Monday, June 30, 2008

My Response To NY Times Article On "Independent" Film

Dear Times Business Editor,

I'm writing in response to David Carr's article "Little Movies, Big Problems" (June 30, 2008) to voice my frustration at the NY Times publication of an article about independent film that is so clearly NOT at all about independent film. The article's central voice, Mark Gill, is NOT and independent filmmaker. He is a smart and talented film executive who cares about film and makes films outside the studio mainstream. But he still makes them through a traditional studio paradigm, and therefore, is not a meaningful authority on independent film.

The perspective of the article is from that of a classic studio paradigm where success is measured in terms of commercial theatrical box office. That paradigm is indeed dead for truly independent cinema, or at least, completely irrelevant, and has been for quite some time - with the occasional media-inflated exception that then somehow becomes the expectation. That studio paradigm not only offers a very narrow conception of an independent film's financial viability, but in fact, negates the true financial health of independent film as a whole. Many truly independent filmmakers have turned completely away from the commercial theatrical paradigm because of the expense of it versus that path's potential return. Financial return flows to independent filmmakers in a multitude of other ways - festival screening fees, private theatrical screenings, retail DVD sales, foreign sales, digital downloads (although this is a nascent technology that offers very little financial return at the moment) and, most dynamically, DVD sales via the internet.

Also, to continue mentioning Sony Classics or Warner Independent - the boutique arms of major studios - as "independent' is maddeningly erroneous. Without arguing for the definition of independent - which is a great on-going argument in its own right - films produced and/or distributed through major studios are clearly not independent films. Even if the films were produced independently, when they are subsequently released by one of these boutique arms, they are then swept up into the studio marketing/distribution paradigm. And again, that is a paradigm based far too narrowly on theatrical box-office performance.

But worst of all, the ridiculous conclusion that the poor theatrical box office of independent film spells a crisis born of over-production is not just specious, it is absolutely bone-headed. It's analogous to saying that the health of the art world should be measured strictly in dollars and cents, that those dollars should only be measured in terms of gallery sales and, finally, if those sales are weak, it must be because there are too many people painting pictures. I hope that sounds as ridiculous to you as the article I read was to me.

The 5,000 films made per year, to which Mr. Gill refers, do not compete for the commercial theatrical audience's attention, only the six hundred or so that actually get a commercial theatrical release. And that alone does little to measure an independent film's success. Besides being only one small, increasingly meaningless, aspect of an independent film's total financial health, it ignores all of the non-financial goals of an independent film. Now, I know this article was written for the business section, so independent film's financial viability is a key issue, but there are other goals that eventually feed into independent film's total financial picture. A lot of these 5,000 films are made by first-time filmmakers learning their craft and/or building audiences for their work. In a way, this is independent film's R&D process. And it works quite nicely in a very organic way.

So, what is the source of the crisis facing the commercial theatrical success of so-called "independent" films? There is no simple single answer - and especially not one so ridiculously off-base as there being too many films made. These days, potential audiences have a staggering array of media choices that compete with the commercial theatrical release of any film (not just independent films). Major studios have contributed to the crisis by fueling the creation of a celebrity-obsessed, event film-hungry commercial theatrical audience. And their boutique "indie" divisions themselves have further added to the problem by bidding furiously for celebrity-driven mediocrity at festivals and then dumping those films onto an unsuspecting public packaged as visionary "independent" films.

But I suspect that the biggest problem is the studio's (and their boutique's) unwillingness or inability to adapt to a radically changed distribution/marketing landscape. Chris Anderson's "long tail" theory, may be over-hyped, but it is, nonetheless, what is most applicable to independent cinema, these days. It negates the blockbuster mentality and subscribes to the idea of providing a broad spectrum of offerings to the public - a little of many things, rather than a lot of one thing. This demands marketing to niche audiences in a highly specific way, and delivering films to them in any way that best suits that audience - rather than the studio or filmmaker. Perhaps studios and boutique "indies" simply do not have the infrastructure to distribute/market films in this way. If so, then perhaps it is indeed best to leave independent cinema to truly independent filmmakers.

