Tuesday, May 21, 2024

On the aftermath of a closed matter

The few years leading up to 2024 were difficult for me. the challenges I faced during this period crystallized around an incident that occurred in early 2023. While I have written about it before—mostly through company memoranda as the events unfolded—my focus in those memos was placed squarely on the facts of the matter, with somewhat incidental references to how I was personally affected by it. As I reflect on the experience over a year later, I do so with a closer examination of the resulting emotional and psychological trauma I experienced. I want to assure the reader that I’m not being hyperbolic. I was traumatized.

The incident involved someone I considered a friend and colleague for over a decade. For several years, they volunteered in public-facing capacities and positions of trust with my non-profit organization, which has served the local film community for over twenty years.

Hoping to build upon that professional relationship, toward the end of 2022, I submitted to them an in-kind sponsorship proposal that I had been developing for over a year. It would have involved my nonprofit organization and a recurring local event. The idea was mutually beneficial but was conceived to work primarily for their benefit. Since it was just a proposal, there was nothing legally binding and plenty of room for discussing alternative approaches and paths moving forward. Its in-kind nature—i.e., there was no requirement for money to change hands—was a defining characteristic, despite having made a considerable investment of time and personal financial resources to make it possible, including acquiring some intellectual and digital assets that were integral to the proposal. 

It was written in plain language with basic business terms. After the proposal was submitted, they suddenly became very quiet. Every time I tried to follow up, I was given excuses and false assurances for why they were not talking. This lack of communication severely aggravated my struggles with general anxiety disorder.

They finally agreed to a conference call to discuss the proposal in more detail—or so I thought. That was when I learned that a grudge was being held against me over something that had occurred several years before but was not brought to my attention until that meeting, during which I was berated, ridiculed, and verbally assaulted to the point that I needed to be excused because the experience triggered in me an intense panic attack.

Their unwillingness to communicate with me about the in-kind sponsorship, their grudge—held in secret and festering for years—and their general lack of decorum in what was ostensibly a business meeting informed my decision to withdraw the proposal.

In an attempt to salvage at least a working relationship, I decided to donate the aforementioned assets to them, asking for nothing in return. They accepted the donation and then extended an invitation to discuss my plans for my nonprofit in the new year. This put me somewhat at ease as far as future cooperation was concerned. I happened to be working on a draft of a new strategic plan for the organization and shared a confidential, watermarked copy with them before our subsequent conversation.

Only after that discussion did I learn of actions they had secretly taken during the preceding weeks. After I had submitted my proposal a month prior, the first thing they did was to register a new business entity with a name described in legal terms regarding intellectual property as “confusingly similar” to that of my nonprofit organization—a name that is registered as a trademark in the state of Utah. They also registered multiple internet domain names and set up several social media profiles using the same confusingly similar moniker, also in complete secrecy, going so far as to preemptively block my primary social media profile in an apparent attempt to hide them from me. The only purpose that these actions appeared to serve was in preparation for an effort to supplant or otherwise undermine my nonprofit organization, its mission, and its role in the community.

I was devastated to learn this—especially after I had trusted them with my draft strategic plan, elements of which they later plagiarized elsewhere on social media—again, the document was watermarked and explicitly labeled “Confidential” on every page. I emailed them, reminding them of my efforts to be completely transparent in all my interactions with them and that I expected them to extend to me that same courtesy. Instead, they chose to be deceptive and disingenuous, to exploit their access to me and my trust in them. Then, they chose to ignore me.

This resulted in a follow-up meeting to specifically discuss how their actions demonstrated a conflict of interest regarding their roles with my nonprofit and how they violated multiple clauses in the organization’s Code of Ethics & Conduct. Yet, in the face of evidence to the contrary, they denied having any knowledge or culpability.

I fired them from their volunteer duties on the advice of legal counsel. Despite that, they were still considered members of the organization at the community level and were invited to continue to use the same resources available to all community-tier members, including our Facebook group—the official forum of the organization. Additionally, I was willing to keep the entire matter confidential—I’m not in the habit of punching down when somebody makes a mistake, especially one with the potential to cause severe embarrassment, were it to become public knowledge. Despite the invitation to stay without restrictions, they left the Facebook group.

I was heartbroken by this experience, but it only got worse.

It was not long before they stated their intention to pursue a venture that would reclassify their problematic behavior from simply unethical to overtly illegal. I felt that the potential consequences for such actions were severe enough that they needed to be brought to their attention through a third party.

