Tuesday, December 30, 2008
In 1990 (or '89, can't remember), I had a writing job in Mauritius (a small island somewhere between Africa and India) but my circuitous airline route took me through Copenhagen. On that leg of the journey, there were only two people in first-class - me and Liv Ullman. There was no mistaking her. And the crew of the Scandinavian Airlines flight were beside themselves with excitement to have such a huge international celebrity (and Scandinavian treasure) in their midst. So, a few hours (and several drinks) into the roughly 8 hour flight, I screwed up the courage to go over and say hello. I rose up and Ms. Ullman immediately looked at me from across the cabin with such panicked intensity that I almost sat back down. But I pushed through that impulse with drunken bravado and stumbled over to her - she watching me carefully the entire journey. It was just a few rows of seats, but it felt like 10 miles. When I finally neared her, she turned her gaze away, staring straight ahead, unblinking, at the back of the seat in front of her. I was probably uncomfortably close when I said "Ms. Ullman, it's my honor to introduce myself to you" and put out my hand. She didn't respond at all, continuing to stare straight ahead at the obviously more compelling seat back. "You are Liv Ullman, aren't you?", I continued falteringly. She abruptly swiveled her head toward me with the same panicked intensity (now even more intense) in her eyes and said, "You must be mistaken". She then turned her gaze just as abruptly back to the less threatening seat back. I was speechless for a beat or two as my inebriated brain tried to process her response. Finally, I managed to say, "Well, if you were Liv Ullman, I would simply tell you that I think you are an amazing actress and I can't thank you enough for your great work". She said nothing, the seat back still commanding her intense energy. I then turned and hobbled back to my seat, got stinking drunk and threw up for most of the last 2 hours of the trip.
That story is neither here nor there regarding the interview below, other than to detail my pathetic brush with Bergman's muse and illustrate an abject lesson in the self-debasing absurdity of fan worship - even if the object of adoration is a truly amazing artist. You don't have to literally embrace (and terrify) the person to appreciate their work. Granted, she didn't handle that situation in the most gracious manner possible, but why should she have to? She probably just wanted to relax on the flight and enjoy the back of the seat in front of her without some strange, drunken Negro stumbling over to touch the hem of her garment. Anyway, thought you might find that little ditty amusing.
Liv Ullman and Ingmar Bergman circa mid- 60's
Here's the interview:
THE FOLLOWING IS REPRINTED FROM AMERICAN CINEMATOPGRAPHER MAGAZINE (1972)
FILM AND CREATIVITY
Artistic creation has always, to me, manifested itself as hunger. I have acknowledged this need with a certain satisfaction but I have never, in all my life, asked myself why this hunger has arisen and craved appeasement. In recent years, as it diminishes and is transformed into something else, I have become anxious to find out the cause of my "artistic activity".
A very early childhood memory is my need to show off my achievements: skill in drawing, the art of tossing a ball against a wall, my first effort at swimming.
I remember I felt a very strong need to draw the attention of the grown-ups to these manifestations of my presence in the world, I felt I never got enough attention from my fellow men. So, when reality was no longer sufficient, I began to fantasize, entertain my playmates with tremendous stories about my secret adventures. They were embarrassing lies that hopelessly failed against the level-headed skepticism of the world. I finally withdrew and kept my dream world to myself. A young child wanting human contact and obsessed by his imagination and been hurt and transformed into a cunning and suspicious daydreamer.
But a daydreamer is not an artist outside his dreams.
The need to get people to listen, to correspond, to live in the warmth of a community was still there. It became stronger the more I became imprisoned in lonliness.
It is fairly obvious that the cinema became my means of expression. I made myself understood in a language that bypassed the words - which I lacked - and music - which I did not master - and painting, which left me indifferent. With cinema, I suddenly had the opportunity to communicate with the world around me in a language that is literally spoken from soul to soul in phrases that escape the control of the intellect in an almost voluptuous way.
With a child's repressed hunger, I threw myself into my medium and, for twenty years, I have indefatigably, and in a kind of frenzy, brought about dreams, mental experiences, fantasies, fits of lunacy, religious controversies and sheer lies. My hunger has been eternally new. Money, fame and success have been amazing but, at bottom, insignificant consequences of my rampagings. In saying this, I do not underestimate what I may perchance have achieved. I think it has had, and perhaps has, its importance. But security for me is that I can see the past in a new and less romantic light. Art as self-satisfaction can, of course, have its importance - especially for the artist.
Today, the situation is less complicated, less interesting - above all, less glamorous.
To be quite frank, I experience art - not only the film art - as being meaningless. By that, I mean that art no longer has the power and possibility to influence the development of our lives.
Literature, painting, music, film and theater beget and bring forth themselves. New mutations, new combinations arise and are destroyed. The movement seems - from the outside - nervously vital, the artists' magnificent zeal to project to themselves - and to a more and more distracted public - pictures of a world that no longer cares what they like or think. In a few places artists are punished. Art is considered dangerous and worth stifling and directing. On the whole, however, art is free, shameless, irresponsible. And, as I said, the movement is intense, almost feverish. It seems to me like a snakeskin full of ants. The snake itself has long been dead, eaten, deprived of its poison. But the skin moves, filled with meddlesome life.
If I now find that I happen to be one of these ants, I must ask myself whether there is any reason to continue the activity. The answer is in the affirmative. Although I think that the theater stage is a beloved old courtesan who has seen better days. Although the new music gives us the suffocating feeling of mathematical air rarification. Although painting and sculpture are sterile and languish in their own paralyzing freedom. Although literature has been transformed into a cairn of words without message or danger.
There are poets who never write poems because they form their lives as poems, actors who never appear on stage but play their lives as marvelous dramas. There are painters who never paint because they close their eyes and create the most beautiful paintings on the inside of their eyelids. There are filmmakers who live their films and would neer misuse their talents to materialize them in reality.
In the same way, I think people today can dispense with the theater because they exist in the middle of a drama, the different phases of which incessantly produce local tragedies. They do not need music because every minute their hearing is bombarded with veritable sound hurricans that have rached and passed the level of endurance. They do not need poetry because the new idea of the universe has transformed them into functional animals bound to interesting but, from a poetical point of view, unusuable problems of metabolic disturbance.
Man (as I experience myself and world around me) has made himself free, terribly and dizzingly free. Religion and art are kept alive for the sake of sentimentality, as a conventional politeness towards the past, a benevolent solicitude of leisure's increasingly nervous citizens. I am still talking about my own subjective vision. I hope, and am perfectly sure, that others have a more balanced and objective conception.
If I take all this tediousness into consideration and, in spite of everything, assert that I wish to continue to make art, it is for a very simple reason (I disregard the purely materal one).
The reason is curiosity. A boundless, insatiable, perpetual regeneration, an unbearable curiosity that drives me on, that never lets me rest, that completely replaces that past hunger for community.
I feel like a long-term prisoner suddenly confronted with the crashing, shrieking, snorting of life. I am seized by an ungovernable curiosity. I note, I observe, I keep my eyes open. Everything is unreal, fantastic, frightening or ridiculous. I catch a flying grain of dust - perhaps it is a film. What significance does it have? None at all. But I find it interesting, and consequently, it is a film. I wander round with my grain of dust and, in mirth or melancholy, I am preoccupied. I jostle among the other ants, together we accomplish a colossal task. The snakeskin moves.
This and only this is my truth. I do not ask that it shall be valid for anyone else, and as a consolation for eternity it is, of course, rather meager. As a basis for artistic activity in the coming years it is completely sufficient,...at least, for me.
To be an artist for one's own satisfaction is not always so agreeable. But it has one great advantage: the artist coexists with every living creature that lives only for its own sake. Altogether, it makes a pretty large brotherhood of existing egoistically on the hot, dirty earth under a cold, empty sky.
But in life today, the position of the artist has become more and more precarious; the artist has become a curious figure, a kind of performer or athlete who chases from job to job. His isolation, his now, almost holy individualism, his artistic subjectivity, can all too easily cause ulcers and neurosis. Exclusiveness becomes a curse that he euglogizes. The unusual is both his pain and his satisfaction.
It is possible that I have made a general rule from my own idiosyncrasies. But it is also possible that the conflict of responsibility has been intensified, and moral problems made so difficult, because of dependence on popular support and also due to unreasonable economic burdens.
Thursday, December 25, 2008
To put it in context, he talks about how he once made films out of a hunger, but then became compelled to make films simply out of extreme curiosity. However, he asserts that art - all art- has become meaningless. Yet, he still feels justified in being an artist because doing it for its own sake is perfectly acceptable to him. Then, he says:
"To be an artist for one's own satisfaction is not always so agreeable. But it has one great advantage: the artist coexists with every living creature that lives only for its own sake. Altogether, it makes a pretty large brotherhood of existing egoistically on the hot, dirty earth under a cold, empty sky."