From my perspective, independent cinema is alive and well, both creatively and financially. And it will remain that way as long there are truly independent filmmakers who find the means to create films and the resourcefulness to connect them to an audience.

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Los Angeles Film Festival 2008

Yes, dear filmmaking comrades, another major fest, The Los Angeles Film Festival, is in full swing. And, as usual, I am jumping right into the thick of the action, although I am getting a slow start this year.

The Los Angeles Film Festival, like AFI Fest is a world-class festival but I still count it among a handful of hometown fests (Los Angeles Film Festival, AFI Fest, Dances With Films, Silver Lake/Downtown Film Festival) where I get to schmooze and groove with my local filmmaking community - many of whom I only see once a year at this festival.


But it is already Day 6 of the festival and I'm just getting started. After Opening Night, I headed up to the Owens River Valley to work on an exciting art/film project with artist Lauren Bon (an amazing experience in itself that I you'll hear about in my next blog) and was not back on the festival beat until late Monday.

"Wanted" screened at the fest's Opening Night Gala to generally approving audiences (I missed the screening). Most of the peeps seemed to think that the style and energy of it managed to overcome the commercial studio silliness of it all. By commercial studio silliness I mean the compendium of usual studio filmmaking ills - shallow but self-important story-telling, predictable, exploitive and over-produced filmmaking, etc. But I'd say the general consensus was that it was still a stylishly entertaining popcorn movie.

Since moving to Westwood, the opening night party is always on the street, which I really appreciated in the midst of this brutal heat wave. The party was fun, as usual (although always more subdued than closing night) and it was great to see so many faces from my filmmaking community - some dating back 15 years. I even saw Robert Faust, who founded the fest in its original incarnation as the Los Angeles Independent Film Festival. Obviously, opening with a film like "Wanted" makes it clear why the word "independent" has been removed. Being an indie filmmaker, I was, at first, a bit upset by this change and perceived shift in focus - especially since the fest is produced by an organization called Film Independent. But I have been a part of the fest for awhile now and can clearly see the commitment to indie filmmaking is still very much alive, even if it is no longer the sole focus of the festival. It has become a much broader, more expansive festival and has been enormously successful in that evolution.

With that success, however, comes the usual, if annoying trappings of it, like the special VIP section of the party that offers no meaningful distinction from the other part of the party besides exclusivity, a sort of boring pomposity and slightly shorter food/drink lines.

But, although a parties are an important part of any festival, they are not the soul of a festival. The films are the soul of the festival. And the programmers at Los Angeles Film Festival rock! I'm looking forward to seeing an awesome line-up of films this week.

Here's what I'm planning to see for the remainder of the festival:
- Any shorts program
- Ballast
- Prince of Broadway
- Medicine For Melancholy
- Must Read After My Death
- The Boxer From Shantung
- Finishing Heaven
- I'll Come Running
- The Short Films of George and Mike Kuchar
- Milestones

And there's loads more other stuff I won't be seeing. So, if you're in Los Angeles - get there, see films and experience the true soul of the fest.

Thursday, June 19, 2008

STAY AT HOME FILMMAKING - creating films outside the twin filmmaking capitals

Every year, hundreds, actually thousands, of directors, producers, writers, actors and film craftspeople/technicians flock to L.A. and N.Y. to seek their fame and fortune. Most are hungry to break into the studio big-time. A few are indie filmmakers looking for a scene or community that will support their work and challenge them to take that work to the next level.

There are definite benefits to landing in the center of these two American filmmaking capitals. I'm in Los Angeles and feel I've made the most of what the city has to offer me as an independent filmmaker. But clearly, where indie filmmakers are concerned, L.A. and N.Y.are NOT the center of the universe.