They were informed of the possible legal and financial ramifications of following through on their stated plans in addition to the actions they had already taken, implored to abandon their project, and—for the sake of their reputations in the local film community—were still offered the opportunity to keep the matter confidential.

They consciously chose to forfeit a profoundly generous offer to keep their unethical and illegal actions from becoming public knowledge by making a public social media post. However, instead of addressing the actual problems communicated to them, they deliberately misrepresented the matter to damage my personal and professional reputation. They made blatantly false statements about me, and when pressed for details, they withheld relevant information that would contradict their previous statements—and undermine the narrative that began to form with the speculative comments of others. They made additional misleading and false assertions and reinforced speculation that they knew for a fact was inaccurate.

Their public post made me the target of online harassment through private messages, hurtful comments on my personal social media profile, and even through a post in the Facebook group I admin—which has an unambiguous rule against bullying and harassment.

Those who said disparaging things about me, angered by the lies they read, included people that I thought were my friends. Filmmakers I had worked with. Artists that I had HIRED! Some unfriended me without notice. Others just stopped communicating with me altogether. The emotional toll this took on me was intense and painful, and I can count on one hand the number of people who contacted me directly to let me know that they supported me and could see right through the negative things that were being said. Only a few others asked me if there was any validity to the claims.

The emotional trauma triggered in me thoughts of committing suicide and led to my hospitalization for several days with severe depression—a fact that, until now, I had only shared with a handful of close friends.

Eventually, the artificially induced outrage subsided. Since the former volunteer rendered moot the offer of confidentiality, several people who had engaged with the disparaging post were contacted privately and presented with the facts of the matter in their entirety. Some of them chose to ignore the truth. Others who had expressed anger at the lies they were told had a change of heart once they had all the relevant information and apologized to me personally. What I found most frustrating was that so many people were willing just to take the lies at face value. Nothing prevented them from reaching out to me to ask me directly if anything that had been said was true. Despite being given accurate information that disproved what they had been told on the matter, I guess it was easier to embrace the lies and unchecked speculation they were subjected to than to try to ask questions for which there were answers.

Throughout that experience, I shared some personal observations and discussed my emotional pain on social media in posts that were accessible only to a few close friends, all without making any specific references. There was some brief discussion in the Facebook group—ironically, in the comments section of the post that was attacking me. Eventually, one of the other moderators removed the post.

I spent the better part of the next year processing what had happened. I was already feeling isolated, but I became genuinely fearful of going out in public, especially to any community film events. As I’ve tried to contact people to discuss matters related to the nonprofit—program involvement, following up on previous correspondence, etc.—I’ve received responses that were polite but would say something to the effect of no longer wanting to be a member, or asking to be “unsubscribed.” Every time, I would be left dumbfounded, sending me down a rabbit hole of speculation, anxiety, and self-doubt, asking myself, “Did someone say something to them that was disparaging of me or the organization? Are people still talking about the lies as if they actually happened? If that’s the case, why didn’t they just say something directly to me in their response?”

Bad-faith actors bring existing problems into greater focus

As painful and discouraging as the experience was, it was also par for the course regarding the kinds of problems in the local film community that are actively—if not intentionally—putting the local film industry at a disadvantage. I’ve always been aware of these problems, but instead of calling them out publicly over the years, I chose to err on the side of highlighting what’s being done right to help the local industry grow, but these problems can’t be solved unless we’re willing to talk about them openly.

Throughout the following year, I wrote extensively about these problems on my nonprofit’s official blog, describing behaviors and attitudes I’ve observed that are, at best, unprofessional and, at worst, unethical or illegal. I started with an essay about values and ethics, specifically, the organization’s Core Values of Professionalism, Integrity, and Respect and its Code of Ethics & Conduct. Each text is largely identical, with the former presented in the abstract and the latter as a standard to strive for and uphold. The composition of these documents specifically addresses some unprofessional practices that have become so prevalent that aspiring filmmakers are emulating them because they’ve been misled to believe that’s how things have always been done—or worse, how they’re supposed to be done.

When discussing examples of problematic behaviors in our online forum—always in general terms because one of the rules is “Talk about problems and solutions, not people”—a member once commented, “I think I know who you might be referring to.”