Tuesday, December 23, 2008
"...ONE FOR ALL!"
"Unus pro omnibus, omnes pro uno" is a Latin phrase that means "One for all, all for one" in English. In its inverted state, it is known as being the motto of Alexandre Dumas' Three Musketeers as well as the Three Stooges. Also, it is apparently the traditional motto of Switzerland. Who knew?
It is also the core concept behind Filmmakers Alliance - actually, collectivism, in general. All this is obvious to anyone who has ever been a meaningful part of Filmmakers Alliance. But what continually confounds me is how difficult it is for many other independent filmmakers to see how powerful this concept is to them in their own filmmaking lives.
Well, in truth, most indie filmmakers seem to have no problem grasping half of the concept. "All For One....Me!" seems to be the defining modification they've made to the concept, essentially transforming it into a complete energetic contradiction. Now, it's not that this self-absorbed approach to filmmaking is without benefit. Films do need a sort of authorship (although I do not fully embrace the "auteur theory"), a guiding aesthetic vision. And sometimes these more self-absorbed types have a determination, drive and focus that defies limitation.
On the downside, such self-servitude can also defy imagination - limiting creative vision and obscuring awareness of that which doesn't immediately seem to serve them. As I've said ad nauseum, filmmaking is a collaborative experience. It is a community endeavor - a community of artisans and/or creative professionals brought together in service of a common creative purpose. Everybody brings something to the table that adds to the development and realization of the film...and thus, the potential success of the film. And that communal energy is even more present in the exhibition of the film. What is an audience if not a community brought together for a singular, shared experience. But the concept of communalism is still, nonetheless, difficult for many independent filmmakers to grasp. To them, they are making the film and everyone else is simply "helping". They write in a vacuum, edit in a vacuum and, at times, aggressively discourage creative contributions from anyone else. And of course, when they are not working on their own films, they spend precious little time being in service to any other filmmaker. In the end, people are only useful to them when they need them - in producing the film (cast and crew) and showing it (audiences).
I know this all sounds very negative, but I'm simply trying to shed some light on a challenging truth that is absent from much discourse in the wake of Ted Hope's amazing state of the union address on independent film (reprinted in this issue), and the subsequent discussions/arguments about the "death" of Independent film. Of course, it is difficult to explore any discussions about independent film when there is no longer any consensus agreement on what "independent" film actually means. But by any commonly-embraced definition, I strongly believe that independent film cannot, and will not, ever die. As long as there is a single film that displays fresh creative energy and/or was made without regard for ANY institutional agenda, Independent Film is alive. And those kinds of films will simply never cease to exist.
But sadly, those films are, and have always been, an anomaly. There is not a culture that supports that kind of filmmaking. They are made despite the prevailing filmmaking paradigms, not because of them. So, on another level, I couldn't agree more with Ted Hope's assertion that "Indie Film" has never truly existed. The term "Independent Film" was once a perfectly benign catch-all phrase to describe films made outside of the commercial mainstream until it was cleverly co-opted and bastardized by that commercial mainstream. Ironically, it is now that very same commercial mainstream announcing Independent Film's death because they can't figure out a way to make money from it consistently.
But maybe those commercial mainstream folk did us a favor by trampling all over the term "independent film". Because, as Hope says, filmmaking on any level has never been truly "independent". It is NOT independent of cinematic grammar. It is NOT independent of cinematic history. It is NOT independent of creative collaboration. It is NOT independent of technical/practical support and innovation. It is NOT independent of audience reaction. It is NOT independent of word-of-mouth and other marketing support. Even by commercial mainstream's bastardized definition, Independent Film was NOT EVER independent of the foolhardy dreams of fame and success (and mainstream validation). No, "Independent Film" is a sexy phantom. This is why Hope prefers to eschew the term completely and use the term Truly Free Film.
Whatever term you use, the concept people like Ted Hope are striving to maintain and the thing for which they dream of creating a supportive infrastructure, is nothing more, or less, than Singular Creative Expression - or, in a word, originality. And that is a word that is far, far more difficult to achieve than it is to bandy about in everyday conversation. That is because, as Hope says, originality demands a freedom of thought that bares great risk and responsibility. It also demands a slightly counter-intuitive process. Meaning, to experience true freedom, originality and independence, we have to acknowledge and, in key ways, embrace their contradictions - connectivity, familiarity and dependence.
It is our responsibility as filmmakers to understand those things to which we've connected ourselves so that we can know which things/ideas we need to let go and which we need to hold onto for dear life. It is our responsibility as filmmakers to know what exists around us and what has come before it so that we can know our place in it all and in what direction we must evolve creatively (and otherwise). It is our responsibility as filmmakers to recognize and appreciate how much we depend on the larger community to sustain us on nearly all levels so that we can clearly see the affect on the whole of each individual contribution - especially our own.
Of course, this last point is the one I am repeatedly striking home with this column. And it is one Mr. Hope also strikes repeatedly in his address. Our independence demands our absolute dependence on each other - literally lending a hand (or strong back), challenging each other creatively, sharing information and resources, providing connections, introducing tech innovations to each other, banding together to protect the power and possibilities of the internet, watching and even buying (shocking!) each others' films and much more I've certainly overlooked or have yet to imagine. There is no one to do it for us. And you are short-sheeting yourself if you want to just grab what you can and contribute nothing. We are living in a time when new technologies have made the possibilities limitless for filmmakers wanting to do truly independent, truly free, truly original work. To realize that potential, you must take on its risks and responsibilities. Which means asking yourself the key question: "How am I contributing to the future I want to create?". Hopefully, the answer will always lead you to the second half of FA's rallying cry "....One For All!"
Monday, December 22, 2008
Diary of a Country Priest by Robert Bresson
Mouchette by Robert Bresson,
Winter Light by Ingmar Bergman
Wild Strawberries by Ingmar Bergman
Persona by Ingmar Bergman
Nazarin by Luis Buñuel
City Lights by Charlie Chaplin
Ugetsu by Kenji Mizoguchi
Seven Samurai by Akira Kurosawa
Woman in the Dunes by Hiroshi Teshigahara
Tuesday, December 16, 2008
Now, on a very practical and emotional level, I was kinda devastated about the funding disappointment, but I don't feel too much about the festival rejection. I've been around long enough to know that no one festival - including Sundance - holds the key to filmmaking success and means absolutely nothing in terms of artistic development and productivity. However, the filmmakers I work with don't necessarily share this perspective and it is their disappointment that touches me - and to which I want this blog to speak.
Disappointment is a chronic reality in all creative endeavors, but I would argue that it is particularly endemic to filmmaking since there are just so many opportunities to be disappointed - considering the amount of people and elements involved in the filmmaking process, including raising money, casting actors, securing crew and locations, getting into festivals, distributing the film, etc., etc. It's hard not to want the best in all aspects of the process and feel extreme disappointment when we have to settle for less.
Also, in a creative endeavor so tied to our dreams and visions, it is impossible for them to only exist for us creatively. They exist in all aspects of our thinking/feeling and feed our expectations. And, of course, expectation is the main prerequisite for disappointment.
So how do we deal with disappointment since it is clearly inescapable? Is there a way to minimize it? Or is it possible to experience it fully and use it beneficially? Well, I think there are two necessary ways to guide your reaction to disappointment if you want to benefit from it.
The first way to guide your reaction is to think clearly about the root of any disappointment. And, clearly, at the deepest root of disappointment is ego. I've talked extensively about ego and its involvement in the creative process so I hope you realize by now I'm not just referring to diva-like egos. I'm talking about normal, healthy ego - that necessary part of our DNA that drives survival instincts. That instinct to survive has evolved with modern life and now also drives us in the work we do and the things we create. Because on a deep level, we still tie anything that is profoundly important to us to that survival gene. It's natural, then, that any perceived threat to what is most important to us, will create upset. But survival instincts, in any form, are very self-centered instincts and thus the negative connotations around ego. When we are disappointed, we experience a self-centered upset that the world did not bend to our expectation of it. You've probably heard the saying "Men plan, God laughs" - which is just a way of saying our plans and expectations, even when related to survival, are very self-serving and not always in sync with the life's bigger picture.
