acts as a funding resource, distribution network, and strong advocate for these short films, as well as the incredibly talented people behind them. With each new short film released through The Bureau, we hope to drive a meaningful conversation around the value of stand-alone short films, and the benefits of a bottom-up support structure that connects audiences and filmmakers in a more direct way.

Bureau Loop

We have a long way to go—whereas our campaign last fall was successful, with more than 300 people helping to pre-fund the first twelve short films, we have some very difficult goals still ahead of us. Of course, our audience base needs to grow for The Bureau to become fully sustainable after our inaugural year, but beyond that, we won’t view this project as a success until we see a larger shift in how short films are perceived.

Short films allow indie filmmakers to take greater risk, taking greater risk means more deeply personal stories, more deeply personal stories mean a far greater diversity in the kinds of films we, as viewers, are culturally exposed to — and we, at The Bureau, believe this is something worth fighting for.


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