Big Ideas Winner Skylar Economy on Arts Entrepreneurship
Between semesters at UC Berkeley, Skylar Economy, independent filmmaker and co-founder and director of Photogénie Films, interned for CNN’s documentary unit. Although the experience gave her valuable filmmaking skills, the 26-year-old from San Diego said it also made her notice a gap in the stories large media companies tell.
“I pushed so hard for stories that mainstream media may not have been covering and they were always rejected,” said Economy, which made her realize her skills “could be used elsewhere.”
Journalists are taught to remain detached from their stories, Economy explained, yet when directing her own films, she hopes to do the opposite.
“It feels so weird to work with people, or to film them, and not have some kind of bond with them or try to help them outside of the film,” she explained.
Since graduating from UC Berkeley in 2016 with a BA in Media Studies, Economy has pursued a career in arts entrepreneurship, co-founding Photogénie Films and directing and producing documentary films that amplify the voices of marginalized communities.
“Film is such a huge tool… it has a story, a visual component and artistry,” said Economy on her quest to challenge audiences’ judgments or preconceptions about different communities.
Arts entrepreneurship, however, hasn’t been an easy career path. On top of running Photogénie Films, Economy works as a freelance filmmaker, balancing work that guarantees an income with her own creative projects.
“It’s about managing your freelance work, while not overdoing yourself and also being true to maintaining time for your own art as well,” said Economy, noting she often finds herself working long hours and weekends to find time for telling the stories she loves.
“When I’m highlighting people and the real issues they face, it makes me want to do it even more,” she explained. “I become even more energized to create a film.”
During her sophomore year, Economy took Richard Andrew’s arts entrepreneurship class, which she said, “Opened my eyes to everything that goes into an arts business” and inspired her to apply to the Big Ideas Contest. In 2016, she won the Contest for directing and producing “From Incarceration to to Education (FITE),” a documentary that depicts the experiences of formerly incarcerated UC Berkeley students.
That same year, the premiere of “FITE” on the UC Berkeley campus sold out, which Economy said exposed her to the power of filmmaking. After the premiere, audience members wanted to know how they could help the students she documented.
She explained that recently a community college student, who had previously served 19 years in prison and viewed the “FITE” screening on the UCLA campus in 2017, was recently admitted to UC Berkeley as a transfer student. The student told her viewing the film had inspired him to keep pursuing education. “That impact alone was absolutely incredible,” she said.
Since “FITE”, Economy has directed and produced several other short documentaries she sees missing from mainstream media. Currently, she is directing her first feature-length documentary “Lifers” about the Lifers Group, a hip-hop group that formed in the Rahway State Prison in the early 1990s. In 1992, the group became the world’s first hip-hop band to be nominated for a Grammy while incarcerated.
Economy explained the idea for the film was inspired by Maxwell Melvins, founder of the Lifers Group, who reached out to her after viewing “FITE”. She remembers Melvins told her, “What you did through your film, we do through our music.”
Economy said she and Melvins aim to show that inmates can defy odds and battle stigma. The producers of “Lifers” are currently nearing the end of their development phase and looking for funding.
Economy underscored that although being an arts entrepreneur, freelance journalist, and independent filmmaker isn’t always easy, if she “can make an impact with every single film that I do,” her goal will be achieved.