Nonetheless, in some circumstances, disappointment touches the survival instinct much more directly than in other circumstances. For me, these recent disappointments emerge from a number of different core concerns and expectations. On a basic level, anxiety about how to manage/support FA begins to take hold. FA is my passion and lifeblood, hence, a true survival concern emerges. And filmmakers may feel the same thing when expectations for their films don't pan out. There's the sense that the film will go unseen and unappreciated, threatening the filmmakers ability to earn a livelihood from this work. But, of course, in other circumstances, disappointment touches us much closer to our diva-like ego, where everything related to us, no matter how inconsequential, feels as essential as survival. Basically, we believe the world revolves around our every emotion. We call that "Filmmaker Boy/Girl Syndrome". A common "disease" afflicting filmmakers where they embrace the delusion that they and their film are (or should be) at the center of everyone's universe.
I suspect a film's success or failure touches both ends of the ego spectrum - from basic survival to complete self-absorption/desperate need for attention. However, in productively processing disappointment, it doesn't really matter from what perspective we are experiencing it. From any perspective, there at two key things to keep in mind when guiding your reaction to disappointment. 1. It is ego-based. 2. Ego is a tool, not a state of being (unless you choose to make it so). It exists in us to drive us to do the things we need to do to survive. Therefore, disappointment, as a product of ego, can be a tool rather than a state of being. And a tool is used to accomplish things and create opportunities. So, in this little equation of mine, disappointment = opportunity. If we allow our egos and disappointments to be a state of being, we will be devastated. But if we see them as the tools that they are, they can provide energy, ambition and motivation....and, hence, opportunity.
The second important guide to managing disappointment in a positive way is to fully understand what our survival ego is trying to sustain. It is not our festival or financial success. Nor is it our industry prestige, nor any other tangential product of our creativity. It is creativity, itself. The survival ego is there to sustain our very lives. But, as modern, creative types who no longer must fear being torn apart by wild animals ("Grizzly Man" aside) the life our survival instinct now fights to sustain are those things which are core to our being. And that, my fellow filmmakers, is our CREATIVE PROCESS. Specifically, the making of films. Armed with this perspective, know that your disappointment is not about not getting something - funding, a location, a cast member, into a festival, accolades, whatever. It is about the threat to your creative process. And that is a threat you can address. It is a threat you can successfully squelch by being and staying creative.
So, allow yourself to feel disappointment. But don't live in it. Use it. Remember that it is there to protect your creative process. So you must continue creating. Know that is not a state of being, but a tool to motivate you and fill you with creative ambition. Keep striving to make your films more skillfully, more artfully, deeper, richer, funnier, whatever. This is what your disappointment can allow you to do. This is why disappointment is an opportunity. And,...if you choose to let it be so,...a gift.
Thursday, November 20, 2008
Yes, that's the big question. How do we develop ideas, concepts and/or stories in a way that supports our goals for the finished film?
Well, there is an approach that was offered to me by my talented fellow filmmaker/writer and creative collaborator, Sean Hood. It is a similar, but more structured, approach to the one I've been using for many years. I'll call it the "Bucket System" (not to be confused with that dismal film "The Bucket List") - although he probably has much more appropriate name for it.
And it is simply this: Once you are confident your idea, concept or story is in-sync with your filmmaking goals, you immediately start aggregating assests (to steal from internet lingo). Meaning, instead of sitting in front of a blank page scratching your head trying to figure out how to begin writing and what specific things you need to do flesh out your goals for the film, you start accumulating bits and pieces obsessively and without judgement and you simply throw them into a "bucket". Sean's bucket is an old school writing tablet - y'know those ones from grade school with a hard cover that is black with white speckles and have lined paper inside. But that bucket can be anything - a notepad, your computer/laptop, a voice recorder, cell phone - anything. Sean handwrites ideas, thoughts, impressions, pieces of dialogue - practically ANYTHING that crosses his mind. You should do this without judgement and without hesitation. It may or may not be specifically relevant to your idea, concept or story. At this point, that's not important. What's important is that you allow yourself to freely generate smaller ideas that might possibly support the larger idea. Let it be stream of consciousness - dreams, images, conversations you've had with others (or yourself), memories, wild thoughts, etc., etc. Dump it ALL in your "bucket".
During this period, It's really important to open your mind. Meaning, be very aware of things around you and how they make you feel - visuals, conversations, arguments, smells, moods, whatever. Also, be aware of your thoughts, ideas and dreams. It's just really important to be very "awake" during this period so that you mind is fertile and creating lots of assets for your bucket(s).
Of course, this is a good time to find sources of inspiration, as well. Art galleries, concerts, plays, hikes, music, books - anything that gets your mind and creative energy working. And whatever emerges for you goes into the bucket(s).
Once a week - or as often as you feel inclined - go through your bucket and start picking out the things that are relevant to your idea, concept and/or story. If you are writing in a tablet, tear out those pieces and put them in a separate folder, then type them into a separate document. If you are talking into a voice recorder, transcribe those pieces into a written document. If you have ideas on a computer, create a new document and re-type them in. Don't just cut and paste. The re-creating of the bucket things into a new document process always breeds another level of fresh ideas.
And do not trash the bucket items you do not use. They may be meaningful to you down the line in some way....or on another project. Keep them so you can return to them at some point in the future.
After you've done this for awhile, your idea, concept and/or story will begin to take shape. How? It just does, trust me. If not, just keep adding to your bucket. But at some point, those bucket items will start to form the structural pillars of your project.
From here, there are many things you can do to start organizing your "assets" into a script (or conceptual plan if you are just working off of a concept). Sean has his specific method that he will share with you in this blog at some point. For me, it is important to then write a treatment. Not one of those long, drawn out 40 page treatments. Just something that clarifies for me the visceral trajectory of the project. I usually sketch out a 5 to 10 page treatment. For me the treatment is the most important single document. Even more so than the script. The script will have a lot of specifics around which we plan the shooting, but those are all subject to change or deletion at any point. The treatment embodies the core elements of the project and helps to keep my goals for he project clear.
Finally, I start writing the script. Although Sean has introduced me to yet another step that I have yet to try, but about which I am very excited. Rather than jump right to the script, he suggests writing down scene headings. Such as:
INT. - DENNY'S APARTMENT - NIGHT
Nothing more than this. You are simply starting to chart out what happens and when. You may not use many of the scene headings you create (because you may find you don't need the scene). Or they may change order in all kinds of way. But like a rough draft, it is a beginning blueprint for the script (which, in turn, is a blueprint for the film). After this, you finally write the script (if it is indeed a script you are writing).
I promise you, if you take all of these steps, you will be far more productive and create a project that is far more satisfying to you than if you simply cough up an idea and then jump straight into trying to write or make a film. But here I must remind you of something by harkening back to my previous blog. Creating the Goal List is an essential part of the process. I cannot begin to express to you how well it pays off to do that work - until you yourself have done it and completed a film.
So, in summary, here's the steps I've outlined in Parts 1 and 2:
1. Start with you idea, concept and/or story. Even a germ of the idea.
2. Create your list of goals for the eventual film. Don't forget practical goals - like a goal of making the film with money you can realistically raise.
3. Compare/contrast your goals to your idea, concept or story and put them in sync with each other.
4. Start filling your "bucket" or buckets.
5. Select the things out of your bucket(s) that are relevant to your project and put them into a separate written document.
6. Write a Treatment.
7. Create Scene Headings.
8. Write that script (if you are writing a script).
Lastly, ignore all of this if you are a cinematic genius or if you have your own successful system that allows you to churn out amazing projects.
In any case, get busy developing that idea, concept and/or story. Feature or short. Fiction or Documentary. Live action or animation. Doesn't matter. The process is the same and it pays off just as well with any type of film you choose to do.
Just go do it.
Tuesday, November 18, 2008
How do we make sure we are working with an idea, concept or story that truly serves our talent and ambitions? Well, there's no simple answer to that question, unfortunately. Why? Because there are a few variables involved related to what you are trying to achieve with your film.
Therefore, I won't even pretend to present any definitive answers, but I do have some thoughts and approaches we should consider about our ideas and how we might realize them before investing a ton of blood, sweat and tears on a project.