My immediate response was, essentially, “I’m not talking about an individual person. These are problems that I’ve observed over many years from several people across several productions.” Local filmmakers who cut corners on productions—even contracted work from which they personally profit—and wannabe auteurs putting on airs, embellishing the breadth of their knowledge, their connections, and their abilities, to get movies made that are mediocre, at best, but ultimately unsaleable.

Although names are not mentioned, it’s not unheard of for individuals who recognize themselves in the actions being described to angrily protest being unfairly criticized—outing themselves in the process. This anger—rooted in embarrassment and rightfully so—is often directed at me, as is the blame for inciting it. Of course, the only person who can honestly be held responsible for one’s emotions is the one experiencing them.

In reality, most of them aren’t embarrassed simply because they have fine-tuned the image they present to others for so long that they have come to believe it themselves. If only a few of them ever came to realize that what they call their “careers” are little more than long cons that actually damage the local industry and cause quantifiable socio-economic harm to the community, maybe they’d own up to it, and either figure out how to do it right or just find another line of work.

Unfortunately, most of them have reached a point of no return from which their egos will not allow them to retreat. They’re usually too distracted by having moved onto their “next big project” to consider, or even acknowledge, that everything else they’ve made up to that point probably isn’t worth much more than the cost of maintaining their entries on the IMDb—which they don’t even have to pay for.

Like any other community filmmaker, I’ve always dreamed of becoming a film industry professional. I don’t recall exactly when or where I read the following advice, but it was something to the effect of:

“The best way to achieve your dreams is by helping others to achieve theirs.”

That resonated with me, and I immediately applied it to any project I was asked to participate in—going the extra mile to help make those productions the best they could be within the scope of my contributions. It also sharpened the focus of my nonprofit’s mission. The dream is often boiled down to just wanting to be able to make movies, but there’s more to it than that. It’s to be able to make movies for a living.

As I learned more about industry standards, pitfalls to avoid, and local resources that can genuinely help people become industry professionals, I did not keep that information to myself; I shared it in blog posts and on social media—typically in my nonprofit’s official forum—in comment sections, direct messages, and in person. The most valuable lessons learned are most often the result of recognizing mistakes that have been made. I also ask the full-time professional filmmakers among our members to share their experiences—especially their mistakes—and talk about what they learned.

Of course, there have been times when I would share some insights from a painfully learned experience, and someone would accuse me of being a “know-it-all.” A taunt that is as childish and immature as it sounds.

Having a basic grasp of the technical steps of making a film is not enough to make a living as a filmmaker. Even more than practical experience, it requires understanding and accepting that the craft’s business aspect is essential to filmmaking and inextricable. That’s why the film industry exists, and if one seriously wants to be part of any industry, one needs to learn, embrace, and work within its established standards. Yet, I also get pushback from people who are making a living at what they do.

In addition to being called a “know-it-all,” I’ve also been accused of “gatekeeping;” defined as: “When someone takes it upon themselves to decide who does or does not have access or rights to a community or identity.” It might also be a dig at me for being an admin for an online forum because I have the ability to kick people out. Of course, our continually growing membership numbers support the notion that it’s an inclusive and welcoming community… or I’m just not a very good gatekeeper.

I’ve come to embrace a broad and inclusive definition of filmmaker. Anyone who uses any of the tools of filmmaking to create a motion picture—regardless of its budget, duration, or how it’s viewed—can consider themselves a filmmaker, and I’m happy to refer to them as such. However, being a filmmaker is NOT the same as working in the film industry.

As someone who only moonlights in the film industry, I’ll be the first to acknowledge that I’m not in a position to offer anyone tailored career advice, to say nothing of presuming to be able to control anyone’s access to something as abstract as a “community or identity.” Nobody has that power, but some people think they do. I strive to share factual information from reputable film industry sources and my personal observations.

I’ve come to understand that a person who’s quick to accuse someone of “gatekeeping” usually doesn’t like to be told things they don’t want to hear. For example—an extremely basic one—it’s generally understood within the film industry that producing a film is a business venture. The point of investing in any business is to see a return on that investment, which is true in all industries.

Still, some filmmakers insist on pushing back on that, saying things like, “It doesn’t have to be a business venture!” Or they’ll say something like, “I’m not in it for the money,”—which would be fine if they’re already making a living as industry filmmakers, but such responses come more often from community filmmakers—in other words, locals who struggle to make a living as filmmakers. They often have to work a day job in a different industry, and they resent it. They try to make their films on the weekends, convincing themselves that they “care more about the art” despite wanting desperately to get a job doing what they love instead of what’s actually paying their bills.