Some of the most interesting indie films I've seen recently take place in geographic, cultural and social landscapes so specific and unfamiliar that they create a character of their own and another level of energy/complexity. Also, the filmmakers aren't doing work that is driven by the financial bottom line that drives studio filmmaking, nor is it informed by their need for the "status" attached to operating in the studio paradigm. Meaning, they aren't just doing derivative work that is an audition piece for a studio gig. I've mentioned two films previously - BALLAST and BLOOD ON THE HIGHWAY - that are vastly divergent in genre, style and aesthetic, but equally unique as well as geographically fresh and specific.

A major reason for filming outside of Los Angeles/New York is cost. Filmmaking is VERY expensive, of course, because it is a compilation of dozens of small costs -for crew, equipment, locations, props, food, gas, trucks, parking etc. and etc. Many of these things are FAR, FAR cheaper in smaller cities, towns and communities. And if you are born and bred in the community in which you are filming, you are bound to get so many perks and so much support that you will even further bring down the cost of the film.

And, to further support my incredibly persuasive argument, more and more states are offering generous rebates/tax incentives to lure production to their neck o' the woods. Michigan has completely lost its mind - offering a whopping 40% rebate on production dollars spent in the state. Massachusetts also has an amazing plan. Basically, a lot of cold places. But warm ones, too, like New Mexico and Louisiana. For a list of states that offer generous support plans for filmmakers (and the rules/regulations around these plans) go to:


Yes, you will find more world-class talent and crew concentrated in N.Y. and L.A. than you will probably find anywhere else in America. But as production spreads out across the country, more and more of this kind of talent and skill is cropping up in the most unexpected places. Yes, you will find more filmmaking resources in N.Y. and L.A., but again, those resources are finding their way into communities all over the country. If you've already relocated to NY or LA, you can argue that all of your connections are there/here, but sometimes the enthusiasm that smaller communities still have for filmmaking (as opposed to the rampant cynicism in the filmmaking capitals), will create connections and support of their own.

There are many good practical reasons for making films in smaller cities/towns/communities. But my main reason for making this argument is an aesthetic one. What makes a truly distinctive film? It is the compilation of striking details. It is the introduction of something new to an audience and/or otherwise extraordinary. It is the revealing of a specific history and truth. Location is a major contributor to these things. It contributes profoundly to both the film's visual energy and its thematic perspective. And add to that local talent that carries in them a sense of place and your film will have an authenticity and/or originality that can often be impossible to find in the cradles of commercial cinema.

Thursday, June 12, 2008

Indie Film Financing - No Magic Bullet

Last week-end, Filmmakers Alliance hosted a seminar on indie film financing given by Suzanne Lyons, who did a great job presenting some of the realities of financing a feature film that face emerging filmmakers. I've been through the fund-raising process a few different times for different projects, so much of what she presented was not new information for me. But it was great to hear it coalesced and clarified - and there were many who hadn't heard or experienced any of it at all.

Unfortunately, however, I did hear a few folks - both those who knew this stuff and those who were just learning it - grumble about the fact that they didn't hear anything that blew the lock off the closet - the closet that holds all of the mystical secrets to film financing success. Well, here's the news, gang: There is NO MAGIC BULLET for indie film financing. If you look at case study after case study, you will see that there are some recurrent, inescapable truths about raising money for films - especially first and/or small films - that define the process. And sadly, there is no secret list of hungry investors. There are no magic words. No "perfect" business plan. No mystical alchemy that guides investors to you and makes them inexplicably hand over their hard-earned profits.

So, I'm just going to list some indie film financing facts. Embrace them and figure out how you can exist within the bounds of these realities or save yourself heartache and go become great at something else. Can't say it anymore plainly than that. Here goes....

- Most first and/or small films are self-funded or funded by friends and family.

- Most films with a budget of over $1 million cannot be self-funded or funded by friends and family. In fact, most cannot even be funded by private equity. That means they must be financed by companies/institutions.