First, I believe you must address the variables and answer the main question - What are you trying to achieve with your film? Meaning, what are you trying to express/explore energetically, thematically and/or aesthetically? There is rarely one answer to this question. In fact, one answer could potentially limit the creative breadth of your film. Think about your film on a lot of levels - energetically, structurally, thematically, aesthetically - and then list all your goals for each level. If the list is sparse, you may be underachieving. If the list is gargantuan, you may be over-reaching. But you'll never know as clearly as you will if you just list them all then sit back and look at that list. If you are doing a comedy your list may look like this (Example A):
1. To make people laugh.
Or like this (Example B):
1. To make people laugh.
2. To create dynamic visual puns.
3. To mimic the comedic energy of an early Chaplin film.
4. To explore my personal relationship issues.
5. To show humans as the bumbling pawns in a game we can't possibly understand.
6. To expose the narcissism of the concept of the Judeo-Christian God.
or like this (Example C):
1. To make people laugh.
2. To make people cry.
3. To push the audience to the edge of a mental breakdown.
4. To create dynamic visual puns.
5. To create visuals such as the world has never seen.
6. To mimic the comedic energy of an early Chaplin film.
7. To mimic the hypnotic energy of a Tarkovsky film.
8. To show humans as the bumbling pawns in a game we can't possibly understand.
9. To show humans as the compassionate masters of the universe.
10. To expose the narcissism of the concept of the Judeo-Christian God.
11. To create a completely new myth of God.
12. To end wars forever.
13. To reduce global warming.
14. To bring prosperity to the planet.
15. To discover life on other planets.
16. To expose all of my personal issues and get revenge on every single asshole who's ever f^%$#ed me over!
Obviously, Example A may be a bit too sparse to do a truly great film (or it may not, if you have a great minimalist approach). It could still be very funny, but it might soon be forgotten. Think "Dumb and Dumber" versus, say, "Annie Hall". And Example C is, of course, ridiculously over-reaching. But even as I say that, I laugh at how many filmmakers actually believe they can create something almost as ambitious as Example C and usually wind up creating nothing more than an incomprehensible mess. Now, I'm not saying Example B is perfect, because there is no perfect example. Simply that which works for you, the filmmaker, and is realistically achievable.
The next step, then, after you've created your list, is to examine it in relation to your idea, concept or story. How well can your idea, concept or story serve your list of goals for the film? Of course, if your list is short, it demands less from your central idea, concept or story. But, again, keep in mind that great films usually work on multiple levels.
If you are a genius, you don't have to make a list like this. Your ability to conceive things cinematically that work on many levels will probably be intuitive and not demand conscious thought about any of this. But I'm certainly no cinematic genius and I really don't know of any personally. What I know are filmmakers who have genius inside of them that is buried under a bunch of ego, mental static, inexperience and misinformation. This kind of work is simply a tool for digging into that latent genius.
Some of this comparison work is a no-brainer. If one of your goals is to create stunning visuals but your concept is to shoot an entire film in a single take of two talking heads having dinner and chatting, then you either have to re-conceive your film to match that goal or eliminate the goal. OR, stretch your creative muscles and try to discover a way to shoot an entire film in a single take of two talking heads having dinner and chatting that is indeed stunning visually. I wouldn't try it, but it might be possible. You should figure that out, however, before you commit any more energy to the project.
Some of the comparison work is a bit more challenging. But it may force you to start filling out your idea, concept or story in a way that will support your goal or goals. Let's say you create a list similar to Example B above. Your central idea is a relationship story told as a detective/mystery story. Meaning, the relationship is like a living being and it's demise is like the death of that living being. So, you want to use a detective/mystery paradigm to uncover the "truth" of that death and unmask the culprit or culprits. Given that, here are your goals, again:
1. To make people laugh - can still definitely do this if you have a penchant for humor. A tongue-in-cheek approach to the detective paradigm could work. Lots of funny relationship vignettes and contemporary life absurdities to explore.
2. To create dynamic visual puns - I don't even know what this means, but I put it on the list anyway. Let's just say we want to use the visuals to generate a lot of humor. Totally doable.
3. To mimic the comedic energy of an early Chaplin film - this one may be doable with some inventiveness, but will it really serve the tone of the film? My gut tells me no. I'll let this one go and try to come up with some other form of comedic energy - although I may explore it for a vignette, if appropriate.
4. To explore my personal relationship issues - easily done, of course.
5. To show humans as the bumbling pawns in a game we can't possibly understand - more challenging, but totally supportable with this concept.
6. To expose the narcissism of the concept of the Judeo-Christian God - also doable, but challenging. The key would be to integrate this thematic idea into the story/humor rather than club people over the head with this as a "message".
So, once you are confident your idea, concept or story is in-sync with your goals for the film, you need to start asking the more difficult question: How? It's fine to believe that you can expose the narcissism of the concept of a Judeo-Christian God in a relationship comedy told as a detective story if that thematic premise is properly integrated. But you won't really know if that's possible until you start thinking specifically about how you are going to achieve it.
I won't give an example because I have no f%$#@ing idea how one might achieve that given my relationship/detective story example. Suffice it to say that I believe God as an extreme narcissist is a funny concept to me. Naturally, I would then need to figure out what circumstances in the story will allow me to explore that theme inobtrusively (or conversely, so obtrusively it's hilarious).
Like all creative work, there is often a trial-and-error process in developing ideas, so don't censor yourself too much. And don't put too much pressure on yourself to detail the "how" part of achieving your creative goals. Just make sure you are confident they can be done with your chosen idea, concept or story. If it doesn't work, then you always change things, of course. You either change the concept or the goal (maybe a little of both) - depending on what the priority is for you.
Alright. This is a good place to stop. Look out for Part 2 - A detailed process for how to take the next steps in developing your idea/concept/story.
Sunday, November 2, 2008
Surrounded by so much amazing technology, I can never help but think about how little all of it means if it isn't servicing amazing creativity. I went to the first HD Expo many years ago and it really has evolved nicely....and professionally. It's a really nice trade show, especially for tech heads. But I'm not a tech head. Although I'm deeply impressed by all of this cool stuff, I'm not at all interested in the details of how they work. Can this stuff dependably create the images I'd like to create without causing a post-production nightmare? If yes, great. I'm satisfied. Don't need to know anymore than that. If I didn't have sponsors to chat up, I'd be long gone. But it is indeed a nice show for tech heads.
However, it is a welcome break from the mental intensity I created for myself over the last several weeks. I had to give a HUGE presentation to a HUGE foundation as the last step in receiving support from them for the global launch of Filmmakers Alliance. In relation to what was at stake, it was by far the hugest presentation of my (or FA's) life. And, unfortunately, I held that awareness in my head for a month straight. Luckily, it motivated me to prepare obsessively. I created the presentation, revised it, combed through details, revised some more, researched ideas, revised it more, showed it to people, revised more, wrote a script for it, rehearsed it 5,193 times (generating just as many versions of the script) and fretted that I should have done it 6,000 times. With a lot of great feedback from people, I arrived in front of the Board of Trustees YESTERDAY with all of it locked inside of me....and, finally, it had to come out.
Did I choke? No. Actually, I think I kinda nailed it. Doesn't mean the money is in our hands, but I did my part, I believe. Of course it is only their opinion that matters in terms of receiving the grant, but my opinion matters in terms of me not feeling like an abject failure. And today, I feel quite the opposite. I wasn't aware how much I'd twisted up my insides about this thing until it was over. And now that they are untwisting, I feel like I'm taking my first breaths in almost a month. And everything smells and tastes good.
And what if I sucked? I have before. I've met with sponsors and investors and other people who could significantly impact my life and/or our organization. And, at times, I sucked badly. I was emotionally distracted or unprepared or ate something that didn't agree with me....or all of the above. Did it make me less of a person? Did it destroy my confidence? No. Actually, those moments always tend to make me more determined.
So why did I have such a reaction to this presentation? Well, partially, it was indeed the size of what's at stake. Also, the reputation/prestige of the foundation. Also, the person who set up the presentation was counting on me to prove I belonged in the room. Well, she never actually conveyed that energy to me - she is very sweet, smart and considerate. I created that thought myself - but it kinda makes sense, doesn't it? This was a big opportunity that the foundation simply doesn't have the time to just hand out like candy. But we were given the opportunity and we were given it mostly on a her faith in me and what we're doing. Well, true or not, I used that thought to put a lot of pressure on myself to be equal to her faith. I'm certain there are probably deeper psychological issues at play that allowed me to torture myself about it for month, but I'm not inclined to investigate that in this particular forum. It is important, however, for us filmmakers to privately check in with ourselves in regard to how we behave when key connections and/or opportunities are presented to us.
Finally, the timing of the presentation added to the intensity of things. There's been lots of change, both for FA and for me personally, over the last couple of years and this support would provide a dynamic sense of focus...and purpose. It really is time for both me and FA to move to the next level in the work we do together and I'm eager to make that happen.
But it's out of my hands, now. And I'm fine with that. In the meantime, I will busy myself with other projects, such as writing my new feature "Hurricane Jane", helping finish up Kerry Prior's "The Revenant", continuing to self-distribute "The Dogwalker" and support the myriad of other projects with which I'm involved to one degree or another.
