Food Systems and the (personal) cost of doing business by David Bernabo

This Tuesday, Bar Marco will host the eighth screening of Food Systems, Chapter 1: A Night Out, the first in a series of three films about food culture in and around Pittsburgh. I am very grateful to the relatively large number of people that have hosted screenings, bought tickets or watched the film, participated in discussions, provided some critique, and/or participated in the film. For me, that - building of a personal community, furthering my understanding of people's experiences in food - is rewarding enough. But let's talk about money.

I'm a big fan of cost transparency in creative projects. It's interesting. Years ago, I read that David Berman of Silver Jews cleared $45,000 for a record made in 2001 while making roughly $16,000/year for royalities on four other records. A 2006 interview found Berman $40,000 in debt at the age 40. The candidness of these interviews is enlightening. On the one hand, $45,000 to make a record is incredible, but you can easily see how that is not a sustainable path.

When starting Food Systems, I took the same approach that I apply to all my personal creative endeavors - "Let's start the project and figure it out as I go." Funding was not much of an issue. I had an adequate camera from a previous "project." (I bought a Canon 5d in anticipation of making a documentary about the history of the Carnegie Museum. That project never came to light, but I had a really interesting treatment.) I had editing programs. I made music. I knew a few people in the restaurant industry. So, the tools were in place. Aside from my time, there were no major initial expenses.

The Expenses

In the beginning, the main expense was going out to dinner. In order to determine if I wanted to cover a restaurant, I ate a meal there and introduced myself to the staff. With 25 active restaurants in the film, I estimate this cost to be roughly $1,200. In my time as a Pittsburgher (read: the whole time), I had already conducted part of the "research" before this project started.

If a scene has music, I edit best to finished music. To accomplish this, I spent about six day sessions recording different types of music - droning accordions, overdubbed makeshift percussion sections, guitar duos, piano solos. Some of the film score overlapped with my scores for Mark C. Thompson's Kimono and Jil Stifel and Ben Sota's Waywardland. Synergy! But my musical style can be limited. I love jazz scores and thought of my friends in Le Rex. Le Rex is a fantastic Swiss jazz quintet. They have played two shows in Pittsburgh and have come through Pittsburgh in other ensembles. Le Rex allowed the use of their first two albums for $400. Very generous!

One of the first sections of the film that I finished was Kevin Sousa's section. Because I didn't have any music ready, I temporarily placed a piece by Nils Økland and Sigbjørn Apeland in the timeline. The more I heard it, the more I thought it had to stay. So, I licensed the track from ECM (at this point, my favorite record label) for 500 Euro. $624, after wire transfer fees.

There are a number of siloed food documentaries. Fed Up discusses sugar. El Bulli: Cooking in Progress looks at El Bulli. Three Stars provides glimpses of a number of Michelin-starred restaurants. Food Systems could cover a broad range of topics by staying geographically narrow. However, there were two trips. A trip to The Culinary Institute of America (CIA) arose after talking with Melissa McCart. I went there to film the interview segments with Dr. Tim Ryan, who opened La Normande as the executive chef. It was a wonderful and delicious trip. Price tag: $660. I was going to California anyway, but a driving trip down the coast from San Francisco to Big Sur and back provided some beautiful footage that plays over the credits of Chapter 1 and accompanies discussion on the importance of water in Chapter 3. Also, views of CA vineyards and organic farms were useful as so many Pittsburgh chefs felt a weird calling to settle in the cold winters of Pittsburgh after vibing (or still working hard, indoors, for long hours) in the California sun. Food-related price tag: $700.

One issue in my first film, Ongoing Box, is sound, specifically people talking. Luckily, that film is more action than discussion. But for Food Systems, I knew I needed to upgrade my film audio gear. I purchased a binaural microphone (this is a mic that replicates how a human head hears. Check out instructional records from the 50s and 60s for more info) for $1,000 and a mid-tier lavalier microphone for $500.   

The remaining expenses can be qualified as expenses essential to attempting to make money. DVDs and BluRays for three films (Ch. 1 and 2 are on one disc, Ch. 3 will be on another) total $2,200. T-shirts cost $400 for manufacture and $200 for design, which I assume is a generous "friend price."

The total comes to $6,784. Surely, there are some additional gas and travel costs, but let's say those are negligible. 


Sadly, for me, I did not receive any grants for this project. I applied for $1,000 grants, $10,000 grants, and various points inbetween. But as I do often criticize the grant-based nature of local arts making, I suppose this is a suitable result. So, to fund these three films, I created a Kickstarter campaign, which netted $1,486 after Kickstarter fees. The rest is personal investment, culled from eight years of work at Highmark in various roles from Business Analyst 2 to Manager and a now occasional healthcare consultant. Since screening the film, I have netted $472 from three screenings (other screenings were free), made $80 on t-shirts, $7.98 on Vimeo sales, and $10 on Blurays. Note: I just got the Blurays in and only mentioned them to a handful of people. Here's hoping for the holiday DVD push!

I'm not sure if there is a message here. But I do hope it is at least interesting.

TOTAL INCOME: $2,055.98

Meals: $1,200
Music: $1,024
Travel: $1,360
Equipment: $1,500
T-shirts: $600
DVDs and Blurays: $1,100

NET INCOME: (-) $4,728.02