- High net-worth individuals are difficult to meet. And it's even more difficult to make a meaningful connection with them even if you do meet them - unless you have a direct connection to them or through someone close to you. It can be done, but it takes a lot of work, hustle and confidence.

- There are probably many people better than you at fundraising, but none will have your level of passion. Besides those people are as hard to find as actual investors. They exist - lawyers, agents, financial managers, etc. - but they are needles in a very prickly haystack. More often than not, you will simply meet scammers who will promise you the world while chiseling you out of the few pennies you do have to cover their "expenses".

- NO ONE (or no company/institution) - outside of those who love you unconditionally - will give you funding for a film (and allow you to direct it) without a solid script AND at least one very good film you've already made (short or feature).

- If you contact 30 potential private equity investors, whom you did not know previously, count yourself lucky if 1 expresses interest.

- If 10 private equity investors, whom you did not know previously, express interest, count yourself lucky if 1 actually invests.

- Most private equity investors, whom you did not know previously, will not read the script and rarely invest because they like the script or even because they want to make money. They invest because they like the idea and/or have faith in you as a person/filmmaker and/or are looking for a fun, exciting experience.

- Most investors are not idiots, however, and do not want to feel like they are throwing away their money. This is why you need a thorough and realistic business plan that details distribution options that will insure the film reaches the film-going/film-buying public.

- Negative pick-up deals and foreign pre-sale deals are VERY hard to do and are usually only accomplished by producers who are unbelievably tenacious or have pre-existing relationships with buyers.

- Having a "name" in your film does NOT guarantee funding from any source - private, corporate or institutional - unless you have A-list talent. And even then, it can be difficult, depending on the material. And I assume we all know how hard it is to get any kind of "name" to commit to your film without the funds to lock them in or without a personal connection to them.

- There is almost no grant funding for non-documentary features. ITVS is an exception. There may be a few others. But this landscape is, understandably, insanely competitive.


There are many more fun facts like this, but these should do nicely in getting my point across. Yes, there are execptions. But please know that they are extremely rare. I know someone who did one mediocre short and her next film was a huge success starring a major star. I know someone else who managed to get their feature funded by a Small Business Administration loan. The Coen brothers first feature film cost 1 million (many years ago when 1 mil was worth, well...1 mil) and they raised it by barnstorming across the country soliciting doctors and dentists.

So, if these examples are rare and the facts above hold true most of the time, where is the good news for filmmakers who don't have two nickels to rub together and don't have great personal contacts to money, "name" talent, foreign buyers or any other useful vehicle to funding? Simple. It is in your talent and desire. Because here is the one fact that rises above all other facts - the fact that obliterates all other ugly realities:

- Talent and hard work pay off.

Yes, if you simply develop your filmmaking skills/talents and continue to make films as well and as often as you can. If you write, write, write and/or create, create, create. If you hustle your ass off and sniff out opportunities wherever they may exist and do the prep work necessary to make use of those opportunities. If you determine to find support for your work and make that a goal on a daily basis. If you do any or all of that work, funding will find its way to you. I have seen this to be true 100% of the time.

Digital tools and communal support (such as Filmmaker Alliance, but many other groups, too) can allow you to make films for almost no money. Filmmaking is now affordable to almost anyone. No, I take that back. It is indeed affordable to ANYONE with just a modicum of initiative. Your talent and ideas are the gold for which investors and film professionals are constantly mining. Put them on display consistently and they will be found. If you do a short and no one responds. Do another. And another. And another. And if you can afford to do a feature. Do it. And if no one responds, do another. And another. And another.

And if you have the chutzpah, then do the business stuff, too. Find ways to meet investors. Build a meaningful business plan. Meet lawyers, managers and agents and see what they can do for you. Go to film fests and markets and learn how the biz works on that end. Take a page from Joel and Ethan and barnstorm across the country soliciting doctors and dentists.