The painful truth is that, consciously or not, “I’m not in it for the money” is usually a code phrase that means, “I don’t know how to make money doing this,” and anyone who reminds them of that frustrating reality gets labeled a “gatekeeper,” becoming a convenient target to blame for their perceived career failure instead of owning their unwillingness to learn industry standards—or unlearn what’s actually holding them back.

Many amateur filmmakers in Utah have convinced themselves that the business aspects of filmmaking are optional or can be circumstantially redefined for the sake of their “art.” These “quasi-professionals” do make movies; some are quite prolific at it, so much so that they actually believe they work in the film industry and will say that they do—especially to aspirational filmmakers looking to “get their foot in the door,” but wind up just “paying their dues” by “volunteering” because they’ve been invited to be on what they’ve been told is a “real” film set.

What “industry” are we talking about exactly?

There exists, in Utah, a thriving video production industry. Much commercial and corporate production has fueled the growth of our local filmmaking infrastructure. As the tools of professional videography have become more advanced and less expensive over the last quarter of a century, the technological lines between producing narrative motion pictures and commercial niches like corporate training videos have blurred considerably. Professional videographers, whether they’re shooting weddings, the local news, or producing product demonstration videos, can call themselves filmmakers as much as anyone on the set of a feature film bound for theatrical release or a limited series for a streaming service. Still, even though technology has increased the amount of overlap between the two, the video production and film industries remain as distinct from each other as the concepts of industry and community. This is no secret to those who make an honest living within any industry, and it brings up another problematic archetype that’s poisoning the well of local talent. Unlike the “quasi-professionals” referenced above, “working amateurs” do, in fact, make their living as filmmakers. Unfortunately, in addition to conflating the industry in which they work with one in which they might participate occasionally, their understanding of the word “professionalism” is limited to “being paid” for what they do.

It’s been my observation that such a myopic understanding of what it means to be a “professional” often goes hand in hand with arrogant attitudes, condescending, and/or manipulative behavior toward those perceived to have less experience or who have simply embraced a more comprehensive definition of the term and interpretation of how it may be applied.

As I shared in an Instagram post:

Still, it’s an attitude that seems practically engrained in the local community culture. Based on my experience, having been on the receiving end of this behavior from so-called “professionals” for years, this is what real “gatekeeping” looks like. It’s not just uninformed value judgments; it’s personal insults and attacks—also uninformed, delivered strategically, and with malice—that appear to serve only one purpose: to keep their targets out of “the industry” by undermining their self-esteem and sabotaging their confidence in their own knowledge and talents. The easiest way to keep them from getting their proverbial foot in the door is to try and get them to give up on looking for it.

“Quasi-professional” and “working-amateur” filmmakers create problems for themselves, the “proteges” they entice into doing their bidding for “experience” and for the local film industry as a whole. Especially when they manage to talk their way into a paying gig on a legitimate film industry production. They are the reason that “Utah filmmakers” have a “reputation” for being “arrogant,” “entitled,” “unprofessional,” and “difficult to work with.” Ironically, they also complain the most about out-of-state productions that come to Utah for the Motion Picture Incentive and then bring in crew members from out of state instead of hiring locals. What they perceive as “cronyism” or “nepotism” is—in reality—an example of how a professional film production would rather settle for a lower rebate on their in-state spending if it means they don’t have to deal with a local grip, AC, or PA who thinks they’re the next Stanley Kubrick and won’t shut up about it and just do the job they’re being paid for.

Many local professionals are more than capable of working in those positions with gratitude and a demonstrable comprehension of what professionalism actually means. Most of them are getting hired onto productions every year and truly making their livings working in Utah’s film industry. Still, it’s amateurs with a “fake-it-’til-you-make-it” attitude, talking their way onto those sets, revealing their own incompetence, and are too arrogant to recognize that they, themselves, are the ones screwing up opportunities for local professionals who actually know what they’re doing. The next thing you know, we’ve got knowledgeable, talented production personnel opting to relocate to Los Angeles, New Mexico, or Georgia because they can’t get hired as “Utah filmmakers.”

I want the term “Utah filmmaker” to inspire confidence, not to be a red flag. Especially when it comes to incentivized productions that need to hire local cast and crew.

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