How to Make Filmmaking a Sustainable Career

Chicken & Egg Pictures launched in 2005 to support women nonfiction filmmakers whose artful and innovative storytelling catalyzes social change. The organization was founded by filmmakers Julie Parker Benello, Wendy Ettinger, and Judith Helfand. They wanted to provide other women the support they wish they had earlier in their careers. In 2015, Ettinger told Variety, “We discovered that whatever resources we provided—be it mentorship or funding—the filmmakers ran with it. The films got better and the community we were serving grew.”

With that in mind, after ten years in business Chicken & Egg Pictures strengthened their commitment to women filmmakers by providing more than just project support: they also want to help build sustainable careers. As they conducted field research, “Creative Capital’s name kept coming up,” Yvonne Welbon, their Senior Creative Consultant, told us. The team reached out to Creative Capital, and in 2015 the two organizations formed a partnership to provide Chicken & Egg grantees intensive strategic planning workshops geared toward establishing lifelong careers in the film industry.

But what exactly does that look like? With Chicken & Egg’s help, we reached out to some of the filmmakers who have taken Creative Capital’s workshops over the years. Their feedback provided an understanding of the impact of our partnership.

Being Specific About Long-Term Goals

Filmmaker Sabaah Folayan

In 2014, filmmaker Sabaah Folayan traveled to Ferguson, Missouri, during the protests that followed Michael Brown’s death by local police. Folayan wanted to highlight perspectives of women that were principal in moving Ferguson protests forward. That was the crux of her debut documentary Whose Streets?, which premiered at Sundance in 2017.

“The most useful thing I came to realize through Creative Capital is that creating life strategies is an iterative process,” Folayan told us, “It’s not just sitting down once and making a perfect five-year plan. It’s a cycle of setting goals, moving toward them, evaluating whether or not they are serving your personal, financial, or emotional needs, and adjusting the plan as you go.”

Using the skills she learned at Creative Capital’s workshops, Folayan is launching a production company, Folayan Pictures, as well as completing a short film for a commercial outlet. These endeavors help her create “space to develop my craft without the pressure of a specific project deadline.”

Being “specific and tangible” about her long-term goals was key for her success: “I’ve been able to gain a sense of my own priorities and allocate my time and energy in ways that best serve my own vision.”

Decades of Experience Doesn’t Necessarily Translate into Business Skills
Some artists don’t set out to work with film right away, but come around to it eventually. Rina Castelnuovo is one of those people; she spent decades working as a photojournalist for the Jerusalem bureau of the New York Times before working on her debut documentary film, Muhi: Generally Temporary. The film tells the story over a seven-year period of a young boy from Gaza caught in the middle of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

“After spending a lifetime in silence behind a lens,” Castelnuovo said, “diving into the world of filmmaking threw me face to face with the business side of creativity.”

She needed new skills to excel at documentary filmmaking that photojournalism didn’t require: “My language was visual: never before had I thought much about having other communication skills, I did not have any management skills or any knowledge of how to advance a project or career through pitches, negotiations, presentations—and knew nothing about strategic planning.”

Chicken & Egg selected Castelnuovo for the Accelerator Lab program for first- and second-time filmmakers: “The Creative Capital workshop came quite early in our training,” she said, “even before I could pronounce myself a filmmaker (thank you Yvonne for insisting), and it was an eye-opener. Looking back, the education I received prepared me for the upcoming years and for a smooth transition to a new stage in life.”

The workshop helped her with skills she hadn’t learned as a photojournalist: “Today I can talk to the public, pitch, and attend meetings and negotiations while getting my point across. I have learned it is an essential side to creativity in filmmaking.”

Don’t Get Caught Up on Short-Term Failures and Successes

Elaine McMillion Sheldon

Elaine McMillion Sheldon has directed several feature length and short documentaries since 2011, including Hollow, an interactive documentary exploring life in the Appalachian coalfields. “The Creative Capital workshop was a game changer for me,” she told us. “It allowed me the privilege to evaluate if how I use my time and money is serving my long-term goals.”

“It’s easy to get caught up on short term failures and successes, but the work with Creative Capital helps keep my attention on the long-term vision and an investment in my future.”
“Overall the experience helped me escape the cycle of checking off daily to-do lists, and discover a better sense of what I want out of my life as an artist.”

Make Goals That Matter and Assume You Can Reach Them
Penny Lane, Creative Capital Awardee (and member of our Board of Directors), benefited from a Chicken & Egg Pictures Breakthrough Filmmaker Award. She put the career advancement workshops into a larger perspective: “Sometimes it seems like the whole world wants (women and) artists to be smaller: take up less space, ask for less, think of your work as less important. The Creative Capital workshops create a magical space where the opposite is true.

“The workshops ask (women and) artists to instead take up more space. Dream bigger and assume your work is important. Make goals that matter to you and assume you can reach them.

“This is life changing and career-altering stuff.”

Since 2015, Chicken & Egg Pictures and Creative Capital have worked with 56 women filmmakers to offer workshops and follow up sessions focused on building sustainable careers. Learn more about Chicken and Egg Pictures at their website.

Header image from Elaine McMillion Sheldon’s Hollow.

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