No matter which of these roads you choose, if you commit yourself to it fully and you take the time to learn the craft of it (yes, filmmaking AND fundraising are both crafts) you will find the money. Or someone will find it for you. Either way, you will have the money you need to make films. And you will have the filmmaking life you want.

There is no magic bullet for unlocking the secret formula for film financing. But there is something better because it is something you already have. Stop looking for the Holy Grail and grab the brass ring that's already in your pocket.

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Tension - The Piano Wire of Filmmaking

I've been tense, lately. I have too much going on in and outside of my head. And this morning, I was reflecting on my state of being and found myself reflecting even deeper on the nature of tension itself. How do we cultivate it inside of us? Why do we create it in the first place and allow ourselves to exist in it so often? Why do we actually seek it out so often, even in our "leisure" activities?

And we do indeed seek it out. Every time we decide to watch a film, in fact. Because while a certain kind of stress and tension may totally suck in our personal lives, - destroying health, wealth, relationships and more - it is absolutely essential to good filmmaking.

What is it that creates the beautiful sound of a piano or a guitar? Tension. Strings pulled very tight (like the back of my neck right now) and then manipulated to create audible vibratory resonance. It's no different with a film, but instead of strings, the properties of cinema are used to create and maintain tension - visual composition, sound, music, performance, editing, etc. Now, these elements can just as easily be used to dissipate tension, but that is the difference between a good film and one that is...well,...not so good.

The dictionary definition of tension is as follows: "The act of being stretched or tightened. Physical, mental or emotional stress or strain..." This definition is applicable to any kind of filmmaking, be it art or entertainment - although I would offer that art is more about being stretched and entertainment is more about being tightened. But all filmmaking creates a kind of stress/strain that radiates energy out to the audience, much as piano wire, struck by keys, radiates sounds.

It has been said that all art aspires to the condition of music. And I think it is the musicality of manipulated tension (and its visceral impact) to which they are referring and why music is such a good analogy for filmmaking. Tension is at play in string instruments, wind instruments and, of course, vocal chords. It is the skillful manipulation of the created tension that gives sounds their musicality. It is the creation and skillful manipulation of tension that gives filmmaking its own musicality.


And this tension is not simply created in the scripted incident that I believe should be called nothing other than PLOT but what many insist on calling STORY. For me STORY is narrative construction, which can often have almost nothing to do with plot and can yield an endless treasure of tension.

Back to the music analogy, of course not all music sounds the same to all listeners. And no film will strike all audience members in exactly the same way. People who prefer hard rock over experimental jazz will find their analog in film. This is why most reviewers and other opinionated jerk-offs drive me crazy. They look at films as a single, homogenous product that has a "right" and "wrong" way of being a film - and rail against films that have no "story" (they mean plot). But there are as many kinds of films - with their own special properties - as there are kinds of music. The unifying and defining element in all films, in terms of quality, should be nothing other than a film's musicality - it's ability to create and manage tension.

Of course, the "music" of a Stan Brakhage may be lost on a Tarkovsky devotee, just as Tarkovsky's "music" may be lost on someone who's tastes gravitate to Merchant and Ivory...or David Fincher...or Brett Ratner, for that matter. Tension manifests itself in different people for a variety of different reasons - for some, financial issues push their buttons, for others it's romantic issues, for still others it may be threatened violence and for some, practically ANYTHING creates tension. Filmmakers should stop putting pressure on themselves to create/manage tension that can speak to all types of audiences. They simply need to understand the type of film they are choosing to make and milk tension from that experience for all it's worth.

Of course, none of this answers why we are so obsessed with tension. Perhaps its because mystery is tension and our lives - our existence and eventual obsolescence - is a complete mystery that we are constantly attempting to solve - or at least understand...or, perhaps, simply from which to be distracted.

I could use a little distraction about now - artistic/entertainment tension to distract from life tension that I create to avoid existential tension. Sheesh. But what would I be without tension? At peace, maybe. But probably just depressed.