Survival of the Fittest

Mario Benassi of Pueblo, Colorado's WildSide Productions is currently the prairie dog guy. Prior to his prairie dog status, he was rattlesnake guy, and before that, gorilla guy. That kind of flexibility - the willingness to wear many hats - is...
August 1, 2000

Mario Benassi of Pueblo, Colorado’s WildSide Productions is currently the prairie dog guy. Prior to his prairie dog status, he was rattlesnake guy, and before that, gorilla guy. That kind of flexibility – the willingness to wear many hats – is an essential element to surviving as a one-person operation.

Benassi has learned to adapt to the demands of the market to ensure he maintains a place in it. For example, his personal preference is to shoot using film – whether 16mm, Super 16 or 35mm – but he’s equally comfortable with video, and keeps video equipment on hand. ‘Being able to offer all of those formats gives you a little bit of an edge,’ he says.

Both Benassi and Sydney, Australia-based producer/ director Paul Scott of Paul Scott Films have opted to establish themselves as wildlife generalists rather than specialists, though Benassi says specific animal behaviors, such as mating, are his forte. Karen E. Bean of Maple Falls, U.S.-based Ambridge Enterprises says developing a regional identity has also been helpful – she’ll film everything from ‘grizzly bears to salamanders and slugs’ within the Pacific Northwest – but remains open to working in other territories.

Owning rather than renting equipment tends to get more votes from independent filmmakers. ƒamon de Buitléar of Delgany, Ireland, says having his own kit saves time and money. Bean agrees, though she cautions about spending. ‘[I] buy equipment as I need it, not as I want it – there is a big difference.’

More than anything else, one-person operations live and die by their reputations. De Buitléar has grown his business of more than 30 years by fostering a relationship with national broadcaster rte. He usually does a series of five or six half-hour programs for the pubcaster each year, budgeted at around US$30,000 to $35,000 per episode. His relationship with RTE also helped him win a commission to make three episodes of the BBC’s 12-part series Wild Islands Two, about the wildlife of Ireland, Scotland, England and Wales.

The average day rate for an indie is in the US$500 ballpark, though Benassi says it can go as high as $1,500, depending on the amount of work involved in capturing the footage. For example, he explains, a sequence in which a tarantula wasp kills a tarantula would cost a premium because of the time needed to first locate the wasp and then film the action, and the fact that it occurs only at a certain time of year. If travel to hazardous regions is required, Benassi says he increases his daily rate by half.

Operating as a lone wolf is not without its drawbacks. Bean says one of the difficulties she has encountered is missed opportunities when she is away filming in remote locations and is unable to return phone calls or e-mails. Scott cites isolation of another sort as a challenge: ‘…not feeling you ‘belong’ to a bigger entity that is looking after you.’

On the up side is the freedom working alone affords you. Says Benassi, ‘The only thing I have to answer to is the changing seasons.’ Scott adds that he likes dealing directly with the network investors. ‘Having a middle person or an executive that makes key editorial decisions has always worried me, especially if they’re not filmmakers themselves.’

About The Author
Managing editor with realscreen publication, an international print and online magazine that covers the non-fiction film and television industries. Darah is an award-winning journalist who has spent over two decades covering a wide range of issues from real estate and urban development to immigration, politics and human rights, primarily with The Vancouver Sun. Prior to joining realscreen, she was editor of Stream Daily, realscreen's sister publication covering the dynamic global digital video industry. She also served a stint as a war reporter in Afghanistan for television and print, and was a national business blogger with Yahoo Canada.