But one really cool project I'm excited about is Lauren Bon's "Silver and Water" - which enters its second phase of shooting in a little over a week. I'm the producer, of this unique, amazing and ambitious project...well, sort of. The project doesn't follow traditional filmmaking paradigms. It is very fluid and organic and I'm enjoying that. Lauren is an extremely intelligent, talented and accomplished artist who works in many different mediums and has now turned her attention to film....as an art form, or course. Her work tends to be related to cultural, environmental or social impact issues. Naturally, this pleases me immensely. Through her, the project is a marriage of aesthetic ambition and social impact. I've committed myself recently to only being involved with films that aspire to at least one or the other. A project that aspires to both in one film couldn't make me happier.
Anyway, I'm on a post-presentation high, so I can't write anymore. I'm going to go work out....or work on my other stuff...or fix my roof....or wash my car....or re-landscape my backyard.....or just lay in it and smell the flowers.....
Tuesday, October 28, 2008
We at FA urge filmmakers to do the same. If it isn't your life or story, it should at least be a story/life you to which you feel a personal connection. And if it is complete fantasy, hopefully it is a reflection of things that exist deep inside you. Because if it isn't personal for you, it won't be personal for us (the audience). It is important to know, however, that sometimes, that can get you into trouble.
Take this blog, for instance. I very much want it to be an open and honest reflection of my life as a filmmaker and of all the things I've learned in that life (or as much as possible). But it is not my life. It is merely a creative (I hope) and subjective reflection of certain elements of my life. That's what all art is (not that my blog is art, but it is a creative endeavor of sorts). Art can never be truly authentic unless there was some possible way to allow the audience to actually live the life you have created for them. But that isn't possible. So, what we are actually creating is the feeling of authenticity. Not authenticity itself.
In my blog, there is indeed the a sense of authenticity, but there is also plenty of creative subjectivity that is expressed through through the thoughts and impressions that form my particular perspective on the world. And that perspective is not always kind to the focus of my musings. Quite frankly, it is sometimes filled with entertaining (again, I hope) dysfunction. And, finally, there are actual human beings (not characters in a movie) that are being described - and sometimes insulted - by that particular perspective.
I kinda trashed Wes Anderson's "The Darjeeling Limited" in a blog, then met him briefly at a screening afterward. Some of the way in which I trashed the film was also a bit unkind to him personally - though certainly not nasty or abusive. It was simply not something he'd be overjoyed to read, even if he found it useful feedback. But I don't know him at all personally. And what little bit I did see, seemed very nice. When I met him, he was as gracious and friendly as if he'd never even read my blog. That's because he didn't. Let's face it, nobody reads this blog except you.....or so I thought.
Awhile back, I did one of my "Day in the life..." or "Week in the life..." or maybe even "Month in the life...." pieces (soon I'll be doing a "Year in the life..."). In it, I made a passing reference to an encounter with a writer/filmmaker who also happened to be a porn actress. It was unkind and dismissive. She read the blog. She was not happy. She sent me an email to express her understandable displeasure.
My initial reaction was one of surprise - first, that she'd actually read it (honestly, I was also flattered), but secondly, that she would be upset by it since I had absolutely no objectivity about what I'd written. So, I went back and re-read it, putting myself in her place. And it was easy to feel the full impact of her upset.
Naturally, I apologized. I also tried to explain myself. I made the point that I am communicating things from a particular perspective and it is not necessarily "true-to-life". The people I identify in my blog, in essesence, become "characters" - even if they are real live persons - that represent ideas and issues I face in my life as a filmmaker. Somehow, none of that made her feel better. I'm not surprised.
The fact is, I failed to acknowledge that she truly is a creative being, even if that creativity is a bit raw and restless. And it is clear that she is attempting, through that creative work, to reach beyond the perceived limitations and imposed judgements surrounding her life choices. And she reached out to me as earnestly as she knows how. And although I responded to her genuinely in our email exchange, I used her as nothing more than creative fodder for my blog. And I did it with a bit of dismissive indignation.
So, naturally, she was hurt by what I'd written. For that, I am truly sorry. She also feels crushed by my perceived lack of support. For that, I do not take responsibility. Because, in the end, I have to say that I still stand behind what I wrote, even while feeling sorry for the pain it has caused her. And I say this knowing full well she will be reading this. In fact, I'm sending her a link to it. So, let me explain that comment, for her benefit, as well as yours. Although I doubt what I am about to say will make her feel any better.
My blog is a work of creative energy that demands creative choices. And sometimes those choices are tough. I certainly don't feel good about making anyone feel bad, but that was not my intention. It was an unfortunate consequence of a desire to express an authentic perception. The fact is, I was struck by what I perceived as dysfunction in my original encounter with this filmmaker. It is not a objective judgement, just a subjective perception. And that is what I wanted to convey in my blog. She thus became a "character" in my blog, representing a larger thematic idea.
It was not a very "human" choice....more of an intellectual one. And, upon reflection, not the best choice. Not because it hurt her (although I am truly sorry for that), but because a "human" choice is always a better one creatively. That's because humans are far more complex and interesting than any theme or thesis my limited intellect chooses to support. Had I mentioned that she was indeed a creative being and had indeed reached out to me earnestly, it would have been much more complex and emotionally affecting.
But that would have been for another (better) blog. This one was what it was - a brief paragraph about something that happened to me during the course of a week. And I conveyed what struck me most about that encounter. Does this mean I don't support her creativity and creative work? Does this mean I don't respect her feelings? Absolutely not. I do respect her as a person and as a creative being. But I do feel that there is some damage in her psyche (not that there isn't in mine) and it struck me as a microcosm of a much larger issue in the filmmaking universe - one that I chose to convey as I did.
And I don't want to run from that perspective. I don't feel that I "branded" her publicly as I never betrayed, nor will betray, her identity. But I did identify her in a way she could clearly recognize. And, given that she's identified herself, I guess I wish she could step back and really "see" herself or, at least, see the personal and larger affect of a proposition such as the one she'd offered. And then, if she so chooses, stand behind it fully. My reaction has no bearing whatsoever on her creative energy. She is a meaningful creative being no matter how I might respond to her approach to soliciting creative support. She is a meaningful creative being no matter how "damaged" or "dyfunctional" I may perceive her. She needs to know that and not need me to tell her that.
I say this because it is true for all of us. We need to stand up for our work and our choices. We may learn from them and make different choices in the future (hopefully). But we should struggle not to be offended by the reactions of others - be they friends, family, critics, programmers or...bloggers. They do not and should not affect who we are in our essence. My reaction should not affect what this filmmaker needs to do creatively. And I can honestly say, that as sorry as I am, her reaction will not affect what I feel I need to do. That reaction is the price we all might pay at one time or another for "writing what we know".
Tuesday, October 14, 2008
This week-end, pioneers at the forefront of change in cinema, video, games, media and technology are coming together to share ideas, insights, and innovations. The focus is on new tools, new distribution channels, and new rules.
The format of the gathering will be experimental: rather than a traditional conference, short talks and demos, "fireside chats," and roundtables will spark a dynamic series of overlapping conversations.
All this will happen at UC Berkeley's renowned Pacific Film Archive theater over this coming Friday and Saturday. It's a conversation that will bring together media-makers and technologists to share experiences, discuss, debate, and map out the future together.
Some of the topics they'll touch on, and the people who'll lead the conversation, are listed here. But we also want to invite you to suggest other topics ... ones that you want to see added or address yourself.
Just added to the speaker list: Legendary independent film producer Ted Hope and Dean Valentine, CEO of Comedy.com, former CEO of UPN and President of Walt Disney Television.
And: Event organizers Tiffany Shlain and Scott Kirsner talk about where The Conversation might go:
We hope you'll join us later this week...
Actually, the below is good info for ANY filmmaker...
Reprinted with the generous permission of Scott Kirsner. Scott Kirsner’s recommendations from the ITVS Digital Initiative: Report from the Field:
Top Five Connection-Creating Strategies
- 1. Start a blog or create a bare-bones website to generate awareness of what you’re up to; this can be a way for potential collaborators, sources, funders, and DVD-buyers to get in touch with you early on.
- 2. Participate and post in existing online communities related to your film’s topic.
- 3. Maintain a database of everyone who you’ve interviewed or who has offered help during production, so you can let them know when the film is finally finished.
- 4. Consider ways to allow interested parties to get involved with your filmmaking process; some filmmakers have “open-sourced” their research, having others contribute by shooting far-off locations and interviews, and even some editing.
- 5. Think about posting some clips/excerpts from your rough cut on video-sharing sites to begin building an online presence for your film. Provide links back to the film’s site or to your blog.
Top Five Marketing and Promotion Strategies
- 1. Leverage the lists and websites of membership organizations related to the topic of your film to communicate with viewers who may be interested in seeing/purchasing it.
- 2. Connect with bloggers who cover the issues in your film, offer them interviews, review copies of the DVD or embeddable clips from the film.
- 3. Collect email addresses (and ideally ZIP codes too) from the visitors to your film’s website; you can notify them when the film is playing in theaters or on TV, or when it becomes available on DVD or as a download.
- 4. Post clips on video-sharing sites or social networking sites, with links back to the film’s main site; this can help introduce it to new audiences.
- 5. Consider allowing Internet users to remix or “mash up” parts of your film, or create their own trailers for it. This adds their perspective to the work and, ideally, helps it reach a broader audience.
Top Five Distribution Strategies
- 1. Make sure DVDs are available when audiences are most interested in the film: during the theatrical run, during festival screenings and at the time of the first TV broadcast.
- 2. Consider producing at least two versions of the DVD, at two different price points: one for general audiences and a second version for educational/group use, with discussion guides and supplemental material.
- 3. Carefully evaluate distribution offers that wrap up digital rights with theatrical or home video rights. What will the distributor do in the near-term to generate revenues with those rights?
- 4. Focus digital distribution efforts on outlets with already-established audiences (such as Apple’s iTunes or Amazon.com’s Unbox); if working with a newer outlet, negotiate for premium placement on the site and additional promotion.
- 5. Whether selling DVDs or digital downloads/rentals with a business partner, insist on regular reporting of sales figures and the ability to audit them.
Tuesday, October 7, 2008
A THOUSAND PHOENIX RISING
How The New Truly Free Filmmaking Community Will Rise From Indie's Ashes
by Ted Hope (September 27, 2008)
I can't talk about the "crisis" of the indie film industry. There is no crisis. The country is in crisis. The economy is in crisis. We, the filmmakers, aren't in crisis.
The business is changing, but for us -- us who are called Indie Filmmakers -- that's good that the business is changing. Filmmaking is an incredible priviledge and we need to accept it as such -- and accept the full responsibility that comes with that priviledge.
The proclamations of Indie Film's demise are grossly exaggerated. How can there be a "Death Of Indie" when Indie -- real Indie, True Indie -- has yet to even live?
Yes, there's a profound paradigm shift, and that shift is the coming of true independence. The hope of this new independence is being threatened even before it has arrived. Are we going to fight for our independence and can we even shoulder the responsibility that independence requires? That is: will we band together and work for our communal needs? Are we ready to leave dreams of stardom and wealth behind us?
When someone says "Indie is dead," they are talking about the state of the 'Indie Film Business,' as opposed to what are actually the films themselves. They can say "The sky is falling" because for the last fifteen years, the existing power base in the film industry has focused on films fit for the exisiting business model, as opposed to ever truly concentrating on creating a business model for the films that filmmakers want to make.
This is where we are right now: on the verge of a TRULY FREE FILM CULTURE, one that is driven by both the creators and the audiences, pulled down by the audience and not pushed onto them by those that control the apparatus and the supply. We now have the power and the tool for something different, but will we fight to preserve the Internet, the tool that offers us our new freedom? Can we banish the the dream of golden distribution deals, and move away from asking others to distribute and market it for us? Can we accept that being a filmmaker means taking responsibility for your films, the primary responsibility, all the way through the process? That is independence and that is freedom
Indie, True Indie, is in its infancy. The popular term "Indie" is a distortion, growing out of our communal laziness and complacency - our willingness to be marketed blandly and not specifically. Our culture is vast and diverse, and we need to celebrate these differences, not diminish them. It's time to put that term "Indie" to rest.
Independence is within our reach, but we but we have to do what we have never done before: we have to choose.
It's a lot like the Presidential election. And it's also a lot like the way psychotherapy works: we have to ask ourselves if the pain we are experiencing presently is enough to motivate us to overcome the fear inherent in change itself.
We have to change our behavior and make that choice. We have to choose the type of culture we want. We have to choose the type of films we want available to us. We have to choose whether the Internet is ours or the corporations. We have to choose whether we decide for ourselves whether a film is worthwhile or whether we let those same corporations decide. We have to choose who our audiences are and how we are to reach them. We have to choose how we can all best contribute to this new system. And as we act on those choices, we have to get others to make a choice too.
For the last fifteen years our Community has made huge strides at demystifying the production process and providing access to the financing and distribution gatekeepers. Some call this democratization, but it is not. This demystification of production was a great first step, but it is not the whole shebang. In some ways, understanding the great behemoth that is production is also a distraction. It has distracted us from making really good films. And as it has distracted us from gaining the knowledge and seizing the power that is available to us. We have learned how to make films and how to bring them to market. We now have to demystify how to market and distribute films, and to do it in a way truly suited to the films we are making and desire to make.
Don't get me wrong the last fifteen years have been great. The Indie Period - as I suspect history will call it --- has brought us a far more diverse array of films than we had previously. It got better; we got more - but that is still not freedom. We are still in a damn similar place to the way it was back when cinema was invented 100 years ago. And it's time we moved to a new term, to the period of a Truly Free Film Culture.
If we want the freedom to tell the stories we want to tell, we all have to start to contribute to build the infrastructure that can support them. We need to step back from the glamour of making all these films, and instead help each other build the links, articulate the message, make the commitments, that will turn us truly into a Truly Free Film community. We have to stop making so many films.
The work before us is a major readjustment that will require many sacrifices. We must redesign the business structure for what the films actually are. We have to recognize that a Truly Free Film Culture is quite different from Studio Films and even different from the prestige film that the specialized distributors make. But look at what we gain: we will stop self-censoring our work to fit a business model that was appropriated from Hollywood and their mass market films to begin with. We will reach out to the audiences that are hungry for something new, for something truthful, for something about the world they experience, for something that is as complex as the emotions they feel. We can let them guide us because for the first time we can have real access and contact with them.
Presently, we are divided and conquered by a system that preys upon our dreams of success, encouraging us to squander collective progress on false hopes on personal enrichment. We follow the herd and only lead reluctantly. If we want Truly Free Films we have to stop dreaming of wealth, and take the job of building the community and support system.
For the last decade and a half, we have been myopically focused on production. Using Sundance submissions as a barometer, our production ability has increased eight and half times over -- 850% -- from 400 to 3600 films in fifteen years.
C'mon! What are we doing? Wasting a tremendous amount of energy, talent, and brainpower - that much is clear. If the average budget of Sundance submissions is $500K, that means the aggregate production costs are $1.8 billion dollars a year. That's a hell of a lot of money to lose annually. And you can bet the Indie World isn't going to get a government bail out like Wall Street and the Banking Industry have.
We need to recognize the responsibility of telling unique stories in unique ways. We are frequently innovators and groundbreakers, but that brings additional responsibilities. Working at the intersection of art and commerce, requires consideration for those that come after us. It is our responsibility to do all within our power to deliver a positive financial return. If we lose money, it will be a lot harder for those that follow us. With a debt of $1.8 billion per annum you can bet it will be a lot harder for a lot of people. And it should be - but it didn't need to be.
We don't get better films or build audiences by picking up cameras. Despite this huge boom in production, the number of truly talented uniquely voiced auteurs produced annually remains unchanged. What's happened instead is the infrastructure has rusted, the industry has failed to innovate, and we are standing on a precipice begging the giant to banish us into oblivion.
There is a silver lining too this dark cloud of over production that they like to call The Glut. As a young man I never found peace until I moved to New York City; the calm I found in New York, is explained by a line of Woody Allen's: "in New York, you always know what you are missing". What's great about a surplus of options - and we have that now, and not just from movies, but from the web, from books, from shows - what's great is that you have to make a choice. You have to commit. And you have to commit in advance.
The business model of the current entertainment industry is predicated on consumers not making choices but acting on impulses. Choice comes from research, from knowledge, and from tastes. Speak to someone from Netflix, and they will tell you that the longer someone is a member, the more their tastes move to auteurs, to quality film. Once we all wake up and realize that with films, as frankly with everything, we have to be thoughtful. We have to make it a choice, a choice for, and not an impulse.
We are now in a cultural war and not just the red state/blue state, participate vs. obey kind, not just the kind of cultural war that politicians seem to want to break this country down to. We are in a culture war in terms of what we get to see, enjoy and make. The Lovers Of Cinema have been losing this war because the Makers have invested in a dream of Prince Charming, content to have him sweep down, pick us up and sing that rags to riches refrain even if it comes but once a year to one lucky filmmaker out of 3,600.
So what is this TRULY FREE FILM CULTURE I am proposing? It is one that utilizes first and foremost the remarkable tool that is The Internet. It is the Internet that transforms the culture business from a business that is based around limited supply and the rule of gatekeepers to a business that around the fulfillment of all audience desire, and not just the desire of mass audiences, but also of the niches.
We have never had this sort opportunity before and the great tragedy is that just as we are learning what it means, forces are vying to take it away from us. The principal that all information, all creators, all audiences should be treated equally within the structure that is the Internet is popularly referred to as Net Neutrality. The Telecos, the Cable Companies, and their great ally, the Hollywood Motion Picture Studios and the MPAA are now trying to end that equality. And with it you will lose the opportunity to be TRULY FREE FILMMAKERS. But they are not going to succeed because we are going to band together and organize, we are going to save the Internet, and keep equal access for all.
A TRULY FREE FILM CULTURE will respect the audience's needs and desires as much as it currently respects the filmmakers. A TRULY FREE FILM CULTURE recognizes film as a dialogue and recognizes that a dialogue requires a community. Participants in a TRULY FREE FILM CULTURE work to participate in that community, work to get others to participate in that community. We work to get others to make a choice, to make a choice about what they want to do, what they want to see. We all become curators. We all promote the films we love. We reach out and mobilize others to vote with their feet, vote with their eyes, and vote with their dollars, to not act on impulses, but on knowledge and experience.
A TRULY FREE FILMMAKER -- be they producer or director -- recognizes their responsibility is not just to find a good script, not just to find a good cast, a good package. A TRULY FREE FILMMAKER recognizes that they must do more than find the funding, and even more than justifying that funding. The TRULY FREE FILMMAKER now recognizes their responsibility to also find the audience, grow the audience, expand the audience, and then also to move the audience, not just emotionally, but also literally: to move them onwards further to other things. Whether it is by direct contact, email blasts, or blogging, whatever it is, express what you want our culture to be.
The TRULY FREE FILMMAKER also recognizes that knowledge is power, and not ownership. The TRULY FREE FILMMAKER recognizes that others, as many others as possible, sharing in that knowledge will make everything better: the films, the apparatus, the business, and the just plain pleasure of participating. We are walking into new territory and we best map it out together.
The TRULY FREE FILMMAKER is no longer bound to just the 5 or 6 reel length. The TRULY FREE FILMMAKER is no longer bound to projection as the primary audience platform and is not stuck on the one film one theater one week type of release. The TRULY FREE FILMMAKER recognizes that just because there is no user term, no audience term, no consumer term for the cohesive cross-platform immersive experience, does not mean that we don't want that. A child understands that when you say "Pokemon" you mean not just the films, or tv shows, but also the cards, the games, the figures, the books. And a child understands that when you say "Brand Management" or "Franchise" you are just looking for ways to separate you from your wallet. We need to define that term to help the audience recognize what it is they want, what it is that we now can create, own, and distribute independently.
It is this thing that we once called the Independent Community that is the sector that truly innovates. The lower cost of our creations allows for greater risks. It is what we used to call "indies" that have innovated on a technical level, on a content level, on a story telling approach, and it is this, the TRULY FREE FILM CULTURE that will innovate still further in the future of distribution.
With the passion that produces 3600 films a year, with just a portion of those resources, we can build a new infrastructure that opens up new audiences, new models, new revenue streams that can build a true alternative to the mainstream culture that has been force fed us for years. We are on the verge of truly opening up what can be told, how it is told, to whom it is told, and where is told. We can seize it, but it requires that we embrace the full responsibility of what independence means.
Independence requires knowing your film inside and out. Knowing not just what you are choosing to do, but what you have chosen not to do. Independence comes with knowing that you have fully considered all your options. It is knowing your audience, knowing how to reach them - and not abstractly, but concretely. Let's make the next ten years about seizing our independence, killing "indie" film, and bringing forth a Truly Free Film Culture.
9/27/08Ted Hope has produced over 50 independent films. He takes particular joy in first features, having produced 14 of them. His extensive list of credits includes, "The Savages," "American Splendor," "21 Grams," "Lovely & Amazing," "Human Nature," and "Happiness.
Tuesday, September 30, 2008
Why is this so important? Well, if you aren't sick of me answering that question for the 1,237,986th time, I will do it again,...briefly. First, no one cares about you as a filmmaker if you don't give them something to care about that they can't find to care about elsewhere. Period. Whether you are an art filmmaker or a studio filmmaker....what makes you unique as a filmmaker is what makes you meaningful to those who can help establish your filmmaking life.
Secondly, and more importantly, discovering and expressing what is unique within you as a filmmaker will provide you with a level of creative satisfaction I cannot even begin to describe with words. Will it make you a happy, fulfilled, grounded person? Not necessarily. Unfortunately, one doesn't guarantee the other (although they aren't mutually exclusive, either, despite the "tortured artist" myth). But it will allow you to be in touch with something deep inside of you and can fill you with a sense of purpose in this life.
So, how do we access and develop this "vision"? Well, accessing it is a somewhat mysterious process that evolves sooner for some than for others. I try to blog about this process as often as possible to help guide filmmakers from a multitude of approaches and perspectives. But the process doesn't end once you ultimately seize upon that "vision". A brilliant idea may suddenly and excitingly flower inside your head, but it means little if it does not come to fruition in your work. Once it comes to life, however, you must treat it like a separate and distinct life form.
What does that mean? Well, let's use an analogy to an actual life form - be it a child, a family member, a life parter, a pet or any living thing about which you truly and deeply care. Here are some general relationship rules that apply beautifully to developing and applying your vision.
Any relationship need nurturing. How does one nurture a vision? Much in the way you nurture any relationship. You give it time, thought and energy. You consider its needs then give to it what you can. Developing a vision may demand discussion, interpretation, experimentation, fleshing-out or any number of creative exercises that will give it form and context.
Your relationship needs acceptance. Do not judge your vision. And do not judge what it means to you. Accept it for what it is. That does not mean do not question or change it. It simply means understanding it apart from what you want it to do for you...apart from any external agenda. It also means understanding it apart from any personal or moral judgements you may impose on it. This is your distinct and unique vision - whatever it is and however it came to you. Wrap your arms around that fact and let go of all else. If you find at any point this vision doesn't work for you, simply let it go and find another (like any relationship).
Your relationship needs respect but not obsessive co-dependency. Your vision is a gift. It's unique energy is indeed irreplaceable. Respect that. But remember that just because it is special, doesn't mean it is infallible. Meaning, it should not be immune to questioning and challenging and changing. Don't let it become constricted by a pig-headed determination to control it by treating it like some precious, unassailable treasure. It is a treasure, to be sure. But like all life forms, it must be open to adaptation or risk dying.
The relationship must evolve! No life form remains as it is at conception. Not even amoebas (well, maybe amoebas....and television commercials - which are clearly an alien life form). It is important that you view your creative ideas as life forms and allow them to grow organically. A toddler becomes a teen-ager and a teen-ager becomes an adult and an adult becomes an old codger (if they're lucky). Your relationship with and to that person changes at every step of the way. Your vision - and your relationship to it - will naturally change in the same way. Be prepared to fall in and out of love with it. And at key points, this is actually necessary. It's important to reassess your vision and your relationship to it. Is it deepening? Is it still serving you? Is it true to itself? Is it reaching its full potential?
These key evolutionary points are at the script stage, pre-visualization, production and post. The script will become something apart from the original conception. As you pre-visualize it, it will become something new, again (assuming you engage in pre-viz, which too many filmmakers do not). In production, it takes on yet a new life and of course, in post, the film can be totally re-conceived. It's key to be able, at each point, to stand-back, re-assess, challenge, re-appreciate and in generally engage in a totally new relationship with your vision so that you may successfully realize the full flower of it and, together, ride off into the sunset.
Thursday, September 25, 2008
The following is excerpted from the latest Filmmaker Magazine newsletter.....The West Side), I spoke on Monday’s panel “Your Film Online,” and I wanted to expand here on some thoughts I shared during that panel — mostly in response to the prevailing wisdom that “the sky is falling” on independent film.
(This is also cross-posted on my own blog, No Film School).
I’m a New Face of independent film, not an Industry Veteran, so maybe it’s naiveté that leads me to have a very different outlook on distribution than The Film Department CEO Mark Gill, whose comments in June were still on everyone’s lips at IFW. After proclaiming, “As it relates to independent film, the sky really is falling,” Gill’s solution was for the indie film world to make “fewer, better” movies. Unfortunately, that’s not actually a productive piece of advice. After he spoke, did most of the audience pack it up and leave to pursue a different career? No. Everyone’s already trying to make the best film they can, and telling financiers or filmmakers to try harder isn’t going to materially affect the market.
While Gill obviously gave the right speech at the right time and touched nerves across the industry, if we take a step back from the shake-up currently going on, the future is very clearly brighter than ever for independent productions; we just need to embrace a number of fundamental changes in distribution. Ten years ago, to get someone to pay to see your indie film, you had to mobilize a local crowd in dozens of markets in order to get butts into art house seats. Now we’ve got a global interconnected audience of millions of online movie watchers and the answer is to make less movies? No. The audience is larger than ever; we don’t need to make fewer movies. The answer is we need to make it easier to watch movies.
The way independent film distribution currently works is self-defeating. Let’s say I’m reading the current issue of Filmmaker and I find out about a film that opened at Sundance. I want to see it… but I can’t. The film showed at the festival, a distributor bought the rights to it, and now it won’t come to a theater for six to nine months and won’t be on DVD for a full year. Here I am with my interest piqued, the title of the film foremost in my head, but in order for that movie to earn a dime from me — an interested, paying customer — they’re going to have to count on me remembering the film several months later. They have to count on me actually becoming aware of its release through an advertisement or a listing of showtimes during the theatrical window, they have to count on me being in town and having some free time during that brief period, they have to count on me being able to interest someone else in the film as well (like most people I prefer not to go to the theater alone), and on top of all of that, they have to count on me actually remembering the article I read nine months ago and connecting that to the title of the film currently listed on the marquee next to several other titles.
What kind of consumer product is intentionally made this elusive? In the above situation, if I do eventually realize I want to see the film, I’ll add it to my Netflix queue at position 336, which is not a great value proposition to the distributor or filmmaker. Even worse, after reading the Filmmaker article, I might never hear about the film again, and, like so many other movies I was interested in at one point, it might fall through the cracks and I’ll never see (or pay for) it.
It doesn’t make sense: if your film has someone’s interest piqued, they need to be able to plunk down a few bucks and watch it NOW. Not tomorrow, not next month, certainly not a full year from now.
The way I see it, there are two main problems with distribution as it stands today: one, release windows, and two, online experience.
In terms of release windows, I understand the arguments behind finding an audience and building hype. But the marketing costs that a movie incurs in order to achieve some sort of penetration into the collective cultural conscience is not befitting of an indie film. Besides, in the indie world, advance hype for something that hasn’t come out yet is more expensive and less effective than a simple recommendation from a friend for something that’s currently available. Regardless, if you’re going to spend money building an audience for a film, why not build that audience while the film is actually available for purchase instead of during an “advertising-only” window?
The supporters of staggered theatrical windows and expensive ad campaigns have a reason to want to stick to their guns: their jobs depend on it. Distributors are the ones whose companies are in trouble, so they’re the ones most likely to cry apocalypse. On Wednesday’s panel “The State of Independent Distribution,” Scott Kirsner of Cinematech asked Sony Pictures Classics co-president Tom Bernard about the wisdom of continuing to use release windows in the face of piracy. Why not make a film available for paying customers if it’s already available for free via illicit channels? Bernard’s response: “Because people are used to windows.” Well, people were used to snail mail before e-mail came along, and most of us have managed to adapt (with the exception of a certain Presidential candidate). I doubt many of us would want to go back to waiting three days for cross-country written communication, just as one day I doubt any of us will want to go back to waiting for film reels to be shipped across the country for an exclusive theatrical window.
If release windows are completely done away with and we put every film online day-and-date, wouldn’t that put many theaters out of business? Probably, but for most major releases nowadays, the film is already online day-and-date. It’s on Bittorrent, it’s on Kazaa or whatever file-sharing service they use on college campuses these days, it’s available via any number of illicit online distribution channels. These pirated copies are popular for two main reasons: price (free!) and convenience (now!). It’s hard to beat the pirates on the price issue, but as it stands, the illegal option is also more convenient than the legit option, and that’s a problem. Not only is it more convenient, but it’s also often of higher quality: if you look around on Bittorrent, the community cares deeply about the quality of the films they’re downloading; they rip a movie from an HDTV broadcast if possible, they make it available with subtitles in several different languages, and in general a downloader can watch a better quality movie for free than if they actually ponied up the cash to watch it through an authorized download or streaming service. Ultimately, when piracy is offering a more convenient, higher-quality experience in addition to a cheaper one, we’re failing at digital distribution.
There are existing online distribution options — including nascent day-and-date release plans like IFC’s VOD program — but the currently available choices offer limited viewing options and no sense of ownership. Using myself as an example, at home I have several legal means to watch movies online: one is my Netflix subscription, with its Watch Instantly feature, but it offers an extremely limited selection (less than 10% of Netflix’s titles are available to watch online), and it doesn’t work at all on my Mac. So I turn to iTunes, Amazon, or my Playstation, all of which tout online video stores; each has a different catalog, however, so you never know if the content you’re looking for will be available on that particular store. Additionally, each store has a different pricing structure and different viewing limitations thanks to their Digital Rights Management. Only my Playstation is hooked up to my TV, so content bought at Amazon or iTunes is only viewable on my laptop. Whereas if I download a movie illegally I can play it on the screen of my choice, if I “buy” a movie from an online store the DRM often won’t let me transfer the film to other devices. And limited transferability is only part of the problem with DRM; mainly, the issue is the consumer’s ephemeral ownership of a product they paid real money for. I don’t have any faith that a movie I purchase online today will be watchable three years from now; I might have an entirely new computer that it won’t transfer to, or I might forget the password to an account I have to “refresh” my licenses with. Imagine if you bought a DVD at the store and it expired after a few days unless you logged into a server; no one would buy such a disc. They actually tried that with DIVX ten years ago… and no one bought it. Yet DRM today is essentially the same as the failed DIVX experiment.
After years of hemorrhaging money, the music industry is finally offering decent options for online music consumption: iTunes and Amazon (and Rhapsody, I should note, since I currently work there) are finally selling MP3s, which are DRM-free and thus work on any device. That sounds like actual ownership. That sounds like an experience finally equal to that of… what’s already available online via pirated means, for free.
And that’s where watching movies online becomes viable. If I want to buy something, give it to me free of restrictions and I’ll gladly pay money for it and start building a library. Indeed, if people are buying millions of unprotected MP3s from online stores — instead of just one person on the planet buying the album and emailing the files to everyone — I’m pretty sure consumers will buy a DRM-free movie, load it onto any device they own, and enjoy it however they want. They’re much less likely to email around a 2GB movie file than a 4MB music file anyway. As a final point, does anyone think that selling a protected file to the paying customer is going to prevent piracy when there are a million unprotected, pirated copies of that same song or movie already available online? All DRM does is screw the person who actually paid for it.
Consumers don’t expect to pay as much for a digital file as they would for a physical product that was manufactured and shipped across the country, and rightfully so. But as filmmakers we’ll sell a whole lot more copies of our movie at a lower price point, and we’ll end up making more money this way anyway (the same thing happened with DVD when it undercut the price point of rental tapes — the drastic increase in number of units sold more than outweighed the drop in per-unit revenue). Today, a $20 DVD nets the filmmaker how much after the physical production, distribution, and company overhead? $2? Environmentally it’s not a great time to be shrinkwrapping a disc and freighting it all around the country, anyway. If we sell it through an online store for $10 we’ll keep significantly more than $2 of that sale; if we sell it on our own site, we’ll keep the whole $10.
And that’s another point about the bright future of indie film: direct sales. Gary Hustwit (dir., Helvetica) talked on Wednesday’s panel “The Digital Download” about the revenue streams he was able to generate directly from fans; when asked how much they added up to, he tellingly responded, “a lot.” And thus ended the panel. Some of these revenue streams were just rounded up by Peter Broderick in a two-part post at IndieWire, “Welcome to the New World of distribution” (part 1, part 2). As with countless business innovations over the years, cutting out the middleman, or at least reducing his role, is of paramount importance for independent productions. Getting back to Gill’s speech, he predicted, “It will feel like we just survived a medieval plague. The carnage and the stench will be overwhelming.” He’s right, but the carcasses he speaks of will be the bodies of distribution companies and theater owners, not filmmakers.
The future of independent film is instant, digital gratification. As filmmakers, we’ve already brought down production costs down by shooting digitally; now we need distribution costs brought down by distributing digitally as well. Cut out the P&A — the 35mm blowup, the trucks across the country, the bloated ad campaign — and put our films in digital theaters and online, simultaneously. Make our films available anytime, anywhere: on our computers, on our iPhones, iPods, Playstations, TVs, etc. — all with the guarantee that if you buy it, it’s DRM-free. People will pay for something if they actually own what they’re paying for. In addition to hundreds of digital theater screens, we also now have hundreds of millions of computers with internet connections as our venues. That’s a lot of screens. I’m pretty sure the sky is